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Passport to Pimlico (1949)


Main image of Passport to Pimlico (1949)
35mm, black and white, 84 mins
DirectorHenry Cornelius
ProducerMichael Balcon
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ScreenplayT.E.B. Clarke
PhotographyLionel Banes
MusicGeorges Auric

Cast: Stanley Holloway (Arthur Pemberton); Betty Warren (Connie Pemberton); Paul Dupuis (Duke Of Burgundy); Barbara Murray (Shirley Pemberton); John Slater (Frank Huggins)

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The inhabitants of a London street discover buried treasure and documents proving they are really citizens of Burgundy. When the government tries to claim the treasure for the Crown, the Burgundians declare their independence.

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By general consent the best of writer T.E.B. Clarke's six Ealing comedies, Passport to Pimlico (d. Henry Cornelius, 1949) arguably best exemplifies studio head Michael Balcon's description of Ealing's postwar films as "our mild revolution".

But as with most of the studio's output, the accent is on the 'mild', while the 'revolutionary' element is little more than play. Like Clarke's The Lavender Hill Mob (d. Charles Crichton, 1951), which imagines a mild-mannered bank clerk turned master criminal (in the nicest possible way), Passport's story allows its contemporary audience to play out a fantasy of escape - from the unending burden of rationing and postwar 'austerity', from government, from Britain - before delivering them safely back to the status quo. The events of the story are more like a holiday - as suggested by the very un-British heatwave, which comes to an immediate end once the Burgundians rejoin Britain.

The film has been described by some as 'anarchic'. But after the initial starry-eyed celebration of new-found freedoms - which amounts to one long, boozy, after hours knees-up - has passed, the Burgundians quickly install a makeshift government, restore the monarchy (in the form of the returning 'Duke of Burgundy') and implement a programme of civic building (a public lido).

Running through the film is a yearning nostalgia for the social unity of the war years, remembered fondly as Britain's 'finest hour'. This is most explicit in two sequences late in the film: the first a newsreel praising the fortitude of "plucky little Burgundy" in the face of adversity - exactly the terms in which Britain saw itself in the early part of the war - and the second an extended montage in which the people of London come to the aid of the stricken Burgundians, throwing parcels of food from passing cars and trains - directly evoking the celebrated 'Dunkirk spirit'.

This exploration of the British (or specifically English) character is at the heart of Passport to Pimlico. For all their dogged resistance, the Burgundians never lose sight of their true national identity, as the film's most memorable line wittily makes clear: "We always were English and we always will be English, and it's just because we are English that we're sticking up for our right to be Burgundian!"

Director Henry Cornelius made no further films at Ealing, though he later directed the very Ealing-ish Genevieve (1953) for Rank.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Public inquiry (1:01)
2. This is Burgundy! (2:10)
3. Customs (2:14)
4. Romance in Pimlico (2:34)
5. Dunkirk spirit (3:44)
Original posters
Production designs
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Rationing in Britain (1945)
Auric, Georges (1899-1983)
Baddeley, Hermione (1906-86)
Banes, Lionel (1904-1996)
Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)
Cornelius, Henry (1913-1958)
Hawtrey, Charles (1914-1988)
Holloway, Stanley (1890-1982)
Hordern, Sir Michael (1911-1995)
Radford, Basil (1897-1952)
Rutherford, Margaret (1892-1972)
Slater, John (1916-1975)
Tafler, Sydney (1916-79)
Ealing Comedy