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Blakeley, John E. (1888-1958)

Director, Producer, Writer

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

John E. Blakeley, more than anyone, helped to bring the Northern Music Hall comedian to the attention of the movie-going public, at a time when regional differences in comedy really meant something. He was born in Ardwick, Lancashire in 1888 to an entrepreneurial father, whose interests included ownership of several cinemas and a film renting business in which his sons would eventually be employed.

In 1933 John took the plunge into production and put his enthusiasm for Music Hall comedy to good use by encouraging its stars to come in front of the cameras. He produced George Formby's first two features, Boots, Boots (d. Bert Tracey, 1934) and Off the Dole (d. Arthur Mertz, 1935), and though Formby was lost to Ealing Studios, a succession of other talents - Nat Jackley, Jimmy Jewel & Ben Warriss, Norman Evans, Betty Jumel, Dan Young and Harry Korris - forged film careers under Blakeley, now perched in the director's chair. His greatest star, however, was Frank Randle, who Blakeley directed in eight of his ten films (which in turn accounted for more than half of his own directorial output).

When Blakeley created the Mancunian Studios - Manchester's first sound film studio - in 1947, Randle's importance was underlined by his presence on the Board of Directors. Mancunian was custom built to serve Blakeley's minimalist style of film-making, for his objective was to turn out his product as cheaply and quickly as possible with the minimum of fuss. His selling point was the star comic - and any old hackneyed plot was allowed as long as space was provided for the comics to do "bits of business" drawn from their stage acts.

This lack of concern for overall vision and pre-planning permitted inconsequential plots to ramble over sometimes inordinately long running times. If ultimately this restricted the appeal of the films to a core, generally Northern, working-class following, then the bonuses were also considerable. Blakeley's functional camera allowed his talented leads, drawn from the rich resources of the Music Hall, to display their comedic skills unadorned.

The master was the bibulous Randle, whose gloriously anarchic figure (both on and off screen) was a riot of slapstick comedic invention. Nevertheless, the lack of thought or effort put into the transfer from stage to cinema was, in the end, restrictive. Randle certainly had the talent and the screen presence, though perhaps not the temperament, to have been an international star, but this was never going to happen given the limited ambition built into the fabric of Mancunian.

The studios, in the Rusholme area of Manchester, were sold to the BBC in 1954, soon after Blakeley completed his final film It's a Grand Life (1953) with Randle and Diana Dors, a satisfying romp with one of Blakeley's favoured scenarios: resilient working-class characters thumbing their collective noses at authority. Blakeley died in 1958 after a short illness.

Williams, Philip Martin and Williams, David L., Hooray for Jollywood: The Life of John E. Blakeley and The Mancunian Film Corporation (Ashton-Under-Lyne: History on Your Doorstep, 2001)

Richard Dacre, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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

Northern musical comedy that marked George Formby's film debut

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Thumbnail image of Mancunian StudiosMancunian Studios