The magnificent seven? Are these the best British films ever?

In celebration of British cinema, the UK Film Council is re-releasing some of our greatest movies. Geoffrey Macnab reviews their selections. Do you agree? Enter our competition and win a prize
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Comedy: Withnail & I

On the grounds that Johnny Depp likes it and that there are fans who can recite backwards every line uttered by Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), Withnail and I, right, can safely be described as the most cultish British film comedy in living memory. Its great virtue is that it is funny. One of the continuing mysteries of British film history is why so many talented British comedians from music hall, variety and (latterly) TV appear to lose their powers to make us laugh as soon as they are confronted with a movie camera.

Thankfully, this is a trend that the likes of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright are succeeding in reversing. We should also remember that we have quite a long heritage in the comedy department. Charlie Chaplin - the most successful screen comedian of all time - was born not far from the Elephant and Castle. Kind Hearts And Coronets - the best-written film comedy of all - was made at Ealing Studios.

Costume drama: Henry V

The UK Film Council and the BBC have opted for Laurence Olivier's Henry V (right) as the quintessential British costume drama. Made during the war, it is certainly superior propaganda. Listening to Olivier exhort his troops ("we few, we happy few, we band of brothers") on St Crispin's Day is enough to make you want to jump off the sofa and invade France all over again. Even so, this is surely not the peak of British costume drama.

It took a Hungarian to teach the Brits how best to make movies about men in tights. Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), for which Charles Laughton won an Oscar, was the first British costume picture to make any kind of dent in the US market. What Korda realised was that pomp and battles are all very well, but if you really want to sell your picture, you need some action in the bedroom. The US marketing campaign was imaginative, if misogynistic. Cinemas were encouraged to exploit the movie on its title and its portrayal of the Bluebeard of kings who married six women and caused two of them to pay for their infidelity under the axe of the executioner. It's a costume piece, but only in its setting.

Social realism: Billy Liar

Billy Liar sets the question that every young male dreamer from the provinces must have asked himself: when Julie Christie invites you to board the train and seek your fortune in London, will you go? The film, though, spends so much time exploring Tom Courtenay's fantasy life that it is debatable whether it can strictly be defined as social realism.

You won't find any whimsy in Lindsay Anderson's bruising, utterly uncompromising This Sporting Life, right. The star of the film, Richard Harris, had clearly been mugging up on his Marlon Brando to portray the rugby league player Frank Machin. British audiences accustomed to British cinema's holy trinity of tweed-jacketed, flannel trouser-wearing chaps, Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More and Jack Hawkins, were blown away by the sheer physical intensity of Harris's performance. "It has a blow like a fist," the critic Penelope Gilliat wrote of the film. "I've never seen an English picture which gave such expression to the violence and capacity for pain that there is in the English character." Counterpointing Harris's bruising machismo, there was a wonderfully poignant performance from the Welsh actress Rachel Roberts as the widow Mrs Hammond, whose husband died in an industrial accent. He woos her. She scorns him. The suffering he experiences because of her is far worse than anything he experiences on the rugby field - or, for that matter, on the dentist's chair.

Horror/Fantasy: The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man is memorable for the confrontation between Edward Woodward's heroically prudish presbyterian policeman, and Britt Ekland, paganism and combustible Antony Gormley-like sculptures. It is frightening enough in its Highland way, even if - like many cult films that have been the victim of remakes - it suffers from a certain over-familiarity.

In the canon of British horror, however, there are other equally chilling films. You could start with Ealing Studios' Dead Of Night, above, still arguably the best portmanteau picture ever made and justly celebrated for Michael Redgrave's turn as the ventriloquist persecuted by his dummy. Witchfinder General, the last film from young British horrormeister Michael Reeves before his untimely death in 1969, boasts a supremely creepy performance from Vincent Price as the witchfinder in Civil War-era England. If you like a horror film that's also a a ripping yarn, you will relish Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out. The sequences of Christopher Lee and co in their pentangle, trying to withstand evil forces conjured up by the diabolic Charles Gray (of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame) may sound kitsch, but they are utterly terrifying. As the film proved, there was more to Hammer horror than just sapphic vampires or reworkings of Frankenstein.

Romance: Brief Encounter

It is so frightfully, frightfully unfair to say anything unpleasant about David Lean's Brief Encounter, above), with its scenes of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard making calf eyes at each other on railway platforms, as Rachmaninov blasts away on the soundtrack.

One might argue, though, that British romantic movies carried more of a charge when they were less polite and emotionally restrained. The critics may have liked Brief Encounter but the real hits at the box-office in the 1940s were the Gainsborough melodramas. As one reviewer noted of bodice-rippers such as The Wicked Lady and The Man In Grey, the formula was usually pretty much the same. "Spectacle and sex, a dash of sadism, near-the-knuckle lines and an end where virtue is rewarded."

The Gainsborough romances boasted big cleavages, tight corsets and Margaret Lockwood up to mischief. James Mason was always skulking in the background, ready to punish her for her misdemeanours.

Thrillers: Goldfinger

It seems perverse to celebrate British thrillers without acknowledging that jowly genius from Leytonstone, Alfred Hitchcock, patron saint of the genre. Goldfinger is a middling Bond movie, mainly notable for introducing Sean Connery to golf and for the lethal, frisbee-throwing antics of Oddjob. It is not a patch, though, on the vintage Hitchcock thrillers of the 1930s, The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps, above. The former offered us Michael Redgrave as a very schoolmasterly action-hero and Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne discussing the cricket, even as their train was attacked in the wilds of continental Europe. The latter boasted the gorgeous Madeleine Carroll, one of the first of Hitchcock's glacial blondes, handcuffed to Robert Donat in the Scottish Highlands.

Goldfinger was directed by Guy Hamilton, who learnt most of his tricks while working as an assistant director on what is widely acknowledged as the greatest British thriller of all - Carol Reed's The Third Man.

If you had to choose between Fort Knox (scene of the denouement of Goldfinger) and the sewers of Vienna (where The Third Man ends), the Austrian rats would win every time.

War: The Dam Busters

The sign of a good British war film is that it will later be bowdlerised by advertisers who want to sell lager. This happened with both The Dam Busters (the title chosen for the Summer of British Film) and Ice Cold In Alex. The Brits made so many war films in the 1950s that they sometimes risk blurring into one neverending movie in which John Mills does his patriotic bit while Sylvia Syms is sweating in the desert.

One of the best British forays into the genre was surely In Which We Serve (1942), directed by Noel Coward and David Lean. It may seem old-fashioned now, but it was formally innovative (check out Lean's use of ripple dissolves), was made in the middle of the war and celebrated consensus and decency. Coward himself is on the pompous side as Captain Kinross (based on Louis Mountbatten) but the film hints at a world in which the old class distinctions no longer apply. (When you are clinging for your life to a raft, it no longer makes much difference where you went to school or what rank you hold.) There are doughty performances from those beneath decks, not least Bernard Miles as a long-suffering English everyman, and a very youngRichard Attenborough.


Nick James, Editor of Sight and Sound magazine


Defence of the Realm

Still gives you that cold war chill.


I Know Where I'm Going

Quirky tale of a dreamy bride-to-be in the Western Isles.


Nil By Mouth

The most powerful film about working-class London ever.


House of Mirth

Shatteringly poignant.


Shaun of the Dead

I'm hard to scare, so my kind of horror makes you laugh.


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Stirs the right kind of anti-war patriotism in me.


Kind Hearts and Coronets

The epitome of deadpan.

Barry Norman, Film critic


The Third Man

Beautifully acted and directed.


I Know Where I'm Going

A lovely Powell and Pressburger romance.



Said a hell of a lot about Britain.


Henry V

I have equal regard for Brannagh and Olivier's versions.


Don't Look Now

Sends shivers up my spine.


The Cruel Sea

A wonderful film, and my father produced it.


Kind Hearts and Coronets

Has a sharp, biting and cynical humour.


Features editor, Empire magazine


Dead Man's Shoes

Meadows is a fantastic talent.


A Matter of Life and Death

You can't get more romantic.



Harsh social realism which was Ray Winstone's calling card.


Witch Finder General

Usually categorised as horror.


The Descent

White knuckle stuff.


Lawrence of Arabia

What better than a film that Steven Spielberg watches before he goes into a new project?



Surreal science fiction comedy.

Hannah McGill, Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which launches today


Brighton Rock

Almost unbearably tense.


Gregory's Girl

Innocent yet clever: what's not to fall in love with?


Great Expectations

Once seen, never forgotten - every element here is stunning.


This Sporting Life

Anderson was a genius.


An American Werewolf in London

Still unbeaten.


A Matter of Life and Death

About redemption and hope rather than battlefield glory.


The Man in the White Suit

A perfect satire.

Win £100 of vouchers

What's your best of British? We've teamed up with, the UK's favourite online entertainment retailer, to give you the chance to nominate your favourite British films -

and win £100 of vouchers. There are 20 prizes on offer, and for your chance to win, simply send us your nominations in each of the seven categories above, explaining briefly why they deserve classic status.

Send your answers to

Entries must be received by Wednesday 18 July.

Winners will be selected and notified in writing by Wednesday 25 July. Standard Independent News and Media and terms and conditions apply. See The editor's decision is final.

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