Barbara Murray played Shirley Pemberton in the recently reissued Passport to Pimlico, the Ealing Comedy about a small neighbourhood in Britain which was actually revealed to be a part of France.
By Joe Utichi
Do you remember how you were first cast in the role?
It’s a very strange tale, to tell the honest truth. When someone is testing for a part, they often need someone to stooge for them; to stand with their back to the camera and feed the lines. I was under contract to Rank at seventeen years old and Dennis Price was a very, very big star at that time. For some reason, before he accepted Kind Hearts And Coronets, he commissioned tests to be made and they booked a small soundstage in Ealing Studios for three days to make these tests.
They needed two girls to stooge, and I went down to meet Robert Hamer, the director. I read for him and he said, ‘Yeah, OK, you’ll do, I want you to come and play the Joan Greenwood part.’ They were doing the Valerie Hobson test first, and by the time I got there, early afternoon, it was plain that Dennis and Robert Hamer were going to get along marvellously. They were having a wonderful time together. So we polished off the scene between us very quickly, which left two days of the studio booked and nothing in it. Robert Hamer, for some reason, turned his attentions to me. The following day I was called down and Dennis Price, who was like Michael Caine at that time, turned his back to the camera and stooged for me.
Robert Hamer told me he was going to screen my test and wanted me to come and look at it. A few days later I went to the studio and he took me in and showed me the test, which was terrifying. I don’t think I’d ever seen myself on screen. He gave me some wonderful advice, and was just about as lovely as anyone could be. It was the most extraordinary stroke of luck. He said, ‘I’m going to take you and introduce you to somebody,’ and he took me down the studio corridor to a man called Henry Cornelius, who was preparing to direct Passport To Pimlico. From that I got to test for the film and got the part. It’s all thanks to Dennis Price and Robert Hamer.
In fact, Robert Hamer even said, ‘If, for some extraordinary reason, Joan Greenwood doesn’t play this part, you will. But she’ll play it – that I can tell you – so don’t get your hopes up.’ But of course I did! That was the one I wanted, not PASSPORT!
It was a pretty good consolation prize.
Oh, absolutely. It was my first film and I was launched as far as anyone can be because of it. The Ealing films at the time were all interlocked. The problem was that Henry Cornelius was what we’d now call a fussy perfectionist. The film was supposed to take six weeks, and had a slot in the studios. Whiskey Galore!, I think, was in the studio first, and while that was in the studio we were supposed to be on location, and when whiskey galore! went on location up in Scotland, we came into the studio. And then Kind Hearts And Coronets was off on location too. It was all dovetailed. But Passport took six months to make. The rows, I can’t tell you! I think they thought it was a bum film, and one felt apologetic for it after all the problems.
How was Henry Cornelius to work with?
I can’t say I liked him. He wasn’t easy to get along with, and all the good work that Robert Hamer had done with me – giving me confidence, and helping me – he was the complete opposite. I remember he got ill on the picture and got taken off, and they brought someone else in, and I blossomed. He got out of his deathbed, damn near, to direct the last scene between Paul Dupuis and myself, but he couldn’t hurt me anymore. [laughs]
He finished that film, and everyone was surprised when it turned out to be a hit. But because of the delays, and what he cost Ealing Studios, he didn’t get a script for a very long time. And then he finally got one, and he made it, and they canned it; they thought it was so bad that they couldn’t release it. Finally they snuck it out and it turned out to be Genevieve. He was an extraordinary man, and obviously had a great vision.
The famous story about Henry Cornelius goes, we were on this bomb site in Lambeth and there was a railway line that went through it. For one shot, they panned from the railway line to the barrow boys pushing their barrows and shouting, and carrying right up to camera, serving potatoes, or something hot. He’d got the whole thing – the train went through, the barrow boys came through, but there was no steam coming off the potatoes. So he called cut and wanted to go again. Michael Balcon went spare. [laughs]
It was an ambitious production, especially for one staged on location in Lambeth only a few years after the end of the Blitz.
It was a very ambitious production, and there were an extraordinary number of people in the movie. At that time London was a huge bomb site. Nobody had anywhere to live. My grandfather had been in the RAF and we returned to London with all of those people being demobbed. It was quite a carry on. Housing of any kind was a premium. And along came our set boys and put up a whole village, and of course the people of Lambeth didn’t see behind them – they were only facades but it looked like proper buildings. They were rioting! We had to have barbed wire all around, and escorts to take us in and out. The feeling of the local population was, ‘What are they doing building houses, and why aren’t we in them?’
It’s such a joyous film, but between Henry Cornelius and the locals of Lambeth did you have fun making it?
Well, it was a joyous world, because if you can imagine, we had all those top-flight character actors. Stanley Holloway, John Slater, Hermione Baddeley, Margaret Rutherford… you name them. They were all on six-week contracts and it went for six months. It was like Cleopatra! They made a fortune and were deliriously happy! [laughs]
The film went to Cannes, of course; were you as surprised as the studio that it became such a hit?
I was amazed. I remember going into the Odeon, Leicester Square, where it opened, and getting there a little early. I hadn’t even read the notices when I went in to see it. It was the tail end of the previous showing, and the cinema was absolutely rocking. I couldn’t believe it! It sounded so extraordinary. The next day you picked up the papers and of course it was this huge hit.
Did you expect it to endure for as long as it has?
No. We knew Ealing was a special place, and they did movies that had an Ealing stamp about them, even though Kind Hearts And Coronets didn’t really have that feel, despite being one of the key trio. I drifted away after that; I went back and did one more movie at Ealing, but that’s all. I’m delighted it’s done so well, but I’m surprised modern audiences get anything from it. It is a wonderful document of the state of mind of the British people after the war was won. We had clothes rationing, food rationing, shortages of every possible kind… When I left school, I only had my school clothes to wear. You didn’t have anything. And there were two terrible winters, in ’46/’47 and ’47/’48. It was a big freeze and nobody had any coal. You couldn’t help but say to yourself, ‘This is what happens when you win the war, is it?’