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Ealing Studios (act. 1907–1959) were (with Pinewood and Shepperton) among the most famous British film studios of the twentieth century, giving their name in particular to a batch of deservedly popular comedies made in the decade following the Second World War, and more generally to the work of some of the most talented British film-makers in the middle years of the century.

The studios themselves dated back to 1907, when the flamboyant and pioneering producer Will Barker, who had bought a property on Ealing Green in west London in 1902, built the first covered studio there, with three glass stages. He made a name for himself with lavish productions with an eye to prestige, such as Henry VIII (1911), starring the stage actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, which brought together the literary lustre of Shakespeare and the glamour of the contemporary theatre. As well as producing his own films, Barker leased the studio to other producers, but in 1919, after a dwindling output during the First World War, he retired and the studios were sold to General Film Renters. The studios were then little used during the 1920s, a very difficult time of transition for British cinema, and were bought in 1929 by the Associated Radio Picture Company, in the expectation of a co-production deal with RKO which proved vain, despite the building of a new studio in 1931. This latter, built near the old Barker studio, claimed to be the first purpose-built sound studio in Britain.

In 1933 Ealing studios became the home of Associated Talking Pictures, with producer Basil Dean as its leading light. Under Dean, essentially a man of the theatre, the studios turned out a string of popular entertainments during the 1930s, and launched the film careers of Gracie Fields and George Formby. Some fifty films were made at Ealing (both by ATP and by other companies) before Dean left in 1938 to return to the theatre. These included the work of leading directors of the period such as Graham Cutts (1885–1958) and Maurice Elvey, early films from Carol Reed and Thorold Dickinson, and appearances by such stars as Ivor Novello and Margaret Lockwood.

It was in the years from 1938 to 1959, when Michael Balcon was studio head and guiding spirit, that the ethos later most closely associated with Ealing studios was forged. Indeed when Balcon took over from Dean in 1938 the name of the company was changed from ATP to Ealing Studios and the company adopted the discreet logo (the company's name within a rectangle with apsidal ends, with a suggestion of leaves flanking the latter) that became instantly recognizable to generations of film enthusiasts. Balcon had two decades of experience in the film industry before assuming the reins at Ealing, having in 1924 co-founded (with Graham Cutts) Gainsborough Films, and later worked as director of production for the associated Gaumont-British Picture Corporation and then MGM-British.

When Balcon took over the running of Ealing, he brought with him several associates from his Gainsborough days, including the directors Robert Stevenson (1905–1986), Walter Forde (1896–1984), and Penrose Tennyson (1912–1941). Stevenson left for Hollywood after making two charming romances, Young Man's Fancy (1939) and Return to Yesterday (1940), both starring his wife, Anna Lee. Forde, a former stage and film comedian, directed several thrillers at Ealing as well as Cheer Boys Cheer (1939), a comedy of rival breweries united by youthful romance, described by Charles Barr as ‘a startling forerunner’ of the later Ealing comedies (Barr, 5). The three films made by Tennyson before his untimely death in 1941—There Ain't No Justice (1939), The Proud Valley (1940), and Convoy (1940)—with their subjects in, respectively, small-time boxing, mining, and the war, ushered in elements of the realism that would become another Ealing staple. Convoy was the first film on which ‘civilian technicians became involved at first-hand in the war’, with a film convoy accompanying a real convoy down the east coast of Scotland (Balcon, 129).

Another batch of recruits to Balcon's Ealing was that drawn from the 1930s documentary movement, including Harry Watt, Sidney Cole (1908–1998), and, most significantly, the Brazilian producer–director Alberto Cavalcanti, who left the Crown Film Unit in 1940 to join Ealing. In his autobiography, White Russian, Red Face (1966), Monja Danischewsky (1911–1994), publicity director for the studio, wrote: ‘if Mick [Balcon] was the father figure, Cavalcanti was the nanny who brought us up’ (Danischewsky, 134). This respect for Cavalcanti was borne out by director Charles Crichton, who claimed that ‘Cavalcanti was the one who had the inspirational effect on all of us’ (McFarlane, 152). Such films as Nine Men (1943, directed by Harry Watt) and San Demetrio–London (1943, directed by Charles Frend (1909–1977) and Robert Hamer) illustrated vividly the ways in which the documentary concern for realism infiltrated fiction film-making. Cavalcanti himself made the haunting ‘what-if’ wartime drama Went the Day Well? (1942), the musical Champagne Charlie (1944), and the Dickens adaptation Nicholas Nickleby (1947) before leaving Ealing to freelance.

Under Balcon's benign paternalism Ealing became known as the studio with ‘team spirit’. He famously encouraged young film-makers—and encouraged them to contribute constructively to each other's work. For instance, producer–editor Sidney Cole recalled of the celebrated horror portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945): ‘we had very interesting script discussions … [which] involved practically the entire studio’ (McFarlane, 137). Editors such as Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Charles Frend, and Michael Truman (1916–1974) were given their chance as directors, as were screenwriters like Basil Dearden and Alexander Mackendrick. Other key personnel in the very creative decade from the end of the Second World War included the production designer Michael Relph, the cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (b. 1913), the screenwriters Angus Macphail (1903–1962), John Dighton (1909–1989), Monja Danischewsky, Diana Morgan (1910–1996), and T. E. B. (Tibby) Clarke, and ‘continuity girl’ Elaine Schreyeck (b. 1924). Though, in line with its ‘team spirit’, Ealing did not generally go in for star-making, Alec Guinness and Googie Withers (b. 1917) became potent star figures as a result of their Ealing work, and the studio had a roster of dependable character players such as Gordon Jackson and Frederick Piper (1902–1979) who could be counted on to imbue their roles with an easy reality. As John McCallum (b. 1918), another actor who starred several times for Ealing, wrote, ‘Ealing was very like a repertory theatre, because Mick and his producers were loyal to actors and actresses they liked … and they used them time and time again’ (McCallum, 15).

The comedies that came to be most closely associated with Ealing were not numerically a majority of the studio output. However, they were innovative and contributed notably to the studio's image, especially with their tendency to champion the ‘small’ aspirant against systems of various kinds, and with their both naturalistic and symbolic use of settings. Crichton's Hue and Cry (1947), in which a group of children outwit a gang that is using their comic paper to communicate with each other, introduced itself as ‘the film that begs to differ’. Fresh and original in its plotting, it also broke new ground in its use of bomb-damaged London for its setting. This template was used again in Passport to Pimlico (1949), directed by Henry Cornelius (1913–1958), the first of three comedies released within a few months of each other that established the brand name of ‘Ealing comedy’, the other two being Whisky Galore (directed by Mackendrick) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (directed by Hamer). Each was distinctly different in tone. Passport to Pimlico, in which an area of London is found to belong to the duchy of Burgundy, is the sunniest; Whisky Galore, set in the Hebrides, is the driest; and Kind Hearts, a comédie noire with a serial killer as its sympathetic protagonist, is the most lethal, and perhaps the one unassailable Ealing masterpiece.

Crichton went on to direct perhaps the most popular of Ealing comedies, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), which won an Oscar for its screenwriter, Clarke, and which dealt whimsically with the efforts of a mild-mannered clerk to rob the Bank of England, but the more astringent comedy triumphs of the 1950s were directed by Mackendrick. The Man in the White Suit (1951) endorsed individual enterprise at the expense of both capital and labour, and is rigorous as few comedies are. The Maggie (1954) pitted American energy against Celtic cunning in a way that recalled but did not rival Mackendrick's Whisky Galore, but The Ladykillers (1955), in which a gang of crooks, microcosmically representing the English class system, is routed by an indomitable old lady in Victorian button boots, was the last great Ealing film.

Though Ealing's comedy legacy was well founded, it was not the whole story. The realist strand was perpetuated in such works as It Always Rains on Sunday (1947, directed by Hamer), an East End drama of family and criminal tensions; The Blue Lamp (1949, directed by Dearden), a tribute to the London police in the changing post-war world; Secret People (1951, directed by Dickinson), an interesting, if unpopular, drama of anarchists in London; Pool of London (1951, directed by Dearden), a multi-story tale of merchant seamen in London for a weekend, which quite daringly included an interracial romance; and Mandy (1952, directed by Mackendrick), an affecting study of a deaf child. There was also a strong vein of melodramatic storytelling in such films as Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945, directed by Hamer), starring Googie Withers, the one outstanding Ealing woman star, as a murderous pubkeeper, and the exciting thriller with a nightmare-come-true plot, The Night My Number Came Up (1955), directed by Leslie Norman (1911–1993). A number of Ealing films were set in Commonwealth countries, including The Overlanders (1946), a semi-documentary account of an epic drive to save a herd of cattle in Australia from the threat of Japanese attack, and Where No Vultures Fly (1951), a tale of game preservation and ivory poaching in Africa, both directed by Harry Watt. Ambitious in other ways were the ‘biopic’ Scott of the Antarctic (1948, directed by Frend); the sumptuous but downbeat technicolour period drama Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948, directed by Dearden); and the stirring war film The Cruel Sea (1953, directed by Frend), which made a star of Jack Hawkins.

By the mid 1950s Ealing's ascendancy was nearly over. Its restrained, middle-class approach was no longer in tune with the times, and, as increasing affluence replaced austerity, audiences were looking for broader and gaudier fare, which the Rank Organisation provided. As early as 1944 Balcon had concluded an advantageous deal with Rank which gave Ealing security of financing and distribution without interfering with its artistic independence. By 1955 the relationship with Rank had become strained; the studios on Ealing Green were sold to BBC TV for £300,000, and Balcon and what was left of the Ealing team moved to the MGM studio at Borehamwood, where the production company, known now as Ealing Films, soldiered on for several more years. The final film made under its banner was The Siege of Pinchgut (1959), an Australian-set thriller directed by Watt. Meanwhile the BBC used the Ealing studios to produce television dramas. In 1992 a consortium called BBRK bought the studios from the BBC, but in 1995 the BBC bought them back again, and in the late 1990s they became the home of the National Film and Television School. In 2000 they were bought by another consortium, comprising Fragile Films, the property developers The Manhattan Loft Corporation, and The Idea Factory, a San Francisco-based digital development company.

Brian McFarlane

Sources  

I. Aitken, Alberto Cavalcanti: realism, surrealism and national cinemas (2000) · L. Anderson, Making a film: the story of ‘Secret People’ (1952) · M. Balcon, Michael Balcon presents … a lifetime of films (1969) · C. Barr, Ealing Studios (1977); 2nd edn (1993) · G. Brown and L. Kardish, Michael Balcon: the pursuit of British cinema, ed. J. Fluegel (1984) · A. Burton, T. O'Sullivan, and P. Wells, eds., Liberal directions: Basil Dearden and postwar British film culture (1997) · T. E. B. Clarke, This is where I came in (1974) · M. Danischewsky, White Russian, red face (1966) · P. Kemp, Lethal innocence: the cinema of Alexander Mackendrick (1991) · J. McCallum, Life with Googie (1979) · B. McFarlane, An autobiography of British cinema (1997) · [G. Perry], George Perry presents forever Ealing: a celebration of the great British film studio (1981) · P. Warren, British film studios: an illustrated history (1995); 2nd edn (2001) · H. Watt, Don't look at the camera (1974) · D. Wilson, ed., Projecting Britain: Ealing Studios film posters (1982)