Passport to Pimlico, 1949.
Directed by Henry Cornelius.
Starring Stanley Holloway, Betty Warren, Barbara Murray, Paul Dupuis, John Slater, Jane Hylton, Naunton Wayne and Hermione Baddeley.
When an unexploded WWII bomb detonates in Pimlico, an ancient document is unearthed which states that the area is in fact part of Burgundy, France and thus foreign territory.
When you stop to think about it, film is a fascinating thing. Especially a film like this, some 63 years old this year. Passport to Pimlico is more than a classic comedy. It stands as a historical record, not necessarily of actual events, but of an attitude. This attitude is so purposely and so definitively of its time that you hardly even need an introduction to how something like it could come about.
Almost no introduction, anyway. The film deals with the broad strokes, but a little detail won’t hurt. Britain in World War II had its supply lines largely severed by Hitler’s infamous fleet of U-Boats. Hence, rationing. But rationing didn’t end with the war. In one form or another, it clung on until 1954, when the nanny state finally gave in, with an exasperated “Oh, go on, eat what you like, you naughty little scamps.” Somehow that poster was never quite as popular as “keep calm and carry on.”
So, it’s Summer 1948. It’s ridiculously hot. Rationing and rubble are everywhere. Unexploded bombs likewise. In heavily-bombed central London, Pimlico has a great wide open space to do something productive with. Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway) suggests a children’s playground, so the local urchins can play somewhere safe without rubble and big holes in the ground. No thanks, say the council. We’ll go with a nice big business development instead. Right on cue, a local urchin drops a great honking tractor tyre down a big hole in the ground, onto an unexploded bomb.
The resulting explosion brings the entire local community running. Coppers, tailors and fishmongers alike, they’re a ramshackle collection of opportunists if you ever did see one. Pemberton slips down the hole in the ground and catches sight of a long-hidden subterranean treasure trove. He and his feisty daughter Shirley head back in the dead of night and unearth the collected gold and goblets and a large, striking portrait.
With a little reading up and the assistance of the marvellously batty Professor Hatton-Jones (Margaret Rutherford), it’s soon revealed that this treasure belonged to the man in the portrait, Charles VII, last Duke of Burgundy (a long defunct Medieval state, now a part of France famous for Dijon mustard). What’s more, an unrevoked charter in amongst the loot proclaims the surrounding neighbourhood of Pimlico as Burgundian soil.
In true Ealing style, the full ramifications of this charter aren’t quite realised until everybody is in the pub. Last orders come around, and are duly ignored – they’re in Burgundy now. No licensing laws. No rationing. No nanny-state government. They’re free to do as they please. A very young, pre-Carry On Charles Hawtrey breaks out some honky tonk piano songs, and they sing and dance through the night.
Come the morning, more technicalities and responsibilities present themselves, as Pimlico turns into a spiv’s paradise. With no duty tax, this is the perfect place for them to trade at knock-down prices. The Police have no jurisdiction; Whitehall end up working overtime on this problem, as the Heads of the Home and Foreign Offices each bat the crisis into the others’ court. The government insists the treasure belongs to Britain. Pimlico insists it belongs to them. Borders go up. Customs and Excise move in. Barbed wire encircles the neighbourhood. Water is turned off.
Writer T.E.B. Clarke seems to have been watching the isolation of Berlin with keen interest; his script plays up the underlying ridiculousness of splitting up a city like children marking borders across the carpet. The whole plot is a case of ‘if I can’t play with your toys, then you can’t play with mine’, and Clarke never lets up on the staggering pettiness of the government line for one minute.
Expect the trademark Ealing themes of rebelling against authority in creative ways and communities putting aside old differences in the face of a common enemy. Clarke writes his characters with depth, intelligence and an unfailing dry wit, lampooning and celebrating the often contradictory nature of nationality with every other utterance.
Mrs Pemberton sums up their struggle quite aptly, as she leans out of a first floor window to harangue the Ministers for the Home and Foreign Office: “We’re English! We always were English and always will be English, and it’s just because we are English that we’ll stand up for our right to be Burgundians!”
Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne play the ministers in charge with their characteristic fluster and aplomb, ever the quintessential British bureaucrats. Hitchcock fans will remember them fondly as the cricket fanatics from The Lady Vanishes (1938); they’re no less of a formidable double act here, trying everything from barricades to siege tactics on the stubborn Burgundians.
Ealing Studios made a point of hiring the best actors they could get their hands on. So whilst there may be relatively few who remember names like Hermione Baddeley or Stanley Holloway today, for a brief time their merry, blissful faces are back on the big screen, where they belong. They and their fellow cast members light up this film with expressions of joy and sincerity alike. We believe in these people and their problems, big or small. They stick it out. They stand up for their rights. 63 years old or not, there’s nothing old-fashioned about a comedy with a conscience.
Passport to Pimlico is released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 11th.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.