The release of The Spirit of ’45, Ken Loach’s paean to the reforms of Clement Attlee’s Labour government, combined with the Conservative/Liberal Democrat rhetoric of national consensus in the current period of economic austerity, make for a timely reassessment of the politics of Ealing studios. Ealing’s support for Labour’s ‘New Jerusalem’ was famously described by the studio’s chief, Michael Balcon, as a ‘mild revolution’, and Ealing has tended to be associated with the wartime transformation of British society that contributed to Labour’s historic victory and the emergence of a new social and political consensus, increasingly democratic and egalitarian in nature.
In order to establish Balcon’s preference for ‘realism’ over ‘tinsel’, Ealing drew heavily on the influence of the documentary movement, assisted by the recruitment of a number of personnel from the GPO and the Crown Film unit. Harry Watt and Alberto Cavalcanti became crucial to developing a documentary-style realist aesthetic as the studio’s fictional output evolved from a number of wartime documentary shorts. For an assessment of these shorts, see the chapter by Mark Duguid and Katy McGahan in the new book Ealing Revisited.
One of the main features borrowed from documentary was a reluctance to marginalise the working class in order to promote the ethos of the people’s war. Notable for its engagement with a working-class milieu, The Proud Valley (1940) depicts the struggles of a Welsh mining community. Directed by Pen Tennyson, a pivotal figure in Ealing’s ideological development, the film was initially envisaged to advocate workers’ control of the mining industry by showing the miners take over the running of the pit, but as war was declared during the film’s shooting the original ending was shelved for a more conciliatory conclusion. The Bells Go Down (Basil Dearden, 1943) and San Demetrio, London (Charles Frend, 1943) are also significant, both displaying vital themes of national unity and the promotion of community values as Ealing attempted to portray a nation of all classes pulling together to aid the war effort.
Towards the end of the war, Ealing’s attention focussed on issues of reconstruction. I have discussed the revolutionary polemic, They Came to a City (Basil Dearden, 1944), in my chapter in Ealing Revisited. The film, described as ‘socialist propaganda’ by the National Film Archive, remains one of the most ardent promotions of socialism ever made by the British cinema, and Ealing’s least equivocal statement in support of the ‘New Jerusalem’. After its release Ealing subsequently became associated with comedy and two further films are worthy of consideration in relation to the studio’s political ethos. Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius, 1949) manages to both nostalgically yearn for the unity of the war years while also progressively looking forward to comment upon the nature of the society that the Labour government was attempting to shape. The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick, 1951) is a satirical exploration of the regressive nature of capitalist production and the most political of all the comedies made at Ealing. It would become the final film to be released by the studio under a Labour administration.
Although it would be an exaggeration to claim a definite link between Ealing’s decline and the return of the Conservatives to power, the period from 1951 is marked by a deterioration in the quality of the studio’s productions. The writer Tibby Clarke suggested that Ealing’s demise was the result of an inability to adapt to social change and it is generally acknowledged that the studio’s films began to lose their earlier vitality, becoming less progressive and more backward-looking in their outlook. Despite still making some interesting features during the 1950s, the highpoint of Ealing’s political engagement had occurred during the previous decade, when the studio had been swept along by the ideological zeitgeist which had advanced the cause of social-democracy and had culminated in Labour’s victory in 1945.