8. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
“Shaun of the Dead” is the first film in Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. As a nod to Kieslowsky’s Three Colours Trilogy, the name refers to the recurring motif of the Cornetto ice cream, with a different flavour in each film.
A spoof of the zombie genre, “Shaun of the Dead” features a strawberry flavoured Cornetto, the red representing the blood spilled by the zombies. Shaun (Simon Pegg) is an average bloke, trying to maintain the comfortable everyday rhythm of doing his job, chilling with the flatmates and always going to the same pub with his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), until one day she’s had enough of Shaun and the pub… and zombies invade the city.
Wright deploys the comedied version of scenes from Hollywood zombie apocalypse films, particularly Romero’s Dead trilogy and video games, and uses this as a backdrop to a British rom-com. The mixture of popular film references and British humour is Wright’s signature, and one that he masters in this trilogy.
Featuring some of the most well-known names of British comedy and film (Bill Nighy, Martin Freeman, Dylan Moran) alongside Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, “Shaun of the Dead” was considered the best British comedy ever by many – until being surpassed by “Hot Fuzz”.
7. A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, John Cleese, 1988)
In most people’s mind, the mention of John Cleese would immediately bring up the Monty Python films, even though his work with the trio is not the only landmark of the brilliant British comedian’s career.
There is “Fawlty Towers” and there is also “A Fish Called Wanda”. The absurd, often painful jokes of the Monty Python Films and “Fawlty Towers” in “A Fish Called Wanda” get replaced by dark and intelligent humour that will still make the audience cringe every now and then – but that’s one of the main signatures of British comedy.
Although Cleese is brilliant in the role of Archie, the love-struck barrister, it was Kevin Kline who took home an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (as the anti-British Otto from America).
The film’s plot centres on a diamond heist: George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) and Ken Pile (Michael Palin) perform a successful robbery with the help of two Americans, Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto. The two outsiders keep their relationship hidden and pretend to be siblings so that Wanda can trick the British thieves with her charm.
The series of deceits get more and more complicated as Archie, the barrister, gets involved, and Otto’s apparent jealousy makes their kinship hard to believe. As can be expected, the fish and the diamond turn out to be the red herring in the story, which is more about the convoluted love affairs and a Britain vs. US comedy performance, where, needless to say, the former emerges as the glorious victor.
6. The Ladykillers (Alezander Mackendrick, 1955)
Like many of the Ealing Comedies, “The Ladykillers” has since become a stage classic and in 2004, the Coen brothers directed the film’s American remake.
The central character of the black comedy is an old lady (Katie Johnson), living just outside of King’s Cross station, who keeps the local police ‘busy’ with her made-up suspicions about the people around her – that is, until one day she manages to get into the middle of a real crime.
When a man by the name ‘Professor’ Marcus (Alec Guinness) approaches her to rent rooms in her house, a rather suspicious group of musicians turn up, who, in reality, are the members of an organized crime group that conducted a van robbery at King’s Cross station.
As can be expected, the lady finds out about the criminals, but not before she gets involved in their what- and whereabouts a little too much. With a selection of eccentric British characters, this Ealing comedy is a classic that has stood the test of time.
5. Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007)
The second part of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy is a buddy cop comedy, featuring Simon Pegg as the ambitious Sergeant Angel and Nick Frost as the film lover PC Danny Butterman. “Hot Fuzz” does not only name-check the frozen dessert several times, but it also references numerous action films like “Point Break” and “Supercop”. Even though Wright and Pegg mercilessly parody these films, the sharp satire and clever jokes of “Hot Fuzz” do not depreciate the genre for a second.
At the start, the film summons up familiar memes of British police dramas, later turning toward Hollywood and 90s slasher movies with an epic final that references Tarantino and Rodriguez’s revenge films, and the best of action thrillers. As a synthesis of Hollywood spectacle and rural British mundanity, “Hot Fuzz” is probably the most enjoyable film of the trilogy, which is also proven by the numbers.
It has a worldwide box office gross of over $80 million, compared to “Shaun of the Dead” which currently stands at over $30 million. As a flavoursome comedy, “Hot Fuzz” does not take itself too seriously, but its intelligent humour is pleasantly refreshing – like a good cuppa.
4. Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949)
During the 40s and 50s, Ealing Studios produced a number of films that had a similar style and humour and that reflected British national values in a way that it was internationally marketable.
This phenomenon, otherwise known as the Ealing Comedies, can be linked to the name of Michael Balcon, producer at Ealing Studios from 1937 until 1959. He established a team of writers, directors and actors who often worked together, producing films in the manner of the Hollywood studio system, that “were made projecting Britain and the British character”.
The 1949 comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets” with Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood in the lead roles is one of the best of the studio’s films, often declared the film that marks the highest rise of the Ealing Comedies (included on the BFI’s top 100 film list).
Based on the novel “Israel Rank”, the film is about an aristocratic serial killer who tries to murder everyone who precedes him in the line of inheritance. Alec Guinness gives a brilliant performance as the eight members of the noble family, paving the way for the Monty Pythons.
3. Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)
There are some debates around “Life of Brian” as for whether or not the Monty Python’s customarily chaotic satire goes too far when mocking the Christian religion. At the time of its release, it got banned in Ireland and Norway for blasphemy, while Sweden embraced it, advertising the film with the byline: “The film so funny that it was banned in Norway”. Banning the film probably had only increased its popularity, and “Life of Brian” has since become a classic all over the world.
Although some jokes that rely on the playful use of English words and sounds do not always translate well into other languages, the generic aspect of absurd humour (such as the combination of popular film genres and iconic historic moments) helped “Life of Brian” (and other Monty Python films) become a transnational phenomenon.
2. Withnail & I (Bruce Robison, 1987)
“Withnail & I” is based on the real-life friendship of director Bruce Robinson and Vivian MacKerrell. At a time, the pair were broke and living together in poor conditions in a Camden flat. The comedy about the two unemployed actors, the heavy-drinker Withnail and I, as the alter ego of Robinson himself, recounts their misadventures in a deliberately low-key style, which perfectly resonates with the pathetic misery of our antiheroes’ lives.
Although its style is very different from the Monty Python movies, the best lines and most memorable scenes of “Withnail & I” get recited almost as often as the Monty Python phrases. Legend has it that when the crew shot the scenes in the actor friends’ shabby Camden flat, they went just a small step further than necessary in the reproduction of the foul pile of dirty dishes in the sink.
In order to achieve the right degree of dinginess they covered some a pile of plates in takeaway food, let it dry on the sun and then piled this up in the sink together with the empty boxes, dirty cups and cutleries. By the time the actual shooting started, the water in the sink turned into a substance half alive and the odour was so potent that the crew could barely stand it. And that’s how the memorable “The entire sink’s gone rotten!” scene was filmed.
1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975)
Monty Python developed into a phenomenon with the British sketch comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. The six members (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle) are the progenitors of British absurd comedy.
To put it simply, Monty Python’s humour typically operates through the combination of two inordinately contradictory elements, one of which is sublime, sacred or generally well respected, while the other is banal and rude. Even though their jokes largely build on the concept of the perception of the ‘other’ from a very ‘British’ point of view, they never shied away from mocking the most important historical events or religious legends.
“The Holy Grail” tells Monty Python’s story of the Knights of the Round Table – at least seemingly. As one can expect from a Monty Python movie, there is a lot going on with King Arthur and the knights, but not so much gets revealed about the Holy Grail.
The most memorable moments that have since emerged to the level of Internet memes include the attack of the murderous rabbit, the battle of the (literally) disarmed Black Knight, and of course sentences like “I fart in your general direction.” What else can be added? – Oh, stop bitching and let’s go have a tea.
Author Bio: Melinda Gemesi has been a freelance film critic since her second year as a Film Studies Student. She holds an MA in Film Studies and Online Journalism and is currently living in London. In her free time she is working on a literary project about which you can find out more on thestoryhunt.tumblr.com.