To celebrate Monty Python classic Life of Brian’s 40th anniversary, we look at 10 films that helped shape British comedy.
Written in collaboration with Dr. Justin Smith, Professor of Cinema and Television History at De Montfort University.
1937 - Oh, Mr Porter!
From the mid-1930s, music hall act Will Hay made a series of popular comedies for Gainsborough Studios in which, as Steven W. Allen writes, he ‘developed the persona into an inept authority figure who needed only to swap costumes to epitomise the ineffectualness of any British institution’.
A prominent comedian and precursor to both post-war Ealing Comedies and the Carry On films ‘Oh, Mr Porter is set on the railways: a potent symbol of national unity… It was Hay’s most successful film’.
1949 - Kind Hearts and Coronets
‘The Ealing genre reached utter perfection with this superb black comedy of manners about the most elegant serial killer in history’ – Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian.
Actor Alec Guinness set a record that even Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove (1964) couldn’t match, playing nine members of the D’Ascoyne family in a macabre satirical melodrama in which Dennis Price’s Louis Mazzini attempts to murder his way to aristocratic inheritance.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is perhaps the most famous and enduring of the Ealing comedies, which reached their apotheosis in the mid-1950s with The Ladykillers (1955) also starring Alec Guinness.
1968 - Carry On up the Khyber
Carry On’s long-running series epitomised post-war British humour through subjecting popular British institutions such as the army and police force to bawdy ridicule, and then parodied numerous film genres via a familiar cast of inept, sexually frustrated characters.
This take on the empire epic featuring the adventures of fictional infantry the 3rd Foot and Mouth Garrison (the Devils in Skirts), is perhaps as close to subversion as the series ever got, politically, although casual racism betrays its fundamentally reactionary base. Khyber is often considered one of the better films in the Carry On series, which greatly varies in quality.
1979 - Monty Python's Life of Brian
A rare example, in British comedy, of a television sketch show translating successfully to the big screen. Monty Python’s Life of Brian was the team’s most successful and most controversial film. Now widely celebrated, Life of Brian was ranked #2 on Empire’s list of Best British Films.
Accused of blasphemy by some Christian groups, this parallel New Testament parody mounted a hilarious attack on religious bigotry. The film was banned or awarded an X certificate by several local authorities on its first release, prompting the unusual phenomenon of regular coach trips to neighbouring boroughs’ cinemas.
1987 - Withnail and I
Bruce Robinson’s autobiographical cult film follows two struggling actors living in squalor in late-1960s London. The film has arguably spawned more one-liners and student drinking games than any other film.
Groundbreaking performances from the recently Oscar-nominated teetotal Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths and the sensational Ralph Brown, who, along with a witty script make this arguably one of the best scripted films in comedy history.
1994 - Four Weddings and a Funeral
Richard Curtis’s English rom-coms of the 1990s marked the coming of age of a generation of young British ‘luvvies’ which found success across the pond, particularly when the love interest is provided by American A-list stars from Andie MacDowell here to Notting Hill’s Julia Roberts.
Of course, Hugh Grant ultimately gets his gal, but it’s all about the funeral not the weddings. The standout cameo remains Simon Callow’s gay extrovert Gareth (living life to the full on borrowed time) and his partner Matthew’s elegiac reading of Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’.
1997 - The Full Monty
The Full Monty perfectly blends traditionally gritty British realism with heart-warming comedy, surprising critics of the time and earning a Best Picture nomination.
The film’s comic scenario of the rise of an amateur male striptease act from the scrap heap of unemployment, enables a poignant examination of masculinity in post-industrial, working class Sheffield.
2001 - Bridget Jones's Diary
This modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice features a stellar performance from Academy Award nominee Renee Zellweger as the eponymous Ms Jones who keeps a record of her encounters with Hugh Grant (again) and Colin Firth (as Mr Darcy (again)).
The origin of the Helen Fielding franchise that invented the Christmas jumper. This female directed, Curtis co-written rom-com was a major success, eventually spawning 2 sequels.
2004-2013 - The Cornetto Trilogy
Intelligent, savvy cinematic parody is the essence of director Edgar Wright’s comic partnership with co-writer Simon Pegg who also stars alongside Nick Frost all of whom previously collaborated on hit TV show Spaced.
Shaun of the Dead (2004) is a zombie spoof, Hot Fuzz (2007) lampoons the Hollywood action buddy cop flick, and The World’s End (2013) is a sci-fi alien apocalypse pub crawl. Three great collaborators, three great comedies, but just one Cornetto.
2009 - In the Loop
Another sublime TV transfer. The cast of Iannucci’s satirical The Thick of It (BBC 2005-2012) go transatlantic as Whitehall mandarins (easy-peel fruit) meet State Department hawks (scary birds).
The usual cast, led by Peter Capaldi’s rampaging, famously foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, are admirably enhanced by the dubious interventions of Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Gina McKee and Steve Coogan.