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Why Revisit Ealing Studios?

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This week, BFI Palgrave MacMillan release Ealing Revisited, a new collection of essays on what is, arguably, the most iconic and best loved studio in British cinema history. While the book release is being supported by a series of screenings and events at the BFI, it is worth explaining why the University of East Anglia (which helped develop and deliver the book) thought it was time to revisit Ealing, and why the studio remains relevant to enthusiasts, scholars and general audiences.

While Ealing has seen many recent anniversaries (the 80th anniversary of the opening of Ealing's sound stages in 2011; various centenaries of its best-known directors and writers), this year sees the 25th anniversary of Ealing Studios, the first academic book on the studio, written by UEA professor Charles Barr. 25 years on from that publication, and representing the first major academic book on the studio since 1977, Ealing Revisited is again led by UEA, with Dr Melanie Williams (the project's originator) and myself as co-editors and contributors, alongside Mark Duguid (BFI) and Lee Freeman (University of Hull).

We know that for most people, the image of Ealing is one of British comedies: Dennis Price bumping off several generations of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949); the triumphant tearing up of ration books as Londoners become Burgundians in Passport to Pimlico (1949); the canny Scottish islanders hoarding their scotch in Whisky Galore! (1949); or the anarchic black comedy partnership of Guinness, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker and Danny Green as The Ladykillers (1955). These well-remembered outputs have remained popular over the years through regular television showings, cinema re-releases, video, DVD and Blu-Ray releases, remakes (both cinematic and theatrical in the case of The Ladykillers), and through an influential contribution to future British film comedies like Local Hero (1983) and Brassed Off (1996). The notion of a small man against the system, so potent in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), is often conjured in discussions of Occupy London or the recent You've Been Trumped (2012) documentary.

Yet while it covers those well-known films, our new book is a call to arms to explore the uncharted waters of Ealing's output, to go beyond the core comedy titles, to push against the stereotypes that have emerged around 'classic' Ealing, particularly notions of the studio as cosy, conforming, and safe.

The collection explores the studios' potent contribution to a range of different genres: supernatural / horror (The Halfway House, 1944; Dead of Night, 1945; The Night My Number Came Up, 1955), war (San Demetrio, London, 1942; Next of Kin, 1943; Went the Day Well?, 1942; The Cruel Sea, 1953), crime thriller (The Blue Lamp, 1950; It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947; Nowhere to Go, 1958), romantic comedy (Cheers Boy Cheers, 1938; The Love Lottery, 1954), adaptations (Nicholas Nickleby, 1947; The Cruel Sea), spy films (Against the Wind, 1948; Secret People, 1952), fantasy (They Came to a City, 1944; Meet Mr Lucifer, 1953), Westerns (Nine Men, 1943; Bitter Springs, 1950) and period dramas (Saraband for Dead Lovers, 1948; The Loves of Joanna Godden, 1947).

The collection's desire to find new ground within Ealing's output has been led by contributions from UEA: Melanie Williams looks at the series of Ealing films featuring female protagonists or issues (Cage of Gold, 1950; The Feminine Touch, 1956), I cover Ealing's colour films (including Where No Vultures Fly, 1951; Lease of Life, 1954; Out of the Clouds, 1955), Charles Barr considers Kenneth Tynan's contribution to Ealing's last British production, Nowhere to Go; while Stephen Morgan explores the post-war Australian films (The Overlanders, 1945; The Shiralee, 1957). Alongside a re-evaluation of Ealing's documentary contribution, its link to 1940s political contexts, its lesser-known comedies, and its influence on British film and television, the book suggests that the best way to know the true scope of Ealing Studios is to experience the range and scope of the 95 feature films and other short films that were produced there between 1938 and 1959.

And maybe in 25 years time, our UEA successors will feel the urge able to revisit the studio, its films, and its contribution to British cinema and society, once again...