'Ello Guv! Fancy a pot of tea? Or maybe a bit o' haggis - okay, I might be overdoing it, but that's only because there's plenty of Great British film genius to be proud of. The definition of what makes a film ‘British’ is very debatable – with the government, BAFTA and the BFI all offering very different opinions. Rather than getting bogged down in arguments about foreign studios and budget wrangling, we’re focusing on the films that everyone ought to agree about: films with a predominantly British (Britain = England, Scotland, and Wales) cast, setting and director. In other words: Gravity didn’t make the list…
The Ladykillers (1955)
The Film: No one ought to doubt The Ladykillers. With Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom and Cecil Parker playing against type as a gang of armed robbers who rent their safe house from a sweet old granny – the cream of Britain’s character actor crop spend the whole film trying to murder an innocent old lady.
The Best Brit Bit: Ealing’s coal black comedy is full of wonderfully awful moments, none better than Guinness’ goulish entrance. A menacing silhouette looms large in the window before 76-year-old Katie Johnson (looking like the granny from Tweetie Pie…) opens the door to Guinness’ vaudevillian villain – complete with a greasy combover, a set of wonky teeth and a skeleton smile.
Why It Couldn’t Be Made Anywhere Else: Tom Hanks and the Coen Brothers couldn’t even come close…
The Film: A trim adaptation of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel, Hammer pushes its two leading men to the fore: Peter Cushing as a steely Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as cinema’s definitive neck-sucker. Lurid, sexy and dripping with blood, it’s classic British horror at its game-changing best.
The Best Brit Bit: After making their first colour horror one year before (The Curse Of Frankenstein), Hammer knew exactly what a sudden splash of red could do to an audience. A couple of gory stakings still have to be watched through a wince, but it’s Christopher Lee’s flashing eyes that will always burn the brightest.
Why It Couldn’t Be Made Anywhere Else: The Germans made Dracula creepy and the Americans gave him style – but it took a nation of prudes to sex him up. Twilight fans can thank us now…
This Is England (2006)
The Film: A bullied 12-year-old falls under the wing of a gang of skinheads – kick starting a bruising, emotional slog through the sub-culture of the Midlands in the early ’80s. Broken Britain has never been so heartbreaking.
The Best Brit Bit: All the violence, anger and sadness of the era is summed up in the slow-building scene between the sociopathic Combo (Stephen Graham) and the softly spoken Milky (Andrew Shim). Combo narrows his eyes, Director Shane Meadows gently builds the score and Milky talks himself into a brutal, explosive beating that everyone sees coming and nobody stops.
Why It Couldn’t Be Made Anywhere Else: It’s sort of in the title…
The Film: Sir Ben Kingsley gives a masterful performance as the revolutionary leader in Richard Attenborough’s sumptuous biopic.
Charting Gandhi’s political journey from the moment he gets thrown off a “whites only” train carriage to his assassination in 1948 after liberating India from the British Empire – Attenborough’s roadshow epic scooped a deserved eight Oscars, including Best Picture.
The Best Brit Bit: 300,000 extras were used to recreate Gandhi’s funeral, setting the record for the largest cast ever used in a film.
But it’s the less peopled scenes that remain the most stirring – Gandhi’s calm, reasoned, Empire-stopping dignity in the face of madness and massacre – Kingsley’s courtroom speech gifting Mahatma’s words with quiet beauty.
Why It Couldn’t Be Made Anywhere Else: Picking up where David Lean left off, Attenborough made a thoughtful, character driven drama look like an epic.
Went The Day Well? (1942)
The Film: What would have happened if Nazi paratroopers landed in a sleepy Oxforshire village during WWII?
More importantly, what would the locals do about it? Adapted from Graham Green’s dark novel, Ealing’s grim home-front drama was made whilst bombs were still falling on Britain – making it one of the most chilling films of the ’40s.
The Best Brit Bit: Making a nice cup of tea for one of her German captors, the mumsy postmistress (Muriel George) suddenly throws pepper in his eyes and hacks him to death with an axe.
So shocking it’s almost funny – until the reality of the Nazi invasion, and what very nearly happened in Britain, sends a cold shiver down the spine of the film.
Why It Couldn’t Be Made Anywhere Else: Without this, we wouldn’t have Dad’s Army…
Dr No (1962)
The Film: At least a dozen 007 movies could have made this list, but it’s the first – and best – that set the gold standard.
Sean Connery heads to Jamaica to take down SPECTRE, roll around in the sand with Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) and generally shake and stir every other spy movie before and since.
The Best Brit Bit: Le Cercle casino at Les Ambassadeurs, London. Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) loses a hand of cards to a sauve looking stranger and asks his name. Close up. Music swell. A flick of the lighter and a lift of the eyebrow... “Bond. James Bond”. History is made.
Why It Couldn’t Be Made Anywhere Else: Try saying that line in an American accent.
Get Carter (1971)
The Film: It’s 1971 and the swinging sixties are definitely over. Director Mike Hodges hits the grimy, grainy streets of Newcastle and empties both barrels at the flower-power generation – casting Michael Caine as an exiled gangster who heads home for a family funeral and ends up causing a few more.
The Best Brit Bit: The final showdown – shot on the bleak industrial beaches near Blackhall Colliery – coldly strips away any last vestiges of cool that Caine (and Roy Budd’s jazz soundtrack) lent the film. Forcing his ex-boss to down a bottle of whiskey before bludgeoning him to death with his own shotgun, Carter’s final revenge sinks the British anti-hero to new depths.
Why It Couldn’t Be Made Anywhere Else: The Sylvester Stallone remake, for one thing.
Whistle Down The Wind (1961)
The Film: Three Lancashire farm kids come back from Sunday school to find a bearded fugitive (Alan Bates) hiding out in their barn – so they obviously assume that he’s Jesus. Not wanting to let them down (or stop the supply of free food they keep bringing him), the criminal keeps the game going until hundreds of little disciples start showing up asking for miracles.
The Best Brit Bit: 15-year-old Hayley Mills took a break from her Disney super-star vehicles to lead the three kids, but it was cocky little 8-year-old Alan Barnes (and his treacle thick Lancashire accent) that stole the show – gifting Bryan Forbes’s big-themed allegory with heart-melting home-spun charm.
Why It Couldn’t Be Made Anywhere Else: Andrew Lloyd Weber tried relocating the story to Louisiana and ended up having to shoehorn in a Boyzone song…
Billy Liar (1963)
The Film: First a book, then a play (before going on to become a stage musical and a TV show), Keith Waterhouse’s Walter Mitty story works best as a film – with John Schlesinger directing Tom Courtney as a Bradford undertaker who lives with his parents, awkwardly juggles two girlfriends and dreams of being something much more exciting.
The Best Brit Bit: Half grimy kitchen-sinker, half swinging ’60s comedy – it’s as much New Wave as it is Nouvelle Vague – with Julie Christie’s glamour puss looking wonderfully out of place amongst the Yorkshire smoke stacks.
Why It Couldn’t Be Made Anywhere Else: Book, play, film, musical, TV show… Britain has sort of cornered the market already.
Withnail & I (1987)
The Film: Bruce Robinson’s drunken, debauched black comedy plays like Fear And Loathing In Camden. Two out of work actors (Richard E Grant and Paul McGann) struggle to keep warm, stay alive as drink as much as they possibly can.
The Best Brit Bit: “I demand to have some booze!” The ever popular Withnail drinking game has been keeping hospitals around Britain in stomach pumps since the birth of home video – requiring willing masochists to keep up with Uncle Monty et al, shot for shot.
Be advised, the list of booze includes gin, cider, ale, sherry, whiskey, wine and a bottle of lighter fluid…
Why It Couldn’t Be Made Anywhere Else: If there’s one thing the British do really well (except for films, obviously), it’s binge drinking.