Sixth in a series of articles on Pimlico, putting words to page on an area of London that I’ve lived in for a few years. If these read well, I might cover other parts of London I know or explore in the same manner. You can use the ‘Pimlico’ category tag on this site to see the related posts. This one is about a heart-warming film set in Pimlico.
Pimlico has been home (or very near to) to scenes from at least two films since I moved here. In 2015, the Thames chase from James Bond: Spectre could actually be watched from the river bank as they filmed it, involving several days of helicopters and boats zooming around. And the 2017 film The Foreigner, starring Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan, blew up a shop front on Churton Street to set the plot rolling. Letters forewarning us of the explosion had to be put through doors around the neighbourhood.
And although both of those are fun films, I have to say my new favourite is much older.
If you look at the boundary of Pimlico on Google Maps, it quite clearly draws a line that puts Bridge Place next to Victoria, as being in Pimlico.
I find that a little amusing, as the HM Passport Office has been, since 2002, been based in Globe House, Eccleston Square, which falls inside this boundary. Even better, prior to 2002, the passport office was based in a road called Petty France. I hope that is all a little self-aware, on behalf of the passport office.
And the reason I hope for that?
The 1949 Ealing Studio film, Passport to Pimlico. Available for less than £6.00 on Amazon Prime in HD, I strongly recommend this charming, witty comedy.
I’ve known about Passport to Pimlico since moving here, but have only recently watched it. I think I missed out by not getting around to it earlier, but am happy to have now done so. Full of quick little sight-gags and dry or absurd humour, it made my night to watch it – there’s enough humour in it that I’ll have to go through it again soon to see what I missed.
The film focuses on a fictitious situation, where a group of Pimlico residents unearth documents that show Pimlico is, through a bit of archaic land-ownership, actually the property of the Duke of Burgundy. Railing against rationing, officialdom, and a yearning for a more flexible life than post-war Britain allows for, they soon declare independence from Britain, ceding their particular street to become part of Burgundy. Whitehall responds by declaring that the Metropolitan Police don’t have jurisdiction anymore, and the entrepreneurs of London quickly flock to the newly lawless region to sell rationed contraband (such as eggs, butter and silk).
To halt the flow of goods in the sudden black market right in the middle of London, and while trying to unpick this bureaucratic little mess, the British government set up a border on Pimlico. Immigration, passport and customs control are established, and soon a siege mentality sets in. Newspaper headlines update the viewer on events as they unfold, events that are also watched enthusiastically on the news reels by an in-film public – one that is gradually swinging their support in favour of the plucky little rebellion that could.
I’m no historian of comedy, but I found that some of absurdist humour in this film seemed to herald the later style of Monty Python; for instance, when two opposing propaganda cars were parked nose to nose and yelling at each other through loud hailers, that struck me as a particularly Pythonesque moment. Other times, short verbal gags played out with a gentle charm, and I’m near certain that some of the background going-ons were a play against the rest of the scene – ones that were a little over my head, as I don’t have the historical context.
Simple as it was, the first giggle the film got out of me came from the self-realisation of one Pimlico resident: “Blimey, I’m a foreigner.” A later line that got a chuckle was “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!”
At one hour and 24 minutes long the film certainly isn’t a chore to sit through, even if black and white isn’t usually your thing. From a short read about the film’s production, I gather that it was not expected to do enormously well, and yet become a much-loved example of Ealing Studio’s emerging sense of humour. Shot in bombed-out Lambeth (not that Pimlico at the time wasn’t also rubble-strewn), the fake backdrops and facades that were built to mask war-damage apparently invoked the ire of locals even after it was explained that this was for a comedy film.
I’m not quite ready to raise the flag and re-declare Pimlico’s independence, but this film has quickly worked its way into my battered little heart. There, it has made a little cup of patriotic tea and settled in, all happy and comfortable. Ready to help me barricade off the rest of the world any time I need out for a while. Passport to Pimlico shall now be one of those film I sound off about whenever trying to sound insufferably sophisticated, along with Casablanca and Harvey.
I recommend this film – especially if you like Pimlico, London, comedy, or insights into an era long-gone. Or, perhaps, not so long-gone. After all, it actually features a bus on the number 24 route, which still runs to this day.
“This going to Belgravia Road?”
“Nah, to England.”
Director: Henry Cornelius
You can use the ‘Pimlico’ category tag on this site to see the related posts.