1907 – present
(revised September 2023)
In 1902 Will Barker, a pioneer of British cinema, bought two houses on Ealing Green and the land that went with them. He built his first stage at Ealing in 1907 – like most of that period it was made of glass in order to maximise the available light. Two more glass stages were soon added along with workshops, prop stores and a laboratory. He made many modestly successful films here which included a version of Hamlet. This was particularly notable as it was filmed all in one day. The sets were apparently stacked in front of each other and as each scene was completed the scenery was struck to reveal the next one. I suppose they only had to pay the actors for one day’s work. Extraordinary.
Barker went into partnership with Bertie Samuelson to produce a film about Queen Victoria which was so successful that the latter went and established his own studios in Isleworth. However, it is said that in later years he became so disillusioned with the job of producing films that he advised his sons to concentrate on working in the technical side of the industry – and indeed the name of Samuelson became associated with camera and lighting hire for many years.
Barker retired from the industry after the First World War and in 1920 Ealing Studios were sold to a company called General Film Renters who, unsurprisingly, rented the studios to whoever wanted to use them. By 1930 Basil Dean’s company Associated Talking Pictures had taken ownership and he decided to rebuild much of the site. It is largely his redevelopment that still exists today. He constructed 4 stages – the first in the UK built for sound. Stage 2 opened in 1931 and stages 3A and 3B in 1933. Stages 2, 3A and 3B are still in use.
Stage 1 was converted to offices many years ago but was originally 58 x 34ft. Stage 2 is 125ft x 75ft wall to wall with a height to grid of 34ft. Stages 3A and 3B are each 85 x 70ft with a height of 32ft. There was also a ‘model stage’ which was 79 x 61ft.
In 1938 Michael Balcon joined the studios as Head of Production and the golden age of Ealing began.
The Studio became best known for its comedies such as The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets. Some of the stars who became associated with Ealing were Alec Guinness, Alastair Sim, Peter Sellars, Gracie Fields and George Formby. He made no less than 11 films here.
Unfortunately, the studios began to have diminishing success around 1955 and were in financial difficulties. This coincided with the realisation at the BBC that they had run out of room at Lime Grove to keep the film department working efficiently.
The photos below were taken by Kieran McAleer in September 2023. I suspect not much has changed over many years.
The BBC Years
By 1955 film was used at the BBC mostly for news and current affairs, with some location inserts for studio dramas and comedies. Almost nothing was filmed on stages – as of course the BBC had no dedicated film stages at that time: all their studios were being used to make multicamera TV programmes. They had 10 film camera crews and at Lime Grove there were 14 cutting rooms (editing suites as we would now call them) along with viewing theatres and dubbing suites but there simply was not enough space there. So the BBC began looking for a suitable site for its rapidly expanding Film Department.
Dozens of buildings, some more suitable than others, were looked at such as theatres, cinemas, even closed-down ice rinks. The Board of Management set aside £240,000 to purchase suitable premises as soon as something could be found. They then heard a rumour that Ealing Studios were in financial trouble and began secret negotiations to purchase the property and all its equipment. Of course, the studios were far bigger and better facilities than they were originally seeking but were in many ways ideal – not least being only 20 minutes from Lime Grove and the proposed Television Centre in White City.
On 15th September 1955 the Board of Governors gave the go-ahead and the purchase was completed on 27th January 1956. Ealing Studios thus became BBC Television Film Studios (TFS).
The money set aside was insufficient and they actually paid £350,000 for the land and buildings. However, they also had to find another £200,000 for the film library and all the technical equipment. These were significant sums in those days. There were serious concerns within the BBC at the huge costs involved and it was made very clear by the DG of the day that the BBC would not move in and refurb the whole site bringing it up to their normal high technical standards. The intention at the time was not to replace any existing equipment unless absolutely necessary. In fact, it was anticipated that the stages would be used mostly for storage and rehearsal space. There was clearly a worry that money might be drained from programme making at Lime Grove, Television Theatre and Riverside Studios into a world of movie-making for television which might cost vastly more than shooting the equivalent programme live in a TV studio.
Fred Hamilton has written to me. He was an assistant cameraman and worked with Peter Sargent to shoot some sequences for a drama called Jesus of Nazareth around the middle of 1956. This was the first time one of the Ealing stages had been used by the BBC – they filmed on stage 3A. A small set was built and they lit it with what was left of the old Ealing Studios kit. The camera was a huge, heavy 35mm Vincent Visatone in an equally massive blimp. In later years Fred went on to light the first series of Colditz at Ealing – more on this later. In his autobiography ‘Zoom In When You See The Tears’ Fred also mentions that the exterior set from The Ladykillers was still on the back lot so they used it as a set for some BBC dramas.
The stages soon began to prove how useful they were for all sorts of work that was impractical to do live in a typical multicamera television studio. According to a BBC document published in 1960, stage 2 was used for large or complicated sets, stage 3A was used for ‘general filming’ and stage 3B very simple filming such as interviews or for rehearsals.
In order to speed up lighting time on the stages the BBC installed overhead gantries and used rolling towers with lights mounted on them. Unfortunately, the gantries did not last very long at a useful height. Fred Hamilton’s autobiography describes how when some scenes for Quatermass and the Pit were filmed on stage 2 in 1958, they were raised to fit the set in. Unfortunately, no money was made available to restore them to the previous more useful height which he writes was a real problem in future years. He also describes the difficulties he had lighting some scenes for Dr Who. These were sets that would have been impractical to build in the studio in Lime Grove where most of the episode was recorded.
John Barlow has sent me a story that amused me. It seems that at some point during his tenure as Head of Film, the Health and Safety Executive were involved in a dispute between BBC TFS and their neighbours. Apparently, the washing of various local residents was becoming soiled when hung out to dry. John found that he was in danger of something similar happening to him when it transpired that the soot was coming from the studio’s diesel generators. These were ancient DC gennies and were based on old ship turbines. They had not been replaced with modern AC generators due to the original policy of spending as little as possible here. However, replacement was clearly overdue. Unfortunately, the machines were so old and heavy that in their removal the underground foul drains were damaged, resulting in an even bigger bill to be paid. John says he retained a nut as a memento. A nut?
In fact, the stages here were not used to make dramas for a number of years. At least, not entire dramas. They were however used to film scenes that would have been too difficult to achieve in a TV studio – involving special effects such as fire or water for example. Stage 2 has a tank which proved very useful on several occasions. As mentioned earlier, Quatermass and the Pit used a stage for some scenes and Dr Who was a regular user of Ealing for various scenes in the ’60s and ’70s although most of it was of course recorded on multicamera video at Lime Grove, Riverside or TV Centre.
By 1960 several big dramas included scenes shot here including Nelson and A Tale of Two Cities with the stages being used to film some interiors. In 1965 no drama was made completely on film but by 1969 things had changed and nine plays were made on film (on location and/or using the Ealing stages).
Probably the first all-film television play was made in 1966 when Jonathan Miller made his acclaimed version of Alice In Wonderland, with the huge courtroom set being constructed on stage 2. This was the largest set built to date on that stage. Until Colditz that is…
One of the classic series shot at Ealing between 1972 and 1974 was indeed Colditz. Most of the interiors were recorded on videotape at TV Centre but the castle courtyard was built on stage 2 and scenes were shot on 16mm film. One of the largest sets ever constructed here, it was extremely accurate and realistic – including a cobbled floor. Filming in the actual courtyard in East Germany was of course not practical but this set managed to convince many viewers that it was the real thing.
During the ’70s and ’80s the stages continued to be used for a mix of comedy and drama inserts into shows that had most of their running time recorded at TV Centre. Porridge was a typical example between 1974 and 1977 – some of the larger prison sets were built here. However, the number of dramas shot entirely on film gradually increased until by the beginning of the 1990s almost all drama was shot ‘single camera’ – although some was now being recorded using lightweight video cameras.
Notable dramas using these stages included Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven (’78) and The Singing Detective (’86). There was an interesting difference between these two remarkable series. The Singing Detective was shot entirely on film – on location and on the stages at Ealing. However, most of the running time of Pennies From Heaven was recorded in TC6 at TV Centre using the new Link 110 cameras. These produced pictures that were completely different from the 16mm film sequences. This difference in image quality as well as the obvious difference in shooting style between single camera and multicamera was something of a distraction on this drama – as with many plays, series and comedies of the period but it was considered acceptable by most viewers.
By 1986 it had become the norm to shoot major drama series entirely on film and to be honest I think The Singing Detective was all the better for that. Mixing film and video within the same programme for no artistic reason has always been a personal gripe of mine – I think the same medium should be used throughout. I should perhaps mention that I worked as a lowly camera assistant on the TV Centre scenes of Pennies From Heaven. I thought it looked absolutely superb but the film sequences jarred horribly with the studio sequences. It should all have been shot one way or the other.
It was not surprising that most producers and directors preferred working with film. There was the obvious glamour associated with the medium but it also allowed for far more freedom in locations, which of course writers loved. If sets were needed they could be built on a stage at Ealing and the rest shot on real locations. As well as major dramas like Fortunes of War (’87) and An Ungentlemanly Act (’92), Ealing was also used for popular series like Shoestring (’79, ’80).
Cameras, film formats and single camera video used by the BBC
When the BBC first started using Ealing, the most popular film format was 35mm. 16mm was seen as an amateur format and the image quality was relatively poor – partly due to the quality of film emulsion in the 1950s but also due to poor image stability and the lack of suitable cameras and lenses. 16mm Auricon cameras were being used by the news department but the image quality was not considered good enough for drama. However, 35mm was expensive and the equipment big and heavy so there was a desire to move to 16mm if at all possible.
Sound too was an issue. However, by 1958 it was possible to use a 16mm Arriflex along with an EMI L2B tape recorder that at last produced acceptable sound and pictures. Later popular cameras included the Eclair NPR and Arri’s answer to it – the BL. Forty of these were purchased in the 1960s and each cameraman was given his own camera rather than using a central pool. Overnight all the previous issues of reliability and complaints about faults disappeared as each cameraman treasured his own piece of invaluable kit.
Around the beginning of the 1980s the Super-16 format began to take over from standard 16mm. This uses the same width of film but it has only one set of sprocket holes and the image fills all the available space. This increases resolution and decreases grain producing excellent results. The image quality continued to improve with the ever increasing sophistication of film stock. This format continued to be used on a few dramas in the post millennium period (eg Merlin between 2008 and 2012) but it gradually died out.
In fact, film is hardly used for TV production at all any more. It has been replaced by digital video cameras using large CCD chips and uncompressed data storage such as the Sony CineAlta, Red One and Arri Alexa and Amira. These cameras produce images in many respects superior to 35mm film (some might disagree with this) but their images are certainly better than the HD television system can handle or transmit. In fact, almost all drama is shot now in 4K, often with High Dynamic Range.
Current digital cameras are the end of a chain that started back in the mid 1970s with the Bosch Fernseh KCR-40 – a tubed lightweight camera that required a separate video recorder but was a revolution in video camera design compared with the huge studio cameras in use at the time.
The real groundbreaker was the Ikegami HL-79. Released in 1979 it produced excellent pictures for its day and was not only used as the hand-held camera of choice in TV studios, it also began to be used as a location drama camera – often linked to a small van or OB truck in which might be a racks engineer with a 1 inch videotape recorder. One of these vehicles was based at Ealing and was called the ‘Location Production Unit.’ One of its successes was The Mayor of Casterbridge. Interestingly, the BBC OB department also built a similar vehicle. Somewhat controversially, so did the BBC Studios department, which built two – named ‘Studio Insert Units’. The SIUs were used for EastEnders and various sitcoms and were viewed in a somewhat hostile light by both Ealing and BBC OBs, who considered this kind of work to be their remit!
The cabled cameras and vans were replaced at Ealing by video cameras with built-in recorders during the 1980s – although these were not usually considered good enough for all dramas or comedy inserts which often still used 16mm film. Six Ealing crews were issued with portable single cameras (PSC) in 1983 and began to try out this new (to them) medium. Its limitations, particularly in contrast range compared with film were obvious but the cameramen involved soon learnt how to light for video and the PSC cameras began to be used on various programmes. Once CCD lightweight cameras became available – particularly the Sony DVW-700 – then video was used far more by Ealing cameramen – although rarely for major dramas.
Now film is hardly ever used in TV – the latest generation of digital movie cameras producing far better pictures and with greater flexibility than 16mm film.
The beginning of the 1990s saw many changes at the BBC brought about under John Birt’s infamous reign as Director General. In a similar manner to the management of more recent years, he decided that the BBC had to leave a number of its properties and included in the list was Ealing. The studios were sold in 1992 and the department moved to share the BBC’s outside broadcast base in Acton – where there were of course no studios or stages. Before the move there were around 60 BBC film dept. camera crews and dozens of scene crew, electricians and back-up office staff. However, this arrangement did not last long and a year or two later the entire film department was closed down and everyone lost their jobs. All the camera crews became freelance – and to be honest, most probably never looked back.
Ealing studios were acquired in 1992 by a company called BBRK – their business was scenery, lighting and special effects. They tried to revive the studios as a centre for film production. Unfortunately, the enterprise collapsed in October 1994. However, during this time the BBC filmed the interiors for the excellent Falklands war drama – An Ungentlemanly Act in 1992.
The studios were then purchased by the National Film and Television School, which was based at the old Beaconsfield film studios. The intention was to convert the studios into a film school and to leave Beaconsfield. However, the Lottery Commission decided that it would cost too much to convert Ealing and instead granted money to upgrade Beaconsfield. The NFTS continued to own Ealing for a while and hired the facilities to independent production companies for film, TV and commercial work but this was an arrangement that could not last. Nevertheless, some well-known films were made such as An Ideal Husband and parts of Notting Hill.
In March 1999 the studios were put on the market yet again.
In 2000 Ealing was bought by a consortium from Fragile Films, The Manhattan Loft Corporation and author/producer John Kao. In 2001 they were granted planning permission to extensively redevelop the site as a film studio and base for media companies. The original stages were preserved but most of the other buildings were rebuilt or refurbished to very high quality over the following few years.
The first new film to be made under the ‘Ealing Studios’ name was The Importance of Being Earnest (’02) and several other successful features have been made here including Shaun of the Dead (’04), Dorian Gray (’09), Burke and Hare (’10), About Time (’13), I Give It A Year (’13), D-Train (’15), The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (’18) and commercially most successful of all – the St Trinian’s films (’07, ’09).
The stages continue to be used occasionally for TV production – I worked there myself in 2003 lighting the 2 Pints of Lager musical special When Janet Met Johnny. Most notably however, stages 3A and 3B were used for several years to film the ‘downstairs’ kitchen scenes in Downton Abbey – there being no suitable locations available. Stage 2 was also used for Let’s Dance For Comic Relief/Sport Relief from 2009 to 2011. It is to my knowledge the only show ever made at Ealing using a multicamera OB unit.
Incidentally, as well as the original 3 stages, Ealing now offers stage 1 (54 x 52ft) – described as ‘sound deadened’ and suitable for small sets, rehearsals, model shots, pack shots etc plus stage 5 (42 x 22ft), previously the old dubbing theatre and also considered suitable for small sets, interviews, model shots etc.
In November 2022 planning permission was granted for a significant expansion here. It will include a 14,000 sq ft sound stage, 10,000 sq ft of new workshops and 35,000 sq ft of additional offices. The existing facilities are also to be extensively renovated. The attractive development has been designed by architects Create Design. Jacqueline Giangrande informs me that they ‘aim to make Ealing Studios the first Net Zero Carbon stage in the UK and the most advanced studio in the world’, which I reckon is a pretty good ambition. The new building will have air source heat pumps, solar panels on the roof and has been designed in an art deco style to celebrate the architecture of the original studios. Work on demolishing the old workshops was begun in the autumn of 2023. The new stage will take about 18 months to construct so should be available by the end of 2025.
Timeline TV also have a TV studio on the Ealing Studios site (Studio B). It is relatively small at 290 sq ft and is mostly used for VR.
In August 2021 Timeline opened the Ealing Broadcast Centre, located a short distance away on Ealing Broadway. You may recall that Timeline are the company that run BT’s studios at ‘Here East’ on the Olympic Park. This new live broadcast facility was originally set over 3 floors, including a 2,000 sq ft VR studio (Studio 1). Programmes with conventional sets can also use the studio but they emphasise the flexibility that virtual sets can bring to sport-related shows. The state of the art facilities include dressing rooms, production offices, green rooms, edit suites, VO booths and very well-equipped galleries. Connectivity is second to none, enabling control of remote cameras on location as well as the studio here. Channel 4’s Paralympic coverage was the first booking in the studio.
In June 2022 it was reported that the Ealing Broadcast Centre now takes up five floors, with an additional three studios and several new production spaces, galleries, edit rooms, dressing rooms, and green rooms. Two of the studio are large, fully kitted out spaces, while the third is a smaller space for use with virtual sets.