Friday, 18 December 2015

The Secret Life of Ealing Studios

Robert Sellers takes us on a backstage tour of the small studio that left a big legacy...

Written by Robert Sellers
The first thing that struck one upon arriving at Ealing Studios was that it didn’t look like a film studio at all. It also had absolutely no right being where it was, slap-bang in the middle of suburbia, surrounded on either side by prosperous homes and set on a village green, an odd place for a thriving hubbub of movie making. But there it was, its glorious white administrative block that faced out onto the road looking for all the world like a small private Regency manor house.

Unlike the sprawling Shepperton or Pinewood Studios, Ealing was close-knit, compact, with everything bunched together. As one visiting journalist amusingly noted, Ealing was ‘A postage stamp of a studio, with a backlot barely large enough to turn a car in.’ And yet this tiny oasis of creativity was responsible for some of the most popular and important British films of the post-war era, especially comedies.


It was Passport To Pimlico in 1949 that really established the studio’s reputation as the purveyor of a very definite type of English humour with its tale of a group of London residents who discover an underground treasure trove from Burgundy and declare a state of independence, thus freeing themselves of the stringent rationing that had been in place since the war. It is a film that beautifully captures those most quintessential English traits of individualism, tolerance and compromise. And there are delightful performances from Stanley Holloway and Margaret Rutherford, who plays an eccentric history professor, a role originally intended for Alastair Sim. The film’s screenwriter, TEB Clarke, was surprised to note that the professor’s change of sex had necessitated the alteration of not one single line of dialogue.

Two months later saw the release of Whisky Galore, based on the whimsical book by Compton Mackenzie, a fictionalised account of a real event that occurred in 1941 when a cargo ship laden with 50,000 cases of whisky ran aground off the coast of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides and much of the booty on board was appropriated by a group of Scottish islanders. Given how much the film is revered today, Whisky Galore came within a hairsbreadth of being an unmitigated disaster when the first cut of the film was shown and made little sense to anyone. Director Alexander MacKendrick was ordered to take a fortnight’s leave in Paris while producer Sid Cole and director Charles Crichton, both on the Ealing payroll, were brought in to re-edit and rescue the film.

These pictures were very much a reflection of the studio’s boss, Michael Balcon, a moral man in the best sense of the word – upright, honest. For Balcon the only sort of nationalism worth a damn was cultural nationalism and that meant that the films Ealing made ought to be rooted in the soil of the country, truly indigenous British films. Not surprisingly it was his presence and influence that dominated the entire fabric of the studio. ‘I remember just being in total awe of him,’ recalls Maureen Jympson, who worked in administration. ‘He was like some kind of benign God, that’s how I viewed him.’

ealing-studio-590-3Ladykiller Alec Guinness and his victim Katie Johnson

Quickly following Whisky Galore into British cinemas was Kind Hearts And Coronets starring Dennis Price as the shop assistant and distant heir to the D’Ascoyne dukedom who decides to murder everyone standing between him and the family title. The result was, in Balcon’s words, ‘Surely the first “black” comedy made in this country.’ Remembered fondly, too, is the outstanding performance by Alec Guinness as several members of the D’Ascoyne family.

For Balcon, the secret behind the success of the Ealing comedies was the fact that they took place against a realistic background that audiences understood and could relate to and, he wrote: ‘for the most part reflected the country’s moods, social conditions and aspirations’. They were also seen by many as a reaction against post-war restrictions and government-enforced austerity. ‘The country was tired of regulations and regimentation, and there was a mild anarchy in the air,’ said Balcon. ‘In a sense, our comedies were a reflection of this mood, a safety valve for our more antisocial impulses.’ Just why they have remained so popular to this day is perhaps more a question of nostalgia than anything else.

ealing-studio-590-4Left: Alec Guinness as Henry in The Lavender Hill Mob. Right: Ealing’s second big hit, the 1949 comedy Whisky Galore!

Next along the comedy pipeline was The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) about a timid bank clerk, another plum role for Alec Guinness, teaming up with an enterprising maker of souvenirs, played by Stanley Holloway, to pull off the perfect robbery. The Oscar-winning screenplay was by TEB Clarke who researched the gold-smuggling plot by visiting the Bank of England. Told to fill in a form stating the nature of his business, Clarke wrote: ‘Information required on means of stealing gold bullion.’ Forgetting to say that he wanted the information for a film, his enquiry (understandably) caused a great deal of concern.

When everything was sorted out, the manager asked for the head of the bullion department to be called: ‘He’s better qualified than I am to advise you on this robbery.’ In the end several heads of department were called into an office, forming something like a committee to work out the best way to rob its own vaults. All Clarke had to do was sit back and listen, making the odd note. ‘The method used in the film is entirely the result of their willing cooperation,’ he revealed. ‘I don’t suppose security would allow anything like that today.’

While there is an argument for Kind Hearts And Coronets being Ealing’s most accomplished comedy, certainly their most famous one is The Ladykillers (1955), with a young Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness as an evil mastermind plotting a robbery in the house of a sweet old lady, played by Katie Johnson. Then aged 76, Katie had been in films since 1932 but had never received any sort of recognition until her role in The Ladykillers earnt her a deserved Bafta.

ealing-studio-590-5Left: Barbara Murray and Stanley Holloway in Passport To Pimlico. Right: Peggy Evans and Dirk Bogarde in The Blue Lamp

However, the insurance company was extremely worried due to her advanced years and proposed an enormous fee to cover her in case she popped her clogs. ‘Katie got to hear about this,’ recalls Michael Birkett, an assistant on the film. ‘And she came up to me one day on location and said, “I hear they’re having a little trouble with me on account of the insurance, so I’d like to help,” and she reached inside her purse. The actual premium was £1,500, something colossal like that, so the idea of Katie reaching into her purse for a couple of shillings to help was so sweet. I said, “Katie you’re not to do it, I won’t have it. It’s something the studio pays for so don’t worry yourself about it.” She was a darling lady.’

In reality Katie was not at all like her screen character, who is rather absent minded and an innocent in a changing world. In fact, David Peers, the production manager on the film, remembers Katie as being quite cunning. ‘Alec Guinness was the star but Katie very nearly stole the film from him and in the scenes played between them it was amusing to watch each striving to upstage the other.’

Ealing didn’t just churn out comedies, of course. They produced the portmanteau drama Dead Of Night (1945), which was a huge influence on British horror cinema, The Cruel Sea (1953), one of the finest war pictures ever made, and the police drama The Blue Lamp (1950), which made a star of Dirk Bogarde and was later resurrected into one of the longest-running British TV cop shows, Dixon Of Dock Green.

Sadly, by the end of the 1950s Ealing was no more. With a steep decline in cinema attendances and the growth of television Balcon bowed out and the BBC took over the studios. In more recent years Ealing has become a hive of film activity again; the Simon Pegg comedy Shaun Of The Dead was made there, as were all the servants’ quarters scenes for Downton Abbey.

But it is for its comedies that the name of Ealing will be forever remembered and cherished. Michael Birkett, later Lord Birkett, who worked at the studio and knew Balcon well, knew what Ealing stood for, and that what Balcon managed to accomplish with the studio was nothing less than a major cultural achievement. ‘It was entirely due to his [Balcon’s] own combination of naivety, innocence and acuteness. Also he had a good sense of what people wanted to see. Funnily enough we didn’t purposely go out to make box-office films. We concentrated on good stories that hopefully people would want to see.’

The Secret Life Of Ealing Studios: Britain’s Favourite Film Studio by Robert Sellers is published by Aurum Press, priced £20.

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