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Thursday, 21 June, 2001, 16:30 GMT 17:30 UK
Ealing for the 21st Century
By the BBC's media correspondent Nick Higham

It is one of the most famous brand names in British film history.

Ealing Films produced a stream of successful comedies from Passport to Pimlico in 1949 to The Ladykillers in 1955.

Together the Ealing comedies - along with dramas like The Blue Lamp and The Cruel Sea -added up to an affectionate portrait of post-war Britain, a world of stiff upper lips, loveable rogues and snooks cocked at pompous authority.

The films were made by a team led by the producer Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios in west London - these days a ramshackle collection of sheds and sound stages stretching away behind a tiny white-painted "administration block" off the tree-lined Ealing Green.

Ealing Studios
Artist's impression of the revamped Ealing Studios
The studios' location - and their modest size compared to much larger establishments like Pinewood or Shepperton - gave Ealing Films the air almost of a cottage industry.

Perhaps it was unsurprising that after Balcon sold the studios in 1956 he hoped to continue film production elsewhere, but was never able to recapture the Ealing esprit de corps, or the quality of the movies produced there.

Since the 1950s the studios have remained in use, rented out to film and television producers.

For many years the BBC owned them.

Later they became the base for the National Film and Television School.

This week the shabby white-painted buildings are playing host to a TV comedy series produced by Hat Trick, a BBC programme and a forthcoming drama from Granada called The Jury.

Last year the business was bought for 10m by a consortium of three companies - film producer Fragile Films (maker of Spiceworld, The Movie), a San Francisco new media company called The Idea Factory and a property developer, the Manhattan Loft Company.

Sir Alec Guinness
The late Sir Alec Guinness was a star of many Ealing comedies
Last week they got planning permission from Ealing Council for a 40m redevelopment of the site.

The three main sound stages will remain, but almost everything around them will be knocked down and rebuilt as offices, post-production facilities and rehearsal rooms for scores of film, TV and new media companies.

The partners hope the studios' location - in leafy west London, 45 minutes by tube from the Soho film and television community - will prove popular with the denizens of Britain's booming film industry.

But the studios' new owners are going further.

They are resurrecting the Ealing Films' brand name, in a conscious attempt to capitalise on the old Ealing's reputation for quality and a certain quirky Britishness.

The first of the new Ealing comedies is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, currently being shot.

Ealing Studios
A view of a TV studio at Ealing
It stars Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, the American actress Reese Witherspoon and Judy Dench as Lady Bracknell, and with a budget of $13m (9.2m) it is by British standards a big film.

The producer, Barnaby Thompson of Fragile Films, believes that to be successful in competition with Hollywood blockbusters British films must have big budgets and ambitions to match.

He is also well aware that calling his new production an Ealing Film invites comparisons with the glories of the past - comparisons that may not necessarily flatter it.

Nonetheless he and his partners believe the Ealing name is still potent enough to be worth resurrecting.

The biggest danger is that audiences will assume the new Ealing films are merely newer versions of the old ones.

The trick they must pull off is exploiting Ealing's glorious history without becoming prisoners of it.

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