“I fail to see,” says a Whitehall official, “what this little mob can do against the might of Britain.” And that’s the heart of Passport to Pimlico, and indeed of most Ealing comedies: they’re celebrations of people vs. systems, of popular will against corporate power. In Passport to Pimlico the people of Miramount Passage discover that their street is in fact a part of Burgundy when an exploding WW2 bomb reveals a treasure, and with it a parchment (above) that grants them independence from England. As they celebrate their new-found freedoms by tearing up their ration books and wartime identity cards, the crafty locals consistently outwit the bumbling, bickering bureaucrats of Whitehall, who can’t even decide which department is in charge.
If Passport doesn’t look much like Pimlico, that’s because it was actually filmed in Lambeth, on a bombsite between Canterbury Place and Saville Place, SE11. But that detail aside, like all the best Ealing films it works because its fantasy is grounded in a very real world, in this case a grimy, bombed-out London still visibly scarred by the war. It’s also a London, of course, that had voted out Churchill in the 1945 election (the film is set in the scorching summer of 1947) in favour of Clement Attlee’s Labour government and the promise of a welfare state: this is an England where the people no longer automatically doff their caps to authority, with a certain contrarian streak. As one of the new Burgundians puts it: “We always were English, and we always will be English, and it’s precisely because we’re English that we’re sticking to our right to be Burgundian!”
The politics of Ealing are complex, because the films can be claimed both by the Left and the Right. There are scenes in Passport to Pimlico that would gladden the heart of any socialist (Stanley Holloway’s Pemberton defending his plan to build a playground by asking “Don’t you ever think of anything except pounds, shillings and pence?”), yet there are notes of Nigel Farage in the Burgundians’ gleeful independence, and in how they celebrate it, with pints of a beer and a singalong around the piano. David Cameron might claim it as a Big Society story, as the Burgundians elect their officials and volunteer their time, and John Major couldn’t help but like a film where a girl can be seduced by the promise of a trip to Billingsgate.
But this isn’t due to a lack of clarity by Ealing: the best of them are all about complexity, like the debate between employment and “progress” at the heart of The Man In The White Suit. Ealing shows that comedy is not a barrier to seriousness, but an enabler of it: by positing an extreme situation you can dramatise opposing reactions in a way that’s both philosophically clear-sighted and enjoyably human and fallible. It’s able to demonstrate that more than one point of view can be truthful, and that no system can work without understanding the people who’ll live with it every day. Ealing, at its best, is a manifesto for tolerance, fairness and enthusiasm; like Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple it combines a kind face with a sharp brain. If Scotland chooses independence in 2014 England will have some thinking to do, and the Ealing films have a contribution to make.
This Passport To Pimlico cast list is pretty much a definition of an Ealing film, both for better and worse: