10 great films set in 1950s Britain

John Boorman’s Queen and Country is the latest period drama to return us to Britain in the 1950s, a time of national service, the Queen’s coronation and the debut of radio’s The Archers.

Michael Brooke
Updated:

Queen and Country (2014)

Queen and Country (2014)

One of the most famous opening lines in 20th-century English literature is L.P. Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” His novel The Go-Between was published in 1953, and Hartley himself witnessed the upheavals of the following decade so that even when he died in 1972, the 50s had already become ineffably “different”. There may be a few constants – Queen Elizabeth II, The Archers, the Radio Times, the national addiction to tea – but many other day-to-day aspects of 1950s life have been long banished. 

One of these is national service, the subject of John Boorman’s new film Queen and Country, the sequel to his marvellous 1987 Blitz memoir Hope and Glory. Here, his protagonist-cum-alter ego Bill spends his late teens in army barracks (under constant threat of being shipped off to fight in the Korean war), and the film sketches both his life and that of his extended family in the run-up to the 1953 coronation with all the loving attention to detail that one might expect from a filmmaker revisiting his first adult decade.

But this is merely the latest in a long line of period dramas set in the 1950s, a decade that seems to have had just as indelible an effect on the British psyche as its bolder, brasher successors. Although British filmmakers have generally fought shy of offering more than passing allusions to one of its most pivotal events, the 1956 Suez crisis, the decade as a whole is a frequent political football, with conservatives championing the era as the last time in which the old certainties still held sway, and progressives damning it as the last full decade in which things like the death penalty or the criminalisation of male homosexuality remained on the statute books – although even before 1960 these were starting to be challenged.

Dance with a Stranger (1985)

Director Mike Newell

Dance with a Stranger (1984)

Dance with a Stranger (1984)

The ever-thorny issue of the ethics and practice of capital punishment has fuelled several partly or entirely 1950s-set dramas, including 10 Rillington Place (1970), Let Him Have It (1991) and Pierrepoint (2005). But this film about Ruth Ellis, who in 1956 became the last woman to be legally hanged in Britain, just about edges it for its star-making casting and its overall emotional intensity.

It’s hard to credit that Miranda Richardson was totally unknown to cinemagoers at the time and barely known elsewhere: her astonishingly shaded performance as Ellis, her rationality swamped by an all-encompassing romantic and sexual obsession with Rupert Everett’s self-centred aspiring playboy, is riveting throughout, not least because she refuses to soft-pedal the less appealing aspects of Ellis’s character. It could easily have toppled into crude melodrama, but Newell maintains a steely control throughout, while Shelagh Delaney’s script brilliantly anatomises the era’s stifling social prejudices. 

84 Charing Cross Road (1986)

Director David Jones

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

Helene Hanff’s unlikely epistolary bestseller about a bibliophile’s growing friendship with the staff of antiquarian booksellers Marks & Co (whose address is given in the title) was first condensed into a stage two-hander and then opened out for the big screen with Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as the bookshop’s chief buyer Frank Doel, an increasingly warm relationship that was ultimately hampered by the fact that they never actually meet (or, in real life, met).

The bookshop here is a Shepperton set, the better to recreate an authentic-seeming 50s atmosphere, and the conditions of the time are underscored by the scene in which Hanff sends the staff a Christmas hamper at a time when postwar food shortages were still a day-to-day reality. Hopkins would later star in similarly unconventional quasi-romances with a partially 1950s setting in The Remains of the Day (1993) and Shadowlands (1993).

Wish You Were Here (1987)

Director David Leland

Wish You Were Here (1987)

Wish You Were Here (1987)

It’s the early 1950s, and in a small seaside town (the film was shot in Worthing and Bognor Regis) 16-year-old Lynda is asserting her social and sexual independence at least a decade too early for cultural comfort. In 1986, David Leland had written Personal Services for Terry Jones, during which he became fascinated by the early life of Streatham brothel madam Cynthia Payne, who grew up on the Sussex coast.

Leland also cut his teeth writing laceratingly honest scripts like Made in Britain (1983), and despite outward appearances Tim Roth’s skinhead Trevor and Emily Lloyd’s wayward Lynda (both star-making performances from complete newcomers) have a surprising amount in common, in that their attempts at finding their own identity are constantly reined in by the social pressures of the day – and in Lynda’s case by biological ones, as she finds herself pregnant at a time when contraception was primitive and abortion illegal.

The Long Day Closes (1992)

Director Terence Davies

The Long Day Closes (1992)

The Long Day Closes (1992)

No other British filmmaker has mined the decade as comprehensively as Terence Davies.  Whether it’s the quasi-autobiographical likes of Children (1976) or Distant Voices Still Lives (1988), the deeply personal view of Liverpool in Of Time and the City (2008) or necessarily setting his 2011 film of Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea in the era in which it was first published, he’s attempted a wholesale recreation of every aspect of life in the 50s, paying particular attention to uncelebrated working-class domestic spaces.

Despite this stiff competition, The Long Day Closes is the Davies film that’s most completely, indeed rhapsodically saturated in the 50s, both visually and especially aurally. On the BFI DVD commentary, Davies meticulously itemises all the many quotations from popular songs and film soundtracks that formed a background to his own childhood and adolescence, especially when his 11-year-old protagonist Bud uses the cinema as a means of temporary escape.

Between Two Women (1999)

Director Steven Woodcock

Between Two Women (1999)

Between Two Women (1999)

Two years before Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven, Yorkshire-born writer-director Steven Woodcock made this low-key drama about then-forbidden love threatening to break up a model 1950s family. Married to a factory worker who does little more than provide for her, Ellen (Barbara Marten) becomes increasingly smitten by her 10-year-old son’s middle-class teacher (Andrina Carroll), an interest that is very much reciprocated.

Although it was never specifically criminalised along the lines suffered by male homosexuality, lesbianism was wholly invisible in 1950s British cinema, although in keeping with Woodcock’s desire to recreate the decade’s cinematic style as well as its decorative trappings (an ambition furthered by his 2005 second feature, the early 1960s-set John Braine adaptation The Jealous God), it’s pretty understated here too. Instead, he falls back on class division to drive the narrative, with Ellen’s husband Hardy (Andrew Dunn) more visibly put out by the fact that their son’s artistic talent might lead him to develop social ideas above his station.

Chicken Run (2000)

Directors Peter Lord and Nick Park

Chicken Run (2000)

Chicken Run (2000)

Claymation wizard Nick Park was born in 1958 and grew up in Preston, which he said maintained a distinctly 1950s flavour right through his childhood. It’s little wonder, therefore, that his films mostly seem to hail from the era, none more explicitly than Aardman’s debut feature (co-directed by Park’s mentor and Morph co-creator Peter Lord), which is set on a Yorkshire poultry farm and peppered with references to the then-new The Archers and other 50s staples. 

It’s also a knowing parody of WWII PoW films like Stalag 17 (1953) and The Colditz Story (1955), as a gang of plucky chickens led by Julia Sawalha’s resourceful Ginger and Mel Gibson’s brash American interloper Rocky plots a daring escape from the evil Mrs Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), whose approach to performance-related pay is initially to slaughter any chicken whose egg production drops below target and then to move wholesale into the chicken-pie business.

Young Adam (2003)

Director David Mackenzie

Young Adam (2002)

Young Adam (2002)

Alexander Trocchi’s cult novel of the same name was published in 1954, and the film adaptation is duly set in that year – indeed, Ewan McGregor’s performance as the irresponsible drifter Joe seems to have been based at least as much on Trocchi himself (who abandoned his family for his writing) as on the character that he created.

Set on and around a barge travelling the canal between Edinburgh and Glasgow, it concerns the growing relationship between Joe and the predatory Ella (Tilda Swinton), notwithstanding the near-constant presence of her husband Les (Peter Mullan) and the possibility that Joe might be connected with the young woman whose body is fished out of the canal at the start. Like Dance with a Stranger before it, the film has an aggressively sexualised physicality that’s quite unlike the stereotypical image of ‘the 50s’ but which was nonetheless beginning to be stirred into the work of writers like John Osborne, John Braine and Trocchi himself.

Vera Drake (2004)

Director Mike Leigh

Philip Davis and Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake (2004)

Philip Davis and Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake (2004)

Mike Leigh’s second period drama (after 1999’s Topsy-Turvy) was the first set in an era that he’d personally lived through, and the film’s dedication to his parents (“a doctor and a midwife”) could hardly be more revealing of the primary research he hadn’t so much carried out as naturally absorbed. 

It’s 1950 and Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is at the heart of a devotedly close-knit family, whose members are utterly unaware of what she does in her spare time, even though her work as a backstreet abortionist comes from the same instinctively charitable impulse: she wants to help improve people’s lives. To say that the law of the time (then 17 years from reform) disagreed with her argument would be putting it mildly, and the impact of the scene in which Vera receives the official knock on the door was rendered far greater by the fact that none of the other actors knew what was happening.

Nowhere Boy (2009)

Director Sam Taylor-Wood

Nowhere Boy (2009)

Nowhere Boy (2009)

The Beatles may have been the quintessential 60s band, but their worldview was largely formed in the 50s, and this biopic focuses on John Lennon’s teenage years from 1955-60, charting both the discovery of rock’n’roll that supplied a cause for his initially flailing rebellion, and his turbulent but psychologically crucial relationship with his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) and aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) – complicated by the fact that he spent his first 15 years believing that Mimi was his mother. 

Small wonder that he has an identity crisis – and, with this in mind, Aaron Johnson sensibly doesn’t attempt a crude impression of the globally famous adult that Lennon became only a few years later. Equally importantly, debutante director but experienced artist-photographer Sam Taylor-Wood (who later married her leading man) doesn’t caricature the decade that ultimately formed him. Indeed, the film was widely praised for its attention to historical detail, not least by a significant supporting character named Paul McCartney.

The Illusionist (2010)

Director Sylvain Chomet

The Illusionist (2010)

The Illusionist (2010)

Originally conceived in the 1950s as a Prague-set live-action vehicle for Jacques Tati, French animator Sylvain Chomet’s exquisite, almost dialogue-free second feature relocated the story to 1959 Edinburgh, Chomet’s adopted home city at the time. The place and era is captured with painstakingly researched attention to detail: the atmosphere, the people, the vehicles, and the distinctive way that the light shades and colours every detail of the city’s architecture.

It’s also very much a French-Scottish love letter, with Chomet’s protagonist (named Tatischeff in tribute to his mentor’s real name) relocating from Paris via London to Scotland after his particular brand of conjuring falls out of fashion. The remote Scottish island of Iona, only recently electrified, proves far more receptive, especially when a young girl in his audience believes that he genuinely has supernatural powers, and insists on travelling with him to Edinburgh, ignoring his numerous protestations along the way.

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