Where do you start, choosing the best British films ever made? As good a place as any is the incredible Vintage Classics range from STUDIOCANAL, now with over 100 titles in the collection, celebrating the incredible cinematic output from this small island over the past century.
With a little help from some celebrity fans – including David Walliams, Jenny Agutter and Sofia Coppola, here are ten films from the range (all available on Blu-ray and DVD) that no Brit film fan should be without. Although they run the gamut from period drama to horror, by way of kitchen sink drama and comedy, aside from being great films they all have something else in common – they were all released in the lifetime of Queen Elizabeth HRH (and the majority during her time as Queen). Long may she reign, and long may these classics be cherished.
Best thriller: The Third Man (1949)
Upon its release Carol Reed’s atmospheric thriller instantly became a classic, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, a BAFTA for Best British Film, and the Oscar for Best Cinematography for Robert Krasker.
“The Third Man is the best British film ever made,” says BAFTA-winning director Stephen Frears (The Hit, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons). “Best written. Best directed. Rich in narrative, in psychology, in drama. And always entertaining. A triumph.”
Mike Hodges, the director of Get Carter and Flash Gordon, is also a fan. “The Third Man was made in 1949, four years after WWII had ended. Filmed among the rubble of a devastated Vienna, it reflects the weariness felt across Europe. Into this setting steps an innocent, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American writer looking for his childhood friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Graham Greene’s story of greed and human exploitation in the aftermath of a catastrophic war resonates with us now.”
Best romance: Darling (1965)
Winner of three Academy Awards and four BAFTAs, including Best Actress for Julie Christie, Darling is the fabulously lavish and critically acclaimed motion picture set in London in the heart of the swinging sixties.
“I love Darling,” says director Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation). “It made so much of an impression on me when I saw it in my 20s and has stayed in mind over the years. I love the editing and how he tells the story by jumping in time and leaving out the details. I love how he shows her isolation at the end, which I referenced in my film of Marie-Antoinette.”
“It’s my favourite John Schlesinger film,” says actress and director Augustine Frizelle (Never Goin’ Back), “and one of my many favourite Julie Christie performances. Diana (Christie) is a woman who lives her life entirely on instinct, going with what feels best in the moment, constantly changing course, never settling into any one way of life. It’s such a seemingly romantic way to live, but doesn’t always lead to happiness.”
Best musical: Melody (1971)
Melody was BAFTA Award-winning director Alan Parker’s (Bugsy Malone, The Commitments, Midnight Express) debut screenplay and his first film collaboration with producer David Puttnam (Midnight Express, Chariots of Fire). Directed by Waris Hussein it stars Mark Lester and Jack Wild (stars of the 1968 musical film adaptation of Oliver!) alongside Tracy Hyde making her acting debut aged just 11.
“Melody is probably the film that I have seen the most times in my life, says director Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity). “It was released in Mexico in 1972 and the effect that it had on my pre-adolescent self was addictive. After my first viewing, for the next few years I kept on going back to see it over and over again as the film was a big success in Mexico, where it was shown in theatres for many years after its initial release, leaving its mark on a generation of young people. The film deeply imprinted on my heart, becoming a huge inspiration for the rest of my life. I urge everyone to watch this film. A must-see film for kids.”
Best kitchen sink drama: Poor Cow (1967)
Oscar and BAFTA-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson (Room, Normal People) is an admirer of Ken Loach’s gritty, semi-documentary style account of a young woman (Carol White) trying to cope in London with her baby while her robber husband (John Bindon) is in prison. She starts a relationship with best friend Dave (Terence Stamp), with shattering consequences. “I watched Loach’s masterpiece sometime in my mid-teens,” Abrahamson says, “and it blew me away with its moral clarity, unsentimental empathy and just how real it felt.”
Best horror film: The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man, frequently voted the Best Horror Film of all time, was brilliantly scripted by Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, Frenzy) and features a career-best performance by the legendary Christopher Lee. Director Robin Hardy’s atmospheric use of location, unsettling imagery and haunting soundtrack gradually builds to one of the most terrifying and iconic climaxes in modern cinema.
”I was brought up in a remote part of North East Scotland so I used to joke that The Wicker Man was more like a documentary,” says director Jon Baird (Stan & Ollie), about Robin Hardy’s iconic, eerie film starring Edward Woodward as a policeman visit a Hebridean island to investigate a missing girl, and locking horns with the charismatic island leader Lee. “But seriously, this film is one of the best, if not THE best, British horror movies ever made. The psychological terror puts most modern slasher films to shame and the end scene is one of the most iconic in the entire history of cinema.”
Best comedy: The Ladykillers (1955)
The outstanding Ealing comedy, that follows the hilarious capers of a group of small-time crooks, taking on more than they can handle in the form of sweet elderly landlady, is one the favourite comedy films of all time of author, actor and comedian David Walliams (Little Britain, Gangsta Granny). “I first saw it as a youth, and watch it at least once a year,” says Walliams. “It’s a dark comedy, and it has the most brilliant cast – Alec Guinness, the young Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, and also one of my personal favourites, Frankie Howerd. It’s quintessentially British.”
Best period drama: Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)
“Far From The Madding Crowd is one of my favourite classic adaptations,” says Alice Lowe, the writer, director and actress (Prevenge, Sightseers), about the film that saw Julie Christie and Terence Stamp cast as lovers in Thomas Hardy’s epic love story. “To me, depictions of Bathsheba’s three suitors have never been bettered. Terence Stamp as the peacock-like Troy, Peter Finch as the uptight Boldwold, and Alan Bates as the prototype hippy Gabriel Oak! And it’s believable too, because who wouldn’t fight over Julie Christie?”
Best crime film: The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963)
“The Small World of Sammy Lee was a real revelation,” says director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, In The Earth), about the hugely enjoyable cult crime thriller starring Anthony Newley (Oliver Twist, Doctor Dolittle) as a petty crook and chancer who has five hours to try to raise the cash to pay off a gangster bookie and so avoid a heavy beating. “A tale of Soho wheeler dealing that feels like it was made yesterday. Brilliant cinematography from Wolf Suschitzky puts you firmly on the streets of Soho (even when you are in the studio). Star Anthony Newley is great here and it’s a shame that we didn’t see him in more starring roles…but then we have his brilliant music instead.”
Best children’s film: The Railway Children (1970)
Lionel Jeffries’ beloved film version of ES Nesbit’s The Railway Children stars Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbins in a tale that has inspired kids and parents alike since its release in 1970. “With 50 years between filming and now, I think I can look at it impartially,” says actress Agutter. “Lionel perfectly captured the way Nesbit wrote from the child’s point of view, which allows the adults to be wonderfully eccentric and larger than life. It is a perfect world, full of innocence and hope. The cinematography captures an idyllic spring, the sort one remembers having as a child, with the sun always shining.”
Best war film: Odette (1950)
Director Herbert Wilcox’s (Sixty Glorious Years, Spring in Park Lane) moving true story Odette is based on true events from WWII and stars Anna Neagle (Lady and the Lamp, Maytime in Mayfair), Trevor Howard (The Third Man Brief Encounter), Peter Ustinov (Spartacus, Billy Budd) and Marius Goring (The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death).
“Patriotic films inevitably pepper any library of British films of the 1940s and 50s,” says actor Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), “none more so than this tale of courage and daring do. Odette Samson was a Frenchwoman who married a Brit and was bringing up her three children in England when she was seconded as an agent of the Special Operations Executive, parachuting into France in 1942. That she endured horrific torture at the hands of the Gestapo is the undercurrent of this story of duty, fortitude and love. Watching it when I was a kid, it was part of my education about the war, learning who were the goodies and who the baddies. Revisiting it in this superbly restored digital print, there is more nuance and irony to the story with the passing of time and as more is learned about the war years.”