London Style: Ealing Studios, a Historical Landmark

When Jeff and I first moved to London, we decided to live in Ealing, a small borough west of central London. It was perfect because we were close to his work and Heathrow airport for our many, many travel adventures. But Ealing also has a pretty astounding history being on the outskirts of “town,” but close enough to be a target for WWII bombings.

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Early morning at Ealing Studios.

However, when we moved in to our first flat, we had no idea any of this, and in order to learn about our new neighborhood, we did what we did best: walk. We tied up our trainers and took to surveying the streets. One particular Sunday, we found ourselves going down St. Mary’s Road, and I saw a sign for Ealing Studios. Being about a degree or two outside the film industry, this peaked my interest, and I went home to investigate this further.

Of course London is extremely well-known for its film industry between James Bond, Sherlock, and Harry Potter at Pinewood Studios, but what I didn’t know was how important Ealing Studios was to the local film history. In order to get an “inside” look at the studios, I decided to enroll in a couple of courses at the Met Film School located inside the gated complex. While I learned a lot in the two courses I took that forayed into my career, I was blown away by the films, stars, and companies that worked and still work on the grounds.

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The original Ealing Studios white lodge on St. Mary’s Street.

In 1902, a man named Will Barker, bought a white facade building on St. Mary’s Street and turned it into a full studio, which now is the oldest, still working studio in the world. Mr. Barker was a producer, director, and cinematographer who turned Britain’s low-budget filmmaking to “lavishly produced epics” that rivaled Hollywood in California.

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Filming at Ealing Studios. Photo credit: BBC

While Ealing Studios is best known for its post-WWII films like The Ladykillers, it is the current hub for The Imaginarium (Andy Serkis’ company) and where Downton Abbey spent most of its budget and time. You cannot get onto the complex without going through security, and they are very strict, so do not expect to be able to waltz in for a tour. Tours are scheduled in conjunction with various events and only rarely during the year, so if you want to see the space, call the reception desk for information or wait for the Ealing Music and Film Festival.

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The full compound of Ealing Studios. Photo credit: Ealing Music and Film Festival website.

In 1931, sound had taken over the film industry, and in order to keep up with the times, Ealing Studios moved from its white lodge house to the current location just down the sidewalk. The new space housed multiple stages completely fitted for sound, and business boomed for this studio/production company. By 1938, 60 films had been shot on the compound. And now Michael Balcon from MGM came on as the head producer turning post-war films into social commentaries with a certain je ne sais quoi. Needless to say, the films produced out of Ealing Studios were inherently “British.”

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The cast of The Ladykillers (1955)

Balcon has his own pub in Ealing named after him and a plaque mounted on the original Ealing Studios lodge.

In the 1950s, BBC bought Ealing Studios and used it as their base. At the studio’s peak, there were 56 crews working around the clock on various productions. As I walked through the complex and looked up at the multiple storied buildings, it was easy and difficult to imagine so much work getting pumped through the walls. With five sound stages and two schools on the premises, how could so many individuals work in comfort and ease? I guess the honest answer was, they didn’t.

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Plaques mounted on the walls on the outside of the stage buildings.

The cost of running Ealing Studios in this fashion got to be too much for the BBC. Ealing Studios was eventually sold to the National Film and Television School, a revered and famous film school producing alumni such as David Yates (dir. Harry Potter), Roger Deakins (DoP A Beautiful Mind, Fargo), and Dario Marianelli (composer Atonement).

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The door to the famous Imaginarium.

The studio continued to grow in the 1990s and 2000s with more film moving to the stages and with Andy Serkis setting up his innovative studio, The Imaginarium, in 2011. His company revolutionized “performance capture” technology and has given us the realistic graphics of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and his upcoming directorial debut, Jungle Book.

But it’s not just the innovation and modern film that puts Ealing Studios on the map. It’s the history and remarkable classic films that really make the space special. Here is just a small sampling of the films made in the studio walls that put the studio on the map.

  • The Man in the White Suit (1951) This film followed the staple of Ealing Studio films featuring the “common man” acting against “the Man.” It was one of the most popular films of the year, and to this day is still remembered as one of the most important in British cinema.
  • The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) This film used a lot of London and Paris for filming. In the scenes showing London, you can still see WWII ravaged buildings and streets. And still today, this film holds a firm place in Britain’s best films.
  • The Ladykillers (1955) Another famous British film still holding a place on the 100 top releases by the BFI, this film really helped put Ealing Studios on the map with its extensive awards and recognitions.
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I had the pleasure of filming inside this original studio from 1931.

As you walk through the buildings, you can see massive plaques and signs memorializing the history. I felt completely in awe of the projects and productions that graced the grounds as I walked to class. I was learning how to make film on the compound where British film really made its mark, and continues to do today with Downton AbbeyBeauty and the Beast (2017), and Our Kind of Traitor (2016), which I saw being filmed my first day walking on the lot.

I adored my time walking on history while I studied and worked in Ealing Studios. I had no idea it was such an icon for British cinema when I became its neighbor, but I hope I did it justice with what I have and will continue to achieve as a filmmaker.

Thanks for the memories, Ealing Studios.

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