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Should I Watch..? 'Passport To Pimlico' (1949)

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Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Passport To Pimlico is a comedy film released in 1949 and is arguably the best known screenplay written by T.E.B. Clarke. Directed by Henry Cornelius in his directorial debut, the film depicts a small section of post-war London declare itself a separate foreign power and the political and legal chaos that quickly ensues. The film stars Stanley Holloway, Hermione Baddeley, Margaret Rutherford and Paul Dupuis. The film was one of three released in 1949 by Ealing Studios (the others being Whisky Galore! and Kind Hearts And Coronets) and many consider the year to be the start of a highly successful time for the studio. Released to widespread critical acclaim, the film was nominated for a Best British Film Award at the BAFTAs (although there's no shame in losing to The Third Man) and also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Not only has the film inspired a number of remakes but it was also included in the British Film Institute's list of the Top 100 British Films, published in 1999.

Enjoyable

What's it about?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, much of London is still in ruins and people are continuing to live under Government-imposed rationing for both food and clothes - something not made any easier as the country basks in an unseasonal heatwave. As another unexploded bomb has been discovered (this time beneath Miramont Gardens in Pimlico), a local council are discussing proposals put forward by local shopkeeper Arthur Pemberton for construction of a children's playpark and lido. As the motion is dismissed, the bomb accidentally goes off and while making sure everyone is safe, Arthur himself stumbles into the resulting crater. To his astonishment, he discovers a hidden chamber full of treasure and an ancient manuscript.

With the help of historian Professor Hatton-Jones, the scroll reveals that the treasure belonged to Charles VII, the last Duke of Burgundy, who was believed to have perished in 1477. The manuscript reveals that in fact, he fled to England and was issued via royal charter an estate in England to call his own - resulting in Miramont Gardens being declared part of Burgundy and technically foreign soil. Shocked at the turn of events, the locals quickly realise that they are no longer bound by the same rules as the rest of England and begin to enjoy their new-found freedoms. But the consequences of this ruling are felt all the way in Whitehall, providing the Government with a difficult and unusual problem...

Trailer

What's to like?

Passport To Pimlico is a fascinating film on two fronts. The first is it gives us the opportunity to look back at what life was like back in the post-war rubble of the late 1940s. Obviously, this dates the film somewhat as references to all but the greatest political figures of the time will fly sailing over the heads of audiences today. But it's perhaps easy to forget that life was not so straight-forward back then and things didn't return to normal immediately after 1945. Audiences at the time, however, would have probably jumped at the chance of tearing up their ration book if they thought they could get away with it. Even the film's seemingly outlandish premise isn't that far fetched as viewers then would have been aware of the blockade of Berlin between 1948-49 and shots of normal people surrounded by coils of barbed wire still evoke memories of other conflicts such as the current Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The second thing I found fascinating was how eerily prescient the film remains in the wake of Brexit, the UK's decision to leave the European Union back in 2016. The film correctly predicts things like endless legal complications, trade disputes, border security and the difficulties of isolationism as well as rising tensions between both sides. It made me wish someone in Government had seen this film and realised what they were letting themselves in for. The cast, who are sadly only half-remembered these days, provide plenty of Blitz spirit for the besieged locals - Holloway is a solid, salt-of-the-earth type of character and plays well alongside Baddeley's common-as-muck tailor (she is perhaps best remembered for playing the maid in Mary Poppins). By contrast, the actors playing those representing the UK Government are suitably starched and stiff-upper-lipped thanks to the likes of Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford. But all of the cast have some sparkling dialogue to savour and the film provides a macrocosm of Britain's attitude at the time, of the little country punching above its weight on the global stage as well, more subtly perhaps, the inherent dangers of holding on to this attitude.

The film was one that marked the beginning of a golden period for Ealing Studios, the oldest continually operating studio in the world.

The film was one that marked the beginning of a golden period for Ealing Studios, the oldest continually operating studio in the world.

Fun Facts

  • When the film debuted in the US in October 1949, soil was imported and placed in front of the cinema while 'officers' dressed in uniform handed out mock passports to passers-by and invite them onto English soil to watch the film.
  • Charles Hawtrey, who would later become a stalwart member of the 'Carry On' series of films in the late Fifties and Sixties, appears in the film as Bert, the piano-playing bar worker. The film has been adapted twice for radio by the BBC - the 1952 adaptation featured another 'Carry On' regular in the shape of Kenneth Williams while the much later 1996 adaptation featured Joan Sims, another 'Carry On' favourite.
  • Clarke's script was actually inspired by a real-life event during the war when the maternity ward of Ottawa's Civic Hospital was temporarily declared foreign soil, specifically a Dutch territory. This was done to accommodate the then-Princess Juliana of the Netherlands when she gave birth to her daughter Princess Margriet, allowing her to maintain her right to the throne.
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What's not to like?

As with most things, context is key and especially with a comedy such as this. With most viewers today being unfamiliar with life in Britain at the time, Passport To Pimlico loses a lot of its context so what may have prompted riotous laughter in the late Forties passes by without so much of a murmur these days. It's unfortunate because the film still has plenty to admire and is still able to strike the funny bone at times. But I suspect that much of the film's humour is of a satirical slant, making comments about life at the time. The film certainly raises a smile but it's not what liable to prompt much in the way of belly laughs.

With an ensemble cast as big as this, certain characters felt a little superfluous such as Dupuis's handsome but rather redundant Duke of Burgundy who appears to cement a plot point and then kinda fade into the background other than romancing the film's glamorous eye candy, Jane Hylton. He feels especially anonymous compared to Rutherford's exuberance as the larger-than-life Professor Hatton-Jones. There's also an unspoken class war on screen - all the Government representatives speak in that oddly repressed manner of BBC announcers at the time while most of the residents of the new enclave of Burgundy are working-class everymen and women with the exception of Wix, the bank manager. I thought the film might have made more of this but instead, it's a noticeable opportunity that goes begging.

Future 'Carry On' stalwart Charles Hawtrey is one of the more recognisable cast members in the film, minus his famous glasses.

Future 'Carry On' stalwart Charles Hawtrey is one of the more recognisable cast members in the film, minus his famous glasses.

Should I watch it?

Like the very best Ealing comedies, Passport To Pimlico is a gentle but brilliantly witty and performed film that offers viewers a charming glimpse of a more innocent time. What truly stands out is the screenplay which is expertly written and remarkably prescient all these years later as the UK undergoes its own path towards "independence" from the EU and encountering the same sort of problems. It's a short and sweet trip down memory lane and for viewers of a certain vintage, it will tick every box imaginable.

Great For: British viewers but especially elderly ones, regretful Brexit-supporters, people who struggle to recognise an allegory, historians

Not So Great For: anyone expecting a goofy farce, action junkies, viewers under the age of 30

What else should I watch?

To date and my eternal shame, the only other Ealing comedy I've see so far is the original version of The Ladykillers which is a genuinely funny - if slightly stagey - farce with Alec Guinness leading a superb cast including Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom. But there are a number of films produced by Ealing during this time which have become some of the most beloved films in British history like The Lavender Hill Mob, The Titfield Thunderbolt, Whisky Galore! and Kind Hearts And Coronets. The good times didn't last though as the studios were bought by the BBC and film production pretty much ceased.

It could be argued that 1949 was possibly the greatest year for British cinema with this, The Third Man, Kind Hearts And Coronets and Whisky Galore! all featuring in the BFI's Top 100. But there are other years that have multiple entries on the list - 1963 (The Servant, Tom Jones, This Sporting Life and Billy Liar) and 1996 (Trainspotting, Secrets & Lies, The English Patient and Brassed Off) both have four films on the list. While The Third Man tops the list as the best British film of all time (at least, when the list was published in 1999), it's hard to argue against it still holding the top spot but there have been a multitude of films since the Millennium that would almost certainly be listed today - Gosford Park, Shaun Of The Dead, Inception (or pretty much any Christopher Nolan film, for that matter) and Rocketman will give any viewer a fine idea of how varied the British film industry is as well as how creatively strong it is as well.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Stanley Holloway

Arthur Pemberton

Betty Warren

Connie Pemberton

Barbara Murray

Shirley Pemberton

Paul Dupuis

Sebastian de Charolais, Duke Of Burgundy

John Slater

Frank Huggins

Hermione Baddeley

Edie Randall

Raymond Huntley

Mr Wix

Philip Stainton

PC Spiller

Charles Hawtrey

Bert Fitch

Margaret Rutherford

Professor Hatton-Jones

Technical Info

DirectorHenry Cornelius

Screenplay

T.E.B. Clarke

Running Time

84 minutes

Release Date (UK)

28th April, 1949

Rating

U

Genre

Comedy

Academy Award Nominations

Best Original Screenplay

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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