Passport to Pimlico Review
The post-war run of comedies made by Ealing Studios between 1946 and 1955 remains one of British cinema’s greatest achievements. Hue and Cry, in which a group of schoolchildren foil a criminal gang, debuted in early 1947 and proved itself to be an unexpected hit. Spurred on by this surprise success, Ealing would produce over a dozen comedy titles during the next eight years, up until the point when the studios were bought by the BBC. Some have slipped into obscurity - few are likely to recall Meet Mr. Lucifer, for example, or the Benny Hill vehicle Who Done It? - but the majority are fondly remembered and many considered classics. The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Whisky Galore!, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Titfield Thunderbolt, The Man in the White Suit, Passport to Pimlico - it’s quite the line-up.
In the grand scheme of things, or to my mind at least, the comedies can be placed into groups. Bearing in mind that this is entirely subjective, I’ve always considered Passport to Pimlico to be a second tier Ealing. For me there are four masterpieces from these years - Whisky Galore!, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers - with Passport to Pimlico being among those which fall just that little bit short of matching their achievements (see also The Lavender Hill Mob, Hue and Cry and The Magnet). There is, perhaps, a slight hint of a burden to being an Ealing comedy such is the exalted company and the temptation to weigh one against the other. Yet to fall just that little bit short, especially against films as loved as those I consider to be masterpieces, is hardly a failing. Indeed, take Passport to Pimlico simply as a standalone feature, unattached to those others which bear the Ealing comedy tag, and it’s a hugely enjoyable little yarn.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Passport to Pimlico takes its cue from austerity Britain. The titular London district happens to house the last unexploded bomb in the country. For some reason it’s been named Pamela, but more importantly it’s accidental triggering by a group of children results in the discovery of buried treasure. Reading up on the various goblets and gold coins the local community learn that it once belonged to the Duke of Burgundy and that its very presence in their midst means they too are now Burgundians. No longer governed by British law they are free to tear up their ration books, ignore licensing hours and become a massive headache for Whitehall. Not that it’s all good news: Pimlico becomes a haven for black marketeers and the locals find themselves without any law enforcement or official government.
This kind of community-based comedy would fuel more of Ealing’s efforts over the next few years. Whisky Galore! (released just two months after Passport to Pimlico) was set on a small Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides, whilst The Titfield Thunderbolt took place in a tiny village somewhere in the south west. The result, in all cases, is a wonderful opportunity for British cinema’s many comic talents to shine. Stanley Holloway is our ostensible lead in this instance with an impressive roster of familiar faces backing him up: Hermione Baddeley perfecting the half a fag stuck in the side of her mouth look; future Z Cars sergeant John Slater as the local butcher; a very young Charles Hawtrey demonstrated his piano playing skills; Raymond Huntley being typically uptight; and Barbara Murray and Paul Dupuis as the designated eye-candy. Naturally, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford were brought in to personify Whitehall, plus there’s room for Margaret Rutherford as the authority on all things Burgundian.
Many films would be able to simply coast along with such a cast list. Indeed, many a film would no doubt be enlivened by an additional Holloway, Huntley or Hawtrey. They - and plenty of their co-stars - have that quality regardless of the script. Yet Passport to Pimlico is no slouch in this department thanks to T.E.B. Clarke. He was the most prolific screenwriter of Ealing comedies having also penned Hue and Cry, The Magnet, The Titfield Thunderbolt and The Lavender Hill Mob. (Other credits for the studio include the horror portmanteau Dead of Night and the classic police drama The Blue Lamp.) It should go without saying, therefore, that he knew what he was doing. He keeps the plot mechanics in place, and deftly builds from one absurd situation to the other, but never at the expense of the characters. He rightly recognises that it is with them that the heart of Passport to Pimlico lies.
Consequently this is a great film simply to spend time in. That combination of a whole host of great performers and Clarke’s desire to serve them fully really does create a genuine sense of community. The scene in the pub where Jane Hylton sings and the rest of the cast have a joke and a dance is all so wonderfully enticing. And arguably all the more so for its inconsequential details. Clarke and director Henry Cornelius (making his directorial debut having previously worked as an editor for Alexander Korda and then a producer and screenwriter for Ealing) are keen to maintain plenty of these little throwaway moments. Minor touches such as the kids holding their hands on the local bank’s sun-heated plaque - Passport to Pimlico takes place during a heatwave - for as long as possible are really quite endearing. Even the funniest line in the entire film (“We’ll fight them on the tramlines, we’ll fight them in the local”) is barely dwelt upon. There’s so much happening at any given moment, why should it be given special attention?
The general good nature extends to the satire as well. The newfound Burgundians may be ‘outside of the law’ but there isn’t really any anarchic spirit on display. Whereas Ealing comedies could head into darker areas - The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit - Passport to Pimlico prefers to keep things light. Perhaps that is why, unlike those other films, it never quite manages the same impact. It is, ultimately, a touch too flimsy to be considered a masterpiece. But then, as I’ve already stated, why compare and contrast? Passport to Pimlico stands on its own two feet as a hugely inviting, thoroughly pleasing and delightfully funny slice of entertainment blessed with a wonderful cast. If that isn’t a good enough excuse to revisit on a regular basis then I don’t know what is.
A constant presence on VHS and DVD down the years, Passport to Pimlico now arrives onto Blu-ray to coincide with StudioCanal’s ‘Made in Britain’ series of theatrical screenings. To be honest this isn’t a particularly striking presentation though not one to be especially disappointed about either. The 1080p AVC encode is of a new restoration completed at Pinewood Studios. According to the press release this made use of a fine-grain interpositive and put plenty of hours in to sort out stability issues and to clean up numerous instances of minor damage and dirt. There’s a seven-minute featurette included which utilises before-and-after split-screens to show off the improvements and, certainly, there’s no denying that image is much cleaner. Pockets of damage still make themselves known from time to time - usually during scene transitions - and there’s some noticeable flicker during a handful of the darker scenes, but nothing that you would label as distracting. Detail, meanwhile, is decent without being outstanding. Some shots look very good, others look rather poor (Naunton Wayne’s first scene especially), with most erring on the side of the good. Shots involving newspapers, for example, are all crisp and clean enough to ensure that we can read every word. Contrast levels are mostly pleasing (detail is lacking in some dark areas, though this may very well be inherent in the materials - some scenes were shot day for night) and a very light grain is evident throughout. The soundtrack, presented in its original mono, struggles a little at times especially when characters are talking over each other. It’s safe to assume that some - perhaps all - of these problems are down to the original production (post-production dubs are readily apparent) and, again, there’s nothing which proves too distracting. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available.
The special features are a brisk bunch but each is worth a one-time look. Mark Duguid of the BFI’s National Archive, is on hand to provide a bit of context in a seven-minute interview. He talks about the Ealing comedies as a whole, the various key players and offers a little background into the production. It’s all very interesting but, thanks to it having been chopped up before making it onto the disc, does feel a little shapeless. The other featurettes are the already mentioned look at the restoration and a four-minute piece on the film’s locations by Richard Dacre, who has written plenty on British cinema and especially British comedy over the years. Here he shows us Pimlico as it looks today and points out the various features (included a lamppost that has now become listed thanks to its appearance in Passport to Pimlico) which are still around. Also present on the disc are a stills gallery of behind-the-scenes shots set to Georges Auric’s catchy score and the original theatrical trailer.