In search of... Ealing comedies

From King's Cross to the Outer Hebrides, visiting the locations used for some of English cinema's most memorable scenes
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The Independent Travel

Hollywood may be threatening to remake the classic Ealing comedies, but there is one element it will not be able to duplicate: the locations. Much of the magic, of course, was created on Ealing sound stages, but the success of the films is partly down to their memorable post-war exterior scenes, mostly shot within a stone's throw of Ealing, but some as far away as the Outer Hebrides. Ealing's most outstanding year was 1949, when three classic comedies were released: Passport to Pimlico, Kind Hearts and Coronets and Whisky Galore! (a title rejected by American censors and released, even more contentiously to British ears perhaps, as Tight Little Island.)

So, first stop Pimlico?

No. In the case of Passport to Pimlico, you would think the choice of film location might be obvious. But for some reason, Henry Cornelius, the director, chose to set the action of this neat little satire on a bombed area of wasteland in Hercules Road, Lambeth. It was there that the studio constructed a convincing group of buildings to represent the area of London that is discovered, during the film, to belong to Burgundy – thereby requiring a British passport to enter or leave the beleaguered settlement.

And Kind Hearts in ... Kent?

Yes! The lack of castles in London (excepting the rather too recognisable Tower of London) meant the Ealing cast and crew had to venture out of the capital for Kind Hearts and Coronets. One of the locations was 9th-century Leeds Castle near Maidstone, Kent. This beautiful fortress, built on two islands in the middle of a lake, became Chalfont Castle, the stately pile to which embittered poor relation Dennis Price aspires – even if he has to murder the eight members of the D'Ascoyne family (all played by Alec Guinness) who stand in the way of the succession.

And Whisky Galore!? Dare I assume we go to Scotland?

Och aye. Adapted from the comic novels of Compton Mackenzie, the film tells how the ship Cabinet Minister (captained in the film by Mackenzie himself) runs aground on a remote Scottish island with 50,000 cases of whisky. The islanders attempt to salvage the cargo despite the investigations of the authorities.

In the summer of 1948, an 80-strong cast and crew headed for Barra, a 10-mile-long island in the Outer Hebrides. This was to be the first Ealing comedy shot entirely on location and most of the action was set in the picturesque village of Castlebay on the lower slopes of Heaval Mountain. Using the (now demolished) village hall as a makeshift studio, the film makers travelled all over the tiny island to shoot scenes, despite atrocious weather. Main Street's post office and bank are just as they were in the film. Beach scenes were filmed at Allasdale, Eoligarry and neighbouring Vatersay Island.

How about all stations to Titfield?

A rare colour outing came in the form of The Titfield Thunderbolt in 1953, directed by the Ealing veteran Charles Crichton. The film tells the story of a group of villagers, led by Stanley Holloway, who take over their local railway, in the face of stern opposition from the rival bus company. A treat for railway enthusiasts, much of the location filming was on the now disused Limpley Stoke to Hallatrow line, near Bath. Titfield station was the one at Monkton Combe, now sadly demolished. But the fictional one at Mallingford still exists – Crichton used nearby Bristol Temple Meads.

One of the most memorable scenes featured the villagers stealing the 19th-century Thunderbolt from a local museum. Dozens of extras lugged a replica of the Liverpool and Manchester 0-4-0 Lion down the steps of the Imperial Institute in Exhibition Road, London, now the site of Imperial College.

And now back to Ealing?

The last of the great Ealing comedies, The Ladykillers (1955), tells the story of elderly landlady Mrs Wilberforce – played to perfection by Katie Johnson – who takes in a sinister lodger (Alec Guinness) and his four friends. Unknown to her, Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, Cecil Parker and Danny Green have pulled off a daring bullion robbery. Mrs Wilberforce's home was built from scratch at the end of Frederica Street, off Caledonian Road. Unfortunately, this whole area opposite Pentonville Prison was bulldozed years ago to make way for a housing estate.

We have better luck with Cheney Road, the scene of the robbery. This narrow cobbled street between King's Cross and St Pancras is one of the busiest film locations in London. Ian McKellen rode a bicycle down it in Richard III (1995), Michael Caine addressed the audience there in Alfie (1966) and Richard Attenborough used it in Chaplin (1992). When I visited it recently, it was host to a black comedy called Tabloid TV, produced by a company based at ... Ealing Studios.

What about the studios today?

Ealing Studios are not open to the public, but they are back in business, thanks to a consortium of new owners (Barnaby Thompson and Uri Fruchtman of Fragile Films, Harry Handelsman of Manhattan Loft Corporation and John Kao of Ideafactory). The first Ealing comedy for 42 years, The Importance of Being Earnest, is due for release next year. It stars Judi Dench (as Lady Bracknell), Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Anna Massey and Reese Witherspoon.

For more on the history of the studios, try Forever Ealing by George Perry (Pavilion Books, 1994), or Ealing Studios by Charles Barr (University of California Press, 1998, and by arrangement with Cameron Books, Moffat, Dumfriesshire).