Great British Movies: Is your favourite on our list?
PUBLISHED: 10:23 23 March 2019 | UPDATED: 19:06 25 March 2019
What makes a great British film? Something that captures the essence of the British character or sense of humour. Which of these Great British Films have you seen?
For me, a great British film is one you can return to time and again and gain comfort from the fact that the film remains as good (if not better) as the last time you saw it.
The list was designed to embrace great movies from throughout a century of film-making but looking at the list after I had compiled it, I was surprised at how many comparatively modern films are on there. Which, I hope, puts paid to the hoary old saying: “They don’t make them like they used to.”
This selection of films is highly personal. I can easily defend the inclusion of each entry but on another day I could have easily submitted an entirely different list. What I will say is that all these films are excellent examples of their genre and give me an understanding of what it is to be British and helps form a cultural portrait of who we are.
Greatest British Films
The 39 Steps; dir: Alfred Hitchcock (1935) starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll
Before Hitchcock became a Hollywood giant who used a global backdrop as his canvas, he created sharp British thrillers which took his everyman heroes across the length and breadth of the country. Hitchcock taps into the pre-war paranoia that was flooding Britain the mid-30s as Hitler unsettled Europe. Richard Hannay is a Canadian visitor to London who finds himself trying to help a counter-espionage agent. When the agent is killed, Hannay stands accused of murder and must go on the run. At the end of a music hall ‘Mr Memory’ show, he meets Annabella Smith, who is running away from secret agents. He agrees to hide her in his flat, but she is murdered during the night. Hannay realises it is up to him to break the spy ring.
Kind Hearts and Coronets; dir: Robert Hamer (1949) starring: Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood
One of the first and best Ealing Comedies. Black humour at its most deadly and still razor sharp after all these years. Although Alec Guinness has the showiest part playing a half-dozen members of the same family, it is the calmly Machiavellian Dennis Price, the smiling assassin, who takes the film to the next level. Dennis Price plays Louis Mazzini D’Ascoyne, a smooth avenging angel who vows to remove the remaining D’Ascoyne clan (all played by Alec Guinness) so he, the illegitimate son, can have the title. It’s a brilliantly funny satire on the whole notion of class structure, society and inherited wealth.
The Ladykillers; dir: Alexander Mackendrick (1955) starring: Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, Katie Johnson
One of the last of the Ealing Comedies and one of the few shot in that gorgeous almost pastel colour of the early 1950s which immediately gives the film a sense of time and place. This murderous character study masquerading as a caper movie contains the blackest humour ever committed to film and remains brilliantly funny and very well observed. Audacious casting along with a great script make this a winner more than half a century after its first release. Five diverse oddball criminals planning a bank robbery rent rooms in an isolated house from an octogenarian widow under the pretext that they are classical musicians. What more can you say except it all ends in death and betrayal.
Dracula; dir: Terence Fisher (1958) starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough
It’s thought that only Hollywood had studios but’s not true. Britain had Ealing and it had Hammer both turning out brilliant and uniquely British movies for a fraction of the cost of their trans-atlantic cousins. Dracula is the film that created the template for Britain’s wonderfully Gothic horror studio and made stars of Lee and Cushing as Dracula and his nemesis Van Helsing. The film owes more to the 1920s stage play than the Victorian novel which means its fast, theatrical and glorious to watch. The leads are both incredibly charismatic, the colour is both gory and sumptuous, the storytelling keeps you on the edge of your seat and the cliff-hanger special effects remain impressive to this day.
I’m All Right Jack; dir: John Boulting (1959) starring: Peter Sellers, Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Richard Attenborough
Former war documentary film-makers Roy and John Boulting, inherited Ealing’s mantle of social satire. Over the years they aimed razor-sharp comic missiles at the army (Private’s Progress), the courts (Brothers in Law) and the church (Heavens Above) but their greatest achievement was in the field of labour relations in this cynical but fun exploration of employer-employee relations in a large London factory. Sellers is superb as union shop steward Fred Kite, Ian Carmichael is the nice but dim Stanley Windrush trying to get on via nepotism while Terry-Thomas makes the most of his gap-toothed, upper-class charm as the factory boss being manipulated by black marketeer Richard Attenborough.
Carry On Cleo; dir: Gerald Thomas (1963) starring: Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Jim Dale, Kenneth Connor, Amanda Barrie
Hugely popular in their day, the Carry On films started off as a farce-like echo of the Boulting Brothers films, taking pot shots at national institutions like national service in Carry On Sergeant, the NHS in Carry On Nurse, the police in Carry On Constable before turning their attention to genre send-ups during their golden period in the mid-60s lampooning westerns in Carry On Cowboy, Hammer Horror in Carry On Screaming, colonial epics in Carry On Up The Kyber and the historical dramas in Don’t Lose Your Head but, for me, Carry On Cleo remains the pinnacle of their achievement. Using sets and costumes from the hugely expensive Burton-Taylor classic Cleopatra and a stunning script from Talbot Rothwell, the Carry On team manufactured comedy gold. It’s a film which says a lot about Britain’s timeless sense of ribald humour.
Billy Liar; dir: John Schlesinger (1963) starring: Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, Rodney Bewes, Helen Fraser
By the mid-60s, it was clear that societal change was well underway. This was reflected in the types of film being made. Not everything in the garden was now rosy and not everyone was comfortably middle-class or aspirationally rich. Billy Liar is a hugely entertaining look at a day-dreaming working class lad, played by Tom Courtenay, who is desperate to get out of his suffocating family life and get away from his home town and strike out for the bright lights of London. He meets the dazzling Julie Christie who turns his world upside down but does he have the courage to turn his back on the world he knows and strike out for a future in the big city?
Battle of Britain; dir: Guy Hamilton (1969); starring: Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Edward Fox, Robert Shaw, Susannah York, Ian McShane, Laurence Olivier
Made by the James Bond team, this epic was a gloriously eye-popping tribute to The Few with an uplifting score by Ron Goodwin and William Walton and stuffed with stunning aerobatics and dog-fights shot for real using vintage aircraft. Aerial footage shot for this film is still being mined for movies today. Gone is the stiff-upper lip approach, which characterised The Dambusters a decade earlier, now our heroes are ordinary blokes, even if they are being played by film-stars. It’s entertaining, it’s factually accurate and just as importantly, the consequences of war are brought home in a meaningful way.
Italian Job; dir: Peter Collinson (1969); starring: Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Rossano Brazzi
The sixties were now really swinging and the Italian Job was the film which captured the liberated spirit of Britain of the time. It was the ultimate clever, funny, feel-good caper movie which flirted with all things fashionable. It’s a film which screamed that not only is life is to be enjoyed but you’ve got to be stylish while you live it. So, if you are going to stage the most audacious bank robbery of all time, you have to do it in fashionable Italy and use the iconic British car, the Mini as your get-away car of choice.
Life of Brian; dir: Terry Jones (1979) starring: John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle
Life of Brian caused outrage at the time of its release and prompted a prime-time debate on BBC 1 between moral guardian Mary Whitehouse, broadcaster and ardent Christian Malcolm Muggeridge and the Pythons. Despite the fact that Jesus and Brian are clearly shown to be two different people both Whitehouse and Muggeridge declared the film to be blasphemous which prompted hoards of placard waving protestors outside the nation’s cinemas. Nevertheless, the film was a huge hit thanks to its witty script and inspired performances and launched British indie studio Handmade Films.
Gregory’s Girl; dir: Bill Forsyth (1980) starring: John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Jake D’Arcy
Regarded by many, as a gem of a film. Gregory’s Girl kick-started a brief but glorious spell of independent movie-making in Britain, which ultimately led to British Film Year being staged in 1985. In his warm, Scottish coming-of-age film, gangly teen Gregory and his school-mates are starting to find out about girls. He fancies Dorothy, not least because she has got on to the football team (and is a better player than he is). He finally asks her out, but it quickly becomes clear that Dorothy and Gregory’s younger sister have more say in his life than he does. A lovely portrait of teenage life at the end of the 1970s.
Gandhi; dir: Richard Attenborough (1982) starring: Ben Kingsley, Roshan Seth, Ian Charleson, Martin Sheen, Edward Fox, Geraldine James
The biggest and most ambitious British film ever made – it even puts Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in the shade – it remains the most successful British movie of all time, winning eight Oscars and denying Steven Spielberg’s ET the Best Picture award. A life-long passion project for Attenborough, it made a star of unknown actor Ben Kingsley as it told the story of South African Indian lawyer Mohandas K. Gandhi and his campaign of non-violent protest which eventually led to Indian independence after the Second World War. Told with humour and a keen eye for drama and character, this good-looking film provides a clear view of British attitudes to the world during the early party of the 20th century.
Local Hero; dir: Bill Forsyth (1983) starring: Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Fulton Mackay, Peter Capaldi, Jenny Seagrove
Another first class piece of British independent film-making from the early 1980s, which captures the way that the oil industry was both a blessing and a curse for remote Scottish communities. Warm and insightful Local Hero tells the story of what happens when an oil billionaire sends a man to buy up an entire Scottish village so they can build an oil refinery on the site. The locals are keen to get their hands on the ‘Silver Dollar’ but, a local hermit and beach scavenger, Ben Knox, lives in a shack on a vital beach, which he also owns, is not to be easily persuaded to move. A perfect reflection of the tensions contained within Thatcher’s Britain.
Four Weddings & A Funeral; dir: Mike Newell (1994) starring: Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott Thomas, Simon Callow, John Hannah, James Fleet, Anna Chancellor
The breakout hit that turned Hugh Grant and a whole generation of young actors into stars, launched the big screen career of then TV writer Richard Curtis and created a British rom-com sub-genre which continues up until today. Curtis captured the rituals of the British wedding perfectly and created a brilliantly funny film, filled with people that we recognise, and placed a magnifying glass over situations that we may have found ourselves in. Four Weddings perfectly captures life in the 1990s for many of us – only with wittier dialogue.
Secrets and Lies; dir: Mike Leigh (1996) starring: Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan
Mike Leigh is one of Britain’s great independent film-makers – a social commentator with a wonderfully wry sense of humour, creator of work as diverse as Nuts in May, Abigail’s Party and the Gilbert and Sullivan bio-pic Topsy Turvy. Secrets and Lies has to be his masterwork which details how people’s lives unravel and then come back together as a very successful, professional black woman discovers that her birth mother is a poor working-class white woman. Brilliant performances (and improvisation) from Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste make this a funny and moving film. Their scenes together will move the hardest heart.
Shakespeare In Love; dir: John Madden (1998) starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench
Another hugely successful, comedy-drama from the pen of playwright Tom Stoppard which playfully mixes events from Will Shakespeare’s life with those from his plays. It’s a joyful film which effortlessly conveys the ramshackle nature of Elizabethan drama and the lowly status afforded actors of the period. Nevertheless, young aristocrat Viola De Lesseps, played by Gwyneth Paltrow with a perfect English accent, wants to be one of those wonderful, young players. The only problem is that her parents want to marry her off to wealthy stuffed shirt Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) and women aren’t allowed to act on stage. They say that actors who succeed are driven to perform and this is certainly true of the resourceful Viola in this wonderfully inventive period piece. It deservedly won the Best Picture Oscar simply because it was a brilliantly inspired, well-made film.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; dir: Alfonso Cuarón (2004) starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon
Harry Potter perfectly marries the wonderful world of wizardry with life in suburbia. The series hit its stride with this third, action-packed instalment which introduced Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon into the regular cast. The young stars were now sufficiently grown and experienced to really inhabit their characters and Cuarón clearly wanted to raise the bar when it came to combining live action with groundbreaking special effects. Add to this a driving script from Steve Kloves and you have got a movie to remember.
Skyfall; dir: Sam Mendes (2012) starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris
James Bond has always been an international jet-setter but Skyfall brings the series back to basics in a story that stays largely within the UK. It’s a dark, tense, edge-of-the-seat thriller with Javier Bardem giving us a larger-than-life villain for the first time since the days since Curt Jugens and Richard Kiel’s Jaws in the Roger Moore era. But, the heart and soul of the film belong to Judi Dench who is allowed to give her character M a life beyond the desk and the office. It’s the first time since the death of Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that genuine emotion has been allowed to creep into this glamorous action-fest. A stunning piece of work.
Paddington; dir: Paul King (2014) starring: Ben Whishaw (voice), Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi
A true family film rather than a kids film. The clever script delivers a fun, witty, non-preachy parable about immigration and the joys of multi-cultural Britain wrapped up in a fast-paced, incredible funny, warm-hearted caper movie. Nicole Kidman is a fantastic villain while Ben Whishaw gives the computer-animated Paddington real heart. The film keeps you guessing throughout and provides some real moments of tension and provides a telling snapshot of Britain just before the Brexit vote.
Went The Day Well; dir: Alberto Cavalcanti (1942) starring: Leslie Banks, CV France, Valerie Taylor, Thora Hird, Patricia Hayes
The Railway Children; dir: Lionel Jefferies (1970) starring: Jenny Agutter, Sally Tomsett, Bernard Cribbins, Dinah Sheridan
Get Carter; dir: Mike Hodges (1971) starring: Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland
Scandal; dir: Michael Caton-Jones (1989) starring: John Hurt, Joanne Whalley, Bridget Fonda, Ian McKellen Remains of the Day; dir: James Ivory (1993) starring: Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Christopher Reeve
Topsy Turvy; dir: Mike Leigh (1999) starring: Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Shirley Henderson
Enigma; dir: Michael Apted (2001) starring: Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Saffron Burrows, Jeremy Northam
28 Days Later; dir: Danny Boyle (2002) starring: Cilian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson
Atonement; dir: Joe Wright (2007) starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai
The King’s Speech; dir: Tom Hooper (2010) starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter