The Most English Films Ever Made
The rubbish line-up of the Oscars this year set me thinking, not that I set any store by these awards; any supposed system of excellence that could ignore ‘The Wizard of Oz’, ‘Singing In The Rain’ and ‘Vertigo’ isn’t worth bothering with – If you were to look down the list of most popular British films you’ll find a surprising number filmed in other countries, in India, Africa and what they used to call ‘the tropics’. We’ve always looked outwards at more exotic landscapes rather than inward at our own.
This is probably why I’m not a fan of the Richard Curtis school of filmmaking, where a kind of ersatz middle-class Englishness is being flogged as a global commodity. I wonder if this might be connected to Curtis’s wealthy childhood in the English outposts of far-off countries, where he might have fantasised about returning home to a world he must have had to largely make up in his own head. In a certain type of English film, the main characters go from Chelsea to Pall Mall via Burlington Arcade, Tower Bridge and Wimbledon.
I’ve always preferred writers and filmmakers who can’t seem to shake the English damp out of their bones. As I walked home the other night, past the pop-up railway theatre where the stage version of ‘The Railway Children’ is currently playing, I could smell coal smoke in the air again and there were extras in Edwardian dress wandering about – a very surreal moment, but it reminded me why that low-budget little film has such a strong resonance for the English. Here’s an almost randomly selected sift-out from the top of my brain. All of the films below exhibit some important but not necessarily desirable element of Englishness.
A Taste Of Honey – Canals, poverty, pregnancy, damp; it feels as if it’s a 100 years old now, but still full of potent moments
The Ruling Class – Class, madness, power, satire – the freewheeling spirit of the 1960s captured in one extraordinary film
The Draughtsman’s Contract – a murder mystery, a puzzle-box, sexual intrigue and class again; still Greenaway’s best
Bulldog Jack – A parody of Bulldog Drummond, complete with toffs, oiks and and trip down the London Underground on tea trays.
Drowning By Numbers – one of the few films shot in East Anglia in perpetual twilight, another puzzle full of games within games
A Canterbury Tale – What a strange film this is, the elision between past and present, the Glue-Man, the astonishing resolution at Canterbury Cathedral
Passport To Pimlico – the ration-book film that came to typify the spirit of London, charming and often hilariously, effortlessly witty
The Railway Children – ‘We’ll have to play at being poor for a while’, endlessly quotable, episodic children’s adventure impossible to resist
Witchfinder General – Has there ever been another film that captured the strange vindictiveness of England in time of civil unrest?
A Handful Of Dust – heartbreaking, cruel and satirical, it somehow creates sympathy for the ruling class losing its way in the 20th century
Sparrows Can’t Sing – A man returns home to find London changing beyond recognition in ways he can barely accept
Billy Liar – hopes and dreams, Northern-style, capturing the underdog hero’s sense of undirected youthful energy and failure of spirit
Nil By Mouth – A South London upbringing from Hell that also understands what keeps the family together
Brief Encounter – guilt, shame, fear of recrimination and ‘not doing the right thing’ – hardly a love story at all as Laura realises she didn’t know that people ‘could feel such violent emotions’.
Feel free to add to the list!