The Most English Films Ever Made
Last night I finished the second draft of my thriller ‘The Villa’, and to relax watched ‘The Little Stranger’, based on the Sarah Waters novel of class and ghosts. Stripped of her fine writing, what’s left is a beautifully photographed, inert British film of mannequin poses, cut-glass accents, falling rain and damp rooms. The book was a success – the film was buried. Yet it’s a fine try at capturing the issue of class in England.
If you look down the list of most popular British films you’ll find a surprising number shot in other countries, in India, Africa and what one used to call ‘the tropics’. We’ve often looked outwards at more exotic landscapes rather than inward at our own.
This is probably why I’m not a fan of the Working Title school of filmmaking, where a kind of ersatz middle-class Englishness is being sold as a global commodity. I wonder if this might be connected to scriptwriter Richard 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 make up in his head. These are the English films in which 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. A couple of years ago the stage version of ‘The Railway Children’ played in a King’s Cross railway siding, and you could smell coal smoke in the air. There were extras in Edwardian dress wandering about – a very surreal moment, but it reminded me why that low-budget children’s film had such a strong resonance for the English. 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
A Field In England – in the canon of Ben Wheatley films this is the oddest, yet it wrings an English elegy from two men and a piece of rope.
This Happy Breed – A London house from 1920 to 1939 and an ordinary family, from director David Lean and writer Noel Coward.
The Ruling Class – Class, madness, power, satire – the freewheeling spirit of the 1960s captured in one extraordinary film
High Hopes – Rich and poor live side by side in King’s Cross. Mike Leigh’s comedy of yuppies and have-nots is still fresh
The Favourite – It may rewrite English history but it captures the tone of venality and ambition in the English court
The Draughtsman’s Contract – a murder mystery, a puzzle-box, sexual intrigue and class again; still Greenaway’s best
I’m All Right Jack – The Boulting brothers made a number of comedies on political English subjects – here they take on trade unions
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; the elision between past and present, the Glue-Man, the astonishing scene in Canterbury Cathedral
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1966) As written by remarkable revisionist Charles Wood this feels like a window into the past
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, Edwardian episodic children’s adventure
Witchfinder General – Has there ever been another film that captured the strange vindictiveness of England in time of civil unrest?
A Handful Of Dust – heartbreakingly 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 East 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, but tough to watch
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 – the stranger the better!