A new BFI retrospective takes a fresh and revealing look at Ealing’s golden era output.
Famed, rightly or wrongly, for peddling a peculiar brand of unflappable wit and resolve, Ealing Studios enjoys a special place close to the nation’s conservatively brassiered bosom. If Ealing, as is so often assumed, made films which reflect the British character, closer inspection of those films reveals that to be a very complex character indeed.
Although the Ealing Studios site was acquired for film production in 1902 and the studio itself was established in the early '30s, it wasn’t until Michael Balcon joined as Head of Production in 1938 that Ealing began to thrive. The BFI’s first Ealing retrospective for 30 years, Ealing: Light and Dark seeks to challenge the (albeit charming) misconception of the studio’s golden era output as predominantly comprised of whimsy. It repositions Ealing in the '40s and '50s as purveyors of the troubling and transgressive, as well as the resolute and reassuring.
Despite its reputation, comedies actually make up less than a third of Ealing’s features and even those which are thought of as being quintessential, cheery Ealing – such as The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob – are far from benign filmic fodder, being morally dubious to say the least.
The centre-piece of the BFI’s Dark Ealing strand – which runs from October 22 – is a world away from the traditional conception of Ealing. It’s the re-release of It Always Rains on Sunday, Robert Hamer’s social-realist thriller, here digitally remastered in all its drizzly glory.
Also shrouded in Ealing darkness is Dead of Night, the studio’s only horror, which benefits from a Halloween screening. It’s a portmanteau piece that combines the genuinely chilling with the gleefully absurd and is best remembered for Alberto Cavalcanti’s Ventriloquist Dummy vignette.
Just in time to provide a winter warmer, Light Ealing kicks in at the beginning of December, running alongside the remainder of the dark strand, with a celebration of much of what Ealing is most fondly remembered for. Films like Passport to Pimlico and The Titfield Thunderbolt steam back onto the big-screen, alongside less obviously uplifting classics such as Scott of the Antarctic and The Blue Lamp.
The season also features a digital clean-up of the lesser known They Came to a City, special guests, events and exhibitions along with a programme of the studio’s wartime propaganda shorts – the work of Ealing’s documentary unit, overseen by the mighty Cavalcanti.
In a season jammed with goodies two films stand out. There’s the sublime Kind Hearts and Coronets, with its deft derision (and dispatching) of the aristocracy. Or what about the terrifically stirring Went the Day Well?, which imagines a Nazi invasion and still retains its capacity to shock. Both illustrate perfectly that, when it comes to Ealing, light and dark often go hand in hand.
So it’s over to you, which of the Ealing greats are you most looking forward to revisiting? Which would you recommend? And do you prefer your Ealing light, or dark?
Ealing: Light and Dark runs from October 22 to December 30 at BFI Southbank. It Always Rains on Sunday is at selected cinemas nationwide from October 26.