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’, 2 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.
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, 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. Stages 2, 3A, 3B and 5 have stood the test of time and are still in use today. 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 publicity, neither set of films was particularly associated with the name Ealing, any more than the products of the nearby Shepherd’s Bush studio were known as Shepherd’s Bush films: like ATP’s, they were given the label not of the studio location but of the producing company, Gainsborough, head of production at that time was Michael Balcon.
During Basil Dean‘s era, Ealing launched the careers of actors such as Gracie Fields and George Formby, who became famous film stars and champions of working class comedy. Actresses such as Margaret Lockwood and Madeleine Carroll and directors such as Carol Reed also began honing their crafts at the studios, which became the home and breeding ground for many creative talents of the era. By the late ‘thirties, ATP’s fortunes declined. Dean left in 1938 to return to the theatre. Ealing was now one of several studios in a precarious position, faced by financial problems, and with the international situation making it hard to plan for the future.
Balcon, too, was at a difficult point in his career. After several productive years running both Gainsborough and Gaumont British, with directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Victor Saville working for him, he had been signed up by the American Louis B. Mayer to run the British end of his production. 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. Prior to Ealing, Balcon had been a successful film producer and during his time at the studios over 96 films were made.
The studio kept going, employing a combination of people already at Ealing and others whom Balcon brought in with him. To mark this fresh start, there was some juggling with names. Ealing Studios Ltd, a subsidiary of ATP, had hitherto been the company which formally owned the place. Now, ATP was phased out, and Ealing became a production company. 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!