Friday, September 08, 2023

10 British films that should be better known

Here are some notes on 10 British films that are not as well known as I think they ought to be. It's not a top 10 - they are in chronological order - and I'm sure there are plenty more, particularly from recent years decades, that could fairly be included in such a list.

With those caveats entered, let's go.

No Room at the Inn (1948)

Inspired by the death in Shropshire of the foster child Dennis O'Neill, the same scandal that led Agatha Christie to write The Mousetrap, this had already been a huge success as a stage play. The star of the play was Freda Jackson as the voracious Mrs Voray, who took in war orphans for the money and abused and corrupted them. So hated was she by audiences, the story goes, that she needed a police guard.

Jackson repeats the role in the film, and her skill at playing monsters was so great that she became rather stuck with them later in her career. Before No Room at the Inn, she had played Mistress Quickly in Olivier's Henry V and Mrs Joe in David Lean's Great Expectations.

The tragic Joan Dowling, who was to take her own life at the age of 26, is notable among the children. A word too for Dora Bryan who, in her first film appearance, steals both Freda Jackson's date and the scene.

This dark film ticks so many of this blog's boxes that it has its own label.

Gone to Earth (1950)

The Shropshire hills filmed in Technicolor by Powell and Pressburger? There's no way I was going to dislike this one. Gone to Earth was a novel by Mary Webb, who had the misfortune to be deeply obscure in her lifetime and become hugely popular soon after her death. In the 1930s you would see coaches in these hills with 'Mary Webb Country' on the front.

Gone to Earth is melodrama whose plot has similarities with Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Jennifer Jones brings Hollywood glamour to the role of the tragic heroine and makes a brave attempt at a Shropshire accent, while David Farrar makes a splendid wicked squire. Look out for George Cole in his first adult role.

The 'Maggie'

The greatest Ealing comedies are still widely known, but there are some that have been all but forgotten. The Maggie is the best of this second group, and in its dramatisation of an encounter between wily Scots and American big business it looks forward to Bill Forsyth's Local Hero.

An American millionaire makes the mistake of hiring a decrepit Clyde puffer to carry furniture to his holiday home in the Hebrides. He ends less happily than Burt Lancaster in Local Hero.

Woman in a Dressing Gown

The disorganised Yvonne Mitchell considers herself happily married to Anthony Quayle, but discovers that he is having an affair with the stylish Sylvia Syms.

Because this is a British film from the Fifties, the family has to defeat all threats to it. But the scene in Mitchell tries to change her image to compete with Syms, only to find that everything goes wrong, is horribly painful to watch.

Innocent Sinners

Ignore the title, which makes it sound like a particularly tacky porn film, this is the most interesting of the children and bombsites films I have yet found. Unlike the others, it has a girl at its centre, and the enemies the children encounter are not the murderers they encounter in those other films but snobbish residents and unsympathetic officialdom.

Here, bombsites are not a place of danger but somewhere working-class children can express themselves and find the privacy they lack in their overcrowded homes.

Tunes of Glory

Alec Guinness playing a red-haired Scottish officer who has been promoted from the ranks in wartime may sound ridiculous, but he is wholly believable here. Tunes of Glory reminds us what a peerless actor he was.

The film is about the lethal clash between Guinness and John Mills, who plays the upper-class officer who is appointed over his head now that the war is over. Both are flawed but appealing characters, and their tragic battle takes place in front a remarkable supporting cast: Susannah York, Gordon Jackson Dennis Price, Duncan MacRae, Allan Cuthbertson.

You'll recognised the last-named from gourmet night at Fawlty Towers.

West 11

Before Michael Winner became awful he was rather good. West 11, the postal district of Notting Hill at its seediest, tells the story of a drifter, played by Alfred Lynch, who falls under the influence of a criminal played by Eric Portman.

Lynch is persuaded to travel to Dorset to murder Portman's aunt, so that Portman will inherit her money. What could possibly go wrong?

Diana Dors plays Portman's moll and Lynch's landlady is played by Freda Jackson. In an ideal world, all films would star Eric Portman and Freda Jackson.

Our Mother's House (1967)

A fatherless family of children hide the death of their mother from the authorities by burying her in the garden because they fear being sent to an orphanage. 

Among the children are Pamela Franklin, Mark Lester, Phoebe Nicholls (immediately recognisable as Cordelia in the famous television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited) and Louis Sheldon Williams, whose mother wrote a weekly column for Liberal News in the Sixties, as I did for Liberal Democrat News 40 years later.

If all this sounds tacky or exploitative, the wonderful score by George Delerue - innocent, lilting, compassionate - lifts the film to a wholly different level. Add in Dirk Bogarde in a very atypical role, Yootha Joyce and the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, and there's lots to enjoy.

Comfort and Joy

This is the film Bill Forsyth made after Local Hero and for some reason it appears to have been forgotten. Bill Paterson, who play a local radio DJ, is left by his girlfriend just before Christmas and then finds himself sucked into the Glasgow ice cream wars after witnessing an attack on a van.

I saw this in a cinema when it came out (which is a worryingly long time ago) and have never seen it again, yet I still remember it.

The Last Resort (2000)

Another one I saw in the cinema - the Renoir at Brunswick Square near St Pancras, since you ask. It taught me that Russian is the sexiest accent in the world and that Paddy Considine is a brilliant actor.

Dina Korzun plays a Russian woman who arrives at Heathrow with her young son, expecting to be met by her English fiancé, He doesn't show and, panicking, she asks for political asylum. As a result, she and her son are sent to a rundown resort and forbidden to leave it.

There they meet a bingo caller, played by Paddy Considine, who goes out of his way to help them. He is surely a good man, yet somehow we don't know whether we should wholly trust him. According to the reviews, he and Kozun improvised much of their dialogue.

Eventually Kozun decides she must grow up and return to Russia, a task in which Considine regretfully helps her.


Anonymous said...

Spot on regarding Comfort and Joy! I saw it only once, in a cinema club in the late 1980s as part of a Forsythe double bill, but it seems to have sunk without trace. It was more than just an idiosyncratic comedy, though - it was riffing on the real Ice Cream Wars in Glasgow that led to several deaths in an arson attack.

Could I also put in a word for "Millions" by Danny Boyle (2004)? I loved it, but maybe I am just a sucker for rom-coms.

Jonathan Calder said...

There was a murder in the Leicester Burger Wars too.

I loved Millions, particularly the saints.

Anonymous said...

It's well worth picking up Comfort and Joy on a physical format as I I think you might enjoy it even more now than you did back in the day. It has a lovely mix of characters, great dialogue and some wonderful scenes. The unravelling of the life of DJ Alan (Bill Patterson) as he becomes embroiled in the Ice Cream turf wars is a joy (sorry) to watch.
It's also possibly one of the finest non-celebratory Christmas movies going.

I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for the rest of this list, thank you!


tom j jones said...

I love The Maggie! Not the greatest Ealing film, but beautiful scenery of the sea, ports and even canals among the countryside. And I still smirk at the 'subway' line!