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  • Charles Drazin

Ealing Comedy: A Serious Business – Whisky Galore! 75 Years On

This month the classic Ealing comedy Whisky Galore! celebrates its 75th anniversary. It’s a wonderful example of Ealing Studios at its best, although one reason why it’s such a landmark film is the fact that it wasn’t shot at Ealing Studios at all.

The film arose out of the desire of Ealing’s head of publicity, Monja Danischewsky – known as “Danny” –  to become a producer.  Studio boss Michael Balcon was keen to give him a chance, but, because there was already a full schedule of films being shot at Ealing, he insisted that Danny find a subject that could be made entirely away from the studio. Perfectly fitting the bill was Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore, a novel that was set a whole 500 miles away from Ealing up in the Outer Hebrides. It was inspired by the true incident of a cargo ship, the SS Politician, in 1941 running aground off the coast of the Scottish island Eriskay with 22,000 cases of whisky. The website for Eriskay’s neighbour island South Uist offers a good account of what happened:

The island chosen for the production was Barra, the southernmost island of the Outer Hebrides, where Compton Mackenzie had lived (and where he would be buried). The fictional name of the island in the film, Todday, suggests the top priority of islanders, as in their thirst for toddies they outwit the officious Captain Waggett – the English officer in charge of the local Home Guard – to salvage the precious cargo that has washed up on their shores. “Whisky,” explains the opening narration, “Uisge Beatha. In Gaelic, they call it the water of life. And to a true islander, life without it is not worth living.”

The film-makers converted a church hall, in the hamlet of Craigstone, into a tiny film studio 50 feet long and 25 feet wide. It was soundproofed by covering the ceiling and walls with felt, and fitting detachable wooden frames with slag wool to its windows. Prefabricated sets were sent up from London by rail and sea, together with vehicles to carry cameras and lamps as well as a generator. 

Many of the island’s inhabitants appeared as extras in the film. Each day’s takes were sent on the afternoon plane from Barra to Glasgow, where they arrived in time to catch the 6.30 p.m. plane for London.  The laboratory printed them the same night and they were then flown back to Barra the following morning, where the unit would see the rushes in the church hall at Castlebay. Although during the shoot the island suffered some of the worst gales in years, the church hall studio made it possible to make the film without losing a day’s shooting to the weather.

Danny – Mick Balcon’s novice producer – chose as his director Alexander Mackendrick, although he had not directed a feature film before. “So it was rather a case of the blind leading the blind,” Danny recalled. Far from being blind, Mackendrick turned out to have a strikingly cinematic eye that could distil the dramatic essence – the Uisge Beatha – of a scene. His art school training enabled him to pre-plan what he would shoot through the use of storyboards. He would later explain: “I’ve always done drawing, which is my equivalent of writing really, because I think in terms of images.”

Mackendrick realised that the best comedy was much more than simply a question of laughter. Richard Winnington, the film critic for the News Chronicle, appreciated this point when he observed in his review of Whisky Galore!, published in the Chronicle on 18 June 1949, that it “doesn’t stand aside and say, ‘Aren’t we being funny?’ as Passport to Pimlico and every other post-war comedy consistently and ruinously does.” Relying on irony rather than facetiousness, Whisky Galore! put social observation before gratuitous laughter, offering a perceptive commentary on a cultural conflict between north and south that would become only more evident in the subsequent decades.

The film’s opening at the Gaumont Haymarket and Marble Arch Pavilion on 16 June 1949 marked an important transition in Ealing’s output to a more sophisticated form of comedy. Kind Hearts and Coronets – which took this new form to its absolute blackest – opened only a week later.

Mackendrick made  three more  comedies at Ealing: The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Maggie (1954) and The Ladykillers (1955). Of the three, it is the first that has the strongest resonance for our own time. To quote Balcon’s close associate at the studio, Alberto Cavalcanti (who is the unsung godfather of what we think of as Ealing comedy), The Man in the White Suit is an example of how “comedy can deal with the bitterest realities, the most cruel facts”. This story of a man who invents a fabric that does not need washing digs into the dark aspect of technological progress that can today often seem on the verge of overwhelming us. For a generation that fears the prospect of losing their livelihoods to generative AI, the reproach of the old washer-woman to Alec Guinness’s blinkered young inventor strikes an obvious chord: “Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing, when there’s no washing to do?”

As Mackendrick appreciated, comedy was a serious business.


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