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Mancunian Studios

Main image of Mancunian Studios

While the output of the Mancunian Film Corporation is not particularly well known now, the company is notable for establishing, albeit briefly, the only British feature film studio outside London and the South East. There, the company's founder, John E. Blakeley, produced low-budget comedies and programme fillers catering for cinema-goers in the North of England.

From 1908, James Blakeley worked as a film distributor and exhibitor, taking films round northern mill towns. In 1927, his son, John E. Blakeley, set up Song Films Ltd to produce short musical subjects, including a series based on operas. This company evolved into Blakeley Productions in 1928, and in June 1934 became the Mancunian Film Corporation. John E. Blakeley's idea was to make screen stars out of popular northern comedians, and his first hit was Boots! Boots! (d. Bert Tracey, 1934), starring George Formby. Formby subsequently won a contract with Associated Talking Pictures (later Ealing Studios) and became a national star, but Blakeley went on to make films with other comics such as Norman Evans, Jimmy James, Frank Randle and Sandy Powell. Conceived as vehicles for the comedians, the films were not great critical successes but were hugely popular with local audiences. Blakeley directed most of them himself, occasionally employing other directors such as Bert Tracey and Arthur Mertz.

Blakeley had to transport his crew and stars down to London to film at studios there, and found the travelling and the limits on hire time very restricting. So, in 1947 he opened the first film studio in Manchester, at a converted Methodist church in Rusholme. It was very much a family business, with Blakeley's two sons both working there and other friends joining the team. Made on very small budgets, the films were briefly profitable, and the studio became known as 'Jollywood' due to its staple output of comedies.

The scripts for the films were merely skeletons to be fleshed out by the comedy routines. In fact, they often contained blank pages headed 'Bus', to indicate that a comic was to fill the gap with some 'business'. While narrative and production values are not strong points of Mancunian's output, one can't help but appreciate the sheer sense of fun and anarchy exuded by the films. With two or three comics in each, the atmosphere on-set must have been a riot, and the results are an important record of the music hall artists of the period.

The studio was only in operation for six years; in 1953, John E. Blakeley retired and Rusholme became a BBC television studio. However, John's son Tom took over the company and carried on the business into the 1960s, producing second features using directors such as Lance Comfort and Francis Searle, again filmed at London studios. These later films were mainly crime-themed since the comedy/variety genre was now largely the domain of television.

More than 60 films were produced by Mancunian in its various incarnations, and Rusholme remains the only regional studio to make feature films. It is a common belief that the films were only really popular with local audiences, in the same way that the films of Middlesbrough comedian Roy Chubby Brown rarely reach cinemas south of the Midlands today. Since few records exist of what reception films received at the time, it is difficult to substantiate this, but some commentators disagree and maintain that the films were successful nationwide.

Watched now, many of the comedy sequences stand up well, although the films' low budgets and tight schedules are all too apparent. However, John E. Blakeley achieved his aim, to record popular music hall acts of the day, and the films remain valuable documents of what made people laugh in the mid-20th century.

Jo Botting

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Boots! Boots! (1934)Boots! Boots! (1934)

Northern musical comedy that marked George Formby's film debut

Thumbnail image of Painted Smile, The (1961)Painted Smile, The (1961)

Crime melodrama in which a young student narrowly escapes a murder rap

Thumbnail image of Tomorrow at Ten (1962)Tomorrow at Ten (1962)

Race-against-time thriller about a kidnapped child

Related Collections

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Blakeley, John E. (1888-1958)Blakeley, John E. (1888-1958)

Director, Producer, Writer

Thumbnail image of Comfort, Lance (1908-1966)Comfort, Lance (1908-1966)

Director, Producer, Writer

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


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