With Victorian semis neatly lined along leafy roads, an impressively over-the-top town hall and acres of verdant parks, Ealing in West London sounds like a film location, which is close to the truth.
Ealing is the third largest borough in London by population with around 340,000 residents, but with 330 hectares designated as part of the Metropolitan Green Belt in the borough there is an abundance of green space. The borough has a long history – the Church of St. Mary’s in Ealing dates from the early 12th Century, and the Victorian architecture characterises much of the area. However, it’s the film industry’s links with Ealing dating back to 1902 which define the borough.
The early days
In 1902 the film industry was in its infancy with flickering images of King Edward VII’s coronation and the quirky ‘Trip To The Moon’ epitomising the cutting edge of the technology then available to filmmakers. It was in this era of experimentation and discovery that British filmmaker and entrepreneur Will Barker first occupied the site in Ealing which would go on to produce some of the best known films in British cinematic history.
Barker bought a house called The Lodge (today referred to as the iconic White House lodge), two years later in 1904 adding West Lodge. The site amounted to 3.8 acres, which allowed Barker to build three film stages, from which dozens of films were released under the Bulldog Films brand.
In 1929, theatre producer Basil Dean, who had set up the now legendary Associated Talking Pictures Ltd, bought the studios, and in 1931 built Ealing Studios at the site. During his tenure at Ealing Studios until his exit in 1938 around 60 films were made ranging from ‘The Sign of Four’ (1932) based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure, to George Formby vehicle ‘No Limits’ (1935).
The British film industry’s heyday
The British film industry hit its stride at Ealing Studios in 1938 when film producer Michael Balcon took the reins following an unhappy stint at MGM. The Balcon era at Ealing Studios produced many of the most iconic films to emerge from Britain. During the Second World War, the studios produced some of the most hard-hitting docu-dramas audiences at the time had ever seen – indeed they still have the power to shock today, as can be seen in wartime propaganda films such as ‘The Day Went Well’ (1942) and ‘The Next of Kin’ (1942).
However, it is the so-called ‘Ealing Comedies’ made between 1948 and 1955 which brought general acclaim to the studio. ‘Passport to Pimlico’ (1949), ‘Whisky Galore!’ (1949), ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ (1949), ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ (1951), ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (1951), ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ (1953), and ‘The Ladykillers’ (1955) are all supreme film comedies, and which still delight today.
Ealing Studios under Michael Balcon’s leadership also produced some of the best dramatic films of the 40s and 50s, which again stand up to scrutiny today as superb pieces of filmmaking. ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ (1947) based on the Charles Dickens novel, ‘It Always Rains on Sunday’ (1947), ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ (1948), and ‘The Cruel Sea’ (1953), all stand the test of time.
In 1955, the BBC bought Ealing Studios and filmed dramas and documentaries at the site for the next 40 years. BBC series such as zany era-defining comedy ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ (1969-1974), wartime escape drama ‘Colditz’ (1972-1974), prison comedy ‘Porridge’ (1974-1977), and Dennis Potter penned drama ‘The Singing Detective’ (1986), were all filmed at Ealing.
In 1995, the 3.8 acre site and studios were bought by the National Film and Television School (NFTS) for £2.6 million. The NFTS hired the facility to independent film companies during its five years of ownership, but decided to sell Ealing Studios to a consortium including Manhattan Loft Corporation, Fragile Films and Idea Factory in 2000, who redeveloped the existing Grade II sound stages and facilities bringing them up to date. The White House lodge was Grade II listed by English Heritage in 2001.
Under its new owners Ealing Studios has again seen the production of box office hits such as ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (2002), ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (2005), ‘St. Trinian’s’ (2007) and St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold’ (2009), ‘Dorian Gray’ (2009), ‘Burke & Hare’ (2010), and ‘The D Train’ (2015).
With an eye firmly trained on filmmakers of the future, in 2007 the Met Film School moved to the site to offer a two-year BA in Filmmaking, going on to offer an MA in 2010.
Ealing Studios, which carries the enviable accolade as the oldest continuously working film studio in the world, is inextricably linked to the borough in which it sits so proudly. You may never have visited Ealing, but the chances are its leafy streets will seem familiar as it often forms the backdrop for TV dramas.
The added bonus of living in Ealing is that you are likely to bump into the odd actor or happen on a camera crew as you walk the borough’s streets.
Is Ealing London’s equivalent of Hollywood? No, it’s far more important than that.