The stars who agreed to help celebrate Elstree’s cinema history – and the one who didn’t

I cannot believe the nights have now started to draw in again; where has the time gone? 

This week, memory lane takes us back 25 years to when the British Film Institute decided that 200 film plaques should be erected around the UK and they would be free, so I applied and received 20. This was in recognition of the unique film history of Elstree and Borehamwood.

The catch was that I then had to organise 20 plaque unveilings and use my address book to get stars to attend. In those days, can you believe, stars were willing to support me with no hint of any appearance fee or even a car to bring them to the event. Try that today and good luck.

I don’t have room to recount all of the unveilings but here are some memories. I had seen Ralph Fiennes as the evil commandant in Schindler’s List, which is a film you must see. He agreed to unveil the plaque honouring Elstree 1930s star Charles Laughton. Ralph proved to be a quiet, lovely chap.

Richard Todd attended his plaque unveiling, as did John Mills, which was unveiled by his daughter Hayley who has since become a friend. Honor Blackman accepted my invitation to honour Elizabeth Taylor as they had starred together in a film at MGM in Borehamwood. I described it as Liz’s first adult film, which got a laugh due to my poor choice of words.

Olivia de Havilland unveiled the plaque honouring her Gone With The Wind co-star Vivien Leigh – what a graceful, warm and lovely lady. I enjoyed a long chat with her during our drive to Elstree Studios. She told me she never met Clark Gable again after GWTW and recalled the last time she met her old co-star Errol Flynn shortly before he died.

She said: “We had not met in years as I had moved to France, but I was invited to a party in Hollywood. I felt a tap on the shoulder and a voice said ‘hello sport’, and when I turned for an instant I did not recognise Errol as he looked awful, which was very sad.”

To unveil the plaque celebrating MGM I invited triple Oscar winner Freddie Young and double Oscar winner Freddie Francis, both superb directors of photography. For the one honouring Peter Cushing I invited Christopher Lee, who to be honest never used 10 words when he could lecture you with 100. On that occasion I had to hold on to heavy plaque beside him as he talked for 16 minutes, but I much admired his huge career.

In 2006 I started the plaque unveilings again with recipients Simon Cowell, local lad made good, and Sir Roger Moore, who made his name as The Saint at Elstree Studios.

Then in 2008 we had another go, honouring Barbara Windsor, Cliff Richard, Christopher Lee and Bryan Forbes. The latter was unveiled by Richard Attenborough and sadly it was the last time either came back to Elstree. Indeed the majority of the recipients and guest unveilers are no longer with us and my address book is rather thin nowadays.

Only one star declined my invite, which was Tom Cruise who I invited to unveil the plaque for Stanley Kubrick. Luckily Malcolm McDowell of Clockwork Orange fame agreed instead. Well, that is enough name dropping from me for another week.

  • Paul Welsh MBE is a Borehamwood writer and historian of Elstree Studios

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