The Most English Films Ever Made

Film, London


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!


27 comments on “The Most English Films Ever Made”

  1. Steve says:

    Sorry browsing around now and can’t resist to comment more.
    OK Canterbury Tale probably my favourite film ever – Together with the Producers, work that combination out… Can’t disagree with any on this list except that I never heard of Bulldog Jack, I’ll just have to go and check that out now.
    If I have to add one, I don’t want to put it up as a great film, it’s just me – Sweeney 2 – it’s just I can watch it again and again and it “makes sense”, the roles of the men and women, the time as well.
    Thanks for your blog I always enjoy even if I don’t say much 🙂
    And since I’m writing, enjoyed Hell Train a lot. 🙂

  2. Vivienne says:

    Could I add The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner? Good example of the English underdog challenging authority and eccentricity mixed in too.

  3. Jo W says:

    A Canterbury Tale is a given,but alongside that I have to put This Happy Breed. Celia Johnson holding the family together, as best she can, during the years between the world wars. Was she the starch that stiffened the upper lip? Also, The Smallest Show on Earth – pure British comedy. Was it appreciated in any other countries, I wonder?

  4. Roger says:

    I presume Kind Hearts and Coronets was too obvious to need mentioning.
    A few more:
    Sir Henry at Rawlinson’s End
    The Bed-Sitting Room
    Hue and Cry
    They Drive by Night
    Went the Day Well?
    Peeping Tom

  5. Paul Neeve says:

    Kes belongs on any list of great English films.

  6. John Griffin says:

    Went The Day Well was the first film I thought of, given the title of the thread. Still packs a punch. I would add Wallace & Gromit, probably Were-Rabbit, and the new Shaun The Sheep looks a contender! They don’t go down well in the USA, two great countries divided by a sense of humour.

  7. RobertR says:

    ‘Distant Voices Stll Lives’ by Terence Davies – class (again), but more importantly the pubs, the alcohol and Liverpool. Also

  8. Frank Gould says:

    Probably any film by Terence Davies but certainly “Distant Voices, Still Lives”.

  9. RobertR says:

    Also I still remember fondly the 1975 film version of ‘All Creatures Great & Small’ – historic & class; but agriculture, rural life and the big countryside of England gets forgotten sometimes.

  10. snowy says:

    There are lots of these and a great many seem to be produced as a reaction to contemporary events:

    ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ [Beeching Report}.

    ‘Whiskey Galore’ [Rationing].

    ‘Georgie Girl’ [Single Parenthood].

    ‘I’m Al’right Jack’ [Labour relations and Class struggle]

    Even ‘The Italian Job’ is inspired by a certan train robbery.

    But if I dig right into the very bottom of the of the ‘bag’ tucked in the corner along with the fluff, crumpled tissues and a long forgotten and unidentifiable boiled sweet, well I think it’s a sweet, there are a couple of lesser known films.

    ‘Don’t Talk to Strange Men’

    It can only have been a B movie, [low budget, black and white and only 60 minutes long], the whole plot is in the title. And if ever proof was needed that teenagers were just as vain, self absorbed and vacuous back then this is it. The scenes between the children and the parents, the patient mother and the non-comprehending father are still echoed in homes today.

    ‘John and Julie’
    A very sweet, [perhaps verging on the sickly today], tale about a very little girl who is [pant wettingly] desperate to see The Coronation. But it is not to be, she confides her wish to her friend John and they decide to run away to London together. This all happens in the ‘never existed’ world where the children manage to rack up a charge sheet including: fraud, theft, truancy, fare dodging, violent affray etc. On-route they are temporarily ‘adopted’ by a rich American couple, but even having reached the capital their troubles are not over, they become separated and Julie is cared for by… a common tart, [this is in a children’s film!], She is obviously a woman of low morals, dyed hair, red blouse, black skirt and …gasp!… a tattoo! [a rose on her ankle, that the camera lingers on just to ram home the point]. I think they even throw in a fight in a “Jazz” club just to round things out.

    It features an early appearance by Peter Sellers in a small role, just before he starred in ‘The Ladykillers’.

  11. snowy says:

    Oh… and there is a Jack Hawkins film which is unremarkable for the most part but does switch between the rather functional Scotland Yard offices, his suburban domestic home, [arriving home late to be served potatoes, chops and bottled beer by his wife] and the newly opened, still then glamorous Royal Festival Hall.

    But to give it it’s due it is an attempt at ‘British Noir’ and JH does a nifty bit of bonnet jumping, decades before it became a cinematic staple.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    “For me “They Drive by Night” is an American film with Humphrey Bogart, and very good in the first half. The second half is a different film, literally, put in to calm the well to do who would have found the first half upsetting with the long distance drivers trying to unionise and set up a fairer pay system. Is there an English one as well?
    Whiskey Galore was fun, but would tell the viewer a considerable amount about the time. It was referenced on a recent Coast program where they visited the site of the wreck and explained what really happened.
    From that same period is “Tunes of Glory” which I haven’t seen for years but really loved.
    My Mother, prairie farm raised couldn’t understand why anyone would want to watch a program about a vet’s practice – it’s just one sick animal after another. She watched from the farmers’ point of view and knew that animal medicine had changed tremendously.

  13. Paul Graham says:

    Gumshoe, Get Carter, any of the ‘good’ Carry-Ons, Dead of Night, Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Day The Earth Caught Fire, Quatermass and the Pit, 24 hour party people, Hobson’s Choice, Genevieve, Sink the Bismarck, The Colditz Story, The Wooden Horse, oh and Whisky Galore might be an Ealing comedy but Scottish in theme and place surely?

  14. snowy says:

    The British film is I think ‘Hell Drivers’ the two are frequently mixed up, [done it myself, which is how I remember it].


    Hell Drivers (1957) is a British film directed by Cy Endfield and starring Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Peggy Cummins, Patrick McGoohan and Sean Connery.


    And also; Bill Hartnell, Sid James, Jill Ireland, Alfie Bass, Gordon Jackson and David McCallam

    [A Doctor, a Prisoner, a Bond, a Professional and a Man from U.N.C.L.E. ]

  15. snowy says:

    Yes you are quite right WG is Scottish, my mistake, the only English character is an ‘Officer type’ that the locals run rings around.

  16. Peter, The Hague says:

    THE WHISPERERS (1967), Heavens, that is a depressing movie! I wonder how many elderly people today spend their day in the Public Library to stay warm and save on energy bills. Another reason to keep the libraries open. But Edith Evans gave the performance of a lifetime: “Are you there…….?”

  17. Wayne Mook says:

    They Drive By Night is also a British film from ’38, about a long haulage driver accused of murder. Often confused with the US film of ’40.

    Hell Drivers uses short haul tippers and is a different film, numbers are central to the plot wonder if this had any influence on Patrick McGoohan.

    To be honest I can’t pick a few favourites, can’t help but think of Charters and Caldicott as characters.


  18. Roger says:

    The fascinating thing about They Drive By Night- the British one- is the appearance of Ernest Thesiger about two-thirds of the way through a piece of working-class realism. Like a death’s head moth in your clothes cupboard. The hero isn’t a lorry-driver- though he tries to escape from London in a lorry- but a recently-released criminal.

  19. martin says:

    Would Falstaff: Chimes at midnight count, or is Shakespeare out of bounds?

  20. button says:

    Recently caught St Trinion’s (2007) being aired on cable TV here in the U.S.. Lots of fun – and a bit like panto, don’t you think?

  21. Maggie B says:

    As an American I can’t -know- what is quintssentially British but I was impressed by Quadrophenia the movie. The idea that anyone would take a bath outside their own home seemed utterly foreign to me as a teenager…

  22. snowy says:

    St Trinian’s is rather a lot of fun, [with a few reservations re female stereotypes], it even survives having that dreary comedian in it, [innit].

    The sequel produced in 2009 has a more coherent plot, [as coherent as these things get].

    [I don’t know if the original quartet of St Trinian’s films from the 50s-60s are ever shown abroad? But they were a staple of British TV for decades.]

    What is ‘British’ is a matter of perspective, films that reflect real life do badly both at home and abroad. These that do well abroad reflect and reinforce those audiences perceptions of what is ‘British’.

    Quadrophenia was a strange idea, a film that was a ‘love letter’ to an era that was completely alien to the audience it was aimed at. It offered a view of the life of the then parents to their adolescent children, [which must have caused some possibly difficult conversations around Sex and Drugs.]

    It is just a short, slightly lateral, step from ‘Quadrophenia’ to ‘Tommy’ a film that could be described as ‘British’ but more accurately as ‘carpet chewingly bonkers’!

    The British relationship viz ‘indoor plumbing’ is long and torturous subject. The underpinning element is wealth, the richer you were the sooner you got sanitary conditions recognisable as ‘modern’.

    [But we still favour separate hot and cold taps to the bafflement of the rest of the Anglophone world.]

  23. Steve2 says:

    Snowy, the Jack Hawkins film was “The Long Arm”, I had the pleasure of finding it on afternoon telly the other week. I would suggest adding another Jack Hawkins film “The League of Gentleman” (heist) to the list as well as “Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (dashed decent chap) and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (starring David Hemmings, Trevor Howard etc- cock up on the catering front!)

  24. snowy says:

    That’s the one! I’d formed some sort of mental block linking it to ‘The Wrong Arm of the Law’ that I could not shake. Which might almost itself fit the list, starring as it does over about a dozen British stars.

    There is a exchange in ‘Blimp’ between Candy and his Aunt Margaret that is an exact example of what my Great Aunts an others of that generation would get up to if you weren’t paying strict attention to what they were saying. They could completely reduce to shreds anyone they disapproved of without seeming to bat an eyelid.

  25. Susan says:

    Whistle down the wind

  26. Anne Fernie says:

    You can’t beat any of the Ealing films – worth watching just for the sheer lost ‘Englishness’ of the street scenes……

  27. Xas says:

    John Griffin, you are my new hero. I love Wallace and Gromit.

    Some of my additions have already been mentioned (Long Distance Runner, Kind Hearts and Coronets), but I’d also add…

    This Sporting Life (is this the only movie about rugby league?)
    Withnail And I
    The Green Man (Alistair Sim and George Cole)

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