Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Never mind Barry Norman’s Top 50 British films – here's the list the world's been waiting for!

I've never been a big fan of former television film critic Barry Norman. For a start, I once had to change seats at a pre-release screening because he thought my head was blocking his view (I wouldn't have minded if he'd asked nicely, but he chose to sigh and tut for several minutes until I got the message and asked him if there was a problem). Also, he once sailed past me looking ineffably smug into a screening of 1984 I was unsuccessfully trying to blag my way into with my then-girlfriend. Not his fault, of course, but I could have happily knocked his toupée off. But I have to admit that his list of Top 50 British films isn't quite as annoying as I'd expected it to be.

My problem with Barry isn't just that he's relentlessly middle-brow - nothing wrong with that - it's that he appears to have little interest in some of my favourite genres, notably horror and crime, which means he often chooses the wrong examples to laud. And he tends to favour the sort of wistful, winsome, gentle rite de passage comedies that leave me stoney-faced and queasy.  So, inevitably, there are quite a few films on his list that don't make mine:

Dr No – okay, it’s worth it for a scantily-clad Ursula Andress, but From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, in which Connery really hits his stride, are much better.

Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero – I’m rarely comfortable with whimsy, and both these Bill Forsyth movies have whimsy up the wazoo.

The Long Good Friday – I’ve never understood why this has become a touchstone of great British film-making. Bob Hoskins is as inept and uncharismatic as always. Besides, it’s one of those films where I feel I’m supposed to be smirking throughout: I frowned instead.

Remains of The Day – Hopkins is okay, but it’s far too quietist and tasteful for my liking.

Barry Lyndon is one of the most visually beautiful films ever made, but Ryan O’Neal’s central performance is simply too dull and anaemic to carry the film, and you end up not caring what's happens to any of the characters.

Chariots of Fire – a rubbish, inauthentic script from Colin Welland, who apparently had never set foot in an Oxbridge college or met a member of the upper classes prior to writing it. Phony, inaccurate and wildly overblown.

The Full Monty – a harmless slice of Northern sentimentality, barely worth sitting through.

Gandhi – dull hagiography of a decidedly imperfect man.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian – a few good laughs, but that hardly makes it a great movie.

Shakespeare in Love – it was okay, I suppose, but I’d never want to sit through it again.

This Sporting Life – I’ve never been able to take Richard Harris seriously, but I did enjoy  him being strung up by his tits in A Man Called Horse.

That still leaves 38 films to which I don't object. Many of them don't make it onto my list, but they're perfectly reasonable choices. But he also left out some real corkers, several of which appeared in my recent post about great London films post (here).

Withnail & I – red-meat, double-over-till-you-retch comedy, packed with great lines and scenes that stay with you for the rest of your life.

Goodbye Mr Chips – Robert Donat at his finest as an emotionally constipated teacher brought alive by the love of a good woman.

Day of The Jackal – I can only assume Baz left this out on the grounds that it wasn’t really British. As this is still a stupendously engrossing thriller (I caught a snatch of it just the other night), I can’t think of any other reason for omitting it.

Peeping Tom – deeply original horror, so Barry probably fled the cinema.

Brighton Rock – there is no simply no excuse for leaving this out. What was he thinking?

Oliver Twist – I’d choose it over Lawrence of Arabia any day, which is visually ravishing but decidely hysterical.

Sexy Beast – wees on any other British gangster film of the last 30 years. Forn a change, Ray Winstone doesn’t phone in his standard “geezer” turn, and Ben Kingsley and Ian McShane (!) give career-best performances.

This Happy Breed – I’ve already declared my love for this perfect conservative film (I go overboard about it here).

Went The Day Well? – this tale of German soldiers invading a British village, released in 1942 when the threat of invasion was very real, is somewhat crudely made - there was a war on, after all - but what a brilliant piece of propaganda.

I’m All Right, Jack – perfect comedy and perfect social commentary, but evidently too right-wing for a mushy old liberal like Barry (I wrote about it here).

Company of Wolves – Neil Jordan’s film of an Angela Carter novel about werewolves  shouldn’t work, but it's magical (and, yes, I know it's all a bit Irish for inclusion here).

Dead of Night – quite superb 1945 horror film, worth inclusion for Michael Redgrave’s performance as a ventriloquist whose nasty little dummy, Hugo, comes alive (an idea appropriated wholesale to some effect by screenwriter William Goldman for 1978’s Magic, in which Anthony Hopkins played the vent).

The Fallen Idol (see recent post about "London" films – Ralph Richardson’s best screen performance). Pygmalion and It Always Rains on Sunday (ditto)

Nuts in May – okay, it was made for television, but is now generally treated as a film. Painfully funny, and much better than any of the movies Mike Leigh made for the cinema. How can Keith and Candice-Marie – characters who together define a certain type of finger-wagging, self-righteous, up-tight, public-sector, do-gooding Britishness – not make the list?

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - there are many reasons for keeping one's partiality to this film secret, but despite Guy Ritchie's involvement, it's both original and funny, and I should have included it in my London films post.

The Browning Version – Barry’s obviously not that keen on adaptations of stage-plays, but this is a great version of Terence Rattigan’s heart-rending account of an emotionally-desiccated boarding-school teacher: Michael Redgrave is in stunning form.

A Canterbury Tale – one of the strangest of all British films. A local magistrate, believing that English traditions are under threat from an influx of American soldiers during WWII (it was released in 1944), uses the black-out to pour glue on the hair of girls who “fraternise”. An endlessly interesting movie, slightly marred by Michael Powell’s  inability – for obvious reasons – to cast convincing American actors.

Ice Cold in Alex – for goodness sake!

Tunes of Glory – John Mills as the new commanding officer of a Scottish regiment and Alec Guinness as the beefy Scottish major (no, honestly) who should have got the job were both quite brilliant.

Richard III – Olivier’s definitive portrayal of on-screen evil, and probably left out of other Top 50 lists because Dick’s a hunchback.

Here’s my definitive Top 50 list, in alphabetical order:

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Brief Encounter (1945)
Brighton Rock (1947)
The Browning Version (1951)
A Canterbury Tale (1944)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Company of Wolves (1984)
The Cruel Sea (1953)
Day of the Jackal (1973)
Dead of Night (1945)
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Dracula (1958)
The Fallen idol (1948)
From Russia With Love (1963)
Get Carter (1971)
Goodbye Mr Chips (1939)
Great Expectations (1946)
Henry V (1944)
I Know Where I’m Going (1945)
If… (1968)
I’m All Right Jack (1959)
In Bruges (2008)
It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
Kes (1968)
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
The Lady Vanishes (1937)
The Ladykillers (1955)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Nuts in May (1976)
Oliver Twist (1948)
Peeping Tom (1960)
Pygmalion (1938)
The Railway Children (1970)
The Red Shoes (1948)
Richard III (1955)
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
Sexy Beast (2000)
The Servant (1963)
10 Rillington Place (1971)
The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
The Third Man (1949)
The 39 Steps (1935)
This Happy Breed (1944)
Tunes of Glory (1960)
Villain (1970)
Trainspotting (1996)
Went The Day Well? (1942)
Withnail & I (1987)
Zulu (1964)

Okay, there are actually 51 films on the list, but I can’t bear to throw any more out. In Bruges would probably be the next to go, but it's too funny.

What a shame Master and Commander doesn't count as a British film.


  1. Fascinating list. I have not seen 7 of them [ 9 if you count the fact that I only managed to get through about 10 minutes of "Withnail & I" and "Trainspotting" - I have Grant/Boyle issues]. What makes a British film? A predominantly British cast and/or a British writer or director? Does American finance make a film American? For example, "A Man for All Seasons" has a British cast and is written by Robert Bolt, but it is directed by Fred Zinneman and the money is American. David Niven and Wendy Hiller won Oscars for "Separate Tables" and is written by Rattigan, but it is directed by Delbert Mann and has American finance. The Oscar awards are also confusing - English-speaking films compete at the same level whereas everybody else is lumped into "The Foreign Film" category.

    Anyway, I don't know the answer. And it doesn't really matter. Here, for your consideration, are some additional "British" film titles in non-chronological order:

    The Private Life of Henry VIII
    Fire Over England
    That Hamilton Woman
    Carrington VC
    Hobson's Choice
    Spring and Port Wine
    Pumpkin Eater
    Spy Who Came In FromThe Cold
    Tinker Taylor
    Lion in Winter
    Two Way Stretch
    Battle of the Sexes
    Private's Progress
    Sink The Bismarck
    Reach for the Sky
    Appointment in London
    League of Gentlemen
    Another Country
    Ideal Husband
    Importance of being Earnest
    Tom Jones
    The Winslow Boy
    We Dive at Dawn
    The Way to the Stars
    Whistle down the Wind
    Only Two Can Play
    Tom Browne's Schooldays
    The Hill
    The Shooting Party
    The Go-Between
    Young Winston
    Paradine Case
    Bofors Gun
    Inadmissable Evidence
    Odd Man Out
    The Man Between
    King Rat
    The Deadly Affair
    The Spy in Black
    Trials of Oscar Wilde
    The Entertainer
    A Rather English Marriage
    Plus 3 films mentioned in earlier comment - Victim, Wrong Arm of the Law, Blue Lamp. I was going to include “Look back in Anger” and “Laughter in the Dark”, but I don’t really understand a word of the former and due to an alcoholic infusion I fell fast asleep at the beginning of the latter and don’t want to “pull a Huhnie.”

  2. Excellent list, SDG - about half of them appear in my 51-100 list of top British films, which I will publish soon. I wondered why Separate Tables didn't make it onto other lists. And no one talks about King Rat any more, for some odd reason, directed by Brian Forbes, and thoroughly enjoyable. Or another one you mention - the excellent Only Two Can Play. I'd forgotten about Tom Brown's Schooldays, which left me with a terror of being sent to boarding school. And Battle of the Sexes - another little gem that had slipped my mind ("coked to the gills"). I've always had a soft spot for "Spring and Port Wine" - James Mason and his crombie coat and Susan George giving her best acting performance.

    I'd better get on with the rest of my list.

  3. Another ten British films for your consideration:

    A Kind of Loving
    Women in Love
    Room at the Top
    Sunday Bloody Sunday
    The Angry Silence
    Midnight Express [?]
    The Committments
    In the Name of the Father
    The General
    The Deep Blue Sea

    [That's enough films. Ed.]

    1. The Commitments is definitely in my second 50 - almost made it into the top 50. I never think of Midnight Express as British - don't know why, as it's by the same director. I'd completely forgotten about The Angry Silence - great little film. It doesn't get mentioned because it's so anti-Trades Unions, I suspect. Room at the Top almost makes it, but Laurence Harvey always gave me the creeps - and I have to admit haven't seen the last three on your list.

  4. The Admirable Creighton?

    St Trinians?

    Carry on ...? (No, I suppose there are limits)

    1. I considered The Admirable Creighton - highly enjoyable, but it has Kenneth Moore in it!

    2. So there goes Genevieve.
      Shame about Moore.
      Like Dennis Price.

      Did the Brits produce any silent films of note?

  5. How about....

    Withnail and I (1987)
    Educating Rita (1983)
    Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
    Oliver (1968)
    Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
    Brighton Rock (1947)
    Quadrophenia (1979)
    Shallow Grave (1994)
    East is East (1999)
    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (both the old and new films)(2011 newer film)
    The Crying Game (1992)
    A Fish called Wanda (1988)
    Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
    Moon (2009)
    Last King of Scotland (2006)
    Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
    The Wicker Man (original) (1973)
    Bugsy Malone (1976)
    Dance with a Stranger (1984)
    My Left Foot (1989)
    The Pianist (2002)
    Guns of Navarone (1961)
    The Italian Job (original, 1969)
    A Shot in the Dark (1964)
    Goldfinger (1964)
    Ryan's Daughter (1970)
    A Passage to India (1984)

    .....I could go on, but you get the idea :)

    You won't see a more eclectic list than this and ALL are missing from Barry Norman's selection. Try picking one film to complete his top 50 from this lot above. You can't.......at least half of the above list should be in anyones top 50 Best British films.

    1. I've done a follow-up second fifty here:
      - I've got quite a few from your list in one or other of mine. Forgot all about Last King of Scoitland, which was excellent and which I should have included somewhere. As I should Shot in the Dark - by far the best of the Panther films. And I dickered over A Fish Called Wanda, and only left it out because John Cleese is such an annoying person (wrong criterion, I realise).
      Anyway, thanks for your list of what Baz left out - I enjoyed it.

  6. David Moss. Carry on Cowboy. Sid James puts his side-arm on the bar."Coor, that's a big one," says floozie. "Ma'am, I'm from Texas. We've all got big ones ." There is no shame in suggesting a Carry On film.