Dennis Price, Alec Guinness and Valerie Hobson in Kind Hearts & Coronets

Lights, Camera. Action

2nd December 2011

Ealing Studios is celebrating its 80th birthday this year, and the films from its heyday remain – perhaps unhealthily – the benchmark against which modern British films are judged.

Jack Watkins says Happy Birthday to a classic institution…

As I write this, I’m eyeing my chocolate-coloured, sixteen CD box set, ‘The Definitive Ealing Studios Collection’. It’s a solid object, weighty enough to make a good door stop, although it’s in no danger of being relegated to such humble use in my home. While I study some of the stills and poster images on the box cover – a youthfully bounding Alec Guinness (The Man in the White Suit); Dennis Price glumly looking out from his prison cell behind glamorously-costumed Joan Greenwood and Valerie Hobson (Kind Hearts and Coronets); the demonically criminal cartoon heads of Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers et al (The Ladykillers) – I realise that, 1940s Hollywood film noir aside, no other genre (if it’s possible to apply the word to the output of a single production studio) has given me as much consistent pleasure in over thirty years of watching films.

It’s eighty years since the formation of the Ealing Studios (hence the string of theatrical re-releases and new editions of classic films on DVD and Blu-ray) although not everyone is celebrating unreservedly. One pundit, while applauding their craftsmanship, writing and performances – and their ‘understated, very British humour’ – has also attacked the way that, for several decades now, any new British comedy in a slightly offbeat, whimsical style is invariably described as being in the ‘manner of the Ealing comedies’.

He’s quite right, too. This lazy journalistic trait should be consigned to the bin, with modern directors and producers allowed their head, and Ealing films left to be appreciated for what they were – the products of their time and impossible to repeat today. (Not that that’s stopped remakes and adaptations, the latest being a stage version of The Ladykillers by Father Ted and The IT Crowd writer Graham Linehan, with Peter Capaldi in the Alec Guinness role as the sinister criminal gang leader Professor Marcus).

They have actually been making films at Ealing since the beginning of the last century, but although the current studio was built in 1931, it was not until 1937, when the paternal Michael Balcon was appointed as head of production, that ‘Ealing Studios’ as a brand name began to develop its currency. The films of this early period were very different from those to come, the comedies being more abrasive, and built around ex- music hall stars like Will Hay, Gracie Fields and George Formby – whereas the definitive Ealing comedies are defined by their ensemble playing, their fondness for eccentricity, and photography that displays a sense of location.

Ealing’s ‘Golden Age’ lasted from around 1942 to 1958. Its flavour was middle class and left of centre, literate, tolerant, both communitarian and individualistic, reflecting the dominant political climate of the age. It’s a popular misconception that the studio’s primary focus was on comedies, whereas they amounted to less than a third of the output. Some of the best Ealing films are actually dramas – the dated, but still fascinating, supernatural thriller Dead of Night (1945), for example; the gloomy forerunner of kitchen sink drama It Always Rains on Sunday (1947); the classic crime thriller The Blue Lamp (1950), which introduced us to Jack Warner as Dixon of Dock Green, and gave Dirk Bogarde his first notable role.

The first ‘true’ Ealing comedy was Hue and Cry (1947), a boisterous boys’ adventure story brilliantly shot in the bombed out ruins of South London, its location shooting another Ealing trademark. Watching these films repeatedly, it’s interesting to track how one’s personal response to them changes over time. When I first starting watching re-runs, I thought The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) by far the best, relishing the meticulousness of its early scenes where mild bank clerk Alec Guinness plans his outrageous heist, and thrilling to the Hitchcockian chase down the steps of the Eiffel Tower. It was easy, too, to identify with Guinness’s earnest scientist in The Man in the White Suit (1951). By contrast, I thought The Ladykillers (1955) dealt in stereotypes, while Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) seemed like a drab period piece, weighed down by too much talk. I never liked – and still can’t get worked up about – the favourite of many people, Whisky Galore! (1949), continuing to prefer Basil Radford’s decent, if slightly pompous, Whitehall official to the ‘wily’ islanders who so cruelly, and with such unattractive relish, humiliate him.

Now, though, I find my opinions have gone into reverse about these other comedy classics. The Lavender Hill Mob has some fine sets and the characters are beautifully drawn, but it runs out of gas halfway though. The Man in the White Suit is a good story, undermined by slapstick. Both contain great moments, but it’s the other two that I find to be the mood masterpieces. The Ladykillers is perhaps the best example of how in Ealing films, the setting (in this case a creaky old house in the shadows of St Pancras Station) is often a character in itself. The story isn’t particularly strong, but the tone skilfully shifts from being a comedy of manners – hoodlums putting on a genteel front as a Mozart-playing string quartet in front of Professor Marcus’s elderly landlady – to a comedy of frustration, as the impervious old girl, lost in a world of Edwardian chintz, lace curtains, bad plumbing and parrots, manages to thwart the criminal plotting. Kind Hearts and Coronets is arguably one of the top five British films ever made. Witty and cruel by turns, Dennis Price’s comic timing is spot on as murderous Louis Mazzini murdering his way to the D’Ascoyne inheritance, with each family member he bumps off played by Alec Guinness.

When Ealing Studios were sold in 1955, Balcon erected a plaque which said: ‘Here, during a quarter of a century, many films were made projecting Britain and the British character’. We shouldn’t keep comparing new films with them, but we can still look back with relish, and no little nostalgia, on one of the greatest film-making eras in these islands’ history.

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