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Birmingham Post (08/Mar/2008) - A city movie giant who spawned a generation

(c) Birmingham Post (08/Mar/2008)

A city movie giant who spawned a generation

The Golden Globes, the Baftas, the Oscars and their like are now at their seasonal end until another year. The film industry's annual awards circus brings many screen names to the attention of millions around the world who pay homage to the enduring powers of the silver screen.

This year, honours have frequently gone to the lesser known names on the stellar shortlists.

Marion Cotillard, the French actress, won an Oscar for her role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. Spanish actor Javier Bardem collected the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as the Haircut One Hundred brutal assassin in the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men. Debut screen writer Diablo Cody won an Oscar for Best Original Script for her teasing screenplay, Juno.

However, there was one name which sang out to me on Oscar night - not a short-listed name, nor a name associated with any of the fine films on show; nor even the name of a working film professional.

That name was Michael Balcon.

It is a name that echoes with impeccable Birmingham associations, and it was spoken by Daniel Day Lewis, who collected his second Oscar for Best Actor for the oil epic There Will Be Blood, from the regal Helen Mirren, herself an Oscar winner last year for The Queen.

In his acceptance speech Day Lewis, feted in 1989 for My Left Foot, accepted his Oscar award "in honour of my grandfather, Michael Balcon".

Day Lewis, in honouring his grandfather, was drawing attention to the enormous achievements of Birmingham's film knight, Sir Michael Balcon, who was born in the city in 1896, educated at the city's George Dixon Grammar School, and who died in 1977.

Sir Michael became a film producer of international movie mogul standing, knighted for his services to the UK film industry.

Initially with Victory Motion Pictures and later with Gainsborough Pictures, Gaumomt-British, MGM-British, and Ealing Studios, Sir Michael Balcon was one of a tiny number of Hollywood-style film producers active in the UK in the middle of the 20th century.

In the 1930s he made movies such as A Yank at Oxford, Goodbye Mr Chips, The Good Companions, The 39 Steps and, in the 1940s, Convoy, Went the Day Well and Next of Kin, gathering together creative teams of writers, directors, actors, musicians, designers and technicians in a way that is unparalleled in British film history.

Balcon discovered Alfred Hitchcock and produced all of his UK films. Later on, he oversaw the output from Ealing Studios in the 1940s and 1950s, which is undeniably at the centre of the British film industry's most prestigious period - and, above all, it stands as the significant achievement of Sir Michael Balcon as a film studio head and executive producer.

Ealing films championed one man's battle against faceless bureaucracy, celebrating a very English and good-natured spirit of rebellion, as in Passport to Pimlico. In this film the residents of a London street declare independence from England in order to escape from the post-war torment of rationing.

The Lavender Hill Mob pits a mild-mannered bank clerk against the Bank of England as he masterminds a robbery of the Bank's gold reserves.

A darker, though no less comic, vein surfaced in films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which a commoner murders his way to a dukedom, a film in which Alec Guinness multi-performed as an entire aristocratic dynasty.

In an affectionate nod and a wink to his Birmingham upbringing, Balcon named the policeman in the Ealing movie The Blue Lamp (1954) after his old Birmingham school - George Dixon. This policeman was later to materialise as the eponymous copper in the television series, Dixon of Dock Green.

Sir Michael is rightly considered one of the most important figures in British cinema, and it was his vision which internationalised the UK film industry in the 1920s and 1930s.

His work at Ealing Studios, projecting the character of the country after the privations of war, has left an indelible impression on the history of British cinema.

The plaque erected in the 1950s at Ealing says it all: "Here during a quarter of a century films were made projecting Britain and the British character."

Not only a producer, Sir Michael also argued on behalf of the film industry as a whole, advocating both its commercial and cultural responsibilities. He was one of the founders of the British Academy for Film and Television Arts (Bafta), which annually bestows an award in his name - The Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema - and the first chairman in the 1950s of the Experimental Film Fund at the British Film Institute, whose activities he described as bringing unknown talent and film techniques "into the light".

This Fund, later renamed the BFI Production Board, supported the first film efforts of directors such as Ridley Scott, Stephen Frears, Derek Jarman, Terence Davies and Gurinder Chadha. It's also a fund that I had the great pleasure to head for a time during my own film career.

The Balcon film dynasty was continued by his daughter, Jill Balcon (Day Lewis's mother) who married Poet Laureate Cecil Day Lewis.

Jill Balcon has carved out an impressive acting career on the stage and on screen, taking in a number of Ealing movies in the 1940s (Nicholas Nickleby, Good Time Girl) and in more recent years, in two films directed by Derek Jarman (Edward II, Wittgenstein).

These films are returning to public attention as Derek Jarman's film career receives positive critical reassessment since his death in 1994.

Winning the Oscar for There Will Be Blood affirms the status of Day Lewis, Balcon's grandson, as the consummate professional of his generation.

He has now collected two Oscars, three Baftas and one Golden Globe, and is rightly rated as an actor who goes the full nine yards to deliver the character portrayed.

Beginning his screen career in the intense Sunday Bloody Sunday, his list of films charts a cinematic cartography of edgy, provocative movies that includes, among others, My Beautiful Launderette, My Left Foot, Last of the Mohicans, Gangs of New York, The Unbearable Lightness of Being .

In his uncompromising preparation for a role he cannot be surpassed; his time confined to a wheelchair for the role of Christy Brown in My Left Foot is the stuff of movie legend.

Perhaps it's time to bring Sir Michael Balcon's pioneering spirit "into the light" - into the spotlight, maybe in his home city of Birmingham.

In the Big City Plan for the future of Birmingham, there must surely be room for celebration and recognition of the city's film heritage, of which the Balcon story is but one chapter.

A Balcon Film Centre could be a long-term aim for Birmingham City Council showcasing the city's woefully neglected, but prestigious contribution to international cinema.

In the short term, an annual Balcon Award for Best Producer would be a welcome start an award for bringing new talent into the light.

Professor Roger Shannon is a Birmingham-based producer at Swish and a lecturer at Edge Hill University