When Ealing ruled the comedy world

Alec Guinness is at his sinister and villainous best in 'The Ladykillers'.
Alec Guinness is at his sinister and villainous best in 'The Ladykillers'.

Slap bang in the middle of British film-making’s Golden Age, Ealing Studios led the field when it came to comedies.

Although it turned out consistently popular films during the 1940s it really hit its stride by the 1950s and ‘The Ladykillers’ represents the studio at its peak.

Released in 1955, ironically just before the studio was taken over by the BBC, ‘The Ladykillers’ features some of the country’s top comedy actors at the time including Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Cecil Parker. Forget the 2004 Cohen Brothers’ remake - this is the original and best.

The real star of the show, however, is 76-year-old Katie Johnson who plays Mrs Louisa Wilberforce. The archetypal sweet little old lady, she’s approached by sinister Professor Marcus (Guinness) who wants to rent rooms in her house. Despite his smarmy charm, Marcus is the ringleader of a gang planning to rob a security van at nearby King’s Cross Station.

Mrs Wilberforce is unwittingly drawn into the plan when she has to retrieve the disguised “lolly” from the railway station herself. This she does but as the gang departs her house with the loot, banknotes spill out in front of Mrs. Wilberforce who informs Marcus that she is going to the police.

They decide that, to be safe, they must kill her but also decide individually to double-cross the others and make off with the money and in-fighting ensues.

Alec Guinness is at his villainous best as Marcus, and the rest of the gang - Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom and Danny Green - provide strong support but Katie Johnson manages to steal pretty much every scene she’s in.

An actress since 1894, she finally achieved acclaim with this film and won a British Film Academy award for Best Actress. It appears, however, that she was totally underwhelmed and skipped the ceremony in favour of baby-sitting her grandson.