“We’re English and we always have been English. And it’s just because we are English that we’re sticking up for our right to be Burgundians!”
Henry Cornelius, an American director in Britain throughout the forties and fifties who made such extremely English comedies as Genevieve, crafted this delightful Ealing comedy around a highly unusual idea: suppose a document came to light rendering part of the East End of London technically a foreign country? From this premise a wealth of humour and incisive social comment spring.
When an unexploded bomb from the previous war goes off in Pimlico during an extremely hot summer, it reveals a cache of buried mediaeval treasure and a parchment found to be an official document signed by Edward IV, giving Pimlico to the Duke of Burgundy and thus making the residents of Pimlico Burgundians. (“Blimey,” says the startled local bobby, “I’m a foreigner!”) The locals are exultant when they find that restrictions such as ID cards, ration books, pub closing times and music licences no longer apply, and they take full advantage of the situation. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, as befuddled Whitehall bureaucrats, are sent in to deal with them, and of course fail to get to grips with things. Meantime the Burgundians enjoy themselves, the black market flourishes and, to the bemusement of everyone, a French descendant of the Duke of Burgundy arrives to claim his ancestral rights, and spends much of his time gazing admiringly at the chaos that surrounds him and exclaiming how marvellous it is to see English democracy in action, as the new country desperately tries to get a representative council together in order to do battle with Whitehall. For a while the Burgundians relish being on their own and running their own affairs. Eventually, however, drought becomes a big problem for Burgundy, since the water mains from Britain have been turned off. The diplomatic standoff between the Burgundians and Britain is resolved, and Pimlico rejoins England amidst mutual fanfare.
Many familiar Ealing faces appear in the film. Particular standouts include Margaret Rutherford as the eccentric Professor Hatton-Jones (who verifies the parchment’s authenticity), Stanley Holloway as local worthy Mr Pemberton, and Paul Dupuis as the descendant of the Duke of Burgundy. The direction is subtle and unobtrusive and extorts full humour from the script (one of the funniest incidents in the film is a delightfully played love scene between the Frenchman and Mr Pemberton’s daughter, continually interrupted by typical Pimlico night noises: cats yowling, neighbours gargling, and so on.)
Passport to Pimlico takes a quizzical look at working-class stubbornness, community spirit and ability to pull together in the face of a common threat, and at a certain latent English anarchy and disregard for authority, all of which are hilariously expressed in one particular scene: when Britain closes the frontier between Burgundy and the rest of London, other Cockneys begin throwing food across the border to the besieged Burgundians, as if to animals in a zoo. Most of all, however, the film is a witty meditation on humanity’s capacity to spontaneously form new tribal identities. In this it is reminiscent of G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which similarly examines the way in which new nationalities can spring up quickly within tiny areas. Whereas the Chesterton novel quickly irritates, however, Passport to Pimlico is light, comical and deeply affectionate in its treatment of the subject, and is also (although a comic fantasy) far more believable. Though not as well known as the Ealing comedies starring Alec Guinness, such as The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob, it deserves a special place in the history of English film.--Isabel Taylor
Charters and Caldicott, the Archetypal Englishmen Abroad: An Appreciation
“Waste of time, having all this bilge in the passport!”
The characters of Charters and Caldicott made their debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes, 1938. Charters was always played by Basil Radford, a heavy-set actor with a moustache and a scar, and Caldicott by Naunton Wayne, a small man with a reedy voice and a perpetually worried expression. Due to overwhelming popular enthusiasm for the pair, they appeared in many other English films of the period and eventually had a vehicle of their own; Crooks Tour confirmed the affection and esteem in which they were held by English filmgoers. When Radford and Wayne were not reprising their roles as Charters and Caldicott, they played other comic duos who usually bore a striking resemblance to them. Together they made scores of comedic appearances in movies throughout the thirties and forties, and even into the fifties, and this success was entirely built on their initial performance as Charters and Caldicott in Hitchcock’s film.
The characters were so popular because Radford and Wayne managed to recreate for the cinema the typical upper middle-class Englishmen abroad of the period: overgrown public school-boys, obsessed with cricket above all other concerns, vague, illogical, easily fussed, close friends but undemonstrative about it, fond of their creature comforts but usually curiously courageous and resourceful in a pinch, especially when struggling with devious Nazi types. They struck a chord with the English public at the end of the thirties because their “little man” quality and lack of obvious heroism, together with their ability to triumph in dangerous situations, had a parallel with the English view of the country itself as a small nation devoid of much grandeur or hubris (“decadent”, as Goebbels would say), but with the potential to be heroic if forced, however reluctantly, to take part in another war. In spite of their privileged backgrounds Charters and Caldicott, in the script of The Lady Vanishes, represent more than any of the other characters the ordinary people of England. As an interesting aside, we may note that many English propaganda films of the war emphasised not so much the latent nobility, heroism and strength of the average English person, but their very ordinariness and lack of combativeness or master-race characteristics; their wish, in fact, to be left alone to curl up in their hobbit holes, have a cup of tea and read the sport pages. The George Formby war films, such as Let George Do It, which features the gormless Wigan lad eventually rallying enough to defeat Hitler, are a classic case in point. Charters and Caldicott must thus be viewed in their proper context in the cinema of the time, along with all the other representations of English simplicity confronted with Nazi cunning, but the important difference is that they were always shown abroad, partly to underline the perceived differences between the English and foreigners and throw issues such as democracy and individual rights into sharp relief, but also to satirise the frequently comical behaviour of English tourists.
In their first vehicle, The Lady Vanishes (a delightful film in its own right, starring Michael Redgrave as an eccentric but attractive folk-dance collector and Margaret Lockwood as the determined young girl with whom he initially locks horns and eventually falls in love), Charters and Caldicott play quite a large role for incidental characters. They charm from the instant they appear, trying to find out the latest Test scores even though they are in Bandrika, a fictional Middle European country. Their indignation at the lack of proper service in their hotel and their amazement when, hijacking someone else’s phone call from England and endeavouring to find out the Test scores from the person on the other end, they discover that he doesn’t know (“You can’t be in England and not know the Test score!”) last only a short time; apart from these brief moments of annoyance they remain unexcitable and placid, shaken but not stirred even when confronted with an increasingly strange situation on their train surrounding the disappearance of an old English lady (Dame May Whitty). At tea-time they use lumps of sugar to diagram cricket problems, to the irritation of the other English passengers, and become worried when Margaret Lockwood’s character threatens to stop the train, as this will prevent them from getting back to England in time to see an important Test match at Lord’s. They refuse to believe that the old lady has actually been kidnapped until the last minute (part of Hitchcock’s allegorical satire on the refusal of English people to seriously face the prospect of another war) but when they do they behave with classic imperturbability even during the final shootout, treating it as some sort of game, much like a cricket match. This, like the rest of the film, showcases their essential childlikeness, consisting of a relentless pursuit of cricket, simple self-centredness until confronted with a crisis, and stubbornness mixed with simplicity and lack of intellectual rigour.
The performance of Radford and Wayne in The Lady Vanishes was so winning that they were given an extended reprise of it in Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich, an enjoyable imitation of Hitchcock’s thriller, starring Rex Harrison as the eccentric but attractive Bertie Woosterish secret agent with whom Margaret Lockwood’s character, a brave young Czech girl, eventually falls in love (do we begin to see a pattern?) Here, if anything, they are even more delightful and funny than in The Lady Vanishes, partly because the script was more amusing and partly because they were given significantly more screen time than in the previous film. Again they featured as Englishmen abroad on a train, as fixated on cricket as they were in The Lady Vanishes (when war breaks out between England and Germany, their first worry is that the army might take over Lord’s cricket ground). They converse in cricket terminology even more in Night Train to Munich than in the previous film, warning Rex Harrison’s character that he is “batting on a sticky wicket”. The non-verbal communication between the two, first developed in The Lady Vanishes, is improved on and made an integral part of the film’s comedy, rendered even funnier by their apparent inability to communicate effectively using language, as demonstrated in the “Something emerging very clearly” conversation. Their relationship is also rounded out, showing us a friendship characterised most of the time by comfortable companionship, but also by occasional mutual irritation. As in The Lady Vanishes they make a beeline for comfort and convenience, and object strenuously to the fact that everything they sit on seems to be “required” by the German military, threatening to “write to the company about it”. Again they find it totally unreasonable of foreigners to insist on speaking foreign languages, but nevertheless they try, Charters especially, to understand the German political situation: “Bought a copy of Mein Kampf. Thought it might shed some light on all this how d’you do”, he explains phlegmatically. (This has a parallel in The Lady Vanishes when Caldicott complains about Charters having stood throughout the Hungarian Rhapsody in the mistaken belief that it is the Bandrikan national anthem, thus making them miss their train.) Even Charters, however, gives up trying to understand the German political situation when he is insulted by a German officer. Finally, when forced again to get off something he was trying to sit on, he produces his passport and reads out the message about allowing “the bearer to pass without let or hindrance”. This is ignored, and he remarks bitterly, in what is probably the best Charters and Caldicott line ever, “Waste of time, having all this bilge in the passport!”
It must be remembered that Charters and Caldicott first made their appearance at the brink of World War II, which explains why they are always ultimately frustrated by foreigners and forced by them into an adversarial position. But I think we can draw a moral for our own times from these old-fashioned comic characters. However insular their disposition, they always attempt to behave reasonably and peaceably abroad until provoked beyond all endurance, and they usually try to show respect for the cultures in which they find themselves, and even, occasionally, take a vague interest in them. Many people today could learn a thing or two about civilised behaviour abroad from Charters and Caldicott. --Isabel Taylor