FILM / England's Dreaming: In the dark, depressed years that followed the end of the war, a small film studio in suburban London helped a nation escape. Robin Buss meets some of Ealing's few

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN HE sold Ealing Studios in 1955, Sir Michael Balcon put up a plaque: 'Here during a quarter of a century were made many films projecting Britain and the British character.' The character owed a good deal to Balcon's own - a certain idea of Britain that led to the creation of the best examples of this country's most distinctive contribution to world cinema - something that foreign critics, like Georges Sadoul, could dignify with a generic name: l'ecole humoristique anglaise.

Ealing's heyday was that of the industry: weekly audience attendances peaked at over 31 million in 1946, when Ealing started Hue and Cry. It was followed by Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore], Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Magnet, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, The Titfield Thunderbolt and The Ladykillers. These comedies represented perhaps one-fifth of the studio's product during this period and had to overcome resistance from Balcon, whose view of Britain was more accurately reflected in films such as Scott of the Antarctic or The Blue Lamp, than in tales of lovable crooks, rebellious villagers and whisky-sodden Scots.

The essence of the comedies was the fantasy of 'What if?', with a touch of anarchy; both appealed to a country emerging from the restrictions of war. When Balcon had bought the studio in 1938, it depended on two stars: Gracie Fields and George Formby. He continued to make comedies with Formby and with Will Hay, while the studio was subject to the wartime Ministry of Information. He also built up a team whose experience in the documentary film movement of the 1930s was invaluable in its 'realistic' war pictures: Nine Men and San Demetrio London.

Behind the great directors of the comedies - Charles Crichton, Henry Cornelius, Robert Hamer, Alexander Mackendrick - was a superb professional team, from which new talent was drawn, encouraged by Balcon's willingness to back his hunches and given consistency by what Thorold Dickinson called 'the most permanent and formative characteristic of Ealing . . . continuity of employment'. As the Barbican launches a season celebrating the studio's achievement, and in a week when fire threatened to destroy the original negatives of some of the best-loved comedies, we present a taste of the Ealing days, in the words of some of those who took part.



Joined the art department at Ealing in 1942, produced many films, including 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' (1949) and 'The Blue Lamp' (1949).

THOUGH EALING was very much Michael Balcon's baby, he didn't in fact have anything to do with the actual making of the films. The associate producers, as we were originally called, initially got an unfair lack of credit. Later we managed to persuade him to take a 'Michael Balcon Production' credit; the associate producers then got a full producer credit. People were promoted through the ranks, largely from the cutting rooms, because I think this was always a bit of a mystery to Balcon.

Everybody had a different function and Basil Dearden (director of The Blue Lamp among others) and I were the workhorses - other people, like Sandy Mackendrick (director of Whisky Galore] and The Ladykillers) and Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets), were happy if they only made a film every couple of years. But Basil and I loved making films, so whenever there was a shortage of product, we would jump in.

It was necessary to sell the ideas to Balcon and we used to go to extraordinary lengths, lobbying with other producers and directors. Often things that Balcon was initially opposed to got pushed through because of the political efforts of those concerned: he wasn't particularly keen on making Kind Hearts and Coronets until we lobbied all the other people. When the film first came out, though, we thought he was probably right, because it didn't get particularly good notices then or do particularly good business.

We never really knew much about how successful the films were. The only time we had it rubbed in was if we had a flop - and then Balcon really let us know it. The comedies were tremendously popular, because we'd just been through a grey period and Passport to Pimlico was spot-on for the time (1948). They had a streak of anarchy in them, but they were all securely rooted in the British way of life and very well written. The Sandy Mackendrick comedies were in a way very different from the ones written by Tibby (T E B) Clarke, like The Lavender Hill Mob. The funny thing was that Balcon's favourite director was Charles Frend (Scott of the Antarctic and The Magnet), and his films don't seem to have survived at all. A terribly nice man, but an absolute fiend as a director on the floor. Balcon loved him because he was everything that Balcon loved: public school, and so on.

We all cross-fertilised each other's ideas. It was the BBC on a very small scale: we were all friends and a tremendous lot of drinking went on. Balcon used to impress upon us that we were totally unemployable anywhere else and we really believed him, though, of course, it wasn't true. He took all the burden of finance off our shoulders: once he had agreed to do something, he fought all the battles while we got on with making the films.



Director of 'Hue and Cry' (1946), 'The Lavender Hill Mob' (1951), 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' (1952).

WE WERE really a very happy crowd. The war had just ended - which was a good thing. I had worked as an editor for Cav (Alberto Cavalcanti, director of Went the Day Well? among others) - a reserved occupation, because we were really doing propaganda pictures.

Balcon was puritanical in the sense that he didn't know where babies come from and the mention of the word 'lavatory' sent him screaming. But he gave you a free hand. At that time, you could get pounds 100,000 back from the home market alone, so we weren't trying to make big, mid-Atlantic pictures. Cavalcanti always insisted on honesty. The comedies were serious inside their own terms. On Hue and Cry, for example, we were lucky. We had to postpone the picture, which gave us three or four months to look for the right kids, and we didn't go to the drama schools; we combed the East End youth clubs and got kids who were natural and had character. You didn't need to direct them.



Cinematographer on 'Dead of Night' (1945), 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' (1949), 'The Lavender Hill Mob' (1951), 'The Man in the White Suit' (1951) and 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' (1952) among others.

IT WAS rather like a school in a way. We all knew each other very well - though there was a certain rivalry between the directors and between cameramen - and a lot of our discussions took place at the end of the day's shooting, in the Red Lion. We would stay until closing time every night.

As you know, the comedies were only a part of the output, but it is the comedies that one remembers. Most of the serious films had this slightly artificial quality: they very much reflected the national characteristics - this strange quality that we have over here, so that every man always behaves as if his flies are undone.

Our first colour film was Saraband for Dead Lovers (in 1948). The estranged wife (Nathalie Kalmus) of the man who invented the Technicolor process came over to suggest this kind of flat light regime and the cameramen, Jack Cardiff and myself, would desperately try to avoid her. On Saraband, with the temerity of the young and ignorant, I decided to do it in full contrast instead.



Worked on productions including 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' (1949) and 'The Ladykillers' (1955).

ALL THE directors had their foibles: some were very conscious of clothes, some didn't care a tuppenny toss about them. When a film was finalised, the script was circulated to all the departments, including mine, and I did a breakdown of what costumes were wanted. In a lot of Ealing films, it was simply a question of going out and finding the clothes. There was a strict hand kept on the budget: we had meetings before each film and you had to produce your budget showing exactly how much the clothes would cost, down to a tie or two ties. If you did go overboard, there was always a post-mortem and you had to justify it.

Colour created terrific problems from my point of view. You had Nathalie Kalmus who used to come down to the studio to oversee everything. All the whites had to be a special tone of grey and you never knew how the colour of a certain fabric would come out. When I first started there, in black-and-white films, we never photographed white: it was always pale blue or pale yellow. When colour came in, we had to start afresh, because all the shirts we had were blue or yellow.

When the studio was sold, we were in a blissful state of ignorance; it was the one time when there weren't any rumours. There was no big party or celebration. You just walked out.



Joined Ealing in 1933 and became head of the studio's sound department after the war.

BEFORE THE war, I was what you call a floor recordist, recording the sound while the film was being shot. Although I hadn't very much experience, Balcon accepted me and must have thought I could do the job. The first film I worked on after the war was Hue and Cry; after that I became head of the sound department, starting on The Captive Heart (1946) and Kind Hearts and Coronets. From that time on, I only had contact with the films at the final mixing stage.

In the final mixing job, you can contribute a certain amount. The soundtrack of Kind Hearts and Coronets was fairly undistinguished. It was mainly a dialogue film, unlike The Man in the White Suit. For those extraordinary noises in the laboratory, we recorded things like the dripping of a tap and altered their speed to make the sound different; then the editing department made up a whole series of loops and we had to orchestrate it. Sandy Mackendrick said that I mixed it so that it became almost obscene in the end.



Joined Ealing as a junior assistant in 1932, editor on films including 'Went the Day Well?' (1942), associate producer on others, including 'Scott of the Antarctic' (1948).

AN EDITOR looks at the material in terms of what has actually been shot, without any preconceived ideas; directors can get so closely involved that they see what is meant to be there, sometimes, and not what is actually there. At the end of The Man in the White Suit, Balcon looked at me and said, 'What shall we do now?' I said, 'I think the best thing is to tell Sandy (Mackendrick) to go away for two weeks' holiday'; so Balcon called Sandy into his office. But sometimes the best way of getting to know someone is to have a tremendous row with them. I did with Charles Crichton, on a film called Against the Wind (1947), which we were shooting on location in the Ardennes. I can't remember what it was about. After dinner, I was in Charles's room and the discussion got a bit heated. I went out and slammed the door behind me, at which point Charles's wash-basin fell off the wall. We were very good friends from then on.

What made Ealing was the war years; the comedies were, partly, a reaction to that - they were comedies of situation, and also had a debunking effect. All studios tend to be an enclosed world while a film is being made, but as far as Ealing was concerned, we lived in an enclosed world for a decade. That small studio was where we lived. That was its strength and weakness, I suppose.



Credits include 'Went the Day Well?' (1942), 'Halfway House' (1944) and 'Fiddlers Three' (1944).

IT WAS an incredible period, lots of people working through difficult times. I loved it. We were known as 'Mr Balcon's Academy for Young Gentlemen' - I was the only girl in the school.

He was very strict, very moral, very fatherly. I was seen once with John Clements' arm round my waist and he said: 'Does Diana's husband know?' They had to explain that John was a friend of the family.

We used to discuss all the films, we would have round-table meetings and shout each other down, and in the evenings we carried on in the Red Lion. Charlie Frend said that if we were going to live together for all that time, we'd get bored with one another, so he invented an absolutely terrific and highbrow game that we played: I can't describe it to you, it was far too complicated.

Of course, I came from the theatre and I didn't have any idea what to expect of a film studio. I remember very much about it as visual: this funny little place on Ealing Green with a lawn and beehives on it.



Stills photographer at Ealing from 1942 to 1955.

THE STILLS tended to be very posed, although this was a period when Picture Post and papers like it were doing very vital action photography. It was a rigid thing: they set up the scene and then the actor came into the studio - it was a bit like going to the dentist. The exterior sets were built in the studio, but Ealing did pioneer location photography. Once, we were shooting with Douggie Slocombe and it poured with rain and somebody said: 'What a pity, they haven't finished the pub scene back in the studio, otherwise we could whip back there and shoot it.' We were in a pub at the time, so Douggie said, 'Well, let's shoot it here.' So we shot a pub scene in a real pub]

The union was fairly strong. When we were shooting Whisky Galore], one morning they forgot to bring out the milk and someone said: 'A cup of tea without milk is not tea within my understanding of my rights as a union member.' He was practically going to lay down his tools. But there was an islander standing by who said: 'Is it milk you're wanting?' And he went to the next field and milked a cow - so then they were arguing about whether this was acceptable as milk.

It was very male-orientated; and another thing I criticise Ealing for is the class stereotypes. If there was a taxi-driver, it was always the same old actor - you know: 'There you are, guv'nor; thanks, guv'nor.' One of the first photographs I took was of this chap (Gordon Harker) who always played the taxi driver, and I wanted the expression, so I said: 'Imagine your fare hasn't given you a tip.' He would be cast even in the 1950s when, if you took a taxi, it would probably be an ex-serviceman, a young chap driving. The market changed and I don't think Balcon did.



Appeared in 'The Love Lottery' (1954) and 'The Ladykillers' (1955) among others.

I DIDN'T really know Michael Balcon. I do remember that once they wanted us to work on a Sunday, and we all said no; the whole cast said no. A couple of days later, we all got letters from Balcon threatening that we would be sued.

I did The Ladykillers because I was in my second year as the King in The King and I, and I was going potty playing the same part eight times a week. I did The Ladykillers during the day, then rushed back to Drury Lane, sleeping on the floor of the car, and played The King and I; and it worked, because they were very different.

Peter Sellers and I became friends and he came to me after the film and asked if I could help him get another part in the movies. I said: 'You won't need my help]' The director (Alexander Mackendrick) was difficult: he never lost his temper with the actors, but he was always rowing with the front office. He used to treat the old lady in the film, Katie Johnson, as hard as all the other actors. Recently, I was in Hollywood and I was offered a remake of The Ladykillers, with American cops and machine-guns - dreadful]

The 'Forever Ealing' season runs at the Barbican, EC2 (071-638 8891), throughout August, and includes screenings of all the classic Ealing films.

(Photographs omitted)