Ealing's new comedies to laugh at everyone: Revived studio will not bow to political correctness in its films, reports David Lister
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Tuesday 01 March 1994
Anthony Shaffer, the playwright who is the new head of development at Ealing, said yesterday that he would not bow to political correctness in the scripts he chooses for the new Ealing comedies. Immigrant communities must accept being the victim or object of a joke as much as anyone else.
'People who come to live in England must not be offended if, from time to time, they become the butt of a comic idea, just as a cockney wouldn't mind.' Referring to an Ealing classic of the post- war years, he said: 'It may well be that The Man In The White Suit becomes The Woman In A White Sari.'
Ealing will be making films again this summer for the first time since 1955, when it was sold to the BBC. In its heyday in the 1940s, under Michael Balcon, it made a series of classic comedies such as The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob.
The production company BBRK, which bought the studios from the BBC for pounds 6m last year, will shortly announce the first of six films it plans to make over the next year. The first is Rainbow, a children's film directed by Bob Hoskins and starring the American actor Donald Sutherland. Others include stories based on the lives of Lord Lucan and Edward Elgar, and a Beryl Bainbridge story, The Bottle Factory Outing. Most will have a budget of under pounds 2m, and much of the money has been raised from private investors under the Business Expansion Scheme.
But while the reopening of the studios is an enormous fillip for the British film industry, most attention will be focused on its new-era comedies. Already, David Bill, the head of BBRK and a former advertising art director, has invited advertising agencies to produce script outlines, as he believes them to be a good source of comic talent.
The Ealing Comedy of the 1940s achieved an immediately recognisable flavour and philosophy, and was described by the critic Ken Tynan as 'the regimental mascot' of British cinema.
Under Balcon and with a group of actors including Alec Guinness, Margaret Rutherford and Stanley Holloway, the Ealing Comedy often dealt with the little man, sometimes slightly eccentric, fighting against bureaucracy.
Balcon described them as 'comedies about ordinary people with the stray eccentric among them; films about daydreamers, mild anarchists, little men who long to kick the boss in the teeth'. Ealing in the 1940s also clearly defined not only a British sense of humour but an idiosyncratic vision of Britain itself.
The comic vision of Britain that the new Ealing conveys will be in the hands of Mr Shaffer, the author of the successful play and film Sleuth, who will have to approve scripts and script ideas. He will also, he said yesterday, want to emulate Balcon and build up a repertory company of actors and actresses.
Those who have expressed their support, and whom he is likely to approach, include Sir Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Maureen Lipman, Tom Conti, Nigel Hawthorne, Ian Richardson, Alan Rickman and Daniel Day- Lewis, Balcon's grandson.
Mr Shaffer said yesterday that the revived Ealing would mount a cultural challenge to Hollywood, eschewing the violence, particularly sexual violence, of the American films, and what he termed 'the regrettably called 'feel-good' films which tend to be mawkish. There is a tenderness in the English attitude which I want to recapture'.
'We have to show a multicultural society working tolerantly, but with that slightly dotty English flavour. But while the films will be multicultural, I refuse to bow to the lunacy of political correctness. Black people themselves often call themselves 'niggers', though it is of course quite different if a white person does so.
'What the immigrant races mainly have to share is this all-embracing national sense of humour which I believe is the true guardian of our civil liberties,' Mr Shaffer said.
He predicted opposition to his plans, saying: 'Of course, some will affirm that under no circumstances should we seek to return to such a 'safe, timid, insular, time-warp mentality', or to jokey, unimportant little British films with no international appeal.' But, he added, Ealing at its best 'resuscitated the archetypal spirit of England and Englishness'.
This nostalgic approach to comedy found an unexpected ally yesterday in John Lloyd, producer of the far more anarchic modern comedies Blackadder and Not The Nine O'Clock News, and of Spitting Image, who said: 'We want non-political and non-satirical comedy now, more Mr Bean and Harry Enfield, the Kenneth Williams tradition rather than Spitting Image.
'The problem with contemporary British movies is that they are periodic and whingey, looking down on the nobodies that are around and saying, 'Look at all those people, aren't they naff? You and I aren't'. We need life- enhancing comedies. We should be doing the When Harry Met Sally type of film and the fantasy film, perhaps set in the future.'
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