Up until this week, it was home to Albert Square in EastEnders but many other programmes have used the ‘backlot’ at the studios…
One of the first programmes to use the then ATV Elstree Centre’s “backlot” space was the soap opera Market in Honey Lane, later just Honey Lane. It was the first UK serial to have its own outdoor pertinent set – and impressive it was.
Honey Lane, Soap Opera, 1960s
Before Coronation Street was given its own outdoor space up at Granada in Manchester, Honey Lane filmed regularly on the open-air backlot to add realism to the proceedings. Launched in 1967 the twice-weekly saga was based on a real London street market – which creator Louis Marks’ wife had lived nearby in her youth.
The show followed the lives of the residents of the market street as well as the traders who worked on it. It starred John Bennett of the original Forsyte Saga in the lead role. Today, where EastEnders’ original Queen Victoria pub stands there once stood The Duchess of Verona Inn.
Clayhanger, period drama, 1970s
There had been a BBC adaption some twenty years earlier (as Hilda Lessways) based on a series of novels by Arnold Bennett, however, the ATV production was done on a ‘grand scale’ with a recreation of a Staffordshire Pottery and its adjacent streets built on the ATV Elstree backlot.
It wasn’t just the impressive real outdoor setting that made Clayhanger an ambitious undertaking, it was also to run an epic of 26 editions across one series, something relatively unheard of in the UK at the time with most dramas running for six or to twelve episodes only.
Clayhanger was set in the Staffordshire Potteries in the late 19th century and followed the titular family. Opening in 1872 Edwin has ambitions of being an architect but his father Darius has other ideas for his son’s career. ATV spent £500,000 on the series for the ITV network in the UK with ambitions to sell it stateside as was the case with most Elstree made programmes of the era. The cast included Peter McEnery, Harry Andrews, Janet Suzman, Denis Quilley and Denholm Elliott.
Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, variety entertainment, 1970s
Bing made a number of festive specials for ATV at Elstree, however, his last in 1977 was the most elaborate.
For a sequence with Ron Moody and Twiggy, bringing to life Charles Dickens’ characters in an 1800s village scene, the ‘Dickensian streets’ were built on the backlot, complete with fake snow and real geese.
The ‘storyline’ of the show saw Bing and his family invited to spend Christmas in Britain by relative ‘Sir Percival Crosby’ with the show set in his grand house. Impressionist and actor Stanley Baxter provided the characters from LWT’s Upstairs Downstairs as the staff of the manor.
Bing never saw the production air, dying just five weeks after its September recording. Some of the structures used had been created for the Will Shakespeare drama (See below).
Will Shakespeare, historical drama,1970s
This drama on the life of the English playwright, poet and actor is also known as Life of Shakespeare and William Shakespeare: His Life & Times. Produced in 1978 this historical drama was created and written by John Mortimer.
Across six episodes ATV told the life of ‘the world’s greatest dramatist‘ William Shakespeare who was played by Tim Curry. Each episode was based around the creation of a single play, and the idea of Shakespeare’s real-life experiences influencing his writing was used as the central plot device. The backlot featured streets, house facades (some repurposed for Bing Crosby’s special) and a reconstruction of The Globe Theatre.
Auf Wiedersehen Pet, drama, 1980s
The final drama using the backlot for ITV was Auf Wiedersehen Pet, which used the backlot as a German building site. Produced by Central Television for ITV at the ATV Elstree Centre the story followed a group of construction workers looking for employment overseas, where they ultimately come together and work on a building site in Düsseldorf.
The show starred Tim Healy, Kevin Whately, Jimmy Nail, Timothy Spall, Christopher Fairbank, Pat Roach and Gary Holton and was devised by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who also wrote The Likely Lads, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Porridge for the BBC.
In 1984 with new studios being built in Nottingham ITV said farewell to Elstree, with the BBC moving in. Not long after construction started on what was to become Albert Square for EastEnders. A backlot structure that finally ends its television life after 38 years and 36 of them more than it was intended to be used for!