The 15 Best British Films of The 1980s

8. Rita, Sue & Bob Too (1987)

Rita, Sue & Bob Too (1987)

This bawdy comedy directed by Alan Clarke and adapted by Andrea Dunbar (from her own play), sees well heeled husband and father Bob (George Costigan) embark on an affair with two babysitters Rita (Siobhan Finneran) and Sue (Michelle Holmes) both from a less well off area of Bradford in West Yorkshire. As the plot escalates Bob’s wife becomes suspicious of his activity and Sue begins another relationship with Pakistani taxi driver Aslam (Kulvinder Ghir).

A cult favourite, the film keeps its pace and humour with enjoyable elements of farce throughout. However, there are more cutting and gritty social issues within the narrative. Sue’s relationship with Aslam can be considered as a timely portrayal of interracial relationships in British cinema, unfortunately this ends in domestic violence rendering its depiction as a negative one.

Bob is portrayed as something of a ‘Jack-the-Lad’ character fitting to the comedic slant of the story but his covert sexual antics with two school girls (both 16) could also be viewed very differently. Dunbar herself (who died in 1990 aged only 29) came into conflict with residents from the area of Bradford portrayed in the film (where she herself lived). A continuation of the ‘kitchen sink’ social realism of the 50’s & 60’s but arguably for an audience with an awareness of 70’s sex comedy, the film provides a snap shot of various social divisions within 1980’s Britain.


7. Mona Lisa (1986)

Mona Lisa

Neil Jordan’s drama sees recently released career criminal George (Bob Hoskins) accept a job driving high-class prostitute Simone (Cathy Tyson) from client to client. Falling ‘in love’ with Simone; George descends into the underbelly of London’s sex trade as he searches for her lost friend Cathy (Kate Hardy).

In the wake of Hoskins’ role in The Long Good Friday (1979), and coupled with Mona Lisa’s subject matter, there is a temptation to view the film as a possible companion piece to Get Carter (1970). However, it is better read as more of a conscious 1980’s echo or response following social change.

The audience can note how the world George knew before prison has altered, the Mk2 Jaguar (iconic of 60’s/70’s crooks) he ferries Simone around in no longer cuts a dash and seems out of place, his clothes are dated, he is dated –‘romantic’ – and his family have moved on. It is here where Hoskins’ character grabs the audience’s empathy and keeps them following him throughout the film. Tyson too puts in a fine performance along with the supporting cast which includes Robbie Coltrane, whose character Thomas’ appearance serves to lift the mood.


6. Time Bandits (1981)


The first in director Terry Gilliam’s ‘Trilogy of Imagination’ ,Time Bandits entry on the list can be considered interchangeable with Brazil and to a lesser extent The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Muchausen is slightly too disjointed and was less well received). The trilogy explores imaginative escapism through the eyes of a child, a middle aged man and that of an old man.

A gang of dwarves appear in 11 year-old Kevin’s (Craig Warnock) bedroom on the run with a map of holes in time they have stolen from the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson). Co-written with fellow Python Michael Palin (who also appears in the film), the concept of the universe being a ‘rushed job’ leaving various holes one might, if they have the map, journey through is a exiting one.

Whilst it might lack the more mature artistic endeavour and visuals of its ‘sequel’ Brazil, Time Bandits projects a true, if slightly dark, fantasy arena of fun and infinite possibility (like childhood imagination). Not the first film to receive finance from Handmade Films, it was the first to be started by the British production company co-founded by George Harrison. Time Bandits also features the performance David Rappaport will be most recognised for as Randall, the self-appointed leader of the gang.


5. Gandhi (1982)

Gandhi (1982)

This multi-Award winning biopic of the life of Mohandas Karamchand ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) directed by Richard Attenborough, was the result of years of struggle to gain finance.

The film begins with Gandhi’s assassination and funeral before cutting back to a defining moment when the young Gandhi is thrown off a train for being an Indian sitting in a first class compartment. The narrative then follows his struggles to bring independence and peace to India.

Running to over 3 hours, there are many accomplished moments. For the funeral scene, shot in a time long before CGI, newspaper notices and signs calling for extras drew the biggest crowd in film history, estimated at over 300,000. Now almost impossible to picture anyone else in the title role but Attenborough had considered John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins until son Michael suggested relative unknown Ben Kingsley. The film is also noteworthy for inspiring a popular interest in the British Empire in India with TV series The Jewel in the Crown and David Lean’s A Passage to India following in its wake.


4. Excalibur (1981)

Excalibur (1981)

Director John Borman had originally wanted to make an adaptation of Lord of the Rings but his script was turned on grounds of cost. Borman returned to an earlier idea for a Merlin based project which became the Arthurian epic Excalibur.

Warlord Uther Pendragon (Gabriele Burn) receives Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, the sword his son Arthur (Nigel Terry) eventually draws from the stone. The narrative follows Arthur through prosperity and pestilence and the turning of an age of magic into an age of men.

Whilst it may not be ‘historically’ accurate, with Dark Age knights in full plate armour (and despite cherry picking its source material), the film is remains true to the romantic mythology at its core. Atmospheric and visually striking throughout, aided by its use of smoke and tinted lighting – factors which later influenced TV’s Robin of Sherwood but are themselves influenced by Terry Gilliam’s 1976 film Jabberwocky.

There is a broad spectrum of emotion throughout , from enraged macho action and knowing humour (mostly delivered by Nicol Williamson as Merlin) to a genuine sense of loss and hope – Merlin’s reappearance to a wakening Arthur before his final battle remains haunting even after the film’s rousing close. The quest for the grail (at no point referred to as ‘holy’) sequence is an engaging mini-epic in itself, something the viewer lives through; as a more elemental Pagan world passes into a Christian one. Watch out for Helen Mirren as Morgana, and also Liam Neeson. Neil Jordan is credited as a ‘creative associate’.


3. Gregory’s Girl (1981)

Gregory's Girl (1981)

Bill Forsyth wrote and directed this hugely successful coming of age comedy set in Scotland. Clumsy teen, Gregory (John Gordon-Sinclair), falls for Dorothy (Dee Hepworth) when she tries out for the school football team. Despite misgivings she turns out to be their star player and object of desire for many, causing Gregory much frustration. Eventually Gregory asks her out on a date.

A runaway success, particularly in the U.S (where the Scottish accents were dubbed on its original release), this rather innocent film makes an interesting counterpoint to more crude Stateside teen escapades of the time and also a companion piece to Jack Rosenthal’s 1982 TV film about first love P’Tang Yang Kipperbang. Gregory’s Girl provides a slice of British life in the 1980’s with interesting backdrop views of a then newly built modern housing estate.

Clair Grogan, then front women of Altered Images (and original Kochanski in BBC series Red Dwarf) plays a prominent role with great performances from Allison Forster (Gregory’s younger sister) and Robert Buchanan as best friend Andy. A random child in the penguin suit was the son of the film’s production manager. An awkward sequel Gregory’s Two Girls (1999), catching up with a 30-something Gregory, was far less successful and remains less well known.


2. Withnail & I (1986)

Withnail & I (1986)

Written and directed by Brue Robinson (based on his own youth living with actor Vivien McCarrol), this film is a cult favourite for many. London 1969, unemployed actors Withnail (Richard E Grant) and Marwood, the ‘I’ of the title, (Paul McGann) live an increasingly aimless and squalid life. Desperate to escape, Withnail secures them a short holiday at a remote Cumbrian farmhouse, owned as a retreat by his eccentric uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). However, their holiday isn’t the rural ideal they expected. When Monty pays an unexpected visit Marwood soon discovers how Withnail managed to bargain a loan of the farmhouse.

This low budget film did little at the box office, only through repeated home viewings has it grown to the stature in enjoys today. Drugs, alcohol and reckless behaviour help the film retain its cult appeal. Less referenced is the running theme of time: pictures of Harold Lloyd dangling helpless from a clock face, Marwood’s repeated thoughts on time inviting the audience to share his realisation that all the characters within the film are existing out of step with time whilst all the while time itself is moving on – drug dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) laments that the 1960’s are passing whilst Withnail curses his luck as he approaches 30.

The film also features some fantastic shots of the Cumbrian countryside; the score drifting in as Marwood optimistically strides out on his first morning in the country is a gem. Regardless of its rebellious swagger and quotable dialogue, the film also has a heart; at it is the friendship between Withnail and Marwood. There is also something to be said here for an exploration of heterosexual male friendships (and friendship in general).

An original (unfilmed) ending juxtaposed Marwood on stage with Withnail pouring wine down the barrels of a shotgun before turning it on himself. Thankfully, a rather less finite and more touching ending was used, one which doubtless helps the film to live on in cult popularity.


1. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

My Beautiful Laundrette

Directed by Stephen Frears with a script by author Hanif Kureshi, this comedy drama set in London and shot in 6 weeks was originally intended as a TV movie.

British Pakistani Omar (Gordon Warneke) is sent to work for his entrepreneurial uncle; he is soon allotted the task of managing a run-down laundrette. Omar becomes reacquainted with unemployed ‘hooligan’ Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), encouraging him to assist in refurbishing the business premises. The two also (covertly) rekindle a sexual relationship amid a backdrop of family and racial tension.

Covering a range of socio-economic issues and featuring solid performances from the lead and supporting cast, there is also an equally bold depiction of (interracial) male homosexual relations which raised controversy at the time of its release – perhaps more so had it first aired on national TV as intended. In 1987 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would state ‘there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women’ and here we see a film reflecting aspects of this statement in reality with changing lives and loyalties in 1980’s Britain as Omar begins to make his own way amid various social, cultural and family expectations.

Author Bio: George Cromack is a tutor at the University of Hull’s Scarborough Campus, with a BA in Scriptwriting he also teaches evening classes in Scriptwriting and Film Studies for the WEA. Whist also working towards his PhD, he is a keen writer of both prose and script, Cold Calling, a film short written by George premiered in October 2013. Follow him on Twitter @MadBasil.