Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Ealing nostaligic

I have a minor addiction to film studios. I think that it might have begun when I was taken around Universal Studios in Hollywood, as a child, although having said that, by then I had already had bursts of obsession about Charlie Chaplin and the early days of Hollywood, so I may already have got the bug.

I'm not sure what it is that I find so fascinating; perhaps it is the sense of anticipation at what might come out of them. Possibly, it is the amazing skills of the artists who build sets, create special effects, or perform in these modern cathedral-sized spaces, or maybe even it's the last ember of a childlike fantasy that I might, if they did but know it, have something to offer the film makers inside. Whatever it is, if I am near a film studio, I cannot resist the urge to go and have a look (usually at not very much, given tight security).

Nowadays, however, I do occasionally find myself wandering around the backlots of Pinewood and Shepperton, thanks to the magic of Google Streetview. As regular readers will know, I also thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Warner Bros. Studio Tour, even if I am one of those pedantic people who knows and is still slightly bothered by the fact that the sets that you walk around are not actually in the real studios where the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Instead, just to spoil the magic slightly (although, to be fair to the Tour, they do not pretend otherwise), they are in a specially built venue next door. The "real" Leavesden Studios, where the films were actually made, is tantalisingly over the fence next to the car park.

So it was with gentle satisfaction, then, that I found myself outside Ealing Studios in West London, recently, the origin of some of my favourite old films, and one that is still, pleasingly, a site for the production of movies. The old entrance, above, is symbolic of the pocket-sized studios; on the face of it grand but, behind the white paster facade, very much make do and mend.

Ealing Studios are synonymous with a roughly six year run of glorious British films, which include such classics as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), and The Ladykillers (1955), although they have actually been making films on the site, in one form or another, for 114 years. I grew up watching the famous "Ealing Comedies", and others of around the same era, having been introduced to them by my late father, who was as much of a film enthusiast in his day, as I am now.

I wandered along a public alleyway, between the studios and a BT building, and I was pleased to see that the small backlot, such as it is, was filled with movie trailers. I steered guiltily clear of the security guard in his box, but sneaked a few surreptitious photos. Peering over walls and fences, I took in the pile of old props and, at the back of the studios, the rickety-looking 1930s buildings, and could imagine being transported back to the time when British cinema great such as Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Peter Sellers,  Dennis Price, and Alastair Sim would have been regular performers there.

Nowadays, far from being tied to its past, alongside its historic sound stages, Ealing Studios is also home to the cutting edge of cinema, in the form of Andy Serkis' studio and production company, The Imaginarium. The Imaginarium specialises in motion capture technology for film, television and video games (including for the most recent Star Wars film). Peering nosily into one of the windows on the first floor of the old entrance, I realised with a start that I must actually have been looking into Mr Serkis' office; a carved wooden gorilla perched on the windowsill being one of the clues (Andy Serkis performed, via motion capture, the title role in 2005's King Kong). Maybe, one day, I'll get to have a proper look around some studios, but for now I'm happy to indulge my addiction from afar.

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