Passport to a darker view of Ealing

A new season of the classic comedies reveals that they aren't the comfortable representations of Britishness that they are often taken for, says Geoffrey Macnab

The clues are there on the inscription on the famous plaque erected at Ealing when the studios were sold in 1955. “Here during a quarter of a century many films were made projecting Britain and the British character,” read the words that were attributed to Ealing's boss Sir Michael Balcon.

Ealing is about to be celebrated all over again with a two-month season at BFI Southbank. Accompanying the season will be exhibitions showcasing the artwork, press material, costume design and production design associated with Ealing in its pomp.

“Here we go again”, is the first, hooded-eyed reaction to the news that those Ealing films are to be dusted down for the umpteenth time. We've had Ealing seasons galore in the last half-century. We've been taught ad nauseam to cherish all those folksy comedies of the late 1940s and early 1950s that pitted small communities against big, bad bureaucrats. Ealing movies come so crusted in layers of nostalgia that we struggle to see them clearly. This is why it is instructive to return to that phrase about “projecting Britain and the British character”.

The cosy assumption is that Ealing's films portrayed the British in much the way that George Orwell did in his celebrated wartime essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn”. This is the never-never land where, “the beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant”. It's a country of suet puddings and, at least in Ealing's colour films, of “red pillar boxes”. Consensus and mild eccentricity rule in the “one nation” Britain that Balcon's stable of directors showed on screen. That is what we like to think.

It is fitting, though, that the latest Ealing revival is happening just as all those revelations and allegations about Sir Jimmy Savile's private life spill into the press and a few weeks after the death of the London “torture” gangster Charlie Richardson. Savile and Richardson were quintessentially British characters too. You could imagine Alec Guinness playing either of them without too much of a stretch.

“There was quite a lot of darkness in him, quite a lot of badness in a way. I think he was aware of this and confused by it,” biographer Garry O'Connor said of Guinness, the actor most closely associated with Ealing in its glory days.

The new season at BFI Southbank wants to draw our attention to the miasmatic side of Ealing. The season is divided into two: Dark Ealing and Light Ealing. Tellingly, “Dark” comes first and lasts longer.

If you want to know where the darkness at Ealing came from, you don't need to look further than Sir Michael Balcon himself. Balcon wasn't just the man who gave us The Lavender Hill Mob and Passport to Pimlico. He was also the producer who helped launch Alfred Hitchcock's career. As Hitchcock's biographer Donald Spoto notes, Hitch had been perfectly happy “writing scripts, designing and assisting the man in charge” when Balcon suggested that he might like to direct himself. Hitchcock later claimed the idea of directing had never even occurred to him. Their most famous film together was The Lodger (1927), a serial killer movie set in a fog-bound London.

The rich and strange mix of morbidity, eroticism and deadpan humour that characterised Hitchcock's work is found in many of the Ealing films too. Later British and American horror movies owe an obvious debt to Ealing's chilling 1945 portmanteau pic, Dead of Night, probably most famous for its story in which Michael Redgrave's ventriloquist is driven insane by his dummy

Balcon took over at production boss in Ealing in the late 1930s. His moment of triumph came at the end of the Second World War when he began to steer Ealing Studios toward making comedies with an intensely national focus. Instead of trying to ape Hollywood or continuing with the goofy Will Hay or George Formby farces that Ealing made in the early 1940s, he self-consciously and earnestly patented a new, collective style of film-making.

In theory, the Ealing ethos was all about the team, not the individual. “We take a character or a group of characters, and let them run against either an untenable situation or an insoluble problem. The audience hopes they will get out of it, and they usually do: the comedy lies in how they do it,” was how Balcon explained the Ealing comedy template.

Balcon's patrician approach created tensions. He was chauvinistic (“he didn't really approve of women behind the camera,” producer Betty Box later observed) and deeply suspicious of flamboyance or self-indulgence. However, under his regime, Ealing still somehow made Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), a very funny, very macabre celebration of individualism and social climbing. Dennis Price's character, the conceited outsider who murders his way up the family tree, represented everything that Balcon set himself against.

As the BFI Southbank season also makes clear, the Ealing crew was far more disparate than our nostalgic view of a happy, close-knit team suggests. Mavericks like the hard-drinking and subversive Robert Hamer, the brilliant young Scot Alexander Mackendrick, with what he called his “malicious sense of humour”, and the Brazilian avant-gardist Alberto Cavalcanti flourished – at least for a time – under Balcon.

Fans of British cinema will think they already know Ealing all too well. Arguably, this familiarity is the problem. Mention the studios and certain stock images leap to mind: Stanley Holloway grinning as he smuggles those fake Eiffel towers in The Lavender Hill Mob, Googie Withers as an austerity-era, all-too-British sex symbol in It Always Rains on Sunday, Margaret Rutherford as the blue-stocking professor in Passport to Pimlico, Peter Sellers as the spiv in The Ladykillers. Now, though, we are being invited to look again.

We may well discover that the films did indeed project Britain and the British character... but that this character wasn't (and isn't) nearly as wholesome or as pleasant as we like to pretend.

Ealing: Light and Dark, BFI Southbank, London SE1 (020-7928 3232; www.bfi.org.uk) 22 October to 30 December. Media Partner: The Independent

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