Three Top British Films

(N.B this, with a little judicious editing, is taken from my old blog.)

I’m not really a film buff. The films I really like I watch over and over again, sucking the marrow out of them as you would with a good album or novel, but rare is the movie which repays that close attention. Generally (but not always), the ones I get obsessed by are British. Not that Hollywood doesn’t produce some good films – Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Chinatown and so on – but the best British films seem to be more truthful, more lifelike, where the best American films seem more stylised. Films like Personal Services, Get Carter, Kes, Scum, Withnail and I, Trainspotting, Wish You Were Here, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, hell, even Educating Rita, capture a reality I relate to far easier than any other films. (I know there are large amounts of British-made pish, but I’m talking about the best ones, as compared with the best American or French films for example. I’m not going to defend The Sex Lives of the Potato Men).

So here then are my top three:


This is my favourite youth-orientated film of all-time. It’s the film of The Who’s 1973 concept album of the same name, the story of Jimmy, a mod, who is unsure of his identity and subsumes his own within the mod movement. Mods, of course, were the youth culture of the day, who dressed sharp, took speed in the form of pills called purple hearts and blues, rode Vespa scooters and listened to sharp modern pop. They were in opposition to, and antagonistic towards rockers, who rode larger motorbikes, wore leather and idolised fifties rock like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Being a mod gives Jimmy a sense of identity at a time (he must be seventeen or so) when you are unsure of yourself and need to fit in: but this comes at a cost, as Jimmy eventually finds.

Amongst the numerous qualities of this film is a absolute dedication to the reality of the context. There are no compromises in setting, dialogue or tone. The strong London accents are undiluted, giving some memorable exchanges, such as “Feel asleep on the train and waahnd up in bloody Neasden!” or “The people who ride these things are state, third-class tickets.” Similarly, the setting is unvarnished but completely recognisable as a working-class environment: Jimmy’s home is a plain council house, with crude newspaper cut-outs adorning his bedroom wall and evidently no bath. The scene where Jimmy sleeps out in their shed and just misses his dad leaving for work, with flat cap and wax jacket, is tiny but acutely detailed, which goes for the film throughout.

Despite this verite, there is a depth to the film which is constantly dramatising larger themes. The way it does this using everyday dialogue is just amazing, and a real lesson: you don’t need to be “educated” to have ideas, you don’t need to have upper-class characters to illustrate larger issues. (James Kelman, the greatest writer Scotland has produced since Lewis Grassic Gibbon, was no doubt taking notes). To take one example: we see Jimmy paying another HP installment on his suit (no store cards in those days – and where else have you ever seen such a frank depiction of the realities of consumer spending for the young?). As he pays, another mod and his friend is being measured for a suit, angrily querying the tailor, insisting it be made much tighter and sharper. “Stop fuckin around and bring it in ere!” To which the agitated tailor loses his temper, insisting, “Look here, sonny! You keep that kind of language to yourself! You don’t like it, you can go and get your own suit.” The mod asks his friend what he thinks. “Fucking rent-a-tent, innit.” The tailor looks angry but does nothing; he doesn’t want to lose the sale. There, in a nut-shell, are big themes like Youth Consumption and Generation Clash and Consumerism.

Or to take another scene: a former school friend Kevin, now a rocker (the enemy) pays Jimmy a visit, biking up Jimmy’s garden path. Jimmy is in the shed tinkering with his scooter, and hearing the deep thrum of the bike and fearing assault, picks up a spanner. They talk about why one is a mod, one is a rocker. The conversation is just brilliant:

Jimmy: But it’s not just the bikes, it’s the people. And the people who ride these things [gestures to Kevin’s motorbike] are states, third-class tickets.

Kevin: Do what?

Jimmy: Rockers, all that greasy hair and clobber. It’s diabolical!

Kevin: I don’t give a monkey’s arsehole about mods and rockers. Underneath, we’re all the same, ain’t we?

Jimmy: Nah, Kev, that’s it. I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else. That’s why I’m a mod, see? I mean, you gotta be somebody, ain’t ya? Or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.

Kevin: That’s why I joined the army: to be different. To get away from all this! But wherever you go, there’s always some cunt in stars and stripes who wants to push you about.

God, that’s great. Identity, conformism, ambition, belonging, group identity – all in one completely realistic conversation. (And the irony of going into the army to be different – delivered completely straight-faced, whereas any hamming it up would shatter your belief in the character).

So there’s all that. But I haven’t even mentioned the Brighton scene yet! This must be one of the most visceral scenes in all cinema – those fuckers are really beating each other up on that beach! It’s completely compelling, sheer euphoric teenage kicks: not just the fighting, but when they are “kettled” by the police into one small street, the battle cry of “We are the mods! We are the mods! We are, we are, we are the mods!” sets your hair on end. It’s just electric.

As with speed (which Jimmy is shown taking fairly often), or any stimulant, there’s the rush and then the hangover. So it is with Jimmy. After the amazing climax of Brighton, the rest of the film is an unravelling, as Jimmy finds being a mod can’t support a life. The euphoric camaraderie splits apart as soon as it achieved. Jimmy retraces his steps, unable to let go and clinging on to the mod identity. He returns to Brighton, but what was once alive with mods is now a sleepy resort. And once all his illusions are shattered, eventually he manages to let go. At the end he’s shown walking away from it all, alone.

Other things worthy of attention: the direction is excellent with the camera inobtrusive; you really do get the sense of watching a slice-of-life. It’s not flashy or showy, concealing its artfulness behind a self-effacing realism. The cast are terrific (a show-case for acting talent – Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash, Ray Winstone, Sting, Toyah Wilcox, Michael Elphick, and Benjamin Whitrow) with the characters well-sketched. You really get a sense of the group dynamic, the boys aiming for the leadership of the mod gang, and the top girl knowing it all too well.

Still not sure? Here’s a clip to prove it.


2. if…

Whipsif… was famously filmed at the time of the evenements of May 68 in France – as the film is an allegory for revolution against the repressive, reactionary old-order, this was entirely fitting. (John Lennon was at the same time writing “Revolution” while meditating in India – clearly there was something in the air). It is also the first film of Malcolm MacDowell, and while he doesn’t steal the show (for a film almost entrely about boys who are actually played by boys, he cast is highly impressive), he does grab the attention.

I said if… is an allegory of revolution – but the school is also an allegory of Britain, with its all from past glories, repression, incompetent, class-based leadership, absurd rules, appalling education, and gross archaic longings. It works remarkably well as a simple story of school boys revolting against repressive discipline (enforced by prefects called “whips” – a magnificent little detail), but almost every scene has a symbolic meaning. For example: one boy confessing to having “dirty thoughts” (presumably homosexual) to the Chaplain, who can offer no real advice – a condemnation of British sexual ignorance and hypocrisy. The new boy being told by a senior boy that “You don’t talk to us” and that the youngest boys are called “scum” – the power of seniority. The chaplain being (literally!) kept in a drawer in the headmaster’s office – the use of religion in controlling and disciplining the masses.

As suggested by the chaplain being in the drawer, the film flips between realism and surrealism. The realism is noteworthy – there’s no idealisation of the boys, who are no Hollywood lookers and the film looks frankly at bullying, public-school homosexuality, beatings, and pretentious pseudo-intellectualism, and the school itself is shabby and past its best. But remarkably this realism is commented upon by the surreality of some episodes, such as the schoolmaster’s wife wandering naked through the school (a comment on sexual repression and longing) and the encounter with “the girl”, especially the tiger-fight between her and Mick (the leader of the rebels, played by MacDowell). Similarly, while the pretty junior boy is realistically portayed as having older boys prey upon him, he is surrealistically seen in bed with one of the rebels, who had actually taken the time to talk to him.

The film itself similarly filps between colour and black and white. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that parts were shot to save money, as parts of the same scenes alternate. It’s another trick to break up the film, a Brechtian “alienation effect”, as with the realism/surrealism dialectic. Both add to and heighten the other.

The rebellion gradually gathers pace, once the school and the characters are established. (Viewers may note the pictures of revolutionaries pinned up throughout the boys rooms, such as Mao and Che – it was that kind of era). The end is obviously allegorical, ending on a freeze-frame of MacDowell raining down shots on the school and the gathered dignitaries. After Columbine this feels awkward to me, but no-one is suggesting that this should be taken literally. It’s a fantasy – that’s why the film is called if...


1. Performance

OK. The best British film ever is Performance from 1970, co-directed by Nic Roeg and Donald Cammel, and featuring (I’m loath to say “starring”) James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and some real East End heavies. (Let’s not get too public-school boy/Guy Ritchie excited about that – but they do add to a convincingly brutal opening half of a subsequently psychedelic film). It’s worth noting the directors, too: Roeg made his name as a cinematographer (Performance and his later films such as Walkabout and The Man Who Fell To Earth are highly arresting visually), whereas Cammel was a painter and writer soaked in Genet, Borges, Burroughs and London/Parisian bohemia.

Performance is a film where nothing is as it seems. It questions the various dualities which make up our culture: male and female, nature and culture, fantasy and reality, heterosexual and homosexual, interior and exterior, image and reflection. Obviously this isn’t a straightforward plot-driven film: it’s something of a diptych (a film in two distinct parts, jargon-fans), with a violent gangster opener and a psychedelic mind-fuck closer. The relation between the two sections of the film only gradually becomes apparent; texturally, cinematically, atmospherically they are completely different.

Performance is a master-class of cinematography. It is densely allusive, symbolically rich and eyeball-grabbing visually. I do not exaggerate when I say I have never seen a film like it; although Walkabout has some visual similarities, they are nothing alike in terms of theme and tone. Perhaps the real union of minds in Performance is not between Chas and Turner, but between Roeg and Cammel, the visual genius and the ideas man.

The plot is relatively straightforward (bearing in mind, this is not a plot-driven film). Chas (played by Fox) specialises in “putting the frighteners up flash little twerps” for his gangland boss. When he oversteps the mark and kills a fellow mobster, Chas goes on the run, hiding from “the firm”. He takes refuge in the basement flat of a reclusive faded pop star called Turner, played by Jagger, and his household of two women (played by Pallenberg and Michèle Breton) and one odd servant girl. The longer Chas stays in Turner’s house, and the more he interacts with the residents, the more his boundaries and sense of identity are unsettled, through mindgames and psychedelic mushrooms. But this works both ways, and the similarities between Chas and Turner become increasingly apparent, to the point where both share the same death.

Much of this is suggested visually rather than dramatised. For example, when Chas goes further into Turner’s house, seeking a telephone, this suggests his further entry into Turner’s world and mindspace. This is shown by a juxtaposition of their two faces whilst they talk, which evokes a deeply uncanny feeling.
Chas/TurnerSimilarly, there is a constant use of both mirrors and mirror images throughout the film, to suggest two things. Firstly, mirrors suggest the dualities such as male/female and fantasy/reality which are explored during the film. But secondly, mirrors symbolise the self-projection with which both Chas and Turner are fundamentally concerned, both being “performers”. Performance shows how the gangster and the rock star are all too similar in their masculine, violent displays, suggesting the male ego’s need for dominance and power, whether expressed sexually or through group dominance.

But Performance also critiques this, with Chas undergoing psychedelic initiation, altering his “image”, and having his masculinity and sexuality questioned. Pherber (played by Pallenberg) uses mirrors upon Chas, projecting his face upon hers, and having both faces side by side (see top photo), and asking if he has a male and female half, like Turner. Chas angrily replies, “There’s nothing wrong with me – I’m normal!
Chas/PherberThe film also plays with the androgyny of Lucy (played by Breton) and Turner: at one point we see Chas in bed caressing someone who appears to be Turner; a moment later it turns out to be Lucy. The recurrent tactic of dislocation (further heightened by the extremely jumpy editing) effectively suggests Chas’ disorientated mind.

Further aspects of the film which merit mention for their imaginative use are the music, with some nice early synthesiser work, deep blues, rock and roll (the “Memo To Turner” scene, where Jagger sings to what is more like a conventional rock video, must be the only time where Warner Bros actually got what they wanted), proto-rap, and an eerily unsettling orchestral finale. The editing, as mentioned above, is extremely jumpy, so that you really have to watch the film a few times to understand what’s happening, as scenes intercut rapidly. Camera angles, in case you didn’t guess already, are somewhat extreme. All of which may seem somewhat overcooked, but Performance is one of those rare and happy times where content and method match exactly.

Obviously, Hollywood, this is not: the nearest comparison I can think of is Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a film which is similarly non-linear and told through images and music rather than narrative. But Performance is a far more literary film (with Borges being a major inspiration), where The Wall is naturally more musical, with next to no dialogue. And Performance captures a specific moment in British 60s culture, when the rock/drug subculture met with the criminal world, as embodied by the Kray twins (whereas The Wall captures Roger Water’s alienation and little else). The utopian dreams of 1967 would turn darker and more violent, reaching a deadly apothesis in Altamont in 1969.

Consequently, numerous myths have sprung up around Performance, also prompted by Pallenberg’s subsequent heroin addiction and Fox’s retreat from acting to door-knocking evangelical Christianity. (Jagger, typically, walked away unharmed, like a cat daintily leaving the scene of a carcrash). There was, too, the sticky matter of Jagger’s love-scene with Pallenberg being rather too graphic for Keith Richards, her then-partner. But this is essentially gossip. What we have a film which is both specific and timeless, literal and metaphorical, intensely visual and deeply literary, and ultimately an astonishing piece of cinema. That’s why it’s the best British film ever made.


13 thoughts on “Three Top British Films

  1. Crikey Mike, you went into overdrive here. Get Carter has to be one of the truly nastiest flics ever to come out of England.

    It is about time I caught Withnail and I again. Similarly, it’s decades since I saw If and also time for a rerun. Me best mate went to a public school just like that, and it took a lot of lsd for him to put it all in the past.

    Good take on Quadrophenia and yes, it was a pill/speed culture. I wrote very briefly about it on my first site, and waxed about the dance scene with Louie Louie blasting out of the speaks and with Sting the fashion statement posing on the upper balcony. Tremendous ensemble acting also.

    Mod working class culture must be viewed within the context of the relaxation of post-world war 11 austerity in England.

    Performance. Our group opiate intake impaired our note taking skills at the time ….made the trainspotting crowd look like adventuresome boys scouts.

    Guy Ritchie. Lost the plot after his first two films.

  2. A great selection, Mike – though I have reservations about putting Performance at No. 1. While I admire its ambition, and its haunting mind-fuckery, it didn’t quite work for me overall. I find Nic Roeg’s stylized visuals and staccato editing tiresomely overdone most of the time. I felt it just about worked in Bad Timing, but in nearly all his other films I’ve found it pretentious, obtrusive, pointless.

    All these picks are notably ‘experimental’, and very much rooted in the ’60s (even if Quadrophenia didn’t get made until a decade later), and are conspicuously not just British-made films but films that represent and deconstruct key aspects of British life.

    I don’t think I could limit myself to just three picks, the field is so broad. You mention quite a few of my leading contenders at the top of this piece: Kes, Scum, Get Carter.

    I feel there ought to be at least one Ken Loach film in any ‘best of British’ list. My favourite of his is probably Raining Stones (I have shown both Kes and Raining Stones to Chinese university students: that’s quite an eye-opener for them as to “what life in the UK is really like”!); although I’d also be tempted to nominate The Price of Coal (like Kes, written by Barry Hines), a two-part BBC ‘Play For Today’ from the Jubilee Year of 1977 that recalled a major colliery accident of a few years before and prefigured the looming Strike of 1984.

    Mike Leigh deserves a representative inclusion as well: Secrets & Lies probably his best work all-around, but Vera Drake, Naked, and Career Girls also worthy consideration.

    Alan Clarke should definitely get a mention too; I think Made In Britain, Road, and The Firm are as good as or better than Scum – but again these were BBC projects: feature length, but not released in cinemas, as far as I know. In somewhat similar vein, Shane Meadows’ This Is England is also extremely good.

    Amongst the great ’60s films, I might take Alfie, Darling, and Blow Up over your rather more ‘out there’ choices. Or, for the youthful rebellion motif, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Or, for that mess-with-your-head quality, Joseph Losey’s The Servant.

    In the gangster field, Get Carter is out on its own, although The Long Good Friday, Gangster No. 1, and, yes, Lock, Stock,… (but not any of his subsequent flogging-the-same-formula ones) deserve a mention.

    For truly capturing the spirit of Britishness – or Englishness – we probably ought to look at some of the Ealing or Ealing-style comedies as well: Passport to Pimlico, The Smallest Show On Earth, I’m All Right, Jack! and Genevieve.

    And then you’ve got the classics – exceptional pieces of cinema that may not have the contemporary social or political subtext that especially appeals to you, but in artistic terms are certainly among the ‘best films’: almost anything by David Lean (are we allowed British-made films with largely overseas settings, like Lawrence of Arabia?), but especially In Which We Serve, Blithe Spirit, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist; everything by Powell and Pressburger, but especially I Know Where I’m Going and The Red Shoes; the early Hitchcocks, especially The Thirty-Nine Steps .

    Man, this is hard.

    Impulsive, off-the-top-of-my-head choice? The three best British-made films (about Britain) of all time?

    Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Gregory’s Girl

  3. In the artsy category, I should have mentioned the Merchant-Ivory adaptations of E.M. Forster as well. A Room With A View is a pretty much perfect book-to-film translation.

  4. @KT – my old blog was mostly blathering about UK politics, but as with my China one, I wasn’t really adding anything of value. It was only when I turned to music, books and films etc that I really came up with anything good, which I guess you can see. This is three posts mashed into one, but it still hangs together. You’re spot on about mods, would love to hear more about those days from you. There’s some nice stuff about mod culture in the Sex Pistols book, England’s Dreaming.

    @Froog – you’re obviously far more a film buff than me! Ashamed to say I’ve never seen a Mike Leigh film (I know!). Loach on the other hand – Sweet Sixteen I thought brilliant. Alan Clarke, seen a few like Made In Britain but not many. I just don’t have the completist tendency I do with music. Your nominations for a top three accord very much with a friend of mine, who is a serious TV/flm buff. I think he’d put Withnail & I in the top 3 though!

  5. Top reading here, guys, which I must return to after another bout of packing up the digs.
    Totally agree with Froog re: Performance.
    And it is great to see a sense of history with Kind Hearts and Coronets.
    Unfortunately, I loathe Merchant/Ivory productions, but still enjoy all the early Michael Caine efforts.
    This should turn into quite a thread.
    A total reading essential is Stoned by Andrew Loog Oldam….tremendous social history as is his successor Hustlers (about the promoters and managers).
    Finally, why havent we mentioned one movie starring Lawrence Harvery

  6. @Froog, forgot to agree with you re: Merchant Ivory and Forster. Howards End (another tremendous acting ensemble, from Prunella Scales to Anthony Hopkins) is brilliant, one of the best adaptations of a book I’ve ever seen.

    I really ought to watch the Ealing comedies. I have a feeling the wife would like them.

  7. I haven’t seen Withnail since it first came out, but it struck me then as less than the sum of its parts. Richard E. Grant was wonderful in it, but it all seemed a bit strident and pointless. Perhaps I was to some extent reacting against its immediate adoption as a cult favourite/lifestyle inspiration for pisshead students (I was just about to finish being a student, and trying very hard to grow up!). I rather preferred Bruce Robinson’s follow-up How To Get Ahead In Advertising, which boasts an even more outstanding performance from Mr Grant and some very pointed satire, rather than just low-life buffoonery.

  8. I wouldn’t call Withnail low-life buffoonery: the dialogue is rapier-sharp and ferociously funny, and the themes of disaffection, disappointment and failure make it more than REG clowning about. Richard Griffith’s performance is wonderful, predatory yet deeply sympathetic: an essay in pathos.

    Not surprised KT loathes Merchant Ivory. He’s too punk for that!

  9. I’m fine with buffoonery, it can be very entertaining sometimes. And it can encompass deeper themes, become quite affecting – if you believe in or care about the characters (in Withnail, I’m afraid I didn’t). There’s certainly a lot of funny dialogue in this too; but it is predominantly a lot of shouting and falling over and doing outrageous under the influence, or in the pursuit of, drugs and booze. I am in general far too attracted to ‘low life’ (failure, disappointment, alienation, blahblahblah), and usually find it deeply affecting. On this occasion, I didn’t.

    Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming, about a bunch of very intelligent college graduates who just can’t make their way in the real world, or Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, about an amiable bum drifting through a succession of dead-end jobs while spending most of his time in his local bar (probably the best-ever film about a bar!), are, for my money, much better films about these themes, this sort of milieu.

  10. Me … too punk. Punk as a musical movement was perfectly hopeless, but as a socio-cultural attitude, it had a lot to recommend it.
    It rightly cleansed the world of Pink Floyd and gave us I am a Poseur and I don’t care by X Ray Specs.

  11. I just did a post on bassline ‘chuggers’ – good for some brainless fun!

    KT, I tried to say hello over at your place earlier in the week (having lost the link for ages – sorry!), but your comment feature was being glitchy and all my advances were spurned. Those surfing pictures were great. I’m glad to see you’re having fun – and not completely without Internet access.

  12. Thanks Froog.
    I managed to unlock the comment button, so you will be loved a very long time again when you visit next.
    Hope to return to the surf stuff soon.
    Since moving to the piney woods, all I’ve managed is a couple of gutter press takes on the Bo saga.

  13. Pingback: Best Of, 2012 | booksandmusicandstuff

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