Passport To Pimlico - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

UK, 1949

Director: Henry Cornelius

Production: Ealing Studios; black and white, 35mm; running time: 84 minutes. Released April 1949.

Producer: Michael Balcon; associate producer: E. V. H. Emmett; screenplay: T. E. B. Clarke; photographer: Lionel Banes; art direction: Roy Oxley; music: Georges Auric; editor: Michael Truman.

Cast: Stanley Holloway ( Arthur Pemberton ); Betty Warren ( Connie Pemberton ); Barbara Murray ( Shirley Pemberton ); Paul Dupuis

Passport to Pimlico
Passport to Pimlico
( Duke of Burgundy ); Margaret Rutherford ( Professor Hatton-Jones ); Raymond Huntley ( Wix ); Hermoine Baddeley ( Eddie Randall ); Basil Radford ( Gregg ).



Balcon, Michael, Michael Balcon Presents . . . A Lifetime of Films , London, Hutchinson, 1969.

Durgnat, Raymond, A Mirror For England , London, Faber & Faber, 1970.

Clarke, T. E. B., This Is Where I Came In , London, Michael Joseph, 1974.

Armes, Roy, A Critical History of British Cinema , London, Secker & Warburg, 1978.

Barr, Charles, Ealing Studios , New York, Woodstock Press, 1980, 1999.

Perry, George, Forever Ealing , London, Pavillion/Michael Joseph, 1981.

Curran, James, and Vincent Porter, editors, British Cinema History , London, Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1983.

Brown, Geoff, and Laurence Kardish, Michael Balcon: The Pursuit of British Cinema , New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1984; updated edition, 1990.

Murphy, Robert, Realism and Tinsel , London, Routledge, 1992.


Ellis, John, "Made in Ealing," from Screen (London), Vol 16, No. 1, Spring 1975.

Brown, Geoff, "Ealing, Your Ealing," from Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1977.

Williams, Tony, "The Repressed Fantastic in Passport to Pimlico ," in Film Criticism (Meadville), vol. 16, no. 1–2, Fall-Winter 1991–1992.

* * *

Passport to Pimlico has the distinction of making pouring rain and the onset of cold weather the satisfying and suitably up-beat coda to its story. Somehow the teasingly self-conscious shots of the Mediterranean or Latin American signifiers which open the film are indeed proven to be a dupe and a distraction from the reality that is Britain in the late forties. What we see in Passport to Pimlico , however, is a singularly Ealingesque version of reality, informed by Producer Michael Balcon's pursuit of "Britishness" within the unique self-defining parameters of the "British Film." The film becomes a vehicle by which the British may actually experience their fantasies and dreams only to find that they do not sit easily with the much more acceptable and comfortable aspects of merely trusting and enjoying the circumstances they have inherited. Far from being a reactionary and conservative position, this is viewed within the film as progressive because it sustains particular kinds of values and behaviour which would be lost to misdirected aspirations unsuitable to a British temperament, defined it seems, by wartime consensus and a nostalgia for imagined communities and significant nationhood.

Passport to Pimlico was inspired by a news story in which it was reported that Princess Juliana had given birth to an heir to the throne during her wartime exile to Canada. It was first necessary, however, that the government make the maternity wing in which she was staying legally Dutch soil as the heir had to be born within the realm of the Netherlands. This unusual tale was adapted by screenwriter, T. E. B. Clarke into a story in which the inhabitants of Miramont Place in Pimlico suddenly discover that they are legally Burgundians when a wartime bomb accidentally explodes revealing the treasures of Burgundy and the lease that claims this piece of British soil as Burgundian. This narrative conceit produces circumstances which suggest particular scenarios about how people, and specifically, British people might behave liberated from the still operational postwar restrictions. Further, it serves as a test of the assumed power structures, value systems, and social hierarchies that constitute the cultural status quo, and thus, in turn operate as a metaphor for the flux of interests at large in the period of post-war reconstruction. This kind of narrative also becomes a model of the "What if?" scenario, so beloved of Balcon, when the Chaplinesque "little man" finds his voice and challenges the status quo at the moment of temporary social disruption. Further examples follow in Whisky Galore and The Man in the White Suit. Such films become invaluable for what they reveal and define about "Britishness."

Arthur Pemberton cherishes a plan to create a children's play area from the wartime ruins but is dismissed with the rebuff that "This borough is in no position to finance daydreams." This moment alone distills some of the film's central premises about the tensions between pragmatism and imagination, forward-thinking and backward-looking, inhibition and liberation, and the role of the individual within the community. It is also a typically "Ealing" scenario, in that important issues in Ealing movies were often explored through narratives involving children. These films include Hue and Cry and Mandy. Pemberton equates the children's play area with the future and the transition from post-war inertia into a new decade energised by the young. He sees this initiative as an opportunity to liberate a future generation into the freedoms fought for by his generation. Passport to Pimlico essentially examines the problems of this transition by demonstrating the possibilities inherent in having particular freedoms.

Ironically, the bomb which reveals the Burgundian treasure is accidentally set off by a group of children. The treasure is only found when Pemberton himself inadvertently falls into the bomb-sight. When Pemberton and his daughter, Shirley, research the origin of the treasure, Shirley astutely anticipates the real implications of finding the haul, by refuting her father's pride in discovering its heritage, by saying: "History, my foot. It's money!" Once it is established that "these Londoners are technically Burgundians," it becomes clear that the people of Pimlico enter a temporary Utopia which operates outside British law, and legitimises the fulfillment of individual appetites and desires. It also becomes clear that freedom from restriction reveals the deep structures of human imperatives—chiefly, the will to power and the instinct to indulge. The Burgundians celebrate by drinking, singing, and dancing, culminating their evening of liberation with the destruction of their ration books, the everyday symbol of regulation and caution. Arguably, it is also at this point when democracy and nationalism are also in flux.

The film uses the very appealing device of illustrating freedom without responsibility to demonstrate the necessity of certain social structures and institutions. These organisations preserve freedoms for everyone in the face of the inevitability of those people merely seeking to take advantage of situations for their own gain. By illustrating a possible utopia in excess, that essentially fails with the onslaught of black marketeers, criminal types, and self-interested government bureaucrats, Passport to Pimlico demonstrates and endorses the utopia of a civilised community with consensus politics sustaining the ideological status quo.

When the Prince of Burgundy arrives, authenticated as the true Burgundian heir by the eccentric Professor Hatton-Jones (a typically joyous and bluster-filled performance by Margaret Rutherford), he also brings a genuine "Europeaness" which authenticates the freer, more sensual aspect of the new Pimlico lifestyle. His romantic endeavours with Shirley Pemberton are constantly thwarted, however, as his role becomes further politicised, when Burgundy is forced to create its own democratic nation-state to resist the intervention of Britain. This process merely illustrates that Burgundy is a democracy modelled on Britain itself, and a microcosm of British life which best demonstrates the chief characteristics of "Britishness." These largely concur with those characteristics outlined by Sir Stephen Tallents of the Empire Marketing Board in the early thirties, which stressed the disinterestedness of Britain in international affairs (i.e. a particular kind of "inwardness"), traditions of justice, law and order, a sense of fair play and fair dealing, and a coolness in national character. Passport to Pimlico reinforces the inwardness of the British character, but emphasises a determination amongst the British people to see justice be done in an experiential rather than legal sense. Burgundy becomes the underdog, the disenfranchised, the mistreated, when it is estranged from the British government, but its predicament mobilises the support of the British people, who recognise their own indomitable spirit in the pursuit of a fair deal. Sympathy is further mobilised when Burgundy's food supplies (largely care parcels provided by British supporters) are lost in a flood. These moments, of course, are all signifiers of wartime trials and tribulations which contemporary audiences readily recognised, identified with, and enjoyed. Consensus on screen becomes complicit consensus amongst viewers.

When Burgundy is forced to rejoin Britain, it is the spirit of compromise and resolution which is celebrated. Pemberton succeeds in his dream to create a children's recreation area with the proceeds of the Burgundy treasure, but perhaps more importantly, he and the community have succeeded in having a democratic voice. Government has succeeded in providing a solution to a complex social problem and has been warned of its complacency. With lessons learned and victories won, the ration book, now a symbol for rationale is reinstated. Passport to Pimlico is a tribute to the war effort, and not merely a nostalgic longing for its terms and conditions. It is a celebration of what the British are, and what they want to be, and though it may seem conservative in its outlook to contemporary viewers, it represents a lack of cynicism which characterises the pride, dignity and hope many British people felt in the post-war period. Passport to Pimlico is about goodwill expressed with good humour.

—Paul Wells

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