Interview with Sir Michael Balcon (1969)

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At Ealing, a small, almost cottage-like studio, the film producer Sir Michael Balcon (1896–1977) found his spiritual home. Under his benevolently paternalistic rule it developed into the nearest the British film industry ever came to a studio after the classic Hollywood pattern. Like, for example, Warner Brothers in the 1930s, Ealing had its roster of personnel—directors, writers, and technicians—on permanent salary, its pool of actors, its recurrent thematic preoccupations, and from all these there was derived a very recognizable house style of film-making that was to a large degree Balcon’s own personal creation. Despite its tiny capacity—even at its most productive, the studio never managed to turn out more than six feature films a year—Ealing became the most famous British film studio in the world. In 1948, with Ealing at the peak of its creativity, Balcon was awarded a knighthood for his services to British cinema. From this period, too, date the films for which he and his studio will always be best remembered: the classic Ealing comedies. Starting with Hue and Cry (1947), in which a gang of boys hunt down crooks across the bomb-sites of post-war London, these films present a vision of controlled anarchy, often benevolent, as in Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). But from time to time a darker note tinged the humour, as in Robert Hamer’s elegantly ruthless Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), or Alexander Mackendrick’s sharp political satire The Man in the White Suit (1951) and his Gothic black comedy The Ladykillers (1955). Hamer and Mackendrick were two of those who benefited from Balcon’s policy of fostering young talent; others were the directors Charles Frend, Charles Crichton, Seth Holt, the screenwriter T. E. B. Clarke, and the cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. Throughout his career he believed in nurturing and encouraging promising young men (rarely women), giving them generous opportunities and leaving them free to develop their abilities within a supportive environment. Monja Danischewsky, Ealing’s witty and gregarious publicity officer, referred to Ealing as “Mr Balcon’s Academy for Young Gentlemen.” Production decisions were reached at the “round table” conferences, attended by all the senior personnel with Balcon presiding benignly. He often let himself be overruled by majority opinion, with the standing joke, “Well, if you fellows feel so strongly, on my head be it.”

From Philip Kemp, ‘Balcon, Sir Michael Elias (1896–1977)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

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