The Politics of Passport to Pimlico

16 Oct

At the end of the Second World War, Britain underwent a period of fiscal restraint and recovery, often at the behest of the mighty US dollar, the period is often referred to as “Austerity Britain”. George Osborne might have pulled his best jazz singer impression 60 years later and reminded us “ you aint seen austerity yet “..but he didn’t. Austerity Britain in the late 1940s was a confusing and contradictory place to be in.

Having won the war and secured a brave new world, Brits suddenly found themselves queuing for bananas, continuing to live within someone else means, and those means were rather meagre. Just what was the concept of freedom they had suffered and sacrificed for ? Surely not one that imposed limits on sugar ?  Concerns were raised by the British medical Association that the post war austerity diet was less substantial and healthy than the wartime diet.

Against this background, or even creating it, the Government was battling a balance of payments deficit. It seems like another world. When did politicians last blink at trade figures. Before the bond market became the powerhouse of global politics it was the trade deficit.

So against this narrative of Austerity and Trade deficits the British Government pulled and pushed levers at will. Often with little thought of the impacts on the Citizens. Often with great thought on the impact. Some of those decisions sit within the contemporary political culture of 2016. Some don’t. And some such as the NHS fit in 2016 neat version of the politics of post-war Britain. But i digress. The Movies.

Britain still had a Board of Trade and its Minister Stafford Cripps spoke on everything – loofahs,herring barrels and hedging gloves. And films. Britain was heavily dependent on American movies, which cost American dollars. Cripps suggested a 25 per cent tax on American films, after protestation from the Rank group it was finally imposed at 75 percent. Well done Mr Rank. American film exports were embargoed and Rank came to the rescue, making 47 films in 12 months. The tax went away quickly but the films, well some of them lasted. Passport to Pimlico being one.

Over the last few months as urbane Scots and less couture Londoners have tried to fathom a logic to voting en masse to stay in the EU and yet being forced to leave, many random passer-by have shouted “ Passport to Pimlico “. Theres no real connection but its made the film seem relevant again.

Passport to Pimlico is set in the late 1940s. A London town discovers through the accidental explosion of a bomb that they are technically Burgundian. Whitehall realises that this requires some thought, the traders realise they can move in outside the scope of rationing and Government intervention. Theres soon an outcry and a border crossing imposed, the Burgundians are left to their own devices and fight back. Of course so they can negotiate an exit from a position of strength.

And Charles Hawtrey tickles the ivories.

There are a number of political threads in the film. Some of them stronger than others.

Some see the traditional Ealing theme of a group of sensible folk battling the might and potty bureacrats and showing how common sense belongs to them.It is the bureaucrats who seem stuffed suits and 2 steps behind. However the Pimlico residents don’t appreciate the complexity of the trade embargo they get. The border crossing works both ways, perhaps this is similar to Ranks feelings towards Cripps. Cripps gets a light ribbing in the film with signs of “ Forget that Cripps feeling” . The Pimlico residents then fight back, stopping the Tube on its way through. Well show em, cor blimey. Is this how 2 landlocked territories co-exist. Well it’s perhaps a mirror of the Berlin blockade, but in dear old blighty wed hope for something more civil.And we get civility in the face of Whitehall starving them out, the locals ( English not Burgundian ) start to throw food over the fence. Of course it was poor planning on their part that the food got flooded in the first place but anyway. Freedom it seems isn’t all it’s cracked up to be so the Burgundians negotiate to go back to limited nylons in exchange for the security of , well limited nylons. They negotiate a faux Marshall Aid agreement around a loan of the Burgundian assets and away we go. Back to the queues and traditional English rain. One senses England is the true home of these Burgundians rather than Britain.

But what of Austerity ? Passport to Pimlico is surely a pro-austerity film. Not just pro- but actually praise be and thank the english gods for it. While many people saw Austerity as a necessary evil, Passport trades it off as an end in itself. It is our ability to ration, to make good, to be happy under control that they wish for. “ You don’t know your well off until you aren’t “ Austerity is wonderful. So why do distressed Bremainers look to the film ?

Theres no logical support in the film, inevitable Londoners will be left waiting for the rain, running down the meagre supply of nylons and wondering how they can use their capital to get back into a life of drudge. But it was our drudge. Cripps never let Cigarettes be on ration, though the Chancellor advised slower smoking was better for your health. We can laugh at failed health warnings but from 2016 the message of doing what the Government tells you is still accepted.

Charles Hawtrey – Piano- over and out.


David Kynaston A World To Build

Steven Fielding A State of Play : British Politics on screen,stage and page

Tom Sobchak Bakhtins “Carnivelesque” in 1950s British Comedy

Chris Bryant Stafford Cripps


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