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Private Viewing: Does a British film have to be gritty and grimy to be great?

PUBLISHED: 09:50 08 August 2014 | UPDATED: 09:50 08 August 2014

Ewan Mcgregor in Trainspotting

Ewan Mcgregor in Trainspotting

A new list of the best British films has been unleashed. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke wonders if we have had our fill of lists.

Lists, lists, lists. Our lives are full of them. The world loves a list. We are always ranking things. Even sporting events like Wimbledon are governed by rankings.

This week London listing guide Time Out issued what they claim is the definitive list of great British films. They asked critics, screenwriters, directors, producers, actors, journalists and the enigmatically-named industry players to supply their top ten British films which has been compiled in an exhaustive, genre-defining super-list.

But, how useful is it? What purpose does it serve? I know as a talking point it’s useful. It draws attention to the fact that the British film industry is one of this country’s finest assets and it’s fun to have down-the-pub discussions about the relevative merits of one film over another but can you really decide that Trainspotting is a better film than The Ladykillers? Is Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher, set on a council estate, any more representative of British life than the Richard Curtis comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral? It shouldn’t be any more valid.

Casting an eye over the list, the immediate thing that leapt out at me was the fact that all the recent films are all rather grim and dare I say it worthy? The entertaining films on the list, some of which are fairly highly placed, all come from a previous age where age and black and white photography lend respectability to what would be dismissed today as an ephemeral crowd-pleaser.

You can’t help feeling that when the British start making lists there is some artistic snobbery at work. I am great believer in accessibility and balance. I always relate film watching to food. You wouldn’t eat roast beef or fish and chips at every meal so why would you only watch films with a grim social-realism bias everytime you visit the cinema.

It’s not to say that Distant Voices, Still Lives, Kes, Performance, Naked, Nil By Mouth, Fish Tank, A Clockwork Orange, Hunger or London To Brighton are bad films because they’re not but they represent only one type of film-making. It’s like saying you can compile your ideal menu but you can only includes curries. We are not being given a genuine selection of British film-making talent. Also these are not the sort of films which have a great re-watch value. They are films that I am glad to have seen but have no burning desire to revisit any time soon.

This list of all-time British film would carry more weight if it showed a greater breadth of work. Anything that could be described as mainstream, be it comedy or drama, seems to come from the 1940s and 50s with a few from the late 30s. Among the mainstream classics are School for Scoundels (1960), I’m All Right Jack (1959), Billy Liar (1963), Man In A White Suit (1951), Whisky Galore (1949), Dracula (1958), A Matter of Life and Death (1948), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Brief Encounter (1945), The 39 Steps (1935), Black Narcissus (1947), Great Expectations (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948).

It is a miracle that Four Weddings and a Funeral makes it onto the list particularly when equally strong movies like Shakespeare In Love, Remains of the Day, Gandhi, The Madness of King George, Antonement, The English Patient and yes, even Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit are nowhere to be seen?

I know that James Bond is represented by Dr No but can it be said that it’s the best 007 film? It’s a wonderful workman-like thriller but it doesn’t display the film-making virtuoso to be found in either From Russia With Love or Goldfinger.

Mind you they haven’t got room to fit everything in particularly when they have to make space for films that, not only, are not films but you have never heard of them. At number 76 is Penda’s Fen (1974). I looked this up and it turns out to be an obscure BBC Play For Today drama. Time Out describes it thus: “A multi-layered reading of contemporary society and its personal, social, sexual, psychic and metaphysical fault lines. Fusing Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ with a heightened socialism of vibrantly localist empathy, and pagan belief systems with pre-Norman histories and a seriously committed – and prescient – ecological awareness, ‘Penda’s Fen’ is a unique and important statement.

It’s this sort of thing which gives film lists a bad name.

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