Ealing: 1947-1956

"Then everything along the bus route to the city upset me. The houses seemed so small, and the flower-bordered front paths, down which men in three piece suits came hurrying off to work, seemed too bright and neat and prepared. Men were carrying umbrellas, whistling errand boys on bicycles were weaving in and out of traffic, bright orange tile roofs curved gaily over pebble-dash fronts. Bay windows, broad clean pavements, narrow tarmacked roadways, lurching buses, everything was just as it was in the Ealing comedy movies. It was all nice and wholesome and harmless..." [the critic Martin Green, writing in 1961 of his return visit from America to England]

Charles Barr, Ealing Studios, writing of Whiskey Galore: "The drama is Ealing's picture of how things have to be in a society which rightly inhibits individual deams and desires for self-fulfilment. The comedy is a daydream, a fantasy outlet for those urges."

We have already looked at the work of Ealing Studios in the 1930s and in the War period. To recap, "Ealing" was born in 1931, when the theatrical director Basil Dean formed "Associated Talking Pictures", erecting a site at Ealing Green. Between 1931 and 1938 60 feature films were made. By 1938, however, with the general financial crisis in British film production, ATP was in dire straights, and Dean left to return to the theatre. His successor, Michael Balcon, dominated the work of Ealing Studios up until 1957, when it was (ironically, given the threat posed to British Film by television in the 1950s) bought by the BBC.

Balcon, who had been involved in the running of both Gainsborough and Gaumont British in the 1930s, had been courted by MGM to run the British side of their film production, but hated the experience. He welcomed the opportunity to run this exclusively British film production company, and for the twenty years from 1938 Balcon's name dominated (becoming synonymous with) the work of Ealing. After 1945 Michael Balcon negotiated an exceptional financing and distribution deal with Rank, allowing Ealing to become an independent company, yet one tied into, and supported by, one of the dominant forces in the British film industry at that time.

We have already traced the role of Ealing in the war years, producing films such as Went the Day Well, San Demetrio London, and also the socially-aware The Proud Valley. However, it was from 1947, and the first of the Ealing comedies (Hue and Cry), that the company came into its own. Between 1947 and 1955 Ealing produced a number of highly successful, critically acclaimed and fondly remembered group of comedy films, films which have, in various ways, become synonymous with "Britishness" and the British way of life. In these 8 years Balcon, who had sought to meet the need for "a projection of the true Briton to the rest of the world" (Balcon, 1945), gathered together a remarkably talented community of writers and directors and, in terms of the development of British post-War cinema as a whole, produced a recognisable and distinctive body of films - Ealing - to be assessed alongside later contributions from the Hammer Studio or, even more recently, the work of the Merchant-Ivory team.

It is possible to talk of "Ealing" values, an "Ealing ideology" even. But it is also important to preface generalisations with a recognition that Ealing comedies did evolve (responding to changes in the national outlook from the "austerity" of 1947 to the "affluence" of the mid-1950s), and that there are important contrasts in attitude and tone between individual films and the work of individual directors and writers. This is important to say, because it is customary (and easier) to lump the Ealing comedies of this period together and emphasize the common themes and concerns amongst them: the emphasis on the lower middle classes and the upper working classes; praise and a voice for the values of the small community, menaced from outside by the forces of bureaucracy, high finance and the corporations; the little man as against the "system". We will explore both the inconsistencies and the development of Ealing's "vision" within the period, perhaps even question whether there was indeed a "common vision", but in the wider terms Ealing is noticeably and distinctively different from the work of contemporaries like the Boulting Brothers, or successors such as Hammer.

It's also important to note that, whilst comedies predominate, Ealing was also responsible for more serious and more recognisable "realist" films, such as Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and The Blue Lamp (1950). It is worth noting that such films echo the "vision" of the comedies, whether in their articulation of a version of Britishness and British pluck and resilience, or the community patrolled by PC George Dixon in The Blue Lamp.

"By and large we were a group of liberal-minded, like-minded people. I don't know if anyone was terribly politically involved, we were film-makers: it was our life, it was our total life." (Balcon)

"If you think about Ealing at those times, we were a bundle...(I'm not saying this in any critical sense), we were middle-class people brought up with middle-class backgrounds and rather conventional educations. Though we were radical in our points of view, we did not want to tear down institutions: this was before the days of Marxism or Maoism or Levi-Strauss or Marcuse. We were people of the immediate post-War generation, and we voted Labour for the first time after the war; this was our mild revolution. We had a great affection for British institutions: the comedies were done with affection, and I don't think we would have thought of tearing down institutions unless we had a blueprint for what we wanted to put in their place. Of course we wanted to improve them, or to use a cliché of today, to look for a more just society in the terms that we knew. The comedies were a mild protest, but not protests at anything more sinister than the regimentation of the times. I think we were going through a mildly euphoric period then; believing in ourselves and having some sense of, it sounds awful, of national pride." (Balcon)

"I suppose that we resented the fact that everybody had treated what you call the lower middle classes as types; and I think we attempted to treat them, oddly enough, as human beings... I think we probably found them easier to deal with." (Balcon)

"In the immediate post-war years there was as yet no mood of cynicism; the bloodless revolution of 1945 had taken place, but I think our first desire was to get rid of as many wartime restrictions as possible, and there was a mild anarchy in the air. In a sense our comedies were a reflection of this mood... a safety valve fo our more anti-social impulses." (Balcon)

"The apex of Bergundian emancipation is a song and dance in the local after hours." (Charles Barr, on Passport to Pimlico)

"Ealing's comedy style was new in that it dealt with the utopian desires of the lower middle class rather than its resentments. Certainly resentment played a part in the working of the comedy ('Who hasn't wanted to kick a bureaucrat in the pants?', Balcon) but it was not its main emphasis. Rather this style dealt with the consequences of that resentment when it was played through; these consequences were the release of subterranean values. These values, and their playing out in a specific area in a limited amount of time, constitute the 'fantasy', the affectionate 'whimsicality' often noted in the Ealing comedies. " (John Ellis, 'Made in Ealing', in Popular Fiction, ed. Tony Bennett)

"...real people in impossible situations..." (Balcon)

"Thus the concentration of Ealing's films on the lower middle class is a result of a complex of factors. The first is biographical: the majority of the film-makers were born into middle class families, many strongly imbued with old fashioned liberalism, which expressed the class interest of the emergent lower sections of the bourgeoisie. They were of the generation which passed through the depression and was radicalized by it, producing a desire to show the 'people' in films." (Ellis, op cit)

"Sex was buried with full military honours at Ealing." (Bryan Forbes)

"No real revolution can be advocated, and no serious criticism of national institutions of power (judiciary, army, parliament, etc), except that which is sanctioned by comedy." (John Ellis)

"Every shade of opinion should be represented, and the scope of the films should go far beyond the purview of the Government documentary. Fiction films which portray contemporary life in Britain in different sections of society, films with an outdoor background of the British scene, screen adaptations of our literary classics, films reflecting the postwar aspirations, not of governments and parties, but of individuals - these are the films that America, Russia and the Continent of Europe should be seeing now and at the first opportunity."(Balcon, 1945)

"There we shall go on making dramas with a documentary background and comedies about ordinary people with the stray eccentric amongst them - films about daydreamers, mild anarchists, little men who long to kick the boss in the teeth." (Balcon, 1956)

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