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John Oliver's BFI Player+ Playlist

A personal journey through British cinema by BFI's Fiction curator; programming and cataloguing British cinema for the BFI since 1996.

This is not a selection of classic British films, although there are some examples here that have rightly attained that status. It is instead an assortment of British films, covering a wide range of years, which mean something personal to me. It may be that a selected film had a strong effect on me when very young, or it could be one that I came to later in life. Either way, they are films that I return to time and again. It is my personal journey through British cinema.

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John Oliver's BFI Player+ Playlist
View The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps 1935 U

Sublime and suspenseful version of the popular John Buchan spy thriller from the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

86 mins United Kingdom Director. Alfred Hitchcock

"In my opinion, is the best British film made by one of world cinema’s greatest filmmakers."

The fact that this, at least in my opinion, is the best British film made by one of world cinema’s greatest filmmakers, Alfred Hitchcock, is reason enough for it to be included in anyone’s top ten, its fast and often risqué thrills making it a constant delight. But I have primarily included it in my selection because it features my favourite British actor, Robert Donat, at his debonair best. Giving a performance rich in humour and grace, this fun spy thriller rightly elevated Donat into the front rank of British stars.

View The Man Who Changed His Mind
The Man Who Changed His Mind

The Man Who Changed His Mind 1936 U

Boris Karloff stars as Dr. Laurence, a scientist who has devised a way to put one person’s mind into another’s body.

66 mins United Kingdom Director. Robert Stevenson

"Horror films were my first cinematic love."

Horror films were my first cinematic love. And that was when I was too young to even see them – ascribe it to the attractions of the forbidden! While the Universal classics were savoured on late night television, it took some years to catch up with this particular chiller. But it was certainly worth the wait. That supreme icon of horror Boris Karloff is at his macabre best as a crazed scientist in this deft blend of chills and black humour. A wittily scripted and beautifully played horror gem.

View Things to Come
Things to Come
HD

Things to Come 1936 PG

H.G. Wells' chilling vision of the future, which imagines the 20th Century as a near-endless war and struggle against tyranny, remains a key milestone in British science fiction.

108 mins United Kingdom Director. William Cameron Menzies

"I was bowled over by its audacity and sheer ambition."

When I first saw this H. G. Wells sci-fi adaptation, many years ago now, I expected my reaction to be similar to the one with which contemporary audiences greeted it - bafflement. But instead I was bowled over by its audacity and sheer ambition. And over the years I have grown to admire it all the more. While I acknowledge the film’s weaknesses, such as its lack of dramatic impetus and unwieldy structure, it remains undeniably spectacular, conceptually audacious and a work sporadically lit by flashes of genius.

View The Lady Vanishes
The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes 1938 U

An old woman disappears mysteriously on a busy train in Hitchcock’s delightful classic.

97 mins United Kingdom Director. Alfred Hitchcock

"Films set on trains have always held a strong appeal for me."

Another Hitchcock film. And I offer no apologises for that, especially when the film in question is as compelling as this exciting spy thriller. Films set on trains have always held a strong appeal for me (for whatever reason), and the sublime blend of mystery, thrills and humour on display here makes this the ultimate in train-set adventures. And with Margaret Lockwood at her best (I always preferred her 1930s work to her Gainsborough bodice ripper days) it’s deserving of its place here for that alone.

View Q Planes
Q Planes

Q Planes 1939 U

Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier star in a spy drama about the disappearence of prototype military aircraft.

78 mins United Kingdom Director. Tim Whelan

"I have already cited The Lady Vanishes as a favourite, and here is another."

Spy films were increasingly popular in the British cinema of the late 1930s. I have already cited The Lady Vanishes as a favourite, and here is another, and while maybe not in the same league as Hitchcock’s admirable film, it is none the less a fast moving fun romp. And romp is the word, with those titans of the stage, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, clearly having fun while metaphorically letting their hair down, with Richardson a particular hoot as an eccentric – to say the least - spy master.

View A Canterbury Tale
A Canterbury Tale
HD

A Canterbury Tale 1944 U

Powell and Pressburger's most personal film combines a Chaucer-inspired pilgrimage with a war-time celebration of English landscape and values to create a gem of British cinema.

124 mins United Kingdom Director. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

"Among the greatest films ever to have been produced in this country."

This may sound sacrilegious, but Powell and Pressburger are not in my personal pantheon of great film-makers. But here’s the paradox. Despite their absence from that august body I still consider this film, their bold and bizarre cinematic essay on the British values that are worth fighting for, to be among the greatest films ever to have been produced in this country. An absorbing (like the glue) and ultimately moving film on a modern-day pilgrims’ progress that never puts a foot wrong.

View Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist
HD

Oliver Twist 1948 U

Arguably the essential Dickens adaptation, David Lean’s evocative portrayal of Victorian London in sooty black and white features Alec Guinness as a memorably sinister Fagin.

115 mins United Kingdom Director. David Lean

"Remains the finest screen adaptation of any of the author’s works."

While Powell and Pressburger may not make it into my personal pantheon, David Lean certainly does. He is, for me, undoubtedly one of the finest of all film-makers to have worked in British cinema, and his two Charles Dickens adaptations of the late 40s (Great Expectations being the other) show him at his pre-epic period peak. While Dickens purists may cavil at episode and character omissions, this absorbing version of the classic story remains the finest screen adaptation of any of the author’s works.

View A Night to Remember
A Night to Remember

A Night to Remember 1958 PG

Widely regarded as the finest film account of the sinking of the Titanic, this moving seafaring disaster tale will grip you from start to finish.

123 mins United Kingdom Director. Roy Ward Baker

"I have loved this film since I first saw it as a boy."

I have loved this film about the Titanic disaster since I first saw it as a boy. Even when James Cameron’s blockbuster came along, it still could not, as far as I was concerned, dislodge this powerful film from pole position as the finest possible dramatisation of the maritime tragedy. With a surefooted Eric Ambler screenplay, it methodically recounts the events surrounding the sinking of the liner while never losing sight of the human tragedy at its core. A tense and moving film that will never be surpassed.

View The Day the Earth Caught Fire
The Day the Earth Caught Fire
HD

The Day the Earth Caught Fire 1961 PG

The BFI’s new HD remaster of the British sci-fi classic. A journalist discovers that the Earth has been knocked off its axis and is moving ever closer to the sun. Is the Earth doomed?

United Kingdom Director. Val Guest

"Still a favourite of mine, and still one of the finest of all British science fiction films."

Science fiction has been a long-standing cinematic passion of mine, and this was one of the few British sci-fi films that caught my attention when I was a youth (the genre has not always been well served by British cinema). The period may have been awash with dire predictions of Armageddon, but few films presented a more intelligent and chilling depiction of the possible destructive potential of atomic power than this gripping excursion into apocalyptic cinema. Still a favourite of mine, and still one of the finest of all British science fiction films.

View Vampire Circus
Vampire Circus
HD

Vampire Circus 1971 15

A dying vampire swears vengeance on the townsfolk who killed him. The promise seems to have been realized when, years later, plague arrives.

93 mins United Kingdom Director. Robert Young

"Good gory fun."

Hammer Films were clearly past their prime by the early 1970s when I first began to experience their work in the cinema (fortunately I also caught their earlier and superior films around the same time in Sunday only double bills), but they could still occasionally come up with the Gothic goods. And this is one of their better efforts from that later period, with its titular circus of vampires traversing the usual cod Eastern European terrain (actually Buckinghamshire) hell bent on reviving one of their staked brethren. Good gory fun.

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