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.