Official historian for Elstree film studios


CG:  Were you a fan of Hammer Films growing up and if so what were some of your favourites?

PW: Yes, I was always a fan of the Hammer movies and I guess you could say I grew up on them. Among my favourites I would probably highlight ' The Devil Rides Out' and ' Quatermass II' . I tended to enjoy most science fiction and 'horror' movies and outside of Hammer my favourites made in England are ' Night (Curse) Of The Demon' and 'Village Of The Damned' as they were good stories and of course were made in my home town!

CG: What made you a fan of Peter Cushing?

PW: I became a fan of Peter I suspect because he always gave his best in a role and was enjoyable to watch on screen. I thought he was an excellent Sherlock Holmes.

CG: You had the opportunity to interview Peter Cushing in 1973. What was that like?

PW: In 1973 I was asked by the Managing Director of Elstree Film Studios to handle studio publicity and special events such as royal visits, etc. That prompted the local newspaper to ask me to write a weekly column
which meant interviewing stars and reporting from film sets which I am still doing 31 years later.

I grew up around the studio as my late father was in sound effects. The first set I visited was Gary Cooper's last ever movie 'The Naked Edge' which of course featured Peter in a small role. I guess that must have been around 1960.

I wrote to Peter in 1973 asking to do an interview and he invited me down to Shepperton to meet him on the set of 'The Beast Must Die' . I remember speaking to him for about an hour between takes in the old Manor House. He was very polite and informative but I felt quite sad as he had lost his beloved wife not long before. I always remember him wearing a glove while he chain smoked his cigarettes and his comment.. "forgive the glove dear boy but it prevents nicotine stains on my fingers which might show up in close ups and offend some of the audiences."

I have been lucky enough to interview a wide range of stars from Sophia Loren, Charlton Heston, David Niven, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Chris Lee, Vincent Price and countless others. Each year I organise a public event at the BBC Elstree Centre which we call the Elstree Film Evening and I invite back stars from yesteryear. We listen to film music from the BBC Band and watch film clips. It is a great excuse to meet people such as Ray Harryhausen, Nigel Hawthorne, Honor Blackman, Bryan Forbes, Lew Grade, Olivia De Havilland and many others.

CG: How did you become the official historian for Elstree film studios?

PW: I became the official historian of Elstree Studios by default. I simply out survived or outlived everyone else! There is nobody in the Studio admin today who has been there longer than 1996 when it reopened
so I tend to get any historical enquiries directed to me.

I was also asked to give guided tours on occasions but that no longer happens due to security, health and safety and the usual closed sets. I was honoured to be made a Member of the Most Excellent Order Of The British Empire by Her Majesty The Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1997 for services to preserving film history. Elstree Studios opened in the mid 1920s and was the home of the first British talkie 'Blackmail' directed by Alfred Hitchcock. About 500 movies have been made here since including the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies and that includes a number of Hammer films.

Elstree & Borehamwood has been home to 5 other studios which include some where other Hammer films were shot such as 'Quatermass II' at the Danziger Bros New Elstree Studio and 'Quatermass And The Pit' at MGM British Studio.

CG: Could you explain your role in the campaign to save Elstree studios?

PW: In 1988 Elstree was threatened with closure and demolition. We started a campaign to save it and I became Chairman with Richard Attenborough, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as patrons. I met with
Lucas and Spielberg at Elstree and they agreed to give interviews which created World wide media interest.

With various ups and downs the fight went on for 8 years, during which part of the studio was sold off and turned into a Tesco supermarket but eventually the local council purchased the remaining 15 acres and saved
the facility. About 10,000,000 has been spent since remodernising and that includes two very large new sound stages that I arranged to be opened by Prince Charles in 1999.

When the Council took control in 1996 we had an opening ceremony which involved unveiling several plaques to celebrate aspects of Elstree's past. Roy Skeggs unveiled a plaque celebrating Hammer Films and Chris
Lee unveiled a plaque commemorating Peter Cushing at which he gave a 16 minute speech.

Just before he died while the campaign was still underway Peter wrote to me saying that ' I am held together by string and sellotape these days but if you need me to join you in front of the bulldozers let me know dear boy.'

CG: Is Elstree film studios still being used for films and if so, which ones were recently made there?

PW: The Studio is very busy but mainly with television such as the long running 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire' and 'Big Brother' although Disney are currently shooting a movie based on the Hitchhikers Guide To
The Galaxy. Lucas still uses the facility for odd shots on his new Star Wars films.

I believe the new owners have offices at the studio as does the former owner of Hammer Roy Skeggs who is a delightful man.

CG: What do you think about the future of Hammer with its new owners?

PW: I have no idea what is happening with the new owners plans although I have seen mention of some remake deals with an Australian company. I suspect there may be problems with who owns what in regard to remake
rights and I know Chris Lee would love to be involved in a remake of 'The Devil Rides Out'.

I can't believe it is nearly 30 years ago since I went on the set of 'To The Devil A Daughter' at Elstree to meet Richard Widmark. I never dreamt it would be so long and still no further films.

One problem now is that when I talk to youngsters in their teens and 20s they have never heard of Hammer so as a viable trade name for present day cinemagoers it is of reducing value I guess.

CG: You attended Peter Cushing's memorial service. What was that like?

PW: I attended the Memorial Service for Peter in London with our Town Mayor so Elstree was represented. I remember we sat next to Joanna Lumley. It was a nice tribute and I felt honoured to be there.

CG: What is your favourite Peter Cushing film and why?

PW: I am not sure I have a favourite Cushing movie as he was always a pleasure to watch although sometimes I felt he was let down by the quality of the material he had to work with.

CG: What is your favourite memory of Peter Cushing?

PW: I have only good memories of Peter and his work. He was a true gentleman in an Industry that does not always lend itself to such people. I have never come across anyone who has a bad word to say about him and it was a tragedy that he lost his dear wife and suffered ill health in his last years.

I managed to purchase a few mementos from his Estate including a shooting stick, hairpiece, some scrap albums, hat, Sherlock Holmes tie and his personal diary from his stay in Hollywood. I also have a number of letters from him and they all remind me of the kind of person we should all strive to be. Long may he be remembered. 

CG: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.


For more information on Elstree Studios here are some websites to visit: