Is Hertfordshire set to become the new British Hollywood?

A schematic CGI of the proposed 21 stage Hertswood Studios site bordering the A1 in Borehamwood.

A schematic CGI of the proposed 21 stage Hertswood Studios site bordering the A1 in Borehamwood. - Credit: Bidwells

Filming in Hertfordshire goes back a long way, with movies being made in Welwyn Garden City and at Elstree in the 1920s. 

Hertfordshire sign

Hertfordshire has a rich film and TV heritage and with the number of studios in the county, plus the ones proposed, it is very much 'the British Hollywood'. - Credit: Getty Images/Goodshoot RF/Archant

Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock later filmed part of 1935 thriller The 39 Steps in Welwyn Garden City.

Scottish street scenes in the movie based on John Buchan’s adventure novel were shot on the backlot at the former Welwyn Studios, according to the BFI website.

Welwyn Studios

Welwyn Studios was based in Broadwater Road, Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: Supplied by UH Arts / University of Hertfordshire

Long before he became an Oscar-winning director, Richard Attenborough made Brighton Rock at the then Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) site in Broadwater Road. 

He starred as psychopathic small-time gang leader Pinkie Brown in the Boulting Brothers' 1940s crime classic based on the novel of the same name by Graham Greene.

Aerial view of the Shredded Wheat factory in the 1980s. Picture credit: Welwyn Garden City Heritage

An aerial view of the Shredded Wheat factory in the 1980s, with the former Welwyn Studios site bottom right of the picture. - Credit: Welwyn Garden City Heritage Trust.

Welwyn Studios were on land near the garden city's iconic Shredded Wheat factory – an area now at the centre of controversial planning applications for housing developments.

The stages were first constructed for British Instructional Films (BIF) in 1928.

The studios ran until the early 1950s, with notable movies made there including I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945) starring Anna Neagle and Rex Harrison, Piccadilly Incident (1946), and The Queen Of Spades (1949), with WGC doubling for St Petersburg in Russia.

During World War Two, Hitchcock returned to the studios to direct some propaganda shorts to aid the war effort.

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Others to have made films there include Alec Guinness in Last Holiday (1950), Margaret Lockwood in Honours Easy (1935), a young Peter Ustinov as Private Angelo (1949), Margaret Rutherford in Spring Meeting (1941), and Hollywood Dracula star Bela Lugosi in 1939 horror movie The Dark Eyes of London.

Broadwater Road has more recently been the scene of location filming for EastEnders, Pennyworth and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost supernatural series Truth Seekers.

Elsewhere in the county, the likes of 1950s British classics The Dam Busters and Moby Dick were made at Elstree, as were Cliff Richard movie musicals Summer Holiday and The Young Ones in the Swinging Sixties.

George Lucas' original Star Wars movies weren't filmed in 'a galaxy far, far away...' but just down the A1 from South Mimms in a film studio called Elstree.

A heritage board dedicated to Harrison Ford in Borehamwood

A heritage board dedicated to Harrison Ford in Borehamwood near Elstree Studios - Credit: Alan Davies

Harrison Ford returned to the studios to make Raiders of the Lost Ark and the first two sequels, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Hollywood director Steven Spielberg also made the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan on the former British Aerospace factory site in Hatfield.

Spielberg and Tom Hanks returned to the town to shoot acclaimed HBO miniseries Band of Brothers on the same aerodrome site.

A bust of film director Steven Spielberg made by Lifecast at Elstree Studios.

A bust of film director Steven Spielberg made by Lifecast at Elstree Studios. - Credit: Elstree Studios

At the time, there were hopes that the former de Havilland airfield could be turned into a permanent film studios. 

However, that dream never came to fruition and today's Hatfield Business Park on the site includes a housing estate, the University of Hertfordshire's de Havilland Campus, a David Lloyd gym in the former hangar built for the DH106 Comet jet airliner programme, and various warehouses and delivery centres for the likes of Ocado, Yodel, Booker and Arla Foods.

Today, EastEnders and Holby City are made at BBC Elstree Centre, and the world famous Elstree Studios across town is the base for global Netflix hit The Crown, as well as Saturday night entertainment shows Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice UK. 

Elstree Studios site 2020

The Elstree Studios site in 2020 with the large yellow George Lucas stage at the back of the picture. - Credit: Elstree Studios

With Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden also the home of blockbuster movies, location filming often takes place in the county, which boasts ready-made period drama locations such as historic stately homes Knebworth House, Brocket Hall, Hatfield House and Wrotham Park.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the creative industry hard. But it has also highlighted its value to viewers and worth to the country's economic recovery.

How the entrance to Sky Studios Elstree, which is currently under construction, will look.

How the entrance to Sky Studios Elstree, which is currently under construction, will look. - Credit: Sky

With two separate plans for film and TV studios proposed for Hertsmere, coupled with the state-of-the-art Sky Studios Elstree complex already under construction, a new golden age of production in the county potentially beckons.

While cinemas have remained closed for much of the past year, the growing number of streaming platforms worldwide, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney +, Apple TV+ and HBO Max, have entertained millions at home with original series.

Sky Studios Elstree will bring more big screen productions to Hertfordshire. Picture: Sky

Sky Studios Elstree will bring more big screen productions to Hertfordshire. - Credit: Sky

To meet the demand for new shows and movies to fill ever-increasing schedules, more and more content needs to be created.

That content needs to be made somewhere – and there's currently a shortage of available studio floorspace in the UK.

BFI statistics for 2020 reveal £2.84bn in film and high-end TV production for the year, despite virtually no spend in the second quarter from April to June due to the industry's shutdown as a result of the pandemic.

The sector bounced back strongly in the third quarter though, with 81 projects starting COVID-safe shooting across the country between July and September.

Their combined UK spend of £862 million exceeded the total spend of Q1 – before the coronavirus shutdown – at £788 million.

The concept masterplan for Hertswood Studios featuring 21 stages, a backlot, workshops, and a creative media college.

The concept masterplan for Hertswood Studios featuring 21 stages, a backlot, film workshops, offices, a hotel, multi-storey car park, and a creative media college. The 21 stages are marked in yellow. - Credit: Scott Brownrigg Ltd

The strength of the recovery accelerated further into the final quarter of 2020. The 76 film and HETV productions which started principal photography in Q4 had a combined spend of £1.19billion – the second highest quarter on record. 

According to the BFI Research and Statistics Unit report published in February, the strength of the quarter’s performance was driven by increased HETV production spend.

The total HETV spend of £779 million was 89 per cent more than that for feature film production spend.

For examples of HETV, think series such as Bridgerton, The Crown and Pennyworth, which have all been filmed on location in Herts.

Outside of China and Bollywood, there are six major film production hubs in the world – Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta, Georgia, in USA, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada, and London.

How the Hertswood Studios site might look.

How the Hertswood Studios site might look if it is built off Rowley Lane, Borehamwood. - Credit: Bidwells

Approximately three-quarters of the UK’s film industry is based in and around the capital.

Hertfordshire is perfectly placed in the “8 o’clock to 12 o’clock of the M25” sector – a prime location for film crew, access to central London and Heathrow Airport.

Two proposed new studios have been put forward as possible sites for employment to be included in Hertsmere's new Local Plan. 

If they eventually get built, the borough, and Herts as a whole, would become the country's first film industry cluster, much like Cambridge's high-tech 'Silicon Fen' innovation hub.

When Sky Studios Elstree was given the green light last summer, Hertsmere council leader Morris Bright MBE said: “With the council-owned Elstree Studios, nearby BBC Elstree and now Sky Studios Elstree, this really does mean the return of the British Hollywood to our borough.”

Since then, Elstree Studios' own plans for extra stages have been approved.

An aerial view of the proposed Hertswood Studios site between Rowley Lane and the A1.

An aerial view of the proposed Hertswood Studios site between Rowley Lane and the A1. - Credit: Bidwells

The proposed Hertswood Studios between the A1 and Rowley Lane takes its name from the borough and the county, as well as the town of Borehamwood.

Elstree Studios, Sky Studios Elstree and the potential sites of Hertswood Studios and the second proposed L&G plan for Hertsmere would establish Herts as a global film and TV hub and ensure the county really does becomes the British Hollywood for years to come.