Big screen scene
Mon 21 March 2016, 11:51 am
As London stakes its claim as the film capital of the world, Lucy Purdy discovers how Ealing is the engine room of a new British golden age of filmmaking
When Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg are filming in town, each makes a beeline for Ealing. These three blockbusting kings of the global film industry know what they like when they’re making movies in the capital, and they like this west London borough with a history of punching well above its filmmaking weight.
From Ealing Studios, where Downton Abbey has been made for six years, to the council-run film office attracting Hollywood heavyweights to shoot films and programmes at Ealing locations, the borough is perfectly poised to benefit from an anticipated £3 billion spend on film and high-end TV in Britain in the next few years.
Foreign investment fuelled by tax breaks, world-recognisable locations and a reputation for exacting standards, production skills and awe- inspiring special effects have helped underscore London’s supremacy. And Ealing has always been one of the hotspots, explains Mike Liddall, head of the West London Film Office.
“We have the world-renowned Ealing Studios on our doorstep and a whole host of lesser-known ones that are also really important to the industry. The vast bulk, we’re talking 90% of the TV and film industry’s supply chain companies, from lighting and camera to prop hire, are based off the A40 in Acton. So this borough is the film and TV engine house of London. And guess what? London is now the most filmed location in the world. It was third, behind New York and Los Angeles, but has jumped to the top, which is why we’ve just had our busiest year yet.”
When tasked with making the most of Ealing’s filming potential in the early 1990s, only a smattering of other London councils had even begun to think of it as a potential income stream. So Liddall turned to a friend working at the BBC to ask what it was that film and television makers really wanted.
“He told me that what was needed was a one-stop shop, a single point of contact rather than multiple council departments. So that’s what we did. Our first one was a Direct Line commercial of a car turned on its roof. It was a really big, impactful advert and we charged the crew to film on the streets in Ealing.”
The concept had launched.
Ironically, the BBC, who had filmed in the borough for free for years, took umbrage at the new charges, and Liddall was summoned to a meeting in their canteen. Striking up a conversation with a TV researcher he was sitting next to, he found an unlikely ally in her boss who told Liddall’s contact he thought that charging for locations was a reasonable idea. It was Jeremy Paxman.
“I decided to keep the charges, but also to go on the offensive to be helpful,” says Liddall.
“I knew the film crews could afford it, for the right location. The power of advertising and the power of a good location are very powerful. Major brands can increase sales by millions with the right advert.”
The film office now represents the boroughs of Ealing and neighbouring Harrow, and was based at Ealing Studios before moving to the council’s offices in 2006. Liddall and his team have successfully attracted film crews to both council and private sites, helping create major feature films, well-known TV dramas and immediately recognisable pop videos. What do Love Actually, Bend It Like Beckham, Only Fools and Horses and Blur’s Parklife video have in common? You guessed it. All include filming in Ealing.
The team receives hundreds of requests each month, from student filmmakers seeking the perfect spot for their debut projects to major Hollywood-backed productions. Brad Pitt starred as a former UN investigator in the recent World War Z, some scenes from which were filmed in Ealing. The film grossed more than $540 million against a production budget of $190 million, becoming the highest-grossing zombie film of all time.
And when the phones aren’t ringing? “We ring out,” says Liddall. “We contact designers and location managers and ask what they’re working on. They need a Norwegian community centre? We haven’t got any in Norway, but we have some in Greenford that look Scandinavian in design. We put out feelers so we know what shows are being made: we make it easy for them to use us.
“The best thing is to secure locations which become a character’s home in a long-running TV show. Once established, they appear in every single episode.”
Ealing Studios is synonymous with filming in the borough and is the oldest continuously working studio facility for film production in the world, much- loved for its history and the stream of famous films shot there. Most recently, these include the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything and the comedy-drama Burnt, starring Bradley Cooper as a top chef.
Barnaby Thompson, one of the partners in the studio, says: “Ealing Studios is much-loved by filmmakers all around the world, including Martin Scorsese, Stephen Frears and Simon Pegg. It has always been in Ealing and hopefully will always remain here. It is the closest studio to central London, and will be even more so with the arrival of Crossrail.”
A longer version of this article features in the new issue of Ealing in London magazine