Passport to Ealing
Richard E Grant on his love of the classic comedies – and why he never wanted to be an action hero
s an actor known for quirky roles, it’s no surprise that Richard E Grant’s film tastes are a little offbeat, too.
The star of cult comedy Withnail & I (1987) has shied away from big blockbusters, preferring movies that allow a cast to flex their acting muscles. So he jumped at the chance to present a new three-part series for Gold about some of his favourite films, the Ealing Comedies.
‘In my own career, I’ve always been most interested in characterdriven roles,’ says Richard, 59. ‘I’m less interested in playing action heroes or smouldering heroes.
Yet almost without exception, most movie artists these days tend to play just one kind of character.
‘As an actor, I was always struck by the fact that the Ealing Comedies had this cast of people in almost a repertory system. I thought that was amazing, because you could see them going from one film to
Athe next and not know what kind of parts they were going to play.
‘They’re some of my favourite films of all time – witty, quirky and with a vast range of plots and roles.’
The Ealing Comedies – including Passport to Pimlico (1949), which is shown immediately after this week’s programme – were filmed at the west London studios of the same name between 1947 and 1955. Before World War Two, film comedies had generally been farcical vehicles for comedians. Then stars like Arthur Askey and George Formby began adding political and social commentary.
After the war, the Ealing Comedies took this one step further by making films with actors rather than comedians, and plots began to become much cleverer.
‘they not only put British comedy on the map, they also earned a special place in the heart of film lovers the world over,’ says Richard.
As well as setting the standard for plots and scripts,
The Lavender Hill Mob The Ladykillers featured Peter Sellers (top row, centre) and alec Guinness (front left) the series made big stars out of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, among others.
‘Alec Guinness was my favourite out of them all,’ reveals Richard. ‘He was just somebody I always admired and wanted to emulate.’
The comedies range from award-winning heist movie The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) to the subversive Meet Mr Lucifer (1953). One of the most famous of the series is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which Alec Guinness plays eight different characters.
‘One amazing scene is a composite shot of him in six of his roles,’ says Richard. ‘That’s easy enough to do now with our technology, but back then it was complex, timeconsuming and groundbreaking. The director even slept next to the camera overnight to make sure it wasn’t moved even an inch, or the shot would have been ruined.’
the Ealing comedies sadly came to an end when the studios were sold to the
BBC, but their legacy lives on.
‘It was a relatively short period of film-making but they make for a fascinating social document of that time, as they go from blackand-white at the end of the war to the 1950s, when everything bursts into colour,’ enthuses Richard.
‘They include all sorts of ideas that we take for granted now –
The Ladykillers (1955) has a little old lady who’s smarter than anyone realises, which is quite Miss Marple-like. I love these films because they’re witty and quintessentially British. It was a delight to watch them all again.’
They’re witty and quintessentially
alec with Stanley Holloway in