An Irishman's Diary


EVERY time I see or hear of Big Brother, and its slightly grubby antics, at the studios in Elstree, it takes me way back. It takes me way back to the town of Boreham Wood, the location for the Elstree studios of Big Brotherfame – and where I spent many of my formative years.

But Big Brother(now auditioning for the next season of ritual humiliations and madness) does remind me of my rather short film-making career, which involved – naturally enough – who other than the star of many a tinseltown epic, Sophia Loren.

I was on holiday in Boreham Wood (this was about 25 years ago, when it was still spelt as two words – now, presumably for some postal convenience, it’s Borehamwood) and wandering along the town’s main street. A large crowd had gathered near a small Italian restaurant, the police stopping traffic, cordoning off the road – all the usual fun of the fair. Then, behind one of the cordons, I saw a guy I knew, Willy Browne from Derry. Willy was then an electrician in the film studios, and one of a large family of Derry people living in Boreham Wood.

I asked Willy what was happening, and he told me that Sophia Loren was scheduled to eat in the Italian restaurant. I said it was a pity that so few people could see her, with all the crowds. Willy handed me a roll of electric cable, motioned me under the crowd cordon, and said “If anyone asks, tell them you work for Willy Browne.” And then Sophia Loren appeared. Tall, statuesque (she looked exactly like her pictures!) and preceded by a small, scampering man who spent his time making rectangles with his hands – how such-and-such a shot would look. It was Carlo Ponti, her husband. Small children ran up with bouquets and posies, curtseying as if to royalty – which in a way I guess she was, if only of the showbiz variety.

Willy remarked to me that he’d been out with, as he put it, “better-looking women in this town”. And then, as quick as a flash, she was gone – into the restaurant, and not to be seen by us mortals again that day. And so ended my filming career.

Boreham Wood was, as the locals liked to call it, with a fair touch of irony, the “Hollywood of England”. Its best times for movie-making were in the 1950s and 1960s, when it rivalled Britain’s other movie-towns, Pinewood and Shepperton.

During those years it was not uncommon to see “film stars” on the town’s streets: apart from their obviously expensive clothes, the minor celebs could usually be spotted by their tans – unusual in Blighty in those days. Some “stars” were popular, others not: Clint Eastwood was a big hit with the stagehands (the “stags” as they liked to be known) for his gifts of bottles of whiskey. Richard Burton, despite his oft-proclaimed and allegedly impeccable working-class credentials, was disliked because he stayed in his caravan, and “didn’t talk to the lads”.

Irish-American actor Patrick McGoohan was highly regarded: one reason being that as he drank with the locals, one man admired his suede jacket – McGoohan asked him to try it for size and, as it was a good fit, told him to keep it. You couldn’t buy publicity like that!

By the 1950s Boreham Wood – “Elstree” as it was the original name of the area when film studios opened in the 1920s, apparently because of a good water supply and clear air – had some of the world leaders in the movie business. MGM, with its roaring lion logo (the lion was a resident of Dublin Zoo), APBC, EMI, all were headquartered there. The iconic 2001: A Space Odysseywas one movie that’s now of cult-success: people in the industry claimed its spiralling costs brought MGM to its knees, and that studio was never the same after.

As time went by, movie-making shifted further afield – amalgamations, liquidations, cost cutting all took their toll, and Elstree/Boreham Wood’s claims to uniqueness were soon bypassed, and by the late 1980s, the days of the epics had, for the most part, gone from the town. That said, the past 20 years have seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Other Boleyn Girl, and The King’s Speech,among others, roll off the production line.

However, it seems that the future of the town’s movie-making is in television production, with programmes such as EastEnders, Who Wants to be a Millionaireand, of course, the ubiquitous Big Brother.While the actors in these productions may have a certain low-grade glamour, there’s little doubt that the likes of Sophia Loren and Clint Eastwood – or their Hollywood descendants, will be pretty thin on the streets of Boreham Wood – or Elstree, as the world now knows it.