Ealing Studios is one of those legendary names in film circles. Known throughout the film world, it grew from a relatively small operation on the south-western outskirts of 1930s London, eventually becoming a byword for high quality, quintessentially English motion picture entertainment.
Building A Brand
From the late 1930s, under the watchful eye of Michael Balcon, the studio had established itself as a mainstay of popular British cinema. Under the spectre of war – and with the backing of its new parent company, the Rank Organisation – Ealing went from strength to strength, providing the opportunity for the British public to fight alongside their heroes on the frontline or escape the wartime realities in fanciful comedy. Indeed, by the end of the 1940s, it was this particular brand of quaint English comedy on which the studio had built a reputation, spurring a whole genre of its own: the Ealing Comedy.
Running parallel to the highly popular Ealing comedies, however, was another kind of filmmaking all together. Borne out of a desire to continue supporting the British Empire in much the same way he had supported the British war effort, studio chief Michael Balcon endeavored to develop a programme of filmmaking that would display all the strength, diversity and stoicism of the Commonwealth and ensure that Ealing Studios remained a vitally important part of the British film industry. To this end, Ealing was going to Australia.
Heading Down Under
The first steps towards Ealing’s Australian venture were taken in late 1943 when, at the request of the Films Division of the British Ministry of Information, Ealing Studios chief Michael Balcon dispatched director (and Greirsonian documentary pioneer) Harry Watt to Australia, with instructions to find a story worth filming that would publicise Australia’s contribution to the war effort and display the virtues of the wider British Empire.
Although Balcon did so at the behest of the British Ministry of Information, much of the momentum for Ealing’s Australian venture had come directly from Michael Balcon himself, who had attempted (and failed) with a similar, short-lived Australian venture as head of production for Gaumont-British in the 1930s.
Ealing In Australia: The Overlanders and Eureka Stockade
Two years after his arrival in Australia, Harry Watt delivered The Overlanders (1946), a relatively successful outing which focussed on the exploits of a team of drovers leading cattle clear across the Australian continent in an effort to thwart any possible Japanese invasion during World War II. Essentially an Australian western, the film starred the quintessential Australian actor of the period, ‘Chips’ Rafferty, who would go on to feature in two further Ealing productions in Australia.
The surprising success of The Overlanders provided solid justification for Ealing to continue their Australian excursion with a further four films over the next fifteen years, the first of which was a re-telling of the classic Australian tale of miner rebellion, Eureka Stockade (Harry Watt, 1949), led by Peter Lalor, with ‘Chips’ Rafferty again taking the lead. After a difficult production period, the film met with mediocre reviews and, despite limited success locally, was deemed something of a failure for Ealing Studios.
Renewed Hope: Bitter Springs
By the time Eureka Stockade was released into cinemas, the wheels were already in motion on the studio’s next Australian production, Bitter Springs (1950). Studio head Michael Balcon drafted in Ralph Smart – who had previously directed another British-produced Australian classic, Bush Christmas (1947) – with plans for a much more economic story, detailing the experiences of a small farming family re-settling on indigenous land, with a cast including ‘Chips’ Rafferty as the family patriarch, with Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell as his son, and English comedian Tommy Trinder as the hired hand.
Although largely forgotten in Australia and the UK (where it has now been released on DVD), the film is vastly important as an early exploration of the complex relationship between the indigenous population of Australia and its earliest European settlers. Foreshadowing the complicated land rights debates by almost thirty years, the film provides an interesting perspective on the issue with a subtlety uncharacteristic of the time, albeit one marred by a clumsy, deeply assimilationist conclusion.
Late Ealing: The Shiralee and The Siege of Pinchgut
Lacking a major success, Ealing’s Australian venture began to falter in the 1950s, a situation worsened by the studio’s own precarious position at home in England. The west London studios were sold to the BBC in 1955, and complex wrangling between Ealing and the flagging Rank Organisation led to a new partnership with the English arm of Hollywood studio MGM.
During this brief Ealing-MGM period, the studio produced the fourth film of their Australian venture, The Shiralee (Leslie Norman, 1957). Adapted from D’Arcy Niland’s bestselling novel, the film was essentially a road movie tracing the life of an itinerant swagman – played by Peter Finch – forced to care for his young daughter after witnessing the callous exploits of his estranged wife.
By the time the film was released, Ealing Studios was on its last legs. The deal with MGM had fallen apart and Michael Balcon was gradually losing control of the renamed Ealing Films. The final outing of Ealing’s Australian venture – The Siege of Pinchgut (Harry Watt, 1959), an uncharacteristically violent tale of escaped convicts in Sydney – would also prove to be the final film produced by Balcon under the now-legendary Ealing banner.
Despite varying fortunes, each of the films produced by Ealing Studios’ Australian venture presented a view of Australia and Australian lives as interpreted by foreign directors working under the supervision of a producer 10,000 miles away. And yet the films also exist as rarefied cinematic representations of Australian scenery, Australian narratives and the Australian nation in the 1940s and ’50s, a period in which the local industry had all but stagnated.
The Overlanders, Bitter Springs and The Siege of Pinchgut are all available on UK DVD via Studio Canal, and in Australia via Umbrella (who also carry the Australian release of Eureka Stockade). In the UK, Eureka Stockade and The Shiralee are both available on different volumes of Network’s Ealing Studios Rarities DVD collections. The Shiralee is not currently available on Australian DVD (although the Network collections are region-free).
For more on Ealing’s Australian adventure, check out my chapter in the BFI/Palgrave book Ealing Revisited, released in late 2012 to coincide with a major Ealing retrospective at BFI Southbank. A version of this article originally appeared on Suite101.