UEA film expert celebrates Ealing Studios’ golden era

PUBLISHED: 08:08 11 November 2011

Dr Keith Johnston with some Ealing comedies at the UEA.; Photo: Bill Smith

Dr Keith Johnston with some Ealing comedies at the UEA.; Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2011

Most film fans will be familiar with at least a few of them – whether it was Basil Radford and Bruce Seton in Whisky Galore! or Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers in The Ladykillers.

All about Ealing Studios

The studios in Ealing first opened for business in 1902 as the Will Barker Studios, but became Ealing Studios in 1931.

During their golden years, the studios produced many hit comedies featuring stars like Gracie Fields and George Formby.

The studio was bought by the BBC in 1955 although, for another two years, films made there retained the Ealing name.

It was then used for many years for a wide range of dramas, documentaries and other programmes including Z-cars, Porridge, Doctor Who and the Singing Detective.

It was not until 2000 that Ealing Studios was revived as a film studio.

Since then it has produced movies including Shaun of the Dead, the new St Trinian’s Series and two Oscar Wilde adaptations – The Importance of Being earnest and Dorian Gray.

The servants’ quarters of Downton Abbey are shot on stages 3A and 3B of Ealing Studios.

But it takes a certain kind of dedication to watch – and blog about – every one of the 95 movies produced during Ealing Studios’ glory years.

That is the challenge one Norfolk film buff has set himself as he aims to mark the 80th anniversary of the production company – and discover whether the celebrated studios ever created a stinker.

Keith Johnston, who has worked at the University of East Anglia for the past three years, considers himself a bit of an expert on all things film.

But when the film and television studies lecturer heard 2011 was the 80th anniversary of Ealing Studios, he began to realise just how few he had seen.

He said: “When you talk about Ealing, you talk about some five or six films – and it’s always the comedies – but they made many more. The studios released 95 films between 1938 and 1959.

“In total I had probably seen 15 or 16 – but what’s going on beyond those few films everyone talks about? Are they terrible?”

Dr Johnston has challenged himself to watch all 95 films produced during Ealing Studios’ original era as a production company – before it was bought by the BBC.

He said: “I find the company fascinating because it is one of the few times in British cinema that a studio was able to produce a consistently strong series of films that were popular to domestic audiences.

“The films also span a fascinating period in British history – the second world war, a changing British political and cultural landscape, the growth of television as a rival to film, and the introduction of new cinema technologies like colour and widescreen.”

His challenge is a big task which is likely to last until June and will involve nearly 200 hours of footage and tracking down a number of movies which have not been seen for 60 or 70 years.

Having started a couple of months ago, he has so far watched and written about 19 films including 1947’s Nicholas Nickleby; The Ship That Died of Shame, starring Richard Attenborough; and 1956’s The Feminine Touch.

But while they have all been available on DVD, others are likely to prove a little more difficult to find.

Some of the older movies from the 1930s have not been released since then and are now only available to view on 35mm film at the National Film and Television Archive in London.

Dr Johnston, who used to live in Ealing, said: “Some of them might not have been seen since the 1940s. I quite like the idea of that.

“It’s one thing to look at a film that’s well known, but when you have only got a brief description and don’t even know who starred in it, it’s like watching something completely new. You’ve got no expectations.”

In some cases, that could be for the best. The lecturer has already discovered one or two which do not quite live up to the reputation of classics like The Lavender Hill Mob or Passport to Pimlico.

“I did wonder if there was a reason some hadn’t been re-released,” he said. “One of the ones I watched a couple of weeks ago – Against the Wind – was a 1948 film about saboteurs in the second world war. It was obviously very well intentioned as a film but it just doesn’t really work.”

To read Dr Johnston’s blog, visit

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