10 great British musicals

While Hollywood may have dominated film musicals, a newly restored version of Powell & Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann proves that the UK has made plenty of bold and imaginative contributions to the genre. Here are 10 worth singing about.

John Oliver
Updated:

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

In the second volume of his autobiography, Michael Powell recalled how he and his associate, Emeric Pressburger, had been intent on making the perfect ‘composed’ film, one that combined filmmaking with all of the theatrical arts – music, story, design, mime, singing and dance – to produce the ultimate cinematic experience. Their screen version of the Jacques Offenbach opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, was the film that Powell believed best achieved this.

Although the production was to follow the same overall structure of the opera, with the Hoffmann character looking back at the three great loves of his life, the film cannot be defined as a straight operatic adaptation. The dancing (choreographed by Frederick Ashton) is awarded as prominent a role as singing in the film, with sections of the original score actually being amended and lengthened by Sir Thomas Beecham in order to enhance the dancing sequences.

While it is still missing at least two sequences (the experimental nature of the film with its mixture of opera and dance led to it being cut by cautious distributors), a new restoration about to be released in cinemas includes footage from the ‘Tale of Antonia’ section – duets between Crespel (Mogens Wieth) and Franz (Léonide Massine) and then Antonia (Ann Ayars) and Crespel, plus an aria by Franz – that have been restored to the film, after having been missing for many years, from material recently identified in the BFI National Archive.

Often classified as a ballet with songs, The Tales of Hoffmann is arguably closer to a film musical in its structure rather than an opera, and the film’s welcome rerelease thus provides me with the perfect opportunity to celebrate British cinema’s contribution to the musical genre by highlighting 10 personal favourites.

Evergreen (1934)

Director Victor Saville

Evergreen (1934)

Evergreen (1934)

The first, and best, of the Jessie Matthews musical vehicles designed to emulate the gloss and glamour of Hollywood, Evergreen (based on the star’s 1930 London stage hit) is a ravishing treat for both ears and eyes. The catalogue of splendid songs (largely courtesy of the distinguished partnership of Rodgers and Hart) combines with the high production values and art deco-inspired sets to conjure up a memorable musical feast.

With a backstage story that moves between the Edwardian period and the 1930s, the film gives the star plenty of opportunity to demonstrate her ability in the handling of a wide range of musical styles. While the highlight is probably her famous balletic number ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’, other gems remain, including the bizarre female emancipation number ‘Springtime in Your Heart’, complete with chorus girls turning into shells bound for the western front, and the suitably lavish climactic number ‘Over My Shoulder’ (written by Harry Woods), that, abetted by some Busby Berkeley-style staging, introduced what would become her celebrated signature tune.

Look Up and Laugh (1935)

Director Basil Dean

Look Up and Laugh (1935)

Look Up and Laugh (1935)

With her position as a national symbol of hope in a period of depression and hardship, it was little surprise that the much loved Gracie Fields became the highest paid star in the British cinema of the 1930s. Look Up and Laugh is the perfect example of why she was
so popular, the very title summoning up the outlook on life espoused in her films.

The second and last of her vehicles to be written by esteemed author J.B. Priestley, it sees Gracie, upon returning to her home town of Plumborough, helping the town’s small community of market stallholders fight against the rapacious designs of a bullying department store owner. Comic knockabout is deftly blended throughout the film with a range of comic songs, including some faux opera, and romantic ballads (Fields excelled in both), among which are the title number, the comic ‘Anna of Anacapresi’ and, one of the best and most tender songs to feature in any of her films, ‘Love Is Everywhere’.

Everything Is Rhythm (1936)

Director Alfred J. Goulding

Everything is Rhythm (1936)

Everything is Rhythm (1936)

The 1930s were arguably the golden age of British dance bands, and many of their number were consequently called upon to adorn the films of the period, whether in welcome cameo appearances or with the leaders of such bands headlining their own star vehicles. Among those deemed worthy of the latter was the ebullient Harry Roy, who starred in two films with his wife, ‘Princess Pearl’, daughter of the Rajah of Sarawak.The first of these was this delightful and exuberant comic romance about a bandleader who falls in love with a princess (obviously referencing their own situation), but whose humble origins prove a temporary obstacle to finding true love.

Replete with imaginatively staged musical numbers, the film’s many highlights include ‘Since Black Minnie’s Got the Blues’, incorporating an appearance by the tap dancer Johnny Nit, the globe-spanning extravaganza ‘The Internationale’, with its dance routines in a variety of national traditions, and ‘Make Some Music’, featuring a miniaturised Roy and a bevy of chorus girls dancing on the top of a piano. 

Band Waggon (1940)

Director Marcel Varnel

Band Waggon (1940)

Band Waggon (1940)

Arthur Askey was the first British comedian to attain national fame through the medium of radio with his BBC show Band Waggon, first broadcast in 1938, and, for his first cinematic star vehicle, a variation on that show’s format was almost obligatory. Partnering Askey with his radio co-star Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch, the film sees the pair – upon being evicted from their flat atop BBC Broadcasting House (the setting of the radio show) – now situated in a haunted castle where they have to contend with a gang of spies while organising a variety show with which to launch their own television service.

So plenty of scope for a plethora of musical numbers there, especially when yet another popular dance band of the period, Jack Hylton’s, has second billing, and singer Pat Kirkwood is in support. The resultant musical numbers include ‘Roadside Revels’, the popular sing-a-long number ‘Boomps-a-Daisy (written by John Mills’s sister no less) and Askey himself providing us with a rendition of one of his signature tunes, ‘The Bee Song’.

Turned Out Nice Again (1941)

Director Marcel Varnel

Turned Out Nice Again (1941)

Turned Out Nice Again (1941)

A veritable national institution, George Formby’s distinctive characteristics of irrepressible cheerfulness and bashful innocence, together with his abundant comic and musical skills, led to him becoming the biggest home-grown star at the British box office between 1938 and 1943.

While musical numbers, invariably consisting of Formby singing his comic songs while accompanying himself on the banjolele, were always an essential component of his films, they did not always fit smoothly into the narratives. However, in this particular film, where Formby is an overseer at a northern underwear factory (cue lots of risqué gags), a greater effort appears to have been exerted for them to do precisely that, with the star performing two of them, ‘You’re Everything to Me’ and ‘The Emperor of Lancashire’, sans the usually ever-present banjolele. And even when he does whip out his instrument, as with ‘You Can’t Go Wrong in These’, performed at an underwear show, it fits logically into the story. The result is one of Formby’s best musical comedies.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Director Richard Lester

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Before The Beatles exploded onto the world’s cinema screens with this exhilarating, conceptually audacious production, pop music acts had been unconvincingly shoehorned into conventional musical narratives. A Hard Day’s Night was a conscious effort to do something radically different with the genre.

The Beatles themselves wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the pop musical and readily agreed to the intentions of director Richard Lester and writer Alun Owen to film a comedic ‘day in the life’ of the group in a pseudo-documentary style, shooting in black and white with handheld cameras, with the band members playing what were basically variations of their own characters. Neither would the group be asked to suddenly break into song. Except with the fantasy train-set number ‘I Should Have Known Better’, their songs would either simply be heard on the soundtrack or captured in the climactic concert sequence. The result was the most accomplished of all pop musicals, and one that remains as fresh today as when first released.

Oliver! (1968)

Director Carol Reed

Oliver! (1968)

Oliver! (1968)

One of the most successful British films ever made (winning six Oscars, including best picture and adapted score), this adaptation of the Lionel Bart stage musical, based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, is a winning combination of song, dance and high drama. With its recreation of 19th-century London on the studio lot, from a bustling Covent Garden to a mammoth Bloomsbury Square, via the slums and gin houses of the Victorian underworld, the film is never less than stunning (the art direction of John Box and Terence Marsh deservedly won an Oscar).

While undeniably a jollification of the Dickens novel (comical chimney boys anyone?), complete with a softening of some of the original characters, including the transformation of Fagin from a grasping villain into a lovable rogue (albeit one brilliantly played by Ron Moody in a recreation of the role he had created in the original stage production), one is simply swept along by the sheer exuberance of the staging and performances, leaving you wanting more.

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Director Richard Attenborough

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Richard Attenborough made an impressive directorial debut with this ambitiously mounted and deeply moving adaptation of the Joan Littlewood stage musical, first performed at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1963, which uses blackly comic parodies of popular songs of the period to comment on the horrors and sheer futility of the First World War.

Recounting the fortunes of various members of the Smith family as the military top brass orchestrate one catastrophe after another, the original simple staging, comprising pierrot-costumed cast members set against a backdrop of slides, was inevitably amplified for the screen production, not least through an impressively assembled all-star cast (thankfully not all of whom sing), and an equally impressive use of Brighton’s West Pier as an all-purpose setting for both home and western fronts. Highlights include Maggie Smith’s rendition of ‘I’ll Make a Man of You’ as she inveigles young men into joining the army, and the stunning climactic helicopter shot of thousands of crosses that accompanies a heart-rending variation of Jerome Kern’s ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’.

Scrooge (1970)

Director Ronald Neame

Scrooge (1970)

Scrooge (1970)

This musical version of the much loved Charles Dickens story ‘A Christmas Carol’ has been criticised for being little more than an attempt to cash in on the success of Oliver!, the earlier musical adaptation of a Dickens novel that was both a box office smash and a multi-Oscar winner. And yes, that may be true. However, that does not detract from the fact that, not only is Scrooge a fine musical in its own right, but it is also the best screen version of the Dickens novel (sorry Alastair Sim fans).

While Leslie Bricusse’s songs may not be his best work (‘December the 25th’ and ‘Thank You Very Much’ are the standouts, the latter so good in fact that it is featured twice), and the film may be populated by actors who are not noted for their singing abilities, it nevertheless all works beautifully owing to a collection of superb performances (Albert Finney deservedly won a Golden Globe for the title role), top production values and expert direction by Ronald Neame.

Sunshine on Leith (2013)

Director Dexter Fletcher

Sunshine on Leith (2013)

Sunshine on Leith (2013)

The so-called jukebox musical may not exactly be viewed as the pinnacle of musical theatre, and often for good reason, yet this romantic drama based around the songs of Scottish duo The Proclaimers capably demonstrates that the format may actually have some worth after all. It’s based on a 2007 stage production devised by Stephen Greenhorn for the Dundee Rep Theatre, and includes 13 of the Proclaimers’ songs, all sung by the film’s cast members. Each tune is adroitly woven into a story of two young soldiers, Ally and Davy, who, upon returning to civilian life in Edinburgh following a tour of duty in Afghanistan, encounter the highs and lows of romance while, at the same time, the marriage of Davy’s parents begins to fall apart.

All the expected songs are featured, including ‘I’m on My Way’, ‘Letter from America’, the title song (poignantly sung by Jane Horrocks) and, of course, ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’, which closes the film on an uplifting note with a splendid mass dance sequence featuring the citizens of Edinburgh.

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