The Most English Films Ever Made

Film

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!

25 comments on “The Most English Films Ever Made”

  1. Paco says:

    Bedazzled
    Every ‘Carry On’ movie ever made
    Get Carter
    Long Good Friday
    Mona Lisa
    Whistle Down The Wind
    Cathy Come Home
    Theatre of Blood
    Shaun of the Dead
    Trainspotting
    Zulu
    Withnail and I
    This is England

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    The Whisperers – Edith Evans is superb in showing a view of life that’s a bit far from Downton Abbey.
    Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Another Bryan Forbes job with the (to my mind) much under-rated Kim Stanley. And her co-star Richard Attenborough (like him or loathe him) in that film, also did a sterling turn at various forms of Englishness in Brighton Rock, 10 Rillington Place, and in Guns at Batasi.

  3. Anne Billson says:

    All the Powell & Pressburger films, but especially the ones with Roger Livesey. I realise I Know Where I’m Going! is set in Scotland, but it’s still awfully English. (Plus Powell’s Peeping Tom)

    And I’m a little obsessed with the following dialogue (cut & pasted, hence the format) from Sink the Bismarck! All wobbly stiff upper lip. (I remember my mother once saying how this incident sent the entire nation into shock)

    Blimey.

    What happened?

    The Hood’s gone.

    Good God.

    Yeoman.

    Yes, sir?

    Make to admiralty from Prince of Wales.

    Tell them…tell them

    the Hood has blown up.

    Aye aye, sir.

    [Incoming Fire]

    Starboard 15.

    Starboard 15, sir.

    Starboard 15.

    Signal from Prince of Wales, sir.

    Well, what is it?

    It says… HMS Hood has blown up.

    Here it is on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J93GPUh-ta0

  4. Anne Billson says:

    Also think Hammer couldn’t be any more English, with their visions of mittel-Europe conjured on small budgets out of brilliant set design, costumes and intelligent directing, and equation of evil with unEnglishness, riotous living, sexy nightclub shenanigans, liberated libido etc.

    Like most horror movies, they can’t help being subversive, but the subversiveness is tempered by a very English restraint that invariably restores order by way of a Van Helsing-like intellectual father figure, who knocks all the naughtiness on the head (though in some of the later, more subversive Hammers, of course, the father figure is himself corrupt).You can just imagine Terence Fisher and co drinking tea and playing cricket when they weren’t spinning gruesome yarns.

  5. DC says:

    Kind Hearts and Coronets
    Life and death of Colonel Blimp (Powell and Pressburger again)
    Life of Brian
    The Lady Killers (The awful US adaptation just shows that some films don’t translate)

  6. Siobhan says:

    The Wicker Man
    I know it’s set on a Scottish isle but it definitely displays a deep English suspicion of too much religion, whether it be triumphant paganism or belted-up Puritanism! It also demonstrates that strange fascination with myth and folklore, deeply embedded in the psyche – from Herne the Hunter, to green man (to Bryant and May?).

    Anything with Alastair Sim, but especially Green for Danger – principally for the idea that whatever else is happening (German bombing raids in this case), justice and the law must be upheld.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    How about:
    ‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’
    ‘Hell Is A City’
    ‘Jubilee’
    ‘Death Line’
    ‘Hell Drivers’
    ‘On The Buses’ (sadly, one of Hammer’s most profitable earners. But you must admit, ‘Blakey’ is a classic British comedy character – everybody knows one.)
    ‘The Day The Earth Caught Fire’, and, last but not least, a movie so English it bewilders even some English people:
    ‘Sir Henry At Rawlinson End’. I find it tremendously funny, even on repeated viewing. Impossible to describe properly, but any film written by possibly Britain’s last great eccentric, Vivian Stanshall, and starring Trevor Howard as a perpetually drunk, and violent old bigot, who keeps two(very well treated) German POW’s in a small prison in his grounds, and who are encouraged to escape – as long as Sir Henry can catch them. They’re summoned by Sir Henry using a tin can phone, and saying: “Jairmany Calling… Jairmany Calling…” See, I’ve baffled a lot of you already.

  8. Kristina says:

    I agree with all the ones mentioned so far and would like to add
    Reach for the Sky – Kenneth More’s stiff upper lip at its finest
    The Titfield Thunderbolt
    Sink the Bismarck

  9. Peter Tromans says:

    Can I suggest Leslie Howard’s war time propaganda films (without being shot)?

  10. Rich says:

    How about Withnail and I? Can you imagine it being made anywhere but England?

  11. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Went The Day Well?’ is the stiffest of stiff upper lip British movies. Anyone not convinced of the innate toughness of British people (although the wartime American government understood, and, in the leaflet given to GI’s in 1942, ‘Instructions For American Servicemen In Britain’, it states: “The English language didn’t spread across the oceans, and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the world because these people were panty-waists”), would be shocked at how dark this movie gets.

  12. Roger says:

    I agree about Sir Henry, Ian Luck. I used to quote his remarks straight-faced at work and people were very wary of me.

    A few more:
    The Bed-Sitting Room. made by an American based on a play partly by an Irishman shows that not even nuclear war can disrupt Englishness.
    Nearly all of Lindsay Anderson’s films, but especially The White Bus and Britannia Hospital. It wasn’t exactly a good career move to make that film just as the Falklands War ended, but it needed making.
    Humphrey Jennings’s documentaries and Fires Were Started.
    Jonathan Miller’s version of Alice in Wonderland
    Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs

  13. Mimi says:

    Seance on a Wet Afternoon.

    Unrelated, but great news: I was able to pre-order The Lonely Hour on audible today…it wasn’t there yesterday.

  14. Brian Evans says:

    Anything with or by Alan Bennett, esp “A Private Function” which is about the dreariness, party due to rationing, of life in England in the immediate post-war years.

    And “It Always Rains on Sunday”, made in the immediate post-war years. In this Noir meets soap-opera the title says it all.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Roger – I can well imagine people being wary – it might be fun to greet a new staff member with a firm handshake, and, looking him straight in the eye, saying: “I never met a man I didn’t mutilate.”

  16. Roger says:

    “I never met a man I wouldn’t mutilate.” actually, Ian.
    The prospect – especially conveyed in Trevor Howardian (Howardish?) tones – is much more intimidating.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Roger – Ha ha ha! I stand corrected! But the fact that you know that line so well, speaks volumes. I told a friend of my brother’s the line: “That, was inedible muck, and not enough of it.” To our joy, he started saying it if we went out to eat anywhere. I also wish that I had told him: “I don’t know what I want – but I want it NOW!” He’d have said it to annoy waiters, most definitely.

  18. admin says:

    ‘A Private Function’ absolutely. Kind Hearts and Coronets, utterly.
    ‘Kind hearts are more than coronets,and simple faith than Norman blood’ – Tennyson.

  19. Roger says:

    I quoted “I don’t know what I want – but I want it NOW!” to a screaming child who adopted it as his motto years later!

  20. glasgow1975 says:

    I would add Raymond Brigg’s When The Wind Blows, and Ethel and Ernest, animated but quintessentially English couples, both (more or less) based on his parents

  21. Patrick Kilgallon says:

    League of Gentlemen
    Quadrophenia
    Went the day well

  22. John Griffin says:

    ‘Went the Day Well.’ for me, powerful stuff and shocked my wife when she saw it. She didn’t get ‘Ruling Class’. She preferred Kind Hearts etc. Reading the lists here made me astonished at the quality of ‘English’ film, marvellous topic.

  23. Russell Cooper says:

    The Green Man
    Alistair Sim is sublime and the scene where parvenu Terry-Thomas shows off his new car to hotel receptionist Dora Bryan is-priceless.
    Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
    Contains fascinating working class scenes of northern and railway landscapes long demolished and buried.
    Millions Like Us
    More Marriott (of the Willy Hay films) fights the pet cat for his fish and chips. Wonderful and very unusual and funny climax involving only women (and in a war film)
    Never Let Go
    John Guillermin’s violent thriller about middle class salesman Richard Todd and Peter Sellers having a stab at being a working class bastard of a screen villain
    Genevieve
    Kay Kendall and Kenneth More as clean living idle class pair on a dirty weekend to Brighton
    Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat—-anything by them is worth a look starting with their script for Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes
    The Intruder
    Ex soldier Jack Hawkins tracks down former platoon members he commanded during the war. Class divisions to the fore here

  24. Russell Cooper says:

    Forgot
    The Naked Truth
    Upper class cad Dennis Price blackmails cross section of society including Terry-Thoms, Peter Sellers, Peggy Mount and Shirley Eaton.

  25. Ian Luck says:

    Peter Sellers is actually believably frightening as a villain in ‘Never Let Go’. If you think you know his work, but haven’t seen this, I urge you to seek it out.

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