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In the old days before local cinemas were converted into bingo halls (and before bingo on TV), back when they still played films, many people enjoyed a type of film comedy and drama that has since collectively become known as “Ealing”. Ealing, the company, originated in 1938 during the early sound era. Under the stewardship of Michael Balcon they produced many fine films which deserve to be better known.
Physically the studios were (and still are) at Ealing Green in West London. In 1929 London theatre producer Basil Dean formed Associated Radio Pictures and raised finance to build the Ealing Studios which were completed in 1931. The site was only yards away from the early Will Barker Studios which opened in 1896. The studios were the first purpose built sound stage in Britain. While in charge of production at Ealing Dean built up the careers of Gracie Fields and George Formby, both champions of working class comedy. Many up and coming stars worked at the studios during the 30s including Margaret Lockwood, and Madeleine Carroll, also directors such as Carol Reed began learning their craft there. In 1933 the company became Associated Talking Pictures and a second sound stage was completed. ATP made films at the studios and rented out the space to other companies. So that in 1933 Gloria Swanson made Perfect Understanding there with Laurence Olivier. All together about 60 pictures were made there over the seven years from 1931-1938.
The ARP Studios c1933 (from Walpole Park)
In 1938 Dean left ATP after disagreements with his fellow directors and returned to theatre production. Michael Balcon former head of production at Gainsborough and Gaumont British was recommended as a replacement, he had recently been working for the British arm of MGM and although the three films he produced were successes he had hated every minute. He left MGM and started an independent production, with no studio of his own he rented the ATP studios at Ealing. One of the directors at Ealing, Reginald Baker asked him to take charge of production and his film The Gaunt Stranger (1938) became the first Ealing Studios production. The ATP name was phased out at the same time. Several key personnel came to Ealing from Gaumont British including Sidney Gilliat and Robert Stevenson.
In 1944 a deal was forged with Rank whereby Rank provided financial backing and distribution but Balcon still had a free hand in production this deal lasted until 1955 when the studios were sold to the BBC. However, Balcon made a deal with MGM and for two more years produced Ealing films at the MGM studios in Borehamwood.
|The Studios c1939 from Ealing Green|
The atmosphere at Ealing was warm and many people remarked upon it’s familial feel. The studio produced on average five or six features per year, with craftsmanship and quality being the major production goals. There were regular brainstorming sessions and constructive criticism was accepted from everyone from Balcon down to the tea boy. In 1938 Balcon was already aware that war was inevitable and in 1939 began to think of ways to make film work for the national interest. Many Ealing films typify ‘middle England’ both throughout the war and after it.
With the onset of war Balcon decided to change the format of the films produced by Ealing and from this period onwards the majority were made from original screenplays rather than books or plays. Personnel however didn’t change drastically, in fact many actors appeared again and again in Ealing films, in larger or smaller roles which perhaps partly accounts for the family feeling that pervaded the studios. Technical staff were fairly constant with some small interchange between directing, writing and editing. However there were few women employed behind the scenes, and in fact, very few films of special interest to women made. An already forming realist slant to film-making was strengthened when Cavalcanti joined the company in 1942, in fact Ealing had been making documentaries and Ministry of Information films since 1940.
The types of films made at Ealing during the war are naturally dominated by war films, Balcon felt an obligation to make the film industry work for the national good. So in films such as The Big Blockade, San Demetrio, London and For Those in Peril, the effort and example of the forces and civilians alike are presented to boost morale. At the same time films of a more entertaining nature were produced but which still managed to take swipes at the enemy – The Ghost of St Michael’s, Fiddlers Three. From the beginning of 1945 when the end of the war was in sight the main objective of the British Film Industry was to get back into the global marketplace and from Dead of Night onwards there is a widening of themes portrayed. Paramount in Balcon’s mind was the need to portray “a projection of the true Briton to the rest of the world” (Balcon, 1945), not only to foreign markets but also to a war weary public at home who had won the war but were still in the grip of rationing and austerity. The message was simple – the public may not be benefiting materially from victory, but morally and spiritually they could not be beaten. They were allowed and always had been allowed their eccentricities, their rights to free speech etc etc which the Germans had tried to take away, and Balcon’s films – especially the comedies emphasized this and implied that this was what made Britain great.
Balcon and others in the industry were also aware that cinema audiences were much more sophisticated than in the 1930s, they no longer wanted to be presented with a set of ideas or ideals which they should aspire to. Instead they needed films that provoked thought and discussion, that questioned the staus quo. For example Passport to Pimlico and Dance Hall. Post-war films generally tended to be less class conscious, less middle class, they presented ordinary people getting on with their lives rather than moneyed professionals with large cars and larger wardrobes. Alongside the more realist film school was the escapist film – usually a costume piece, to which audiences flocked despite the critics dismissing them as inconsequential. The public wanted to escape the mundane everyday life of post-war Britain, where the queues were as long as in 1943, there were fuel shortages in winter and the Empire was quickly disintegrating. Ealing made it’s fair shair of costume dramas starting with Pink String and Sealing Wax, then Nicholas Nickleby and The Loves of Joanna Godden. It’s final costume drama Saraband for Dead Lovers was also it’s first Technicolor film but was a box-office disaster.
In 1947 The Cinema notes Balcon’s special attention towards film music. “John Ireland turned to film music-writing for the first time when he composed the score for The Overlanders. Georges Auric has written music for Hue and Cry, Lord Berners the music for Nicholas Nickleby and Vaughan Williams for The Loves of Joanna Godden.
It Always Rains on Sunday and Frieda are in the top 10 favourite films of 1947 as voted in the Daily Mail Film Awards. As are actresses Mai Zetterling and Googie Withers and actors David Farrar and John McCallum. 1947 also saw the first of the now classic Ealing comedies – Hue and Cry.
In 1948 the Third Royal Command Film Performance was Scott of the Antarctic a truthful and acclaimed account of Scott’s 1912 expedition to the South Pole
In the Picture Show Annual of 1952 Edith Mepean their long-standing reporter on the British Studios said “The Ealing Studios appear to have decided on a policy of human and unusual films, many dealing with the fascinating theme of London life….. Ealing Studios have no contract stars yet they have discovered and made many stars”. She also emphasized the importance of editing at Ealing. Many editors and directors interchanged between the two disciplines.
In 1955 the BBC bought the studios and Balcon cut a deal with MGM to continue making Ealing films at their studios in Borehamwood..
“There we shall go on making dramas with a documentary background and comedies about ordinary people with the stray eccentric amongst them – films about daydreamers, mild anarchists, little men who long to kick the boss in the teeth.” (Balcon, 1956) However, in 1957 Ealing closed production. It had been struggling for a few years, from about 1954 there were more mediocre films than good films. Television was taking it’s toll on the whole industry, new techniques and European styles were making the Eaing product look old-fashioned. Later movies of note are The Ladykillers and The Long Arm
In 1995 the studios were purchased by the National Film & Television School (NFTS).
Ealing Studios films
BBC TV productions
- Colditz (inserts only; programme was predominantly videotaped)
- Doctor Who (ditto)
- Fortunes of War
- Quatermass and the Pit (inserts only; programme was otherwise live)
- The Singing Detective
- An Ungentlemanly Act (1992)
- An Ideal Husband (1999)
- Notting Hill (1999)
- A Christmas Carol (1999)
- Lucky Break (2001)
- The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)
- Shaun of the Dead (2004)
- Valiant (2005)
- I Want Candy (2007)
- St Trinian’s (2007)
- St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold (2009)
- Dorian Gray (2009)
- Burke and Hare (2010)
- The Royle Family (Granada)
- Bedtime (Hat Trick Productions)
- Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (Ghost)
- Emma Brody (20th Century Fox)
- Downton Abbey (Carnival Films)
- Walk Away by Franz Ferdinand
- Talk by Coldplay
- The Drowners by Suede (US video only)
- Crazy Beat by Blur
- The Moment You Believe by Melanie C
By 1935 Alexander Korda, the Hungarian émigré, was a film impresario of international stature who had apparently rejuvenated England’s film industry with his productions of The Private Life of Henry VIII (d. Alexander Korda, 1933)and The Scarlet Pimpernel (d. Harold Young, 1935). Korda capitalised on his box-office success by securing funding from the Prudential Assurance Company to underwrite future productions and finance the construction of his own studio.
Building the massive Denham Studios started in late summer 1935 on a 165-acre site near Denham village in Buckinghamshire. The complex was designed by Jack Okey, who had been responsible for the First National and Paramount Studios in Hollywood. The largest production facility in the country opened in May 1936, boasting seven sound stages, workshops for every craft, restaurants and dressing-rooms fit for Hollywood stars and a new Technicolor laboratory. This was to be a dream factory whose movies would have “prestige, pomp, magic and madness”, according to Korda.
Unfortunately, many believed the ‘madness’ was in actually building the studios so large in the first place and taking on the financial burden of 2,000 employees. The design of the studios was also criticised, with its ribbon layout requiring lengthy walks between departments that were next-door neighbours in other facilities. Korda was hard pressed to utilise the studios fully even with tenant producers supplementing his own productions.
It was a non-Korda film which was first on the floor at Denham – Max Schach’s Southern Roses (1936) – although Korda’s The Ghost Goes West (d. René Clair, 1935), Things to Come (d. William Cameron Menzies, 1936) and The Man Who Could Work Miracles (d. Lothar Mendes, 1936) had all used the back-lot for exteriors while the studios were being finished. Knight Without Armour (d. Jacques Feyder, 1937) was the kind of extravagant ‘Hollywood’ style picture Korda wanted to make at Denham and Marlene Dietrich’s temporary residence at the studios kept Denham in the spotlight.
In reality, however, there were too few films being made there, and with competition from Pinewood, opened in September 1936, and the fallout from the infamous film companies’ ‘crash’ of 1937, Prudential were considering winding up the operation as early as April of that year. Within months, Prudential effectively operated Denham as Korda relinquished control and saw his beloved studios merged with Rank’s Pinewood Studios in 1939.
Pictures continued to be made at Denham, including some of Britain’s most notable films, but they were not Korda pictures and under corporate control there was little effort expended to ensure the survival of Denham Studios. For a man seemingly able to re-invent himself and relaunch his career at will the loss of Denham Studios was a crushing blow nonetheless. Disney’s Robin Hood (1952) brought the curtain down on Denham Studios’ role as a major full-time film studio and the site served various commercial uses before being demolished for an industrial park.
Other films of note made at Denham Studios include Rembrandt (d. Alexander Korda, 1936), A Yank at Oxford (1937), South Riding (Victor Saville, 1938), Thief of Bagdad(partial) (US/UK, d. Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, 1940), In Which We Serve (1942), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1943),and Brief Encounter (partial) (d. David Lean, 1945).
Martin Stockham, Encyclopedia of British Film
The main site is now occupied by Broadwater Park
The Studios were built in 1921 by George Clark Productions who moved from Soho to get away from the smog. The first production was a two-reeler comedy, The Beauty and the Beast written, directed and starring Guy Newall. Various productions followed until 1924 when all British studios went quiet. The finger of blame was pointed at the Americans for dumping their films on Britain; a quota was called for and in 1928 the Films Bill limited foreign films to 22.5% of the market. There was a rush of production activity and among new start-ups was The British Lion Film Corporation Ltd., with Edgar Wallace, the prolific thriller writer, as Chairman. As Wallace lived down the road in Bourne End, the company purchased Beaconsfield Film Studios.
Wallace’s story The Ringer was the new company’s first production followed, in 1930, by Beaconsfield Studios’ first talkie, The Squeaker, directed by Wallace himself, with sound by RCA Photophone. Wallace then left for Hollywood to write King Kong for the then unheard-of sum of £800 per week.
Between 1929 and 1939 those who came through the studio gates at Beaconsfield included John Gielgud, Sir Gerald Du Maurier, Emlyn Williams, Paul Robeson, Ben Lyon, Bebe Lyon, Gracie Fields, Margaret Lockwood, Jessie Matthews, Ray Milland, Herbert Wilcox, Val Guest, Hughie Green (as a boy actor), Sid Cole, David Lean (as an editor), Basil Dean, Carol Reed (as a writer), John Galsworthy, A.A.Milne and George Bernard Shaw. By 1939 another distribution crisis had hit the Industry and the Ministry of Works requisitioned the studios for Rotax to make aircraft engine magnetos for the war effort.
In 1946, Alexander Korda bought British Lion. He kept the company but sold the freehold of the Studios to King’s College Cambridge. The Crown Film Unit, with many of the staff from the GPO Blackheath Unit, moved in and the government spent a lavish £146,000 on refurbishment and equipment. 75 films a year were produced for the Central Office of Information by filmmakers who included John Grierson, Humphrey Jennings and Lotte Reiniger. In 1949, Following yet another exhibition crisis in the UK film industry, the Board of Trade introduced the Eady Levy, a tax on box office takings that was redistributed to British film producers as a mechanism to boost British production.
The Crown Film Unit was wound up in 1951, but meanwhile the National Film Finance Corporation had set up Group 3, under chairman Michael Balcon (of Ealing Comedies fame), with a brief to encourage new British talent. They moved into Beaconsfield in 1953 and out again in 1955 when it was decided that a studio base was unjustifiable.
The producer Peter Rogers took over Beaconsfield Films Ltd in 1956, making The Tommy Steele Story (1957) before moving to Pinewood to launch the Carry On series. Television first ventured into Beaconsfield when Screen Gems Inc rented space in 1957-58 for their Ivanhoe TV series, starring Roger Moore. Next to take a lease on the studios were Independent Artistes who hosted a respectable run of British films including Tiger Bay, Blind Date, Battle Of The Sexes, Never Let Go, The Bulldog Breed, VIP, Crooks Anonymous, The Fast Lady, Father Came Too, This Sporting Life and The Wrong Arm Of The Law.
1963 brought yet another production/distribution/exhibition crisis (all those popular films from the USA!) and in 1964 Independent Artistes departed. The final feature film based at the studios was Press For Time shot in 1966, with Norman Wisdom in his last starting role. The studios were then leased to the North Thames Gas Board, who used the premises as a warehouse.
1971 saw a revival in the Studios’ fortunes, when the NFTS purchased the freehold from Kings College with a grant from the Rank Organisation, making it the only UK film school with its own, purpose-built, film and TV studios and facilities. The studios set up by George Clark Productions have grown over the past eighty-five years both in scale and sophistication. Today, Beaconsfield Studios comprises film and television stages, animation and production design studios, edit suites, sound post-production facilities, a music recording studio and a dubbing theatre, all furnished with new generation digital equipment equivalent to that used at the highest level in today’s film and television industry.
The studios in 2011: (left to right) Oswald Morris building, original film sound stage building, TV studio building