From Aero Engines to Movie-making – Elstree’s other studio.

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Tucked away down a unassuming road in Hertfordshire lies a business estate called The Waterfront, if it’s name conjures up a 1954 Marlon Brando film, then its real history is even more interesting. This is was once the home to a short-lived film studios, owned by two quite incredible brothers called the Danzingers.

To get a better fix on the geography the location is on Elstree Road, just off the A41 on the outskirts of Elstree. The road cuts through Aldenham Reservoir, created in the 1790s by the Grand Junction Canal Company to control the water levels in the River Colne. We are in Hertfordshire countryside, but not too far away from the outer London suburbs of Edgware and Stanmore.  Back in the 1930s a plan to extend the Northern Line of the London Underground to Bushey Heath would have seen this area dramatically change. In fact the terminus station would have been just a few hundred yards from the  Danziger’s studios. However World War Two put paid to this project, with the Green Belt following as a limit to London’s surburban expansion.

The war did create some construction in the area however, with the building of a set of aero engine test houses.  The De Havilland aviation company had been awarded the contract to rebuild Rolls Royce Merlin engines, those used in Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancaster aircraft.

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The image above is taken from the book ‘The Tube Beyond Edgware’ by Tony Beard, and was originally taken by Aerofilms in 1952. By this time the buildings were semi-derelict, but you can see the structures used by De Havilland. Refurbished engines would be taken up to high speeds, no doubt making a great deal of noise. The dark squares on top of the the top buildings would likely be the vents to let exhaust fumes out.  The building with the saw-tooth roof was a workshop. At the top of the photo you can see the Aldenham Reservoir, the road winding through it.

Enter the Danziger Brothers, Edward and Harry, who decide that this site will be the perfect opportunity to start their own film studios. The Danzigers were born in New York, and had arrived from the U.S in 1952, and were keen to develop their movie-making ideas, building up experience at various studios, including Shepperton and Borehamwood.  In 1955 they bought the site at Elstree, and converted the buildings into five sound stages, and other facilities needed to make film and television.  With their typical showmanship, they proudly named their new production base ‘New Elstree Studios’, probably annoying the established bigger studios not far away in Borehamwood, especially the mighty MGM, who had been in the town since the late 1940s.

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The Danzigers had a reputation as a real production line studio with a prodigious output, and in the late 1950s their productions were lapped up by the new Independant Television (ITV). Between 1955 and 1961 the Danziger Brothers studios produced 350  thirty minute TV shows and 60 B-movies. One particularly succesful TV serial was called ‘Saber of London, a detective series, starring Donald Gray, as Mark Saber.  Born in South Africa , Gray was injured in whilst serving in World War Two, and had to have his left arm amputated.  To give an idea of the fast output of Danziger’s studios , Saber of London was in production between 1955 and 1959, and in that time, went through five series and a total of 156 episodes.  Donald Gray was apparently quite a character in real life, with stories of him driving his car ( Mark Saber’s mode of transport was a Porsche 356 cabriolet) at break-neck speeds, ( remember he only had one arm), and one actor recalled Gray taking his prosthetic arm off and laying it down on the canteen table at lunchtime! The actor became somewhat typecast in the Mark Saber role, but later went onto be the voice of Colonel White in the Gerry Anderson sci-fi classic, ‘Captain Scarlet’.

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Another interesting nugget from the brief period of the studios was that the future star of ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Minder’, Dennis Waterman was to make his first appearance there, in the 1960 film ‘Night Train form Inverness’ featuring the eleven year old as a schoolboy.

The New Elstree Studios were known for their ‘all hands on deck’ approach, with everyone mucking in to get things done. Some may say that the Danzigers were penny-pinchers, others may say they were very efficient with their expenditure.

If you want to read up more on the New Elstree studios or the Danziger Brothers, I would definitely recommend the book ‘MGM British Studios: Hollywood in Borehamwood’ by Derek Pykett, which contains a 23-page section on them.

Production at the New Elstree Studios came to an end in 1961, and the Danzigers eventually sold the site to RTZ Metals for £300,000 in October 1965. They used the facility for storage, and in the 1980s the whole site as a business park, now known as The Waterfront.

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I have to say I find the whole history of this small patch of Hertfordshire very interesting, and the escapades of The Danziger Brothers worthy of some kind of dramatisation in itself.

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Mark Amies , May 2020

All colour images by author.

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