When Ealing Studios was sold to BBC in 1955, a plaque was put up by Michael Balcon, with the inscription: Here during a quarter of a century many films were made projecting Britain and the British character. In the old days before local cinemas were converted into bingo halls, back when they still played films, many people enjoyed a type of film comedy and drama that has since collectively become known as 'Ealing'. Ealing Studios has been at the centre of the British film industry for more than a century. Steeped in history, they are the oldest working film studios in the world and have survived the onset of the 'talkies', two World Wars and the ever-changing technological advances in the film and television industry. Ealing Studios has been the home of many legendary films of all genres and has produced some of Britain’s greatest performers.
Physically the studios were (and still are) at Ealing Green in West London. In 1902, British cinema pioneer Will Barker bought 4 acres of land containing the West Lodge and the White House and began filming outdoors on the site with a hand-held camera. In 1907 Barker invested in the first stage, which was a glass structure resembling a greenhouse. An additional 2 glass stages were built and Barker produced a number of films that established Britain’s voice in filmmaking. Some of Barker’s films included Sixty Years a Queen (1913), a groundbreaking film on Queen Victoria, and also in 1915, Jane Shore, Britain’s first epic and the largest film to that date employing over 1,000 extras. The studios persevered through the Depression, continuing to produce films and experiment with new groundbreaking filmmaking technologies such as the implementation of sound for the new talking pictures.
In 1929, shortly after sound came to the cinema, the theatre director Basil Dean formed a company to produce films – he called it Associated Talking Pictures (ATP). The company’s start was promising, and Dean raised the money to build a studio for it. The site chosen was at Ealing Green, in the London borough of Ealing. Dean began expanding the studios using models based on the US studios he had previously visited. By 1935 the major sound stages were complete and Ealing Studios as we know it was born. Some 60 feature films were made at Ealing, half of them were made by Dean’s company, ATP, the rest by other companies who simply rented studio space (in 1933 Gloria Swanson made Perfect Understanding there with Laurence Olivier). While in charge of production at Ealing Dean built up the careers of Gracie Fields and George Formby, both champions of working class comedy. Many up and coming stars worked at the studios during the 30s including Margaret Lockwood, and Madeleine Carroll, also directors such as Carol Reed began learning their craft there.
In 1938 Dean left ATP after disagreements with his fellow directors and returned to theatre production. Michael Balcon, former head of production at Gainsborough and Gaumont British was recommended as a replacement; he had recently been working for the British arm of MGM and although the three films he produced were successes he had hated every minute so he left MGM and started an independent production. With no studio of his own he rented the ATP studios at Ealing. One of the directors at Ealing, Reginald Baker asked him to take charge of production and his film The Gaunt Stranger (1938) became the first Ealing Studios production. The golden era of Ealing Studios truly began. Balcon discontinued the ATP name and began to issue films under the Ealing Studios name. What might appear to be no more than a boardroom technicality has a wider significance: films were now made not only at Ealing but by Ealing, so that it makes sense to use the word as an adjective: Ealing films!
On his arrival at Ealing, Michael Balcon had to go along with the established production programme, but he wanted a cinema more in touch with the issues of contemporary British life, in both appearance and story. The start of the Second World War a year later hastened his conversion of the majority of the studios’ output to films based on original screenplays. One by one the old guard of directors from the Dean era faded away, and new opportunities arose to be fulfilled by the young men of talent on whom Balcon had cast an eye. "He recruited two key figures from the documentary sector: Harry Watt, who had written and directed Target for Tonight (1941) for the Crown Film Unit; and Brazilian-born Alberto Cavalcanti, who had been a member of the Parisian avant-garde in the 1920s and had come to England in 1934 to work for John Grierson at the GPO."  It was Cavalcanti who pioneered the use of documentary techniques in the making of fiction features, stamping them with the mark of authenticity.
"Balcon also recruited Charles Frend, Charles Crichton, and Robert Hamer, and these three, together with Watt and Basil Dearden, remained at the studio well into the 1950s, directing the majority of its output. This continuity of personnel, who had lowish but regular wages, together with continuity in the script-writing department (including above all T. E. B. Clarke and Angus McPhail), and in art direction (Michael Relph was chief art director at the studio from 1942, before becoming Dearden's producer and an occasional director) allowed Ealing to develop a distinct studio style which emphasized, in Balcon's terminology, 'realism' over 'tinsel'."  Balcon ran a tight ship and his style did not suit everyone. He was a great believer in the cross-fertilisation of ideas, and very little of Ealing’s creation took place behind closed doors. Rushes, or ‘dailies’, were not private affairs, but open to anyone in the studios’ employ, and everyone there was encouraged to keep an eye on each other’s work and to discuss it freely. Ealing operated almost on a repertory basis, with a number of reliable performers appearing again and again, no doubt attracted as much by the idea of regular work as of contributing to the product of a much-favoured British studio. But Ealing, good as it was for reputations, was no place in which to get rich.
The types of films made at Ealing during the war are naturally dominated by war films, Balcon felt an obligation to make the film industry work for the national good. So in films such as The Big Blockade, San Demetrio, London and For Those in Peril, the effort and example of the forces and civilians alike are presented to boost morale. At the same time films of a more entertaining nature were produced but which still managed to take swipes at the enemy - The Ghost of St Michael's, Fiddlers Three. Ealing escaped near destruction after an incendiary bomb crashed through the roof of Stage 2 but miraculously did not ignite. The studios' generator was also used as a back up for a local hospital in times of power shortages. Some of Ealing’s wartime films were overt propaganda, their effectiveness heightened by the professional skill of the film-makers; The Next of Kin, an anti-'careless talk' film, expressed its message so graphically that Churchill wanted to ban it as he felt that it would demoralise audiences. By the end of the war Ealing had found and developed a recognisable style which it was then able to apply to an eclectic range of subject matter.
From the beginning of 1945 when the end of the war was in sight the main objective of the British Film Industry was to get back into the global marketplace and from Dead of Night onwards there is a widening of themes portrayed. Paramount in Balcon's mind was the need to portray "a projection of the true Briton to the rest of the world" (Balcon, 1945), not only to foreign markets but also to a war weary public at home who had won the war but were still in the grip of rationing and austerity. The message was simple - the public may not be benefiting materially from victory, but morally and spiritually they could not be beaten. They were allowed and always had been allowed their eccentricities, their rights to free speech etc etc which the Germans had tried to take away, and Balcon's films - especially the comedies emphasized this and implied that this was what made Britain great.
One of the persistent Ealing myths is that only two kinds of film were made there – comedies and war films. But almost every film genre was tackled, with the exception of the musical (Champagne Charlie was the closest approach to that area) and the Western, although many familiar ingredients of the latter could be found in the films Balcon made in Australia.
Another canard is that Ealing never took any chances and always played safe. The record shows that Ealing often exposed itself to the risk of failure, and when it occurred Balcon wasted little time on recriminations. By its nature, the film business is one in which temperament and ego abound, and in which bitter rivalries can damage careers and work. Under his firm grip such things were not allowed to get out of hand. Proof of the success with which Michael Balcon kept things together lay in the consistency and loyalty of the Ealing team. Some who had joined him near the beginning or had even, as in Basil Dearden‘s case, worked at the studios in Dean’s time, were still with Balcon at the end, twenty years later.
It was Balcon’s mission to present the British character, or his idea of it. He regarded the British as individualists who were not averse to joining up with each other to battle against a common cause. He saw a nation tolerant of harmless eccentricities, but determinedly opposed to anti-social behaviour. He venerated initiative and spirit, personal achievement rather than reliance on some higher authority. He was of the 'small is beautiful' persuasion, not caring for large organisations or the bureaucratic powers of civil servants. Ealing’s values were decent, virtuous and simplistic, and finite of ambition. Ealing's plots frequently involved the fight of the little man against the corporate giant or government bureaucracy. The typical Ealing character believes in tolerance and consensus and hates authority to the point of eccentricity. They were played by icons of the time like Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway. All of these, and others too numerous to mention, are fondly remembered as films that reflected the mood of the nation and said something about British national identity which struck a chord with post-war audiences and are cherished by millions to this day.
Balcon ran the studios much as would be expected in the plot of a typical Ealing film, with him as a Jack Hawkins figure galvanising a motley collection of disparate people into an efficient, cohesive force, capable of outsmarting and taking advantage of the faceless corporation (Rank) which would otherwise swallow them up, and of keeping their identity intact. The pity is that there could be no happy ending, only a slow fade-out. "Balcon had been a fierce spokesman during the war for the role of the independent film producer, serving on the government's Palache Committee in 1943 to investigate monopoly in the film industry. However, after the war he had signed a very attractive distribution deal with Rank which provided 50 per cent financing on all Ealing films, ensuring Balcon a degree of freedom from international pressures. This proved short-lived, and although the postwar Ealing comedies tended to be very successful in the United States, as was Frend's war film The Cruel Sea (1953), it was not enough to sustain the studio."  It was not really that the money men eventually won, but that the times changed and the special qualities of Ealing no longer seemed appropriate.
The last film bearing the discreet Ealing logo was released in 1959. But unlike many other old British film studios that are now furniture warehouses, factories, housing estates and shopping centres, the buildings on their compact site between Walpole Park and Ealing Green became the property of the BBC in 1955 for £350,000, the final film made on the Ealing site was The Long Arm, after this Stephen Courthauld announced his retirement from the board, to try and secure financial stability Ealing production was moved to an exclusive wing of the MGM British studios at Borehamwood in Hertfordshire, close to Elstree for the handful of final films were produced. During the BBC’s ownership from 1956 until 1992, they created some of television’s finest productions including Colditz, The Singing Detective and Fortunes of War.
The 1990's were a time of transition for the studios. It was acquired by BBRK in 1992 and by the National Film and Television School in 1994. Throughout this time the studios continued to be a base for film and television production. The studios were bought in 2000 by Barnaby Thompson and Uri Fruchtmann (Fragile Films), property developer Harry Handelsman (Manhattan Loft Corporation) and author/producer John Kao. In June 2001, permission was granted to develop the 3.8 acre site into a next generation studio for television, digital and traditional filmmaking companies. The redevelopment proposal retains and upgrades the original 1930's sound stages complex as the core facility, around which additional new facilities will be built including stunning office space, underground parking, screening rooms and a café, as well as performance and production space.
As well as a thriving studio facility, Ealing Studios is once again becoming an integrated film and television production house as it was during the 1950's. Ealing Studios has now fully revived its history of in-house filmmaking with The Importance of Being Earnest (2002). This was the first production to be made under the Ealing Studios banner since 1959.
"While Ealing's Will Hay and George Formby films had been popular in the war years, comedy had then taken a back seat until Hue and Cry (directed by Charles Crichton) in 1947. The film adopts realist, documentary-inspired camera work to create a familiar background of post-war London life, and then develops a fantastic, contrasting plot in that setting to produce humour. This provided the model for the famous comedies that followed: Passport to Pimlico (1949), Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), and The Ladykillers (1955), the last four starring the inimitable Alec Guinness." 
"In the 1950s in Britain, comedy was one of the key cinematic genres. Ealing Studios excelled in a series of comedies of grace and sophistication that have become almost a genre unto themselves. With Sir Michael Balcon at the helm as producer, Ealing used the considerable talents of such actors as Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Peter Sellers, Dennis Price, and others to create a dazzling array of comic gems."  "While many Hollywood-style comedies depended on slapstick or on sophisticated screwball situations, Ealing's humor was built on injecting a single fantastic premise into an ordinary situation. Passport to Pimlico, for example, takes place in the drab working-class London district of Pimlico, and much of the film was shot on location in realistic style. Yet the plot depends on a zany premise: researchers discover that the suburb is actually not part of England at all but belongs to the French district of Burgundy. As a result, following a maddeningly linear logic, Britishers must have a passport to enter Pimlico, and the residents are no longer subject to London's rationing restrictions. Like other Ealing comedies, Passport to Pimlico presents an imaginary escape from postwar austerity." 
"Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), directed by Robert Hamer, is a cheerful black comedy about serial homicide, as Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), the disgraced heir to a dukedom, methodically murders all the members of his estranged family line, the d’Ascoynes, who lie in his way to the title he 'rightfully' deserves - each played, in a tour-deforce performance, by Alec Guinness. In all, Guinness plays no fewer than eight members of the d’Ascoyne family, one of them a woman, Lady Agatha d’Ascoyne. Scored with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Kind Hearts and Coronets is an elegant, civilized, and hilariously dark film, and Guinness’s multi-role incarnations are astonishingly varied. Hamer’s direction is equally assured, full of technical tricks and surprises." 
"Another typical Ealing comedy is Charles Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). The hero, played by Guinness, works guarding gold shipped to London banks. With a gang of mild-mannered crooks, he plans and executes a massive heist. The Ealing fantasy emerges when the gang disguises the bullion as souvenir Eiffel Towers. The film mixes realism with stylization. The near-documentary opening sequence depicts the hero's daily routine. Scenes shot on location contrast with scenes that parody film noir and even Ealing's own Blue Lamp." 
"Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit (1951) features Guinness again, this time as a man who invents a fabric that cannot be soiled, thereby putting laundries, dry cleaners, and tailors in jeopardy for their jobs; if the fabric is indestructible, who needs new clothing?
Finally, in one of their few color productions, and also the last comedy the studio produced, Ealing introduced a young and rather chubby Peter Sellers to cinemagoers in Mackendrick’s classic black comedy The Ladykillers (1955). Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) runs a decrepit boardinghouse that, unbeknownst to her, is being used by a criminal gang - played by Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Sellers, and the loutish Danny Green - to plot a large-scale robbery. Masquerading as a string quartet, the gang pulls off the robbery after a series of misadventures, but in the end it is the landlady who gets the money. Sadly, Ealing Studios closed shortly after the film’s completion; it was remade under the same title, but with a radically different script, by Ethan and Joel Coen in 2004." 
Today, Ealing Studios is usually associated with comedies starring Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, and other major British actors, but only about one-third of the company's output was in this genre. In fact, "few Ealing films of this early 1950s period could be straightforwardly ascribed to a specific genre. They were not predictably 'crime', 'adventure', or whatever, which made marketing difficult. This slipperiness was a handicap at the box office in a period when the industry was rigorously organized around specific cinematic genres. Rather, Ealing films of this first phase were grouped around a limited number of themes, which obtain in films by a range of directors. The most important of these themes was the social process that ratifies notions of right and wrong." 
"One of the most successful Ealing films is a realistic drama about police life, The Blue Lamp (1950). Scenes in which a veteran cop explains the job to a new recruit give a systematic account of police procedure, in the tradition of the 1930s and wartime British documentaries. As in other Ealing films, many scenes were shot on location in poor or bombed-out areas of London."  "The Blue Lamp makes the contrast between law-makers and law-breakers an extremely stark one; no moral ambiguity here. The same certainty about bodies and social space informs Cage of Gold (1950). Here a woman artist falls for a bounder, bears his child, marries someone else, and murders the bounder. On the face of it, it is a tale which might evoke raw emotions in the audience. Not a bit of it. Extreme care is taken to conceal the bounder’s motivations, in order to avoid any possible identification with a moral degenerate. Cage of Gold and other Ealing films like Pool of London (1951) are constructed so as to allow no space for meditation about the nature of the 'right thing'. The 'right thing' might be uncomfortable to know, but the films offer no quarter to those who fail to internalize it. Ealing films of this period insist that there is also a sexual 'right thing'. In Dance Hall (1950) the heroine Eve (Natasha Parry) is married to Phil (Donald Houston), whose failings - clumsiness, jealousy, greed, childishness - drive her to commit minor peccadilloes and contemplate major ones. But the film does not permit the possibility that she might be justified; she has to bite the bullet of the marital 'right thing'." 
"The second most important theme of this early period was a celebration of the naivety of the child’s perspective on the world. In a range of films, childish subjectivity was celebrated, and narratives were set up in which their vulnerability was protected. Both Mandy (1952) and The Magnet (1950) offer more sustained meditations on the role of the child. In both films, debates about the child’s role within the social order are intimately connected to debates about the sexual order. The most significant achievement of Mandy is the stately pace of the emotional discoveries - that the little girl is deaf, that the husband is inferior and that the world is cruel to the disadvantaged. The Magnet, too, deals with the issue of gender, but in a more playful and implicit way. The Magnet is a remarkable parable about the symbolic nature of power. The debate is given a sexual spin by the fact that the child’s father is a Freudian psychotherapist full of ideas about symbolic displacement, infant repression, and the Oedipus complex. Though Mandy is serious and The Magnet is playful, they both insist on the centrality of gender to debates about childhood, and they both insist that society should nurture rather than repress its vulnerable members." 
"The third theme in Ealing films of the early 1950s is the reining in of mavericks into the social fold. In films of this type, the creative or dangerous outsiders are ritually dispatched or neutralized. The Gentle Gunman (1952) picks its way through the minefield of IRA politics, bringing the hero (John Mills) back from the brink of social exclusion. The Man in the White Suit (1951) is a 'maverick film par excellence, in which the bubbling creativity of the researcher hero (Alec Guinness) is equally assailed by both management and workforce. The Man in the White Suit can be interpreted as a conservative fantasy about creativity and social control, and the way in which inventiveness can threaten the powers of both capital and labour." 
Born in Birmingham, Balcon was the youngest son and fourth of five children of Louis Balcon (c.1858–1946) and his wife, Laura Greenberg (c.1863–1934), Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who had met in England. Growing up in a respectable but impoverished setting, in 1907 Balcon won a scholarship to Birmingham's George Dixon Grammar School, but had to leave in 1913 owing to his family's financial needs. He worked as a jeweller's apprentice, was turned down for service in World War I because of defective eyesight, and joined the Dunlop Rubber Company's huge plant at Aston Cross in 1915, rising to become personal assistant to the managing director.
Balcon entered the industry as a regional distributor in 1919, and in 1921 co-founded Victory Motion Pictures with Victor Saville. In 1924, he and Graham Cutts founded Gainsborough Pictures, which he presided over for twelve years, as director of production for Gaumont-British from 1931. Between 1931 and 1936, Balcon produced a number of classics, including a string of Hitchcock successes (like The 39 Steps) and Man of Aran - known as 'Balcon's folly' for going well overbudget - as well as Jessie Matthews' highly successful musicals. He also helped individuals escape Nazi Germany, including the actor Conrad Veidt, who had starred in his 1934 film Jew Süss.
By 1936, Gaumont was looking for an entry into the American market so Balcon spent several months in the country forming links with the big Hollywood studios. On his return, he found Gaumont in financial ruin and joined MGM-British Studios that November. The year and a half he spent there was a trying period for Balcon, who clashed frequently with studio head Louis B. Mayer. Although the three films made in this new MGM outpost – A Yank at Oxford, The Citadel and Goodbye Mr Chips – had a considerable success, Balcon hated the experience and left as soon as he could, setting up a programme of independent productions, of which the first was to be The Gaunt Stranger. No longer having a base of his own, he needed somewhere to shoot it. Ealing provided this, and in 1938 Michael Balcon was invited to became head of production and the golden era of Ealing Studios truly began. During his time at the studios over 96 films were made.
After Ealing, Michael Balcon produced some films independently (Sammy Going South, 1963), and helped form Bryanston Films, a group of independent film makers, including several ex-Ealing colleagues such as Basil Dearden and Michael Relph. After a frustrating period as Chairman of British Lion (1964-68), in which he found it impossible to fulfill his commitment to support a continuity of indigenous production, he became Chairman of the British Institute's Experimental Film Fund before retiring in 1972. The Ealing period was the most fruitful period of his long career, marked by his capacity to assemble a creative team of writers, directors, actors and others, perhaps unparalleled in British film history. In his 1969 autobiography, Michael Balcon Presents... A Lifetime of Films, he wrote that his years at Ealing Studios were "the most rewarding years in my personal career, and perhaps one of the most fruitful periods in the history of British film production."