Sunday, 7 December 2008

Linda Grant on the Bethnal Green Bambinos

Gorgeous article by Linda, originally in The Jewish Quarterly. I have permission to quote and am making hay while the sun shines. So, Linda saith...

... Watching this film that afternoon, utterly riveted, I understood two things, that it was a satire of the war years and that it could only have been made by Jews. The satire was obvious, but the Jews? Well, there was the presence of the Jewish actor Sydney Tafler, portraying the bookie Fred Cowan; and his wife, who runs the schmatte shop, who, at the prospect of the family coming into a share of booty, declares that she will send their son to Eton, a classic Jewish mother intent on her children’s education. Jews not knowing their place in the class system, I recognised immediately. The Cowan’s (or Cohen’s as you suspect they’ve changed their name from) are Jewish like the people I grew up amongst were Jewish. My parents, everybody’s parents’, were the children of immigrants, they spoke like, but not quite like, the Liverpool working class. They did slightly different jobs. They were tailors, furriers, cabinet-makers, tic-tac men. They had a healthy gloss of vulgarity on them, they glowed with a kind of American optimism. They had a force of ambition, contemptuous of the codified strata of social class. They were modernists, lacking any tradition, except that which had been brought from the hame and was practised only at home because it had no currency outside it. They took to the New with relish. When the residents of Pimlico realise they don’t need a music licence, and Charles Hawtree, the pot boy, sits down at the piano, it’s the Cowans who do the most-up-to-the minute dance, the jitterbug.

The insertion of these very obvious Jews in this most British of films was not the only clue about its origins. ‘Passport to Pimlico’ is a comic investigation of Englishness. Not Britishness, which is rarely mentioned. Britain is an institutional entity, it’s government, Home and Foreign Office; it runs the Empire. Englishness is what the characters feel themselves to be inside. The film’s most famous line encapsulates how people felt about their country in the immediate post-war years, after a struggle against both fascism abroad and the dreary restrictions of living entirely by the rule book. ‘We’re English,’ a woman says, leaning her head out of an upstairs window to shout to the Whitehall bureaucrats below, ‘we always were English and it’s just because we are English that we’re sticking up for our right to be Burgundian.’

The head of the Ealing studios and the producer of the film, Michael Balcon, was the son of Eastern European immigrants and said to be so grateful to the English for giving sanctuary to his family that, according to his daughter, Jill Balcon, the wife of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, he grew willows in his garden for the manufacture of cricket bats. The Jewish English gentleman, whether he came from Vienna or Lodz, saw in ‘Englishness’ a set of values woefully missing in 1930s Germany or Tsarist Russia. Perhaps there is something in ethnic national stereotypes, or perhaps it was just a three-hundred-year-old tradition of parliamentary democracy that created a climate that was moderate politically and moderate intellectually, never tending to extremes. When the people throw their packed lunches over the barbed wire to the starving Burgundians, eerily prefiguring the Berlin airlift, there is a question mark hovering in the air. How did the Poles behave when the Jews were trapped behind the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto? The newsreel of the Burgundians’ plight creates in the minds of Londoners a sympathy with the oppressed, an alliance of interests against bureaucracy and the Little Hitlers (played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, the stalwart bowler-hat wearers of many a British picture) at Whitehall.

The film’s director, Henry Cornelius was born in 1913 into a German Jewish family in Cape Town. When he was a child, the family moved back to Berlin, where, at the age of 18, he was accepted to study with Max Reinhardt and at the age of 20 was producing plays at the Schiller Theatre. After the election of the Nazis, he moved to Paris and got into the film industry, working as an assistant editor at the Studios de Montrouge. From there he went to London and got a job on Rene Clair’s ‘The Ghost Goes West,’ produced by another Jewish émigré, Alexander Korda. After working with Korda, Cornelius went on to produce what is regarded as the first true Ealing comedy, ‘Hue and Cry’ before being given ‘Passport to Pimlico.’ He later made another small English classic, ‘Genevieve’ and co-scripted ‘The Ladykillers.’ His career was cut short by his early death in 1958.

So over this quintessentially English film, about little England, is the hand of two strands of post-war British Jewry, the second generation shtetl immigrant, and the Yekke, the Central European Jewish émigré intellectual. ‘Passport to Pimlico’ is a portrait of an England idealised by immigrants. The real-life residents of their notional Pimlico were unlikely ever to have been abroad. The Continent to them is a place of streets baking in sunlight, free from rationing, an escape from the endless rain and the class system, but there was nothing foreign about the Burgundians, indignantly retaining their right not to be aliens...

...‘Passport to Pimlico’ is a portrait of England from the vantage point of the grateful refugee. There is no Jewish community in Pimlico, just a sole Jewish family, as English as everyone else, not just tolerated but accepted, part of the community, part of the texture of life. Cowan and his wife drink pints in the pub. No Jew in Liverpool was a pub-goer. No-one drank, except a sip of Kiddush wine and a glass of whiskey at a simcha. The women didn’t drink at all. Pubs where were the goyim went to do goyish things, like playing darts, and getting drunk and starting fights...

... I look at the English countryside, at its churches, its graveyards, and it so obviously isn’t mine. But the Ealing studios made us an England. It exists within the small boundaries of a film released fifty-five years ago, and in the DVD playing on my laptop. This Pimlico. This little realm. This little nationality.

Two dozen cheers for the Bethnal Green Bambinos.


Mister Keep Fit said...

Very interesting!

Linda is right -

"Britain is an institutional entity, it’s government, Home and Foreign Office; it runs the Empire. Englishness is what the characters feel themselves to be inside. "

Poet in Residence said...

'Britain is an institutional entity' so it's amazingly interesting that 'English' is what the 'characters feel themselves to be inside' rather than British.
Being 50/50 English Welsh, but born to the West of Offa's Dyke, I always think of myself as either British or Welsh. In Austria the Volks tell me I'm an Engländer!

William Gazy said...

Nice article. A small shame that the film's writer, T.E.B Clarke, went unmentioned. Perhaps because his non-Jewish status didn't fit the article's aims?