Ealing Film Studios

Perhaps Ealing’s most important claim to fame outside the borough has been the film studios that have been located on Ealing Green for over a century. There have been many film studios in Britain and especially around London, but it is at Ealing that films have been made for a greater length of time than elsewhere. The Ealing Official Guides in the 1950s stated that the studios had ‘carried the name of Ealing to many lands’, but filming had taken place for decades previously and was to continue for decades later. 

Origins (1904 - 1931)

William George Barker had been filming since 1896 and arrived in Ealing in 1904 in search of premises and an atmosphere that was less polluted and foggy than that of east London. He found them on Ealing Green, with a detached house with a narrow frontage and a very large ornamental garden of five acres. His company was named Barker Motion Photography Ltd. By 1912 he had the largest film studios in England with three glass house stages.

Photo of Ealing Studio's founder William George Barker

 Logo of William Barker Studios

      Above Left: William George Barker
      Above Centre:  Barker Studios bulldog trademark
      Above Right: One of Barker's glass studios

A number of major epics were filmed, including historic tales such as Sixty Years a Queen (about Queen Victoria) and Jane Shore (a Medieval drama, with 5,000 extras). He also filmed Shakespeare plays, such as Henry VIII. To make the latter, he hired the entire cast of a theatrical troupe starring Sir Herbert Tree for one day at £1000. The actors had to bring their own scenery, costumes and props. Barker had to agree that all the footage would be destroyed after six weeks of showing the film in the cinemas. It ran for about an hour and was advertised as being 'Scenes from Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII'. After this had been shown in cinemas for six weeks it was destroyed, as Barker had promised Sir Herbert. There was also an Ealing film of Hamlet, far shorter than Henry VIII and concentrating on the ghost scenes. It cost £180 and took two days; the first time this play had been filmed. Barker made £600 from this film. 

Barker had his own ‘company’ of people who regularly appeared in his films but he also often employed actors from the stage to star in his films. He also made thrillers, adventure stories and crime dramas, such as The Fighting Parson and the Great Bank Robbery. Dickens and current novels were also used as source material for the films. Barker also filmed major sporting events and so then the studios were vacant as all his camera men were otherwise engaged. His premises were often rented out to other companies. 

To publicise his films he often produced booklets and posters showing stills of the film to be shown in the near future. These would be distributed or shown in the cinemas where they were to be shown.

Barker and his manager gave interviews in 1913 and 1914 to the local press about his film Sixty Years a Queen. The budget was £5000, but this had been exceeded. Barker’s purpose was to show scenes from the Queen’s life, which he treated with ‘much delicacy – I had almost said reverence’ and nothing of a melodramatic or private nature was to be included. Important figures from the reign such as Wellington and Disraeli were to be included, as were scenes of the Queen at Balmoral, her coronation and sending the first telegram, as well as scenes of action abroad. The latter included the Crimean war, the fall of Khartoum, the Delhi Durbar and the relief of Ladysmith.

Barker was eager to be as accurate as possible in his depiction of the scenes, especially where costumes were concerned. There were five months of preparation. He studied all the pictures and books that were relevant and found that some of the pictures were inaccurate when checked against other sources, such as the Queen’s published diaries, for example. He sent an artist to Westminster Abbey to check the décor in order to show the coronation scene as accurately as possible. 

Most of the scenes from the film were shot in the studios or in Ealing itself. Troops marching off to the Crimea were filmed on Ealing Common. The garden of the studios stood in for Hyde Park and various other scenes, where structures were made to represent Ladysmith and elsewhere. The stables of the house were used as the royal stables and as an additional wardrobe. Every inch of the property was used in some way. The manager said ‘It was a gigantic affair absolutely the biggest picture that has ever been produced’. Two thirds of those employed in the picture were Ealing people.

The process cannot have run smoothly for in November 1913 there was a fire at the studios (there was to be another in 1936). A large shed with a great deal of glass caught fire in the early morning but luckily this was spotted very soon and the Fire Brigade took 15 minutes in extinguishing the flames. Although £1000 worth of damage had been done, the property as insured. Some of the firemen sustained cuts but no one was killed. 

Shot from film 'Jane Shore', 1915

    Above: Barker’s epic Jane Shore, 1915 

During the First World War Barker made 40 recruiting films for Lord Kitchener and it was in 1916 that the epic Jane Shore, Barker’s biggest ever film, was made. It was the biggest British film to date and was perhaps the equivalent of the American film D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation. Barker retired from the business in 1918 and sold the studios two years later to General Film Renters Company, who soon went out of business. Various small companies used the studios in the next few years.  

The ATP Years (1931-1938) 

Production Ltd.  In 1930 representatives of Associated Radio Pictures, in 1933 Associated Talking pictures, including Basil Dean, the company’s theatrical producer and leading light, visited the studios, where work had ceased since the previous winter. They were impressed but made no definite statement until 1931 when the decided to begin filming there in the now completed four studios adapted for sound. This was the first British purpose built sound studio equipped with the American RCA Photophone system.

This was to meet the British needs of the American RKO Pictures. Under legislation, cinemas had to show a quota of British made films. Hollywood knew that if they were to show as many of their films as possible, they also had to have British films produced (often as B movies, short films often cheaply made) and so invested in the British film industry. Dean was involved with RKO and initially employed Hollywood technicians at Ealing, leading to a newspaper heading ‘An English Hollywood’ being sued about the Ealing studios. When the Prince of Wales made his first visit to a British film studios, he went to Ealing and on being shown some of their work, announced, ‘We ought to be able to make films to send to America, with studios like these’

Photo of Prince of Wales and Basil Dean

                        Above: Prince of Wales and Basil Dean 

The White House, whose exterior was preserved, was entirely reconstructed inside to accommodate accountants, clerks, secretaries and the offices of the managing directors. Dean was eager to get to know all his employees and departmental heads and inculcate a sense of team spirit. Because the studios were relatively small, this was possible. 

Between 1933-1938 there were 60 films made at the Studios, half by ATP and the rest by other studios using the Ealing Studios space. They helped launch the careers of stars such as George Formby and Gracie Fields. Both had previously performed in music halls and in the stage. Dean left in 1938 because of disagreements with his partners and returned to the theatre. 

The Balcon Years (1938-1955) 

Reginald Baker was one of the studio’s directors and he recommended to his colleagues that Michael Balcon, an old friend and already well known in the British film industry for his work at Gainsborough and Gaumont, should be the new head of production. He brought a number of his colleagues with him and the studios was now renamed Ealing Studios. 

Photo showing the three Ealing Studios founders

                         Above: Balcon lights cigarette of Reginald Baker in presence of
                                      Nicholas Monsarrat 

Almost 100 films were made in the Balcon era and this is when the studios were at their most famous. They made a variety of films, but the best known are the war films and the comedies of the post war years. 

Photo showing arial shot of Ealing Studios

   Above: Aerial view of studios in 1953. Note White House in foreground 

The war films were often made with official help and real material was used. But they also ran into trouble with films such as Next of Kin which shows a costly seaborne attack on the occupied European coast line due to careless talk at home. Films with a moral message were common; Went the Day well concerned the need for vigilance against possible enemy invaders and fifth columnists. Nine Men told of the courage of a group of officerless men against a numerically superior enemy in the western desert and San Demitro London showed a ship being run on democratic principles. 

Photo showing royal visit to Ealing Studios in 1946

                         Above: The Royal Visit, 1946 

The Comedies are well known but were in fact a minority of the films made. The first was Hue and Cry in 1946 and the last was The Ladykillers in 1955. Highlights included The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets. It is hard to generalise about these films, which starred many up and coming British actors such as Alec Guinness, Sid James, Peter Sellers and Margaret Rutherford, but they tended to show the English as being fair minded, often eccentric but determined to stand up for their rights if crossed. Where crime is depicted, it is shown in a relatively light hearted manner. Due to frequent showings on TV and the availability of these films on dvds, they are the best known and always quoted films made in the studios. 

 Shot from film 'The Ladykillers'

    Above: Scene from The Ladykillers

There were many other films, some shot in Australia and Africa. Some dealt with contemporary social issues, such as the prejudice faced by a German girl who marries a British officer in World War Two, or working class life in the East End in It Always Rains on a Sunday (earlier films showing this social milieu were There 'Aint no Justice and Proud Valley) Police drama The Blue Lamp launched Jack Warner as PC Dixon (later filmed at the BBC studios in Ealing from the 1950s the 1970s). There were also epics such as Scott of the Antarctica. Most were shot as black and white films, except a handful towards the end of the Balcon era (Titfield Thunderer, Ladykillers, Davy, Scott). 

In making their films, local locations were often used. So in The Dead of Night you can see the west side of Pitzhanger Manor. In The Lavender Hill Mob Gunnersbury Park is featured.

The last film produced at the studios was Who Done it? This was a comedy starring Benny Hill. By this time the studios were running into difficulties. One was competition from the upcoming television industry in the 1950s. They also lacked the financial reserves necessary in case of emergencies, existing from film to film, as many others did. There was a large bank overdraft in 1955 which led to the sale of the studios as that was the company’s main asset. 

The company name changed from Ealing Studios Ltd to Ealing Films Ltd and moved to headquarters on Queen’s Walk in north Ealing. This premises was used for administration, not filming, which took place elsewhere and the last Ealing films were Dunkirk and Siege of Pinchgut in 1959. 

The BBC Years (1955-1992) 

BBC Television was rapidly expanding in the 1950s just as the cinemas and the British film industry were in decline. By 1955 it was facing competition for the first time. Lime Grove Studios could not expand and so new premises were urgently needed. Negotiations with Ealing studios began.

In October 1955 the BBC bought the studios for £350,000 and following an auction of props and other property, moved in to take possession on 28 January 1956. Although it was not a happy time for the employees of the studios, many were taken on the BBC and remained there until retirement. The BBC’s Jack Mewett was in head of the studios. The link with the past was made clear when a plaque was unveiled on the building in 1956 to the fact that the studios had been making films from 1931-1956 and had been ‘projecting Britain and the British character’

By 1957, the studios were fully operational in There was a permanent street of 30 yards with a mixture of Victorian and Regency architecture, including the Queen’s Messenger pub, Jessie’s snack bar and Nathan’s jewellers. This was used in many dramas made by the BBC including the Wharf Street Mob and Clive of India. Documentaries and other factual programmes such as Panorama or David Attenborough’s Zoo quest were partly made here. Some of the first programmes made here by the BBC were Panorama, Sportsview, Watch with Mother and Sports Special. There were no live broadcasts made here, however.  

Shot from film 'Tale of Two Cities'

                   Above: Scene from A Tale of Two Cities, 1958 

Initially there were only 16 editors and 12 staff camera men. There were also four acres of land, three studios, five stages as well as dubbing and caption theatres. At that time the studios made between 8-10 miles of film per year for about 120 programmes. They employed about 200 people, many of whom combined a number of roles, so that secretaries might double as continuity girls. The studios ran constantly throughout 24 hours and the only crime for employees was to stand still.

By 1965 there had been further expansion. Staff numbers now stood at 622. In 1991 there were 450 employees based in Ealing. The number of documentaries produced at least in part at the studios stood at 900 in a year. There were 36 camera crews operating globally who sent millions of film footage back to the studios. There it would be worked upon by 62 film editors and their assistants to shape and polish documentaries. In 1960 a training school for technicians had been founded there. By the end of the decade, it was estimated that the equivalent of eight full length feature films were produced there every week, or 12 hours worth of film. 30 out of the 80 BBC cuttings room editors were employed at Ealing. 

Photo showing staff working at BBC Studios

                   Above: BBC Studios, 1969 

By the 1970s more ambitious drama series were partly shot in the studios, such as Dr Who, Colditz, Porridge and The Goodies. Walpole Park was sometimes used for outdoor scenes and Ealing High Street. Because there was much space inside the studios, semi-permanent sets could be erected, such as the specially laid concrete floor to appear to be the cobbled courtyard seen in the Colditz drama. This series took 26 weeks to film and one episode had 230 people on the stage at one time. Slade Prison, the setting for Porridge, was set up in a water tank as were the canal scenes of the Canal Children

The nerve centre of the whole place was the Allocations Room. This showed the location and time when various personnel were at different locations all over the world, and looked like a world war two operations room.

Photo of Vernon Philips

                        Above: Vernon Phipps, general manager of studios, in front of
                                     editing block, 1977 

In 1991 the BBC announced that they would cease production at the studios by April 1993. This was part of a large reorganisation programme which would reduce studios, cameras and crews by one half. In part this was because a quarter of the programmes screened by the BBC were made by independent operators. Yet in the following year there was an apparent rethink; the costs studies carried out in 1991 were now thought to be incorrect and that moving from Ealing would be too expensive an undertaking. 

Modern Times 

When the BBC left the Studios there was a great deal of uncertainty about their future. A conservation order was issued by the council to save the buildings from destruction. More good news was in 1993 that there was an announcement that film making would again begin there under the auspices of BRRK. Playwright Tony Shaffer was appointed.  In the next year their first film was under preparation. This was Rainbow, a children’s adventure film in which it was envisaged that Bob Hoskins would be the director (in the event he starred in the film).  

However, by the end of the year it was known that the studios had run into financial difficulties. BBRK went bankrupt with losses of £6 million in 1994, because of failings with its other operations, not because the studios was doing badly. They even owed money to the BBC, so there was the possibility it might revert to them. Yet the studios did not close because the owners were in receivership. In 1995 there were 25 companies working on the site, including special effects workshops, script writers, production companies and filming there had included TV adverts and parts of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice serial.  

In 1997-1998 there was much discussion about the studios being used by the National Film and Television School, currently based at Beaconsfield. They had bought the studios in 1995 for £2.6 million with a vow to move there in 1999. The front gates, not used since the 1950s, were symbolically reopened by Richard Attenborough and David Putnam. The school was there to assist film makers in polishing their skills, to set up a film heritage centre, hire filming and editing facilities for fledgling companies and to provide conference facilities for film school conventions. However, to accomplish all this, additional lottery funding was needed, on top of that already gained, and this was never obtained. 

The NFTS scheme was jeopardised by local hostility in 1998 to its plans to build an access road across Ealing Green, destroying 1000 square feet of land. Previous attempts at having increased parking spaces at Forge Lane had already been turned down by the council. The plans for the road were scrapped, though both council and residents were still generally supportive of the NFTS plans.   

By the end of the year they decided that the move to Ealing would not be feasible because of the costs involved in converting the site to its requirements. They now wanted a more central London location. Therefore they put the 3.8 acre site up for sale. This caused great concern for the purchaser of the site might use it for whatever development they wanted, such as housing, shopping or business outfits and none of the buildings there had listed status protecting them from demolition. On one hand it was claimed that this was the smallest of the London film studios and because it was so antiquated it was not easy to operate in, but on the other hand, the use of modern technology did not need large premises, and the good transport links and town centre location were attractive.

The Forever Ealing campaign group was founded in 1999 to save the studios from unsympathetic developers. They also wanted to see a film museum or heritage centre based there. The group had the backing of the council, the local newspaper, Sir John Mills and George Perry, author of the book on the studios, the title of which was used by the group for their name. 

The site was put on the market in the summer of 1999 and there had been a good response from about 20 serious bidders, including two film studios and two TV production companies. By November the list of potential buyers had been whittled down to ten. The buyer was revealed as being a consortium including Fragile Films, the Manhattan Loft Corporation and John Kao of the Idea Factory. Forever Ealing had put in a bid to run the studios as a charitable trust, having a film museum on the premises and letting out the remainder to film companies, but there was no evidence that they had any substantial financial backing so their bid failed.

Their plan was to revamp the studios, whilst retaining the White House and the 1930s sound studios. The place was to bring together filmmaker and independent producers who would utilise digital technology and internet based businesses. They also wanted to create a number of new low rise buildings to house offices and high tech post production facilities around a central square after demolishing parts of the existing site. The plan would cost about £60 million and was approved by Ealing Council in 2001. 

In 2002 the first film for nearly half a century was made with the label ‘Made at Ealing studios’. It was first shown at Ealing’s cinema on the night before the Leicester Square premiere. This was The Importance of Being Earnest starring Colin Firth and Judi Dench. Parts of many other films were shot here; Attack of the Clones, Shaun of the Dead, the modern St. Trinian’s films and the second Bridget Jones film. Up to 2004 there had been tax breaks for the British film industry and that helped the studios to succeed, as did increased American investment in the industry. To remind the passerby of the studio’s heritage, something the current owners were always eager to point out, an English Heritage Blue Plaque was erected on the white house to Michael Balcon.