Something nice and wholesome and harmless, quaint and static
So says an inscription erected by Michael Balcon outside of Ealing Studios when they were sold to the BBC in 1955. It is a very accurate summation of what went on at Ealing Studios during the period of Balcon’s stewardship from 1939 when he took over from Basil Dean as the head of what was then known as Associated Talking Pictures (ATP). In 1929 Dean, formerly a theatre director formed ATP which started promisingly allowing him to raise the money required to build a studio at Ealing Green which was completed in 1931. Production at ATP was highly varied but was by no means consistent. Very much a situation of quantity over quality.
“Dean had subsidised the prestige productions (mostly adaptations of stage plays) with a programme of immensely popular ‘low’ comedies starring Gracie Fields and George Formby”2
Unfortunately as the war approached, the fortunes of the Ealing based production company faltered ending in Dean leaving to return to the theatre.
As Charles Barr3 illustrates ‘Ealing was in a precarious position’ and required firm promises as to its future with international competition, specifically Hollywood, beginning to saturate the market. It was at this point former MGM producer Michael Balcon made several independent features at the currently vacant studios before being asked by one of ATP’s directors to take up the helm after Dean’s departure.
Associated Talking Pictures became no more and Ealing Studio itself became a production company as Balcon rang the changes. Balcon’s contempt for Dean’s method of film production was shown early on with the likes of Gracie Fields and George Formby films being discarded in favour of higher quality productions. Though it is worth noting that Formby went on to make five further films with Ealing until he finally left in 1941.
The first film out of Ealing under Balcon was ‘The Gaunt Stranger’ a very ‘ordinary’ picture released as a ‘B’ feature “of the sort that might have been made at any other British studio.”4 After this, a definite theme in Balcon’s films was made apparent starting with the most significant film in Ealing’s pre-war history.
‘Cheers boys Cheers’ was a “celebration of the little man, of the small-scale enterprise.”5 a representation of Britain and it’s values as small inter-wound communities, what Barr refers to as a ‘Greenleaf’ community. A place where tradition is important, everybody knows everybody and is prepared to do all they can for their neighbours.
Parallels can easily be drawn between the Balcon image of this ‘Community’ and that of Britain. It can also be seen as representing Ealing itself and it’s fight against the onslaught of the California based competition it was up against. Ealing was every bit as typical of England as the one it tried to represent in its films post 1940, as they tightened together to weather the storm.
With the onset of war this ideal nature of national identity was as important as ever. The British Cinema was utilised indirectly to produce an idea of ‘New Britishness’ to the population at home; the concept “of a peoples war”6. Films such as ‘In Which We Serve’ and ‘We Dive At Dawn’ saw a unity between class and people of different regions.
‘Went the Day Well?’ (Cavalcanti, 1942) was written as a look back to “an English village in wartime, so cut off by its leafy lanes that the visit of one car is a real event”7. It was set after ‘the war had been won’, which certainly wasn’t the case as the film was made in 1942 providing a sense of optimism as well as giving the nation an idea of who they were and what they were fighting for.
Cavalcanti, before he was hired by Balcon had been working in documentaries, specifically those concerned with domestic realism. This gave the film a new and almost chilling believability, something that previous war films of this nature hadn’t managed.
“Understated realism of behaviour and surroundings give the film the conviction which The Foreman Went To France ultimately lacks, and underscores its endorsement of the need to meet ruthlessness with ruthlessness.”8
The typically English village of Bramley End, with, as Barr points out, ‘a hierarchy of people who all know their place, right down to the local poacher’ lives up to a combination of both the romantic left; the squire, lady of the manor and the romantic left; the post mistress, the evacuees and the ‘miss Marple’ style traditionalism typified by the likes of Rudyard Kipling. Whether this ‘England’ was an accurate representation of the nation at that time or whether it was truly a mythical construction is not the key consideration. This idealistic image was generated to show what the British people could achieve and enjoy should they take heed of the issues the film raised.
‘Went the Day Well?’ was based on Graham Green’s story ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’. The Ealing version is far warmer than Green’s original, having “none of the cooking apple cosiness of Bramley End”9. As it opens, the Hertfordshire village seems untouched, like it has stood for several hundred years without any external involvement. The community are all convivial and welcoming especially of ‘their brave boys’ who are away fighting for them. A point made obvious when they go out of their way to assist a platoon of German soldiers masquerading as British servicemen. Typical English values are personified when the allocation of billets is sorted out: For example the avoidance of servicemen lodging with those women whose husbands were away fighting in an attempt to preserve decency.
The tranquil equilibrium that is established at the beginning of the film is knocked out of tilt by the realisation of the soldiers’ true identity. This forces the villagers (most of which are women due to most men being pressed into service with the exception of children and older males such as police and home guard) into action and are forced to be as resourceful as possible. The representation of women, particularly Thora Hird’s character, shows how society expected them to act and behave during this time of war. However some of the lengths that the residents go to, for example the attack by Mrs Collins on one of the German troops seem quite out of character. This however can be justified:
The villagers “are entitled to their outrage, the more so in that this is war at close quarters in the most familiar of settings, an attack launched by men purporting to be friends and defenders…quite ready to return to their slumbers as soon as the nightmare is over.”10
To reinforce the idea of the romantic left and appeal to audience members in the lower classes, it turns out that the village scoundrel and a Cockney evacuee combine to over throw an entire German mission.
Bringing this back to the initial question I believe there is a quintessential quality in this film that you certainly wouldn’t find in a picture from any other production company. However I wonder if this is only surface deep taking in to account the immediacy with which the temperament of the towns folk snaps and the unsentimental nature of the ‘camera’ as it simply “steps over the corpses… disturbing in its matter of fact refusal to be deflected from its course.”11
The picture postcard facade seems to act as a particularly pleasant window dressing to much more serious and sinister undertones seemingly repressed like those of the British society as a whole: ‘The British stiff upper lip’ and the holding back of emotions typified by the nation.
‘Passport To Pimlico’ (1949, H.Cornelius) “perhaps the most famous of the great comedy series in which the common man outwitted authority”12 presents us with what is a seemingly straight forward film in this context. ‘Passport’ as I shall refer to it, is widely regarded as the first ‘Ealing Comedy’ despite early comedies starring George Formby amongst others in the early years of Balcon’s tenure. The term ‘Ealing Comedy’ refers to a group of films which like the Ealing Drama’s projected an image of Britain in a very specific way. T.E.B Clarke wrote ‘Passport’ as an original screenplay as well as several of their drama’s forming the basis of many of the films to come out of the London based studio.
“Most of Clarke’s comedies… depict a Britain of shopkeepers, friendly spivs, jolly coppers, incompetent but honest bureaucrats, kind-hearted squires, contented old-age pensioners and a variety of eccentrics. If there are villain, they tend to be hard-nosed businessmen.”13
The film is set in post-war Britain where the biggest social problems are the rebuilding of communities demolished by the fighting at both home and abroad. The purpose of the film seems to ask if the war time ‘business as usual’ attitude can be carried on and used in this time of consolidation.
Change was a massive part of this era in British history. The introduction of the Clement Atley Labour government which replaced the war time coalition party saw the beginning of social reform. The working class had been given the vote for the first time and both the NHS and Welfare State were established. Women were aloud to stay in the workplace on the return of the men from the war and the working class held higher aspirations in general.
However there were still a lot of limitations on the population. Rationing was still very much an issue as the State attempted to revive the economy.
The film focuses on an inner-city community all closely associated with each other which acts like the ‘close-knit village’ in so many of Ealing’s earlier films including ‘Went the Day Well?’.
The quaint and wholesome nature the community embodies is very backward looking almost lethargic in it’s desire to move forward. They are quite appy to go back to the way things were before the war. As Pemberton (Holloway) finds out the aim of the State is to drive forward and build a ‘new’ England rather than rebuild the old one.
The desire to remain in the past is made possible after the discovery of an ancient clause by the eccentric professor played by Margaret Rutherford,(who coincidently played miss Marple in several adaptations of Agatha Christie’s crime solving thrillers – a character that embodies all the whimsical assets abundant at the beginning of ‘Passport’.) which states that the area of Miramont Place is part of the Duchy of Burgundy and they are not answerable to the British Government.
For the first time each man becomes “his own master”14, and they are all allowed to live their own dreams, free from the post-war rules. This is until they wake up the next morning to the consequence of their action as reality dawns.
The general issue is that as nice as it would be to go back to how it was, the way the world has developed its better to go forward as the old way simply can’t co-exist.
The film itself takes all these factors into account and seems to ask the audience to take the strengths of the war-time spirit and bring it forward through this period of social reform and into this ‘new’ England which is constructed through the duration of this film.
Similar to ‘Went the Day Well?’ the cosy over view seems to disguise an uneasy rift present, especially in masculine circles as they found themselves becoming displaced after the war. Not only were the Ealing comedies dealing with the issue of national identity as the dramas did, but they were also looking at identities of sex and class in society and how these boundaries were being redrawn to make everything more equal.
Like earlier Ealing films, the concentration is on the middle classes (lower and upper), which by their own admission represented the production teams involved.
“‘By and large we were a group of liberal-minded, like minded people… we were middle-class people brought up with middle-class backgrounds and rather conventional educations… We voted Labour for the first time after the first time after the war: this was our mild revolution.”
Whether or not this view of ‘middle-England’ was intentional or just the way it panned out, it’s hard to tell, but the influences of those that made the films certainly seem to seep through in to the narrative.
The frankness of the statement however gives us an idea of the anxieties and feelings that this specific social group were experiencing, in relation to other groups.
In conclusion, Ealing Studios produced a large number of films under Michael Balcon projecting the nation and what it stood for. The ‘wholesome, harmless, quaint, static and timeless’ nature of the films were very realistic in the over all representation of Britain on the surface. That is what the nation appears like as a people; the British ‘never say die’ and ‘stiff-upper lip’ attitudes are very whimsical and old fashioned in that respect. However what Ealing and Balcon achieved along with the various directors was to highlight the constant struggles being suppressed behind that cosy exterior and stiff upper lip. The escape of emotion on a small scale, be it Thora Hird saying that the ‘only good German is a dead German’ or the residents of Miramont Place tearing up their ration cards with glee or running through the rain half naked shows evidence of this true empathy with the people of the United Kingdom.
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