Film industry's favourites: now showing in black and white

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The Independent Online
LAST SUMMER, when the American Film Institute announced its "top 100 American movies of all time," the brickbats soon started flying.

Meryl Streep complained that most of the 1,500 "leaders of the American film community" invited to vote were men and that they had largely ignored movies showcasing "strong female roles".

Silent movie buffs bemoaned the absence of any Buster Keaton titles. Many were aggrieved that D W Griffith's "racist" Birth Of A Nation had made it into the top 50.

Some critics complained that the poll was "ridiculously populist". Others felt that it was tiresomely predictable. (Did Citizen Kane really have to be top yet again?)

Now, the British Film Institute has produced a poll of its own, one that appears to be equally subjective. Late yesterday evening, the list of the "BFI 100 favourite British Feature Films" was announced. The 1,000 industry types (producers, directors, critics etc) who had pondered the merits of 820 "culturally British" films, casting 25,700 votes between them, decided that Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) was the "best film" and David Lean the greatest director.

Lean has six and a half titles in the 100 (including In Which We Serve, for which Noel Coward was co-director). This compares favourably to the achievement of the American director Steven Spielberg, who mustered a mere five of the top 100 films in the US ballot.

"The joke is: are there 100 great British films? This list proves there are," says Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound. "There are very few films on it that we could have an argument with." As he points out, the "BFI 100" covers most of the main bases. There are Hitchcocks, Powell and Pressburgers, a Jarman and a Greenaway, and a healthy smattering of Ealing comedies. The British documentary tradition gets a look-in with Humphrey Jennings' Fires Were Started (number 89), there's a token Carry On film (Up The Khyber at number 99) and even those blushing Belles of St Trinian's are waving their hockey sticks at 94.

The poll seems heavily tilted toward the 1960s (Trainspotting is the only title of the past 25 years that makes it into the top 10) but that may have as much to do with the age of the voters as with the quality of the films for which they have plumped.

What of the omissions? Well, there isn't a single film by a woman director. Mark Herman, with Brassed Off, and Gary Oldman, with Nil By Mouth, make it, but equally strong candidates such as Carine Adler's Under The Skin and Sally Potter's Orlando are overlooked. Meryl Streep's gripe about the American list spurning films that featured strong female roles could just as well be made about its British equivalent. Although the voters have chosen dozens of films from the "golden age" of the 1940s, neither Margaret Lockwood (whose film The Wicked Lady was one of the biggest British box-office success ever), nor Anna Neagle - two of the biggest stars of that era - seem to have crossed their radars.

The taste of the 1000 film industry folk also seems strangely middlebrow.

Michael Powell's once- reviled Peeping Tom may feature at number 78 and cult horror movie The Wicker Man creeps in at 96, but the poll doesn't extend to the so-called "Lost Continent" of British cinema - the B-movies, sci-fi dramas, Hammer horror pics and Gainsborough melodramas that were made alongside the literary adaptations and prestige productions the BFI has chosen to celebrate.

A cursory glance down the list reveals several surprising gaps and anomalies. A Clockwork Orange (the only Kubrick film that features), like several of Lean's titles, is claimed as British despite also appearing on the AFI list of "American movies".

Kenneth Branagh has been snubbed as have several of Alexander Korda's best-known films (most notably, The Thief Of Baghdad, often talked about as one of the greatest fantasy-adventures). While Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives is included and Ken Loach has two films on the list, there is no room for films by Bill Douglas or Alan Clarke.

"The key point is that this poll aims to be the starting point for discussion around the UK rather than a definitive list," claims the BFI director John Woodward. In other words, the intention all along was to provoke debate. In that, at least, the list is bound to be successful.

Geoffrey McNab is a film critic and historian. He is the author of J Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry and Searching for Stars - Rethinking British Cinema.