Those English Films: Your Comments


Some excellent choices came out of the ‘Most English Films’ list, and prompted me to further thoughts. ‘Seance on a Wet Afternoon’ and ‘The Whisperers’ would make a great (if dismal) double bill, and make me suspect we could include any English film with a John Barry score. ‘Little Malcolm’ is a trudge, although I saw it on stage with Ewan McGregor, who was memorably charismatic whereas John Hurt was whiny.

‘The Bed Sitting Room’ and ‘The Ruling Class’ probably belong together because they’re both deranged views of Englishness. ‘How do you know you’re God?’ Coral Browne asks of Peter O’Toole. ‘Simple,’ he replies. ‘When I pray to him I find I’m talking to myself.’

A good mention of ‘The Day The Earth Caught Fire’ written by an old Fleet Street newspaperman, with the result that it’s far more about London than the end of the world. I should add ‘The Missionary’, based lightly on the story of the Vicar of Stiffkey, the true-life version of which is even odder than Michael Palin’s delicious film (if memory serves, the reverend died after putting his head in a lion’s mouth).

We have to make room for ‘Genevieve’, possibly the cosiest winter’s day film ever, about two couples feuding during the London-Brighton vintage car rally, with a gorgeous turn by trumpet-playing Kay Kendall, all discussed here by my old pal Mark Kermode;

What about ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’, with seedy Anthony Newley on the run from gangsters in fifties Soho? ‘Hell Is A City’ is a better film – it’s ending is particularly brutal – but it’s hampered by having Richard Widmark as the lead. While we’re on the subject of gangsters we need ‘The Long Good Friday’, partly because of its resonance with today as Harold Shand embarks on a takeover by evoking the British Empire and ends up with his notions sorely disabused. And I’d argue for ‘Layer Cake’ and ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ – good examples of the ‘Did you call my pint a poof?’ school of underworld London filmmaking. Guy Ritchie’s geezer epic has aged nicely. ‘Not with Liberia’s deficit in your sky rocket.’ Who speaks like that? Movie cockneys, that’s who.

There’s a rich seam of not-terribly-good music movies, from ‘Catch Us If You Can’ to ‘That’ll Be The Day’, ‘Stardust’ and ‘Breaking Glass’ that feel twee and English now. It’s probably not a great idea to try to catch musical lightning, as you’ll know if you’ve seen ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

‘Nil By Mouth’ is the real deal about raw life in Sarf London, a brilliantly haunting, tragic memoir based on Gary Oldman’s personal experiences growing up. Nobody knew what to do with the film, but Kathy Burke rightly won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance, and I cut this trailer for it.

At this point you know I’m going to put in the original three St Trinian’s films – which take some serious explaining to our friends across the water. The school in question can be seen as England, financed on stolen money and immoral earnings, but seen as a more decent institution than the inert, corrupt government because at least it’s honest about how it earned its money. ‘The school goes back to 1630,’ say headmistress Alistair Sim (!), ‘but according to the bank it goes back to them.’ And I must have ‘The Happiest Days of your Life’, its delightful precursor, featuring a Who’s Who of British casting. Here’s Guy Middleton in a role that must have been aimed at Leslie Phillips.

‘Howard’s End’ is the quintessential Merchant Ivory picture, beautifully scripted and lensed. They were accused by Alan Parker of belonging to the ‘Laura Ashley school of filmmaking’, which shows how little he understood their literary adaptations. The recent TV version was entirely redundant, but the original has been remastered.

And I must vote for Norman Wisdom films, especially ‘On The Beat’, one of several in which Wisdom virtually destroys a national institution, in this case the police, but equally could have ‘A Stitch in Time’ (ditto, the NHS) or ‘The Early Bird’ (ditto, capitalism, ending with the collapse of a building).

If films like ‘The Remains of the Day’ represent the grand ballroom of English films, the ‘Carry On’ films are their toilet, and ‘Carry On England’ isn’t even that. As social history they make interesting artefacts, and they do have their moments, but there’s an awful lot of dross to sit through too.

We could go far lower, to the grimly funny ‘Rita, Sue & Bob Too’ or even to ‘The Sex Lives of the Potato Men’, a film one can find amusing at the right time, especially when they attempt to understand the natural world – as here. You can feel your brain dying as you watch this clip.

13 comments on “Those English Films: Your Comments”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    Anything by Will Hay. British bumbling at its best.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    It’s ironic that the very English “Genevieve” was directed by a South-African and written by an American-William Rose. Compare this with “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”, another road movie written by William Rose ten years later which manages to be as loud and brash and wonderfully American as “Genevieve” is so resolutely English.

    Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” is a dry comment on the behaviour of the English abroad, highlighting their stoicism blended with eccentricity, and their complete inability to adapt to foreign ways.

    Then the is the 1943 long forgotten piece of wartime propaganda “The Demi-Paradise” directed by Anthony Asquith. It was made as an attempt to promote Anglo-Russian relations at a crucial time of the war. Laurence Olivier plays a Russian who is sent over to a small English town to observe the British way of life. Naturally then there is a surfeit of English/British eccentrics who are involved in putting on a pageant, led by Margaret Rutherford (who else but) in a thinly veiled parody of composer Ethyl Smyth. The Russian is at first baffled then won over, helped by the vicar who also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of railway timetables. It could be argued, though, that the film over revels in the whims of the natives to the point of self-indulgence.

  3. bill051 says:

    A Hard Day’s Night.In black and white and marks the end of the old England and looks forward to a modern optimistic England that is now vanishing away.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    Hammer’s 1960 Val Guest directed ‘Hell Is A City’ stars Stanley Baker, and is set in the ‘Gritty Northern Realist’ capital of the world, Manchester. No Richard Widmark in evidence, Chris.

  5. admin says:

    Sorry Ian, I’m thinking of ‘Night and the City’.

    I can’t say I find Will Hay bearable.

    I interviewed William Rose’s wife Tanya, who said her husband never gave her co-writing credits. She was very upset about it.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    A glaring omission in these lists is a movie that is beloved by millions of people, but has American leads, and yet is totally British made, even to being shot at Hammer’s old Bray Studios, and Oakley Court – ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ The dark humour present throughout, is particularly British in tone, as is it’s openness about various types of sexuality, and it’s joy at trampling taboo subjects (take your pick, most of them are here), which, in 1975, a lot of people would have found very difficult to deal with. I’ve seen it many, many times, and it never fails to entertain.

  7. Roger says:

    Little Malcolm is a trudge, but it captures one of the more horrible aspects of Englishness perfectly.

  8. John Griffin says:

    Weirdly I used to laugh my head off when young at Will Hay. Bought the box set and sat down to enjoy on a wet spring evening a few years ago and nearly half a century later. They made the charity shop not long after.

  9. snowy says:

    Nobody has mentioned ‘Hot Fuzz’ set in the Wild, Wild West [of England], English from the tips of its boots, to the top of its pointy hat.

    Roger mentioned ‘Fires Were Started’; once we stray into the period when the UK had a domestic film industry, the number of films one could pick goes bananas.

    But to pick just one, it has to be more than just the sum of its parts.

    Q-Planes filmed late 1938, released Spring 1939.

    On the surface it is a light spy-comedy, [only the latter could possibly explain the very strange performance of Ralph “4th Wall? What 4th wall, Dear boy?” Richardson]. It has the usual cast of characters for the period, spy, dashing pilot and fiesty female reporter. And a fairly straightforward plot: highly secret advanced new aircraft are disappearing in flight with their crews, leaving absolutely no trace.

    Was it based on a real incident?

    A prototype plane of an advanced design had disappeared the year before over the English Channel, parts of which apparently turned up in the German port of Kiel.

    Was the film made at the behest of and funded by British Intelligence?

    Probably unknowable, [unless the records are released by the Government.], but London Films was being used extensively as a front for intelligence gathering operations abroad.

    Was it just a piece of fluff or was it meant to convey a particular message to certain people in the home of Europe’s No 1 Chaplin fan?

    Entertaining as a theory, but what do you gain by making your suspicions public? Telling your enemy that you know they did it could risk them trying to work out how you found out, placing your intelligence gathering network at risk. Is it part of a plan to plant a seed in peoples minds, at home or among potential allies on the other side of the Atlantic? [The enemy is never named in the film, but the accents are, well guess!].

    Is it the template for every Bond film?

    Hmmm… seductive… a high-tech maguffin disappears, informant shot before revealing information, decoy plan, captured by enemy using an advanced weapon concealed in a ordinary seeming merchant vessel, imprisoned with all the other missing crews, escape, final set-piece battle on-board enemy ship.

    Is the bowler-hatted, umbrella wielding spy, the inspiration for John Steed?

    Brian Clemens said he was according to one source.

  10. Trevor Harvey says:

    Many of these wonderful old films can be seen on the best TV channel there is – ‘Talking Pictures TV’. We had ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’ last weekend and tonight (29 Jan) there is ‘Ladies Who Do’.

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    I did like the title of Cosh Boy.

    For horror The Devil Rides Out is one of the most English of films, as are both Ghouls and Dead of Night.

    There are a lot of recent horror and crime films, low budget and many of them not good but they are very British in their view and outlook.


  12. David Ronaldson says:

    Can I throw in “Hell Drivers”? A marvellously melodramatic piece about drivers of gravel lorries, with a cast including Stanley Baker, Sean Connery, Herbert Lom, Patrick McGoohan, Sid James, Peggy Cummins, David McCallum, William Hartnell and Alfie Bass!

  13. Bee says:

    Maybe I missed it but I can’t believe no-one has mentioned Kind Hearts & Coronets. Great comic performances all round. And Dead of Night which terrified me as a child and left a lasting horror of ventriloquist dolls

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