Rear Window: In a free state: Two little bits of old England

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The Independent Online
IT MAY take a little time but, yes, life does imitate art. It happened last week in Wanstead, East London, when protestors against the M11 link road in their self-declared 'Republic of Wanstonia' battled with the police. Many people of a certain age remembered a 45-year-old Ealing comedy, which in its day satisfied a powerful English longing that was just as political as the new environmentalism. In Passport to Pimlico the inhabitants of a small corner of post-war London discover that they are legally citizens of Burgundy, and proclaim independence. 'It's just because we're English that we're sticking up for our right to be Burgundians]' one of them insists.

The first idea for Passport to Pimlico came to its scriptwriter, T E B Clarke from a newspaper report that Canada had transferred sovereignty over the room in which Princess Juliana was about to give birth, to allow the baby to be born on Dutch soil. More immediate inspiration came from the post-war division of Berlin. In their enclave, the Pimlico Burgundians set up roadblocks and halt the Underground for passport controls. They manage to escape the austerity of Britain in 1949, free the economy, end food rationing and abolish licensing laws, and find themselves negotiating on equal terms with a bossy government. No wonder audiences felt a sense of vicarious satisfaction.

But secession is only the start of the story. The real battle takes place inside the new state, between those out for personal gain and those trying to revive a lost spirit of community. What the film preaches is not free-market hedonism but a return from post-war profiteering to wartime austerity. The Burgundians have no

recipe for the future except a revival of the past; hence their parody of Churchillian rhetoric: 'We'll fight them on the tramlines, we'll fight them in the local . . .'

In the end, they are starved out and negotiate to rejoin a United Kingdom that offers some guarantee that it will not become 'a spiv's paradise'. The ending is weak, but its message is clear, and the Wanstead protesters should consider the implications. Audiences will always respond to an appeal to the community spirit and to good-humoured nostalgia; but the wartime past to which the 'Burgundians' aspired was irrecoverable - and, when it comes down to it, not really that desirable.

It may be no accident that so many British comedies, even in that pre-motorway period, were about transport: railways in The Titfield Thunderbolt; an old coastal steamer in The Maggie; vintage cars in Genevieve. Or that the means of transport in question are admired for their old-fashioned charm, never their efficiency.

(Photograph omitted)