Tour of Ealing Studios

The original entrance to Ealing Studios, with blue plaque dedicated to Michael Balcon

On Friday I was lucky enough to be able to go on a tour of Ealing Studios as part of the Ealing Music & Film Festival. The studios are the oldest continuously working film studios in the world, and have played a huge part in the British film industry for over a century, encompassing silent film, the onset of the “talkies”, the upheaval of two world wars and technological developments such as motion capture.

The site was originally occupied by Will Barker Studios from 1902, later becoming Associated Talking Pictures Ltd. Ealing Studios was built in 1931 and in 1938 Michael Balcon (who gave his name to the local branch of Wetherspoon’s) from MGM took over, issuing films under the Ealing Studios name. Many memorable films were produced in the 1930s and 40s, including documentary war films, but the studio’s heyday was during the post-war 1940s and the 1950s when celebrated Ealing comedies, including Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, were produced.

The studios were purchased by the BBC in 1955, leading to nearly half a century of location filming for television dramas and serials. After a transitional period late in the century, the studios entered new ownership in 2001. The five original sound stages are present, and are now listed. As well as offices and bases for modern production and related companies, the studios produce films and television shows: recent films include The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) and St. Trinian’s (2007), as well as the hugely popular Downton Abbey. In addition, the Imaginarium, a performance capture studio set up by Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish, is based in one of the sound stages: famously it was used to create Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Inside the complex, looking towards reception

To reach the tour meeting point, which was the reception area, I had to go through the security point. There were several of us on the tour and we were taken to see the white building which was the original studio entrance in the 1950s. Famous figures including Michael Balcon and Alfred Hitchcock had offices here. It is looking slightly shabby these days but they are hoping to get the funds to restore it shortly. We were taken around the large complex and saw some of the modern companies, including a casting company and a hair and makeup studio, present on-site. One of the buildings, which includes the original sound stages, is listed but the newer building in front of it is due to be demolished and replaced with up-to-the-minute production facilities.

The original entrance, seen from the back

The most exciting part of the tour was being able to go on to the sound stages. On one, we saw a set being built, consisting of a theatre foyer and a staircase. This set is for a remake of the 1983 film The Dresser, and will star Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen. The top of the staircase leads to nowhere: a real theatre is being used for the auditorium (Hackney Empire). Thanks to a question from another person on the tour, I found out that this was the sound stage on which Scott of the Antarctic was shot. It was huge and still had some of the old safety notices on the walls.

Listed building containing sound stages

The second sound stage was even more exciting: crew members and carpenters were preparing for the filming of Downton Abbey. Much of this popular show is filmed at Highclere Castle, but a significant proportion is filmed at Ealing Studios. As they were busy creating the set, we couldn’t see much but I could see into Lady Mary’s bedroom – which was in the process of having wooden “fireplaces” fitted – and had a peek into the servants’ corridor. We also saw the large backdrops used behind the windows, to give the illusion that it is a real room in a real house with a view. I also had a very brief glance into the Dower House sitting room.

Plaque commemorating famous films made here

The tour was fairly short – it is a working studio after all – but very interesting. I was thrilled to have had the opportunity to visit.