The Top Ten British Films - A Brit's List!

Nov 3, 2006 (Updated Nov 29, 2007)

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The Bottom Line Some great British films... just please DON'T TRY TO REMAKE THEM!!

Just what is a British film, exactly? A film made by a British studio? (I think there may be one or two left!) Funded by English money (even rarer!!) English Director? Cast? Crew? Set in England? English sense of humour?

Come to that, why is there a category for British films here but not French / Spanish / Mexican / Bollywood? Surely they (and others) have great film-making heritages of their own?

Anyway, enough of that. It’s going to give me too much of a headache to work out a definitive criteria for a “British” film, so the films I’m going to include are those that strike me as being British in at least one important way. Argue with me if you like, but don’t expect me to change my list! I know a lot of these will have already been in my Top Ten Comedies list, but I can’t help it if a lot of the best comedies I’ve seen are British!! Some are on that list that I don’t particularly mention there, but what do you expect from someone with a memory as bad as mine???


I’m going to start off with one of the greatest of all British film institutes ever, Ealing Comedies. An offshoot of Ealing Studios, they produced some of the best British comedies and nurtured some of the best comedic talent around. Come to that, some of the best acting talent of any kind – Alec Guiness anyone? They produced a number of wonderful films including Passport to Pimlico, The Ladykiller, Kind Hearts and Coronets,, and The Titfield Thunderbolt However, I’m going to include in my Top Ten British Films the two I remember most fondly:

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Directed by Charlie Chrichton and starring Alec Guiness and Stanley Holloway, this marvellous film is about a timid bank clerk (Guiness) who is about to be moved to a new department after many years. He takes issue with this and decided that he can use his existing position – overseeing gold bullion deliveries – as a chance to get his own back. Thus a grand scheme is hatched to rob the next delivery, with the help of a couple of crooks – Sid James and Alfie Bass. The plan takes them to France, but of course things don’t go totally smoothly… Wonderful plotting and dialogue helped earn this the Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay,
while Guiness was nominated for Best Actor.

Whisky Galore (1948)

This is a wonderful tale based on a real-life incident that occurred in 1941. A ship runs aground on the rocks near a small Scottish island. This ship contained thousands of barrels of the locals’ favourite tipple – whiskey. In the face of an honest but increasingly unpopular English Home Guard Captain, the locals set to salvaging and stowing away as much of the whiskey as they possibly can. Starring Basil Radford, directed by Alexander Mackendrik. A somewhat similar theme is explored in the more recent (1998) film “Waking Ned”, which had quite a few funny moments of its own but couldn’t possibly match the charm and wit of Whisky Galore.


Then we come to Pinewood Studios, home of Bond – James Bond. Now I’ve got to admit that I lost interest in the whole Bond franchise a long time ago, but the international success of the series has been enviable and I did like a lot of the early films. In fact my favourite is still the first film:

Dr No (1962)

When another Secret Service agent is killed in the West Indies, James Bond is sent to investigate. He finds more than he bargains for, particularly in the form of Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress, whose opening scene is still counted as among the most memorable in any of the Bond films). Plenty of action, humour, and just typical downright Britishness help Bond save the day, and make this film very enjoyable.

Of the other Bond films, I think “From Russia With Love”, “Thunderball”, and “The Spy Who Loved Me” were probably the better ones. From “Moonraker” onwards it just seemed to me to get a bit too silly for its own good.


The St Trinian films are very British – one might even say that they are awfully British. The latest addition (1980) called “Wildcats of St Trinian’s” doesn’t really bear much thinking about, but the earlier quarter of films was great. to the series were pretty terrible. (Apparently there’s another one planned for 2007… I can only hope it’s not true!) Based on Ron Searle’s cartoons, St Trinian’s is a school for girls – basically, a place of absolute havoc on all and sundry. The films were marked by some wonderful performances, especially those of Alistair Sims, Joyce Grenfell, and a young George Cole. Probably my favourite of the four is the second film:

Blue Murder At St Trinian’s (1957)

Partially because of the appearance of Terry Thomas as Captain Romney Carlton-Ricketts, and the above-mentioned brilliant cast (not all of which appear in films 3 or 4), this is just an extremely funny film that will have you laughing from beginning to end. George Cole as dodgy salesman “Flash Harry” is hilarious. The plot runs along the lines of the Headmistress being jailed and the army / police called in to try to keep order in the school – some hope of that… On the other hand, a rich Italian playboy has designs on marrying one of the schoolgirls… but perhaps that’s because he hasn’t actually met any of them yet?!? (In my top ten cmoedies, I may have said I liked The Great St Trinian's Train Robery best, but on reflection it wasn't as good as the first two - still funny though.)

Sims and Thomas teamed up again 3 years later in:

School For Scoundrels – or How To Win Without Actually Cheating! (1960)

Ian Carmichael, John Le Mesurier, and Hattie Jacques join the cast where going to school is not about learning your 1-2-3s. A good guy seems to always lose out to the rotter of the bunch, so what can he do? Become a rotter himself, of course! (Horror of horrors, they're actually going to remake this gem... auuuuuuuuuuuuuurggghhh!!!!!)


I couldn’t do a list of the best British Films without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock, of course. The London-born master of suspense directed some all-time classic films, and some that I don’t like but are still considered to be classics (North by Northwest – just couldn’t get into it at all, and Vertigo didn’t do much for me). As usual, my personal favourite is not one of the ones that most people think of as the best, or one of his better known ones. So my favourite Alfred Hitchcock film is not Psycho, The Birds, or The 39 Steps. It is in fact:

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Actually I've decided to exclude this film as Stephen_Murray and macresarf1 have both pointed out quite conclusively that it really doesn't qualify as a British film. As none of the Hitchcock films that may qualify more readily as British really stand out to me, I'm reluctantly taking Strangers on a Train out without replacing it.

Another thriller that I really love (and often in the past mistook for a Hitchcock film!) is:

The Third Man (1949)

Directed in fact by Carol Reed, this features a pulp-fiction writer, Holly Martins, visiting post-war Vienna following an invitation from friend Harry Lime. However, on arrival there he finds that Lime has been killed in a traffic accident. What has happened? A compelling story (that only marginally weakens its hold once you’ve already seen it and know the twist), a wonderful music score, fantastic writers (Graham Greene, Alexander Konda, Carol Reed, and Orson Welles), with Welles in the cast along with some fine actors including the excellent Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee.

Speaking of actors surnamed Howard, a little heard of films starring Leslie Howard that I really enjoyed was:

”Pimpernel” Smith (1941)

In a twist of the old “Scarlet Pimpernel” theme, this film is set in World War II where a British gent, unassuming Professor of Archeology, is smuggling enemies of the Nazi state out of Germany. This get complicated when one of the women he helps escape isn’t everything she appears to be… A sensitive, intelligent film that makes the best of its setting.

Speaking of the Scarlet Pimpernel…

The made-for-TV movies (really a mini-series, but they were feature-length) starring Richard E Grant were fantastic – well, at least the first series was. For this reason I am going to include the first episode in my Top Ten British Films…

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999)

Perhaps not altogether true to the books, but Richard E Grant’s performance as the eponymous hero was wonderful, and he was ably matched by his onscreen wife Margeurite (Elizabeth McGovern). Martin Shaw was okay as Chauvelin but Ronan Vibert stole the show even from Grant with his portrayal of Robespierre. Proof yet again that no-one does period drama quite as well as the BBC, who also produced the brilliant mini-series Pride and Prejudice and Wives and Daughters - which, not being movies as such, sadly don’t really qualify for this top ten list.


There are also the Carry On films – a British institution really – not one to be particularly proud of perhaps, but an institution nonetheless. The enduring appeal to many of the bawdy seaside humour in these films (some are worse than others in this regard) has made them possibly the longest-running film series of all time. (See this thread on the message boards.) Again, the first one was the best really:

Carry On Sergeant (1958)

This was never originally intended to be a series, but the success of this film about a hapless police sergeant and his hopeless new recruits set the ball rolling for 31 (possibly 32 – apparently “Carry On London” is being planned…). Of the others I seem to remember “Carry On Follow That Camel”, “Carry On Spying”, and “Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head” (yet another Scarlet Pimpernel film!) being more enjoyable than most of them.


Finally we come to some of my favourite recent British films –

Ladies In Lavender (2004)

Judy Dench and Maggie Smith show their class in this movie set in wartime England, with a Polish man washed up quite literally at their doorstep. They find that he has a great gift, but will the xenophobia that’s built up in the area spell disaster for him? Charles Dance’s directorial debut.

About A Boy (2002)

Now I know I’m going to have a flood of complaints about this one but I’m not apologising. I’m not a great fan of Hugh Grant either but in a certain type of role he’s excellent, and he plays that role so well in this movie (and, let’s face it, in most movies he stars in). However it all comes together perfectly with a great script, excellent cast (including Toni Collette and Rachel Weisz), nice music score, and loads of humour. This is seriously the best romantic comedy for people who don’t like romantic comedies, there are so many funny moments.

So yes… I know people are going to moan about that one… but I don’t care!!

And one more, if I may… one I saw only recently, and like The Scarlet Pimpernel the start of a TV series, but a film in its own right:

Foyle’s War: The German Woman (2002)

Michael Kitchen’s Detective Foyle investigates the case of a murdered German woman in a story that looks at the plight of “aliens” in Britain during the second world war. Fascinating stuff and brilliantly written & acted.

The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain (1995)

Hugh Grant, Colm Meaney and others star in this utterly charming film about a small Welsh community determined not to let a measly 16 feet deprive them of their mountain!!

As for any great films I’ve missed… well, maybe I haven’t seen them, maybe I didn’t think that much of them. Who knows? This is just my list, and I’m happy with all the films on it. Here they are again in case you’ve already forgotten them (all twelve of them - so even if you disqualify Scarlet Pimpernel and Foyle's War: The German Woman, you still have ten!):

The Lavender Hill Mob
Whisky Galore
Dr No
Blue Murder At St Trinian’s
School For Scoundrels – or How To Win Without Actually Cheating!
The Third Man
”Pimpernel” Smith
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Carry On Sergeant
Ladies In Lavender
About A Boy
Foyle’s War: The German Woman

As always, thanks for reading!



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