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Classic British Movies: The Ealing Comedies

Updated on April 6, 2016
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Colin's novels, story collections and stage plays are available as eBooks and paperbacks.

Family watching TV
Family watching TV | Source

The Saturday Matinee

When I was growing up, one of the things I used to love about wet Saturday afternoons was settling down to watch the telly. In those days there were only three channels in the UK (BBC1, BBC2 and ITV), and inevitably, being the weekend, there would be sport on the two main channels.

However, the folks behind BBC2 obviously realised the need for an alterative, so every Saturday around 3.00pm, they played a movie! The films were shown under the banner of the 'Saturday Matinee' or something like that, and it was the highlight of my weekend (at least, until Dr Who came on at tea-time).

The dashing Stewart Granger in 'Young Bess'
The dashing Stewart Granger in 'Young Bess' | Source

The films shown in that slot were many and varied and included such delicacies as 'Samson and Delilah', with Victor Mature, 'Scaramouche' starring the dashing Stewart Granger, or if we were really lucky, one of those great British comedies starring the likes of Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway and Joan Greenwood.

At the time I didn't know these comedies all came from the same studio, or that they were known as the 'Ealing Comedies' - all I knew was that they were hilarious and reflected (fairly) ordinary people living slightly extraordinary lives.

Ealing Studios
Ealing Studios | Source

The Films

The collection of films now acknowledged as The Ealing Comedies is generally accepted to be 8-10 films made between the late 1940's and early 1950's, although the list varies depending on who you ask. Some fans like to include a few of the more serious productions, however, most aficionados will agree that the main ones are:

Hue and Cry (1947)

Passport to Pimlico (1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Whisky Galore (1949)

The Magnet (1950)

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)

The Maggie (1954)

The Ladykillers (1955)

Hue and Cry (1947)

Generally accepted as the first of the Comedies, this one stars the unforgettable Alastair Sim in one of his early roles as a writer of children's stories, alongside a young Harry Fowler as leader of kids gang 'The Blood and Thunder Boys'. The gang set out to thwart a bunch of robbers who receive their villainous instructions via a weekly comic strip.

Though I'm a big fan of Sim, this isn't one of his best roles as he hams it up a smidgen too much for my taste. Fowler however, is perfectly cast as Joe Kirby and easily steals every scene. Following small parts in several films (including George Formby's 'Bell-Bottomed George'), Fowler later became a popular character actor, appearing in such classic British serials as 'Dr Findlay's Casebook', 'Dixon of Dock Green' and 'Z Cars'.

There's a wonderful post-war London feel about the movie and much of it is set among the bombed-out ruins of the city's streets, with scenes in the sewers reminiscent of Orson Welles in 'The Third Man'. Johnny Briggs (Coronation Street) and Dandy Nicholls (Till Death Us Do Part) also join in the fun with small, unaccredited roles.

Poster for the movie 'Passport to Pimlico'
Poster for the movie 'Passport to Pimlico' | Source

Passport to Pimlico (1949)

Scripted by one of Ealing's contract writers, TEB Clarke, the story was inspired by historical precedents such as the self-governing medieval duchy of Burgundy, and involves the residents of Pimlico declaring independence, leading to the necessity of anyone travelling to or through the area having to produce the aforementioned passport.

Stanley Holloway, Betty Warren and Barbara Murray star as the Pemberton family, caught up in political controversy and diplomatic incidents in this wonderful study of British national identity. Margaret Rutherford (who would later star as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple), is just right as the history professor, and there are appearances from Michael Hordern, Sam Kydd, and the delightfully cricket-fixated pairing of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne (of such classics as 'The Lady Vanishes' and 'Night Train to Munich').

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Based on the novel 'A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder' by Roy Horniman, the screenplay was penned by John Dighton and Robert Hamer, who also directed the film.

This particularly black comedy stars Dennis Price as Louis Mazzini, an unacknowledged member of the wealthy D'Ascoynes, whose indifference to the plight of their distant relation prompts him to set about the downfall of the entire family by various and ingenious means. Alec Guinness was originally asked to play four members of the D'Ascoyne family, but after seeing the script, he suggested he take on the roles of all eight.

Joan Greenwood is delicious as the provocative Sibella, who realises what Mazzini is up to and proposes yet another notch in her beau's proverbial bedpost. Watch out too, for Arthur Lowe (of 'Dad's Army' fame), as the reporter.

Whisky Galore (1949)

Compton Mackenzie's novel of the same name was based on real events that took place off the coast of Eriskay in 1941 (although the title sequence at the start of the film denies this). Mackenzie, who pops up in the movie as Captain Buncher, also wrote the screenplay, together with Angus MacPhail.

Shot on location on the island of Barra, the story concerns a shipwreck and a cargo of whisky, prompting the alcohol-deficient islanders to help themselves. However, with the government inspector on the horizon, the race is on to hide the stolen booty. Joan Greenwood stars as the storekeeper's daughter, with Bruce Seton playing her love-interest. Gordon Jackson (who went on to star in 'The Professionals' and 'Upstairs Downstairs'), lends a hand as the brow-beaten son whose mother rules his life. There are good turns too from Gabrielle Blunt, John Gregson, Basil Radford and James Robertson Justice.

The Magnet (1950)

A young James Fox (billed as William Fox) takes the lead in this interesting offering, presumably aimed along the lines of the earlier 'Hue and Cry'. Fox's 'parents', played by Kay Walsh and Stephen Murray, are psychologists who attempt to explain the strange behaviour of their wayward offspring.

Scripted by TEB Clarke and directed by Charles Frend (who went on to helm 'Scott of the Antarctic' and 'The Cruel Sea'), the film is set in Liverpool and charts young Johnny's adventures with a magnet conned from a young boy. Later, believing himself responsible for the boy's death and that the police must surely be in hot pursuit, he gets involved in a charity event where he tries to get rid of the magnet. There's an interesting sequence with a group of local lads where our hero convinces them he's wanted by the law.

Certainly not the best of the collection, 'The Magnet' is worth watching for its creditable attempt at some sort of moral conclusion, even if it doesn't quite hit the mark. Nice to see Joan Hickson (another Miss Marple), and Thora Hird joining in the fun too, and there's a glimpse of James Robertson Justice appearing under a pseudonym, as he was running for parliament at the time.

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Written once again by TEB Clarke and directed by Charles Crichton, the plot follows mild-mannered bank clerk Alec Guinness when he pairs up with Stanley Holloway in a bid to take advantage of inside information relating to a delivery of gold bullion. The difficulty, however, is how to get the gold out of the country. Sid James (of 'Carry On' fame) and Alfie Bass join the gang to help steal the gold, but just as things seem to be going well, a crowd of schoolgirls throw a spanner in the works.

There are nice turns from the rest of the cast including John Gregson and Clive Morton, and there's also a fleeting glimpse of Audrey Hepburn in one of her early roles.

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

Alec Guinness takes the lead again in a clever idea that explores the notion of a country gripped by the threat of an invention that could ruin clothing manufactures.

Based on the stage play by Roger MacDougall, the film follows inventor Sidney Stratton's (Guinness) struggles to create a long-lasting suit that repels dirt, while at the same time striving to resist the concerns of mill owner Cecil Parker, and the threats of angry union bosses. Joan Greenwood provides the love interest as the mill-owner's daughter.

Alexander MacKendrick directed and shared screenwriting credits with MacDougall and John Dighton. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best writing.

Hugh Griffiths stars as Dan in 'The Titfield Thunderbolt'
Hugh Griffiths stars as Dan in 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' | Source
The Bury Coppernob 'Lion,' star of 'The Titfield Thunderbolt.'
The Bury Coppernob 'Lion,' star of 'The Titfield Thunderbolt.' | Source

The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)

Directed by Charles Crichton and starring Stanley Holloway and John Gregson. TEB Clarke's original screenplay was inspired by a volunteer-run railway in Wales, and in fact utilises one or two scenes from LTC Rolt's book, 'Railway Adventure', about that very project. Clarke's plot follows the fortunes of a group of villagers who decide to take matters into their own hands when their branch line is threatened with closure.

Squire John Gregson persuades Stanley Holloway's Walter Valentine to fund the running of the engine. All goes well until disaster strikes, rendering the engine unworkable. In need of a new locomotive, the team are forced to liberate the 'Thunderbolt' engine from the museum, engaging a retired and rather odd railway worker (Hugh Griffiths) to lend a hand as the driver.

Jack MacGowran and Ewan Roberts star as Crump and Pearce (the bad guys), dragging Sid James along in an attempt to foil the villagers success. Gabrielle Brune adds a touch of glamour to the affair, with Godfrey Tearle and Naunton Wayne keep the action rolling along.

The Maggie (1954)

Released in the USA as 'High and Dry', Alexander MacKendrick directed this tale inspired by Neil Munro's 'Vital Spark' stories, and scripted by William Rose. The plot is wonderfully farcical and centres on the crew of a coal boat who con an American businessman into allowing them to ferry his valuable cargo to a Scottish island.

There isn't much of a plot to the film, however, the characters are fascinating - the crew's leisurely attitude to fulfilling their contract borders on sheer laziness, but still retains something of the essence of a traditional way of life that even at the time the film was made, was coming to an end.

Although Paul Douglas (as the American) is the only proper 'star' of the movie, the cast are all masterful in their roles - Alex Mackenzie is particularly fine as the captain of the rickety boat. This, combined with a sharp and witty script, makes it a shame the film hasn't gained more or a following.

Peter Sellers in 1966
Peter Sellers in 1966 | Source

The Ladykillers (1955)

Directed by Alexander MacKendrick and scripted by William Rose, this is another one of Ealing Studio's crime capers and features a magical cast of suitably bizarre and unlikely characters who come together to pull off a bank job.

Alec Guinness stars as leader of the motley crew, with Herbert Lom, Danny Green, Cecil Parker and Peter Sellers as his villainous associates. The delightful Katie Johnston stars as unsuspecting landlady Mrs Wilberforce - though well known on the London stage, this was one of Katie's few screen roles, for which she won a BAFTA for Best Actress.

Posing as a string quartet, the gang make their plans to the strains of a Boccherini Minuet, and even have the gall to include the landlady in their scheme. But following the robbery, One Round gets his cello case caught in the door, spilling banknotes everywhere. With Mrs Wilberforce demanding that the police be informed, the gang plot to get rid of her...

Which is your favourite Ealing Comedy?

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    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks for your comments, Travmaj, glad to be able to stir those memories.

    • travmaj profile image

      travmaj 2 years ago from australia

      Lovely to reminisce about the Ealing films - yes I remember many of these, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Whisky Galore, The Lavender Hill Mob. What talent and how well they the writers /directors knew their audience.

      Still enjoy them today. Thanks for the memories...

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks Alicia, I'm sure you'll enjoy them.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I've heard of most of these movies, although I haven't seen them (except for a small section of Kind Hearts and Coronets, which my father loved). Thanks for the interesting descriptions, Colin. I'm looking forward to watching at least some of the movies this summer.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Cheers Bill, thanks for reading.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks for the recommendations. I happen to love British humor and wish there was more of it on in the States. I will check out some of these "classics."

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Basically, any movie with Alec Guinness is well worth watching - I'd recommend 'The Ladykillers' or 'The Man in the White Suit', but really, they're all great movies. Thanks for reading, Larry.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      I love British comedy, but only have a passing familiarity with these films.

      Thanks for bringing them to my attention. I'll have to give them a try.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks Nell, yeah I think there were movies on Sunday afternoon's too, but I always remember the Saturday ones because there was only football on the other channels.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks Word5, it's certainly true that they don't make movies like these any more, nut I think it's got more to do with making money than creating quality entertainment. Thanks for reading.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

      Hi, these were a bit before my time, but I do remember my dad sitting down watching these on the weekend, and if I remember right, on a Sunday afternoon too, but I maybe wrong, I was only around 2 years old at the time, love all the old films though, nell

    • word55 profile image

      Word 2 years ago from Chicago

      I miss the funny movies. They present great entertainment. There's a lack of comedy movie productions. Thanks for reminding us of the exceptional entertainment we are missing.

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