The film is set in post-war London in 1949, an era of British history that arguably tends to be ignored slightly by the movies. Obviously the great triumphs and struggles of the war years are well known to modern day audiences, as of course are the swinging sixties a fair few years later. 1949 however is a relatively uncommon time period to set a film in. Life was still tough for your regular Brit as while the spectre of war may have dissipated there were still plenty of everyday reminders of its impact on the general public. Rationing was still in place, goods were in short supply and bombed out buildings still stood along the city streets. In Passport To Pimlico, scriptwriter T.E.D. Clarke and director Henry Cornelius wonderfully capture this bygone era with a story that packs a clear political subtext and looks at what it truly means to be British.
In the London district of Pimlico, the accidental exploding of a wartime bomb uncovers an underground treasure trove which includes, among all the gold and jewels, an ancient piece of parchment. A delightfully doddery old Professor (Margaret Rutherford) reveals to the gathered locals that the parchment is actually a royal charter which proves that thanks to a legal technicality, Pimlico actually still belongs to the Duke of Burgundy and as such, is not a part of Great Britain.
The delighted locals don’t take long to work out that this quirk of the law exempts them from rationing and also the country’s strict alcohol consumption laws. As any other right-minded cockney folks would do in this situation, they celebrate the occasion by having a right royal booze-up and singing ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ in the local. As the dust settles though, the downside of independence begins to emerge as spivs and undesirables from across the city descend on Pimlico to peddle their wares and Londoners flock to the area to pick up goods which would normally be strictly rationed.
Naturally the UK government takes exception to this situation and thus begins a slow burning war of typically British bureaucracy with the Burgundians. First off the British government erects a boarder and forces folks to present their passport to cross into Pimlico, in retaliation the Burgundians do likewise and stop all underground trains from passing through their nation without correct documentation. The British tighten the screw and cut off electricity and food and water supplies, actions which seem to only spur on the Burgundians to exercise their right to independence even more.
It’s worth nothing that at the time of the film’s release, the Berlin blockade was at its height and so the presence of an isolated community being blocked off from the surrounding area would have really hit home with the viewing public and was intended to rally support behind the cause. Hence we have the telling scene were the regular people of London begin to throw food supplies over the barbed wire fence, mirroring the Berlin airlift which was then in operation.
As well as satirising the British penchant for bureaucracy and nationalism, Passport to Pimlico also sought to hark back to the recently passed era of national unity and rekindle a bit of the old Blitz spirit. The sight of salt of the earth English folks coming together to help the downtrodden Burgundians and stand up for what’s right in the face of adversity, was a clear reference to this kind of wartime mentality.
For the viewers at the time of its release, this was a movie about escapism as much as anything else. The immense burden of rationing was a bane of the British people’s lives still and the idea of throwing off the bureaucratic shackles would have been extremely appealing. Tellingly though, despite the Burgundians battling the UK government, it’s clearly a film which seeks to exemplify the stiff-upper-lip indefatigable spirit of the English people. The plucky Burgundians never lose sight of their origins and seek to form their new society based on the very best of British traits. They very quickly set up a publicly elected government and seek to create a just and fair society. As one local says in typically witty Ealing fashion, “We’ve always been English and we’ll always be English; and it’s precisely because we are English that we’re sticking up for our right to be Burgundians!”
It’s a film very much of it’s time and that’s part of what makes it so interesting. Passport to Pimlico is a wonderful snapshot of post-war Britain and in typical Ealing fashion it tackles the issue of what it means to be British and the quirks of our national identity in a typically sharp and eccentric way.