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Ealing Studios (1938-59)

Film Studio, Production Company

Main image of Ealing Studios (1938-59)

It's rare for a film studio to inspire affection. The giants of Hollywood - Warner Bros, Fox or Paramount, say - might be admired, but not loved. Ealing Studios was loved, and it still is, well over half a century since its heyday. Ealing gave us some the most enduring classics of British cinema history - the great comedies, among them Passport to Pimlico (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951); the chilling Dead of Night (1945); the epic tragedy Scott of the Antarctic (1948); the police 'procedural' drama The Blue Lamp (1950). But it also had a powerful sense of itself. Ealing and its films stood for decency, democracy, community, pluck and fair play: the best of British values.

There has been an almost constant filmmaking presence in Ealing for well over a century: since 1902, when the pioneering producer Will Barker moved his Autoscope Company across London from Stamford Hill. So the studios at Ealing predate not just Pinewood and Elstree but the whole of Hollywood, making the attractive but mostly unassuming West London borough probably the oldest continuing centre of filmmaking in the world.

Barker's studio was a modest affair. But in 1931, theatre impresario Basil Dean acquired the land at Ealing Green with ambitious plans to build a home for his new production outfit Associated Talking Pictures (ATP); Barker's glass houses would give way to Britain's first purpose-built sound stages. Dean had come to film from theatre, and ATP's output was heavy with stage adaptations. But the studio had its greatest success with two singing comedians from Lancashire: Gracie Fields and George Formby. Their lively, earthy popular appeal helped ATP to compete at the box office with much more ambitious productions from better-funded rivals like London Films or Gainsborough. But despite Formby and Fields' continuing popularity, by the end of the 1930s Dean's studio was struggling, and in 1938 he was replaced as studio head by Michael Balcon.

One of British cinema's genuine heavyweights, Balcon had been an early patron of Hitchcock at Gainsborough and Gaumont-British in the 1920s and 30s, and had just returned from an unhappy experience in Hollywood in the bureaucratic and hierarchical environment of MGM. Back in England, he was determined to create a different atmosphere at Ealing - to make it, as Dean had called it, "the studio with team spirit". Balcon's Ealing was distinguished by its famous round table meetings, where filmmakers freely discussed each others' work, and by the loyalty it inspired in its staff. Just seven directors accounted for 71 of its 95 features: Basil Dearden, Charles Frend, Charles Crichton, Harry Watt, Alexander Mackendrick, Robert Hamer and Alberto Cavalcanti. Writing credits were dominated by just three names: Angus Macphail, John Dighton and T.E.B. ('Tibby') Clarke.

Balcon renamed ATP after its studios, and Ealing entered its richest phase. In the war years Balcon gradually steered the studio away from 'tinsel' (his dismissive name for trivial escapism) and towards a realism inspired by the documentary film movement - though there was still room at Ealing for Formby (for a time) and for fellow music hall comedians Will Hay and Tommy Trinder. After a couple of false starts, Ealing found its calling in the early years of the war, making films "in the national interest": rousing and sometimes alarming warnings of the threat of invasion (Went the Day Well?, 1942) or the risks of careless talk (The Next of Kin, 1942), and inspiring celebrations of collective courage (The Bells Go Down, San Demetrio London, both 1943), in marked contrast with the officer heroics that other studios tended to focus on. Not for the last time, Ealing was in tune with the national mood. As the war came to a close, the studio's hunt for a new identity threw up fascinating one-offs like the Utopian fantasies Halfway House and They Came to a City (both 1944), the horror compendium Dead of Night, the finely-drawn East End thriller It Always Rains on Sunday (1947).

But Ealing struck gold in 1949 with a trio of films - Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore! and Kind Hearts and Coronets - that established it as a specialist in a certain kind of clever, whimsical and very British comedy. Ealing's magic touch for comedy continued with The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955).

So successful were the comedies that they have tended to eclipse the rest of Ealing's films, but even after 1949 the studio's output ran across genres - and even territories. Among Balcon's lesser-known achievements is the revival of filmmaking in Australia, where Ealing made four feature films, starting with 1946's The Overlanders; the studio also made two films in Africa. During the 1950s the studio would become associated with a low-key naturalism, which at its best produced intelligent, well-crafted and films such as Pool of London (1950), Mandy (1952), The Cruel Sea (1953) or The Long Arm (1956), but at its worst turned out monochrome dramas and limp comedies whose unwillingness to offend bled them of life. Even so, a handful of films broke the mould: Cage of Gold (1950) was a noir melodrama spiced with lust, blackmail and murder, Secret People (1952) agonised over the ethics of political assassination and Nowhere to Go (1958) was a stylish, grimy tale of deception and betrayal that took issue with Ealing's community values.

Sadly, Balcon's last years at Ealing weren't glorious ones. The studio's mid-1950s releases served up few box-office successes, and Ealing was struggling financially. Its long distribution deal with Rank broke down acrimoniously, and Ealing was forced to sell its studios to the BBC in 1955. It found a temporary sponsor in MGM, and continued production at Boreham Wood, but it was an uneasy partnership and lasted for just six films. A last-minute rescue deal with Associated British couldn't hold, and Ealing dissolved in 1959.

Ealing was far from Britain's most successful studio: Rank was bigger, and Hammer more profitable. Only one Ealing title (The Blue Lamp) appears among the 100 biggest ever hits at the British box office, as identified in the BFI's Ultimate Film survey in 2004. But Ealing's success can't be measured on such material terms. 'Ealing', especially when linked with 'comedy', is part of our everyday speech - as much a shorthand for a set of ideas about Britishness as it is a description of a particular group of films.

Thanks to television, DVD and online, the classic Ealing films are more available than ever. And since 2002, Ealing Studios has been up and running again, a successful production company, a lively and expanding centre for filmmaking and a major player in a resurgent British film industry. Michael Balcon's studio may be long gone, but the bonds between Ealing and film are too strong to be lost to the past.

Mark Duguid

Selected credits

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Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)

Executive, Producer

Thumbnail image of Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)

Director, Actor, Sound

Thumbnail image of Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)


Thumbnail image of Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)

Director, Producer, Writer, Editor

Thumbnail image of Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)

Director, Producer, Writer

Thumbnail image of Formby, George (1904-1961)Formby, George (1904-1961)


Thumbnail image of Frend, Charles (1909-1977)Frend, Charles (1909-1977)

Director, Writer, Editor

Thumbnail image of Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)


Thumbnail image of Hamer, Robert (1911-63)Hamer, Robert (1911-63)

Director, Writer, Editor

Thumbnail image of Hay, Will (1888-1949)Hay, Will (1888-1949)


Thumbnail image of Holloway, Stanley (1890-1982)Holloway, Stanley (1890-1982)

Actor, Comedian, Singer

Thumbnail image of Mackendrick, Alexander (1912-1993)Mackendrick, Alexander (1912-1993)

Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of Relph, Michael (1915-2004)Relph, Michael (1915-2004)

Producer, Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of Trinder, Tommy (1909-1989)Trinder, Tommy (1909-1989)

Actor, Presenter, Writer

Thumbnail image of Watt, Harry (1906-1987)Watt, Harry (1906-1987)

Director, Writer, Producer

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