Watching Passport to Pimlico after Brexit.
Richard E. Grant is introducing a bunch of old Ealing Comedies on Gold right now. If you grew up in Ealing (as I did) these films were woven into the cultural fabric of your very being. You can’t remember a time when you didn’t know them, and you find yourself returning to them at regular, almost dutiful intervals. Grant is of course very personable as a host, though I could do without all those tedious and cloying generalisations about “the British character”.
I’ve long had a bit of a problem with Passport to Pimlico though. It’s always been the “right wing” one as far as I (and others) can see. Passport to Pimlico is (among other things) a sort of protest against post-war austerity and the state planning associated with the Labour government. At one point you can see a placard attacking socialist chancellor Stafford Cripps. As the residents of a neighborhood suddenly declared to be Burgundy tear up their identity cards and ration books, they liberate themselves (apparently and briefly) from the choking restraints of post war austerity.
These days of course, Westminster politicians would treat that late fifteenth-century Burgundian grant very differently. They would use it to proclaim Pimlico a tax haven and bury all their money there.
Now it’s painful and wrong to use the same word “Austerity” to describe late 1940s Austerity and modern day Austerity. 1940s Austerity severely checked consumer spending while investing massively in education and the new health service. 1940s Austerity was “progressive” – disproportionately checking the haves while protecting the have nots. Modern day “Austerity” (“Austeriarchy I call it), is exclusively directed at the “have nots”, destroying the safety net built in the 1940s while protecting those who can best take care of themselves.
That said, ration books and identity cards were a pain on a day to day basis. Set during a long hot sweltering summer, Passport to Pimlico represents, on an obvious level, a kind of libidinous release from the shackles of an apparently puritanical “nanny state” (Stafford Cripps was not a jolly man). And of course, the film is full of wonderful wonderful people led by Stanley Holloway. If I were to wake up one morning and find myself a citizen of a hastily improvised micro-nation, I would definitely want Stanley Holloway as my prime minister. And Margaret Rutherford! Bless! Why aren’t all late medieval historians exactly like Margaret Rutherford? Instead of just some of them. And isn’t that Michael Hordern? Joy of joys, there’s a lanky young mute Charles Hawtrey.
Watching the film again, Passport to Pimlico seems far more complex and politically polyvalent than I had thought, though no less troubling. Freedom from a highly regulated Attlee government economy opens the neighborhood to an army of marauding spivs – an invading force which Burgundy’s only law enforcement officer is powerless to resist. And although it’s fun to abolish closing time and drink all night, this suspension of post war regulation is offset by the cruelty of borders. Nobody notices free movement until it is curtailed. And when negotiations break down and the border is sealed, we start to see Burgundy-Pimlico as a ghetto. Its children have been evacuated and electricity and water are cut off. A new and more frightening rationing regime is implemented. It is a testimony to the denizens of an Ealing-imagined Pimlico that violence and madness do not take hold. The darkness of this scenario recalls the only too real ghettos of wartime Europe.
In the wake of Brexit, it is hard to watch this film and not feel aggrieved anew at the re-imposition of fundamentally unnecessary borders. While Pimlico-Burgundy enjoys its summer holiday of sovereignty, the Burgundians are not fetishistic about sovereignty and nor are they blind to their own economic self interests. They know that they have to be part of a larger polity. The ultimate re-integration of Pimlico-Burgundy into Britain is never in doubt. Sovereignty without interdependent relationships leads to impoverishing powerlessness. There are the famous lines shouted from the upstairs window… ” 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!” There is a very great truth to the notion that you are never more patriotic than when you challenge your own government – but these Burgundians are far too sane and pragmatic to retreat into permanent paranoid militia mode. Eventually “Big Government” is something to treat with and work with.
I suppose it would have been nice if a Europhile “Leave” case had been more dominant in the Brexit campaign. But nobody important enough on either side of the debate shouted loudly enough about always having been European. Ah me.
Passport to Pimlico is also, critically, a film without villains. Some people are more annoying than others, but when Stanley Holloway negotiates with Radford and Wayne (those archetypal “men from the ministry”), we are observing reasonable people not fanatics. And Holloway’s Prime Minister Pemberton eventually gets what he wanted at the beginning of the film – a recreation area and swimming pool where the kids can play safely (although the tottering wreckage replete with unexploded material where they were already playing was probably more fun).
At the instant that Burgundy reverts to being Pimlico and legally part of Britain again, the heavens open and summer is over. The summertime fantasy has been an intoxicating Shakespearean “green world” of possibility – but it’s been a fantasy with a dark side and like all decent fantasies it is a temporary midsummer night’s dream. The downpour is sobering but bracing at one and the same moment.
It makes you wish that the whole Brexit campaign could been fought between the fundamentally sane and decent characters from this Ealing Comedy, rather than being driven by mendacious recession-proof opportunists who have so casually wrecked the bits and pieces left over from
Britain for the next few decades.