WHAT’S the best British film of all time? It’s the kind of perennial question raised by film buffs around the dinner table, or discussed by friends in their local pub on a Saturday night.
For some people it’s Carol Reed’s Cold War spy classic The Third Man, starring Joseph Cotten as a third-rate American pulp novelist who finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue that centres around his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Others steadfastly argue that Ken Loach’s Kes has never been surpassed.
Neither of these films make the top 20 in a new poll carried out by HMV to find the best British film of the past six decades (although The Third Man pre-dates this period by a year), the winner of this accolade going to Trainspotting. The movie, starring Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle, beat off competition from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two to take the top spot.
The 1996 film – based on the novel by Irvine Welsh about a group of heroin addicts in late 1980s Edinburgh – was made by Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, soon to take a major role at London 2012 as the artistic director of the opening ceremony.
It proved an instant box office hit and has previously been ranked 10th by the British Film Institute (BFI) in its list of the top 100 British films of all time, while in 2004 it was voted the best ever Scottish film.
More than 24,000 votes were recorded in the latest month-long poll, which marks the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, with The Italian Job and Shaun of the Dead among those in the top 10.
The noughties proved the most popular decade for films in the survey, accounting for nearly a third of the top 60 titles, followed by the 60s with 13, while interestingly only six films from the 90s made the cut.
As with any list of this kind some of the choices will no doubt raise a few eyebrows. The Inbetweeners Movie, 35th on the list, comes in ahead of Get Carter (43) and Kes (44), while such Yorkshire classics as This Sporting Life and Billy Liar don’t even feature.
Film critic and author Tony Earnshaw isn’t overly surprised by people’s choices. “Fan power is very important and it shouldn’t be sniffed at. People seem to have voted for their favourite films, although there are hardly any films in the top 20 that I would call classics of the past 60 years,” he says.
“Trainspotting was considered an instant classic and it hasn’t really aged during the past 16 years. But whether that will still be the case in years to come, or whether it will have lost its edge remains to be seen.”
He believes that great films aren’t being produced on the same scale as they were 40 years ago.
“Something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is really well made with an ensemble cast surprises people today and is called a ‘masterpiece.’ It is very good but these kind of films with gravitas, like A Clockwork Orange and The Wicker Man, were ten a penny back in the 70s.
“Film-makers were all highly educated and they wanted to make great cinema and weren’t prepared to compromise on that.
“But I don’t see movies like those being made in the same numbers as they were back then,” he says.
“So when we talk about classic films in 60 years time we will be looking back from now, rather than forwards.”
Robin Baker, head curator of the BFI National Archive, feels the most popular films aren’t always the most interesting.
“Different people have different takes but I was disappointed to see that two of our greatest film-makers, Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, weren’t featured on this new list, although I was delighted to see that Ken Loach was,” he says.
“Those who stand the test of time are film-makers who have a clear cinematic vision and who aren’t just interpreting other people’s work, they’re pushing back the boundaries and creating something original.”
Baker believes we live in a world that celebrates the modern over the old.
“There are far fewer old films on TV compared with how many there used to be. The emphasis is much more on the contemporary.
“But if people watched masterpieces like Hitchcock’s Blackmail, or The 39 Steps, or The Third Man, then I think they would really enjoy them,” he says.
“If you did this poll in 20 or 30 years time then half the films will have dropped off the list and those that remain will be the ones that have stood the test of time already.
“I guarantee that in 20 years time the Harry Potter films will look a bit old-fashioned, because that’s what happens to every single film ever made.”