God’s Own County, a special collection of archive film and TV exploring life in Yorkshire across the past century, is available to view free at BFI Mediatheques around the UK.
On film at least, it’s a region of contradictions: homely in some movies, altogether menacing in others; a place of ugliness and despair in certain pictures, and of immense beauty in more; a region where individuals seeking escape might happily lose themselves, but which others find paradoxically stifling. Urban areas can be grey and claustrophobic, and not uncommonly in a state of disrepair (the decline of local industry has been a regular recurring theme of the Yorkshire film for years, from Turn of the Tide in 1936 through the likes of The Full Monty in the 90s to The Selfish Giant this decade). Out in the country, however, we see a different side of Yorkshire: spacious, verdant and with an untouched purity where the city is depicted as only increasingly dilapidated.
The cinema of Yorkshire may seem rather alien to audiences familiar with British cinema only through its period dramas and London-based rom-coms and gangster flicks. ‘Gritty’ is one word liberally thrown at so many films set in Yorkshire, an area that has been so accommodating for social-realist filmmakers over the years. There’s often a humble, bittersweet quality to pictures set here. Tiny pleasures and glimmers of hope are cherished amid the struggle of everyday life, in the likes of The Price of Coal (1977), Brassed Off (1996) and Catch Me Daddy (2014). Even something as cheerful as Chicken Run (2000) – an animated picture about talking poultry – conforms to the Yorkshire movie norm of natives feeling hemmed in and dreaming of escaping to a different life, away from the drudgery of the north.
On the other hand, the county is also frequently portrayed as a place of simple wonder, offering a chance of renewal – especially for outsiders. Take Pat O’Connor’s A Month in the Country. Colin Firth’s WWI vet Tom Birkin moves to Oxgodby in rural Yorkshire for the summer, charged with restoring a church mural, and in the process both falls in love and purges the horrors of his Great War service from his mind. The Yorkshire of this film is earthy and uncomplicated, home to great natural beauty. To visiting archaeologist James Moon (Kenneth Branagh in his film debut), it has a near-mystical quality, and where local parishioner’s wife Alice (Natasha Richardson) feels the “walls closing in”, Londoner Birkin thinks the place “paradise”.
The Night Has Eyes (1942)
Director Leslie Arliss
Huddersfield man James Mason is a Spanish civil war veteran living in seclusion on an impressionistically gloomy Yorkshire Moors in Leslie Arliss’s brief horror. Mason’s by-turns dashing and sinister Stephen, though quite possibly a murderer, is still catnip to schoolteacher Marian (Joyce Howard), who’s come to the moors in search of a friend who vanished there a year ago. The disappearance could have something to do with the bog surrounding Stephen’s house, sucking and rising at will as if it were itself alive, or the fact that Stephen enters a trance with each full moon, a spell which can apparently only be broken once he kills.
Stephen and Marian’s relationship makes for a twisted romance, though nothing in The Night Has Eyes is quite as disturbing as its sadistic climax, which finds the moors claiming life in a surprisingly shocking death scene.
Director Lance Comfort
Shifting the setting from the source novel’s Connecticut to the Dales, Bedelia characterises the Yorkshire countryside as quaint territory virtually cut off from the rest of society. Perfect for the black widow of the title (played by Margaret Lockwood in an impressively vulnerable performance), it’s a quiet place in which she may off her latest husband, claim the insurance money and slip away without notice. The unforgiving northern weather shapes the final act, with heavy snow trapping Bedelia in her new home with Barnes’ unerring PI, and wind ghoulishly howling outside the window, like the souls of Bedelia’s victims come to rattle her conscience.
Tread Softly Stranger (1958)
Director Gordon Parry
Rotherham is the setting for an incongruous Yorkshire noir, made at the end of the genre’s golden period, about a failed robbery by a pair of hapless brothers, one unhappily settled and keen to get away, the other just returned to hide out after racking up gambling debts in the big smoke.
Both characteristically film noir and idiosyncratically Yorkshire, Tread Softly Stranger features a heist at a steel works, a world-weary voiceover complete with northern twang and hardboiled dialogue spoken by terse, no-nonsense Yorkshiremen. The setting, meanwhile, is a town of towering, German Expressionist-inspired industry and smoke-infused working men’s clubs, all fetching shadow and mist thanks to ace director of photography Douglas Slocombe. A voluptuous Diana Dors, as a Marilyn-like femme fatale seemingly transplanted in from more a conventionally-located noir, feels like the film’s only traditional genre element. Otherwise Gordon Parry’s film is a unique object, pitched somewhere between the West Riding and the B studios of old Hollywood.
Billy Liar (1963)
Director John Schlesinger
A young idealist dreams of escaping a place he can never quite bring himself to leave in John Schlesinger’s British new wave highlight. Not as oppressive as fellow contemporary kitchen sink classics like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) or This Sporting Life (1963), Billy Liar is both a wryly amusing love letter and middle finger to early-60s Yorkshire, with Tom Courtenay the office drone casting himself as the star of various fantasy scenarios in order to help him through the day.
Though his film perfectly captures the numbing ennui of being an officer worker in a small town, director John Schlesinger, like his protagonist, still can’t help but romanticise Yorkshire (specifically mostly locations in and around Bradford). Together with cinematographer Denys Coop, he brings a visual grandeur to the county that’s been done better in few other movies set there.
Director Ken Loach
The first of four collaborations between author Barry Hines and Ken Loach, Kes is also one of many early projects by the filmmaker set in working-class Yorkshire. In Kes, it’s a Barnsley mining village that gets the magnifying glass treatment from Loach, in a not-always comfortable hybrid of children’s film and social-realist cinema.
With the screenplay faithfully adapted by South Yorkshire-born Hines from his own novel, A Kestrel for a Knave, Kes is absent the blunt political edge of many of Loach’s other works – though it’s still a characteristically angry picture, seething at the lot of those doomed to a lifetime of graft in the same town by mere accident of birth. With its drained colours, occasionally unintelligible dialects, sense of isolation from the rest of Britain, and its characters sustained by an operational coal mine, Kes now almost looks like a snapshot of a lost civilisation.
The Railway Children (1970)
Director Lionel Jeffries
Rural Yorkshire becomes an adventure playground for three spirited youngsters in Lionel Jeffries’ light family drama. Beginning the film sequestered inside their affluent Edwardian home, Dinah Sheridan and her three children are suddenly rejuvenated when they’re forced to relocate to less auspicious surroundings. They settle in Oakworth, a quiet pastoral town with a railway line between north and south that becomes the family’s only remaining connection to their former London life. There, the children (including Jenny Agutter, starring in her second of three Railway Children adaptations) chase trains, befriend avuncular station porter Bernard Cribbins and nurse an injured runner back to health, in a disarmingly innocent depiction of childhood in the country. Yorkshire has rarely looked so storybook ideal on film, Jeffries evoking François Truffaut in his formal playfulness and lovingly lensing the rolling hills located on the green edges of Bradford.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Director John Landis
It perhaps takes an outsider’s eye to see such threat in a county better known at home for unpretentious joviality. American filmmaker John Landis keeps to the capital for much of his horror-comedy classic An American Werewolf in London, but early scenes set on the North York Moors establish the ominous comic tone. It’s here that, in the fog of night, US backpackers David Naughton and Griffin Dunne are attacked by a nightmarish creature and Naughton’s college student is cursed to become the film’s titular lycanthrope.
Landis also offers us a peek inside a traditional Yorkshire drinking establishment, a pub of Straw Dogs-like country menace whose patrons include Kes’s Brian Glover as a glowering local trying his damnedest to scare the out-of-towners away from a land – and a way of life – they can’t possibly understand.
Director Mick Jackson
Nuclear winter comes to Sheffield in director Mick Jackson and Kestrel for a Knave author Barry Hines’ social horror movie. After escalating US-Soviet tensions (only ever seen and heard in background news reports) culminate in a series of atomic strikes on the UK, the working men and women of Sheffield, helplessly removed from global politics, are forced to deal with the subsequent fallout.
Filmed with a brutal docu-realism, Threads is science fiction like an all too believable account of an alternate past: complete societal breakdown, humanity set back centuries and man reduced to animal, as the Cold War suddenly arrives at a spectacular close. With startling economy (the film was made for television for roughly £250,000), Jackson and Hines bring the world’s end to the urban north, in a stark portrait of depressed mid-80s Britain that imagines the country sinking into a hell far worse.
My Summer of Love (2004)
Director Pawel Pawlikowski
Todmorden in summer – its hottest for half a century at the time of shooting – makes for an idyllic setting in Pawel Pawlikowski’s dreamy sophomore feature. Natalie Press and Emily Blunt are two teenage girls feeling the terrible exhilaration of young love, the pair fated to burn out but initially bonded over mutual curiosity in one another’s differences. While Press’s Mona rides a battered moped and lives above a pub with her ex-con brother Phil (Paddy Considine, timed to explode), Blunt’s expelled public schooler Tamsin plays the violin and dispassionately gulps red wine in her parents’ rustic manor home.
Not just a bitter love story, My Summer of Love also offers a stinging indictment of religion. Phil returns from ‘inside’ apparently reborn a devout Christian, but we soon learn the holy mantras are merely a veneer concealing his violent true nature. Like Blunt’s fantasist, Phil can only try and fail to reinvent himself upon return to God’s Own County.
Wuthering Heights (2011)
Director Andrea Arnold
Unconventional as adaptations of Wuthering Heights go, Andrea Arnold’s take on Emily Brontë’s doomy romance is nonetheless perhaps a truer cinematic interpretation of the novel than any other. Here the landscape feels as the author described it: a place of anxious beauty, of permanently damp meadows and gale-blasted masonry; a place that, surely, could only ever be home to tragedy.
The story, though pared down, is still familiar in its essentials – troubled Heathcliff returns home to exact revenge and reconnect with his one true love, Cathy – but what stands Arnold’s adaptation apart is the director’s commitment to capturing a mood. Arnold filmed entirely in the Yorkshire Dales and cast a mix of British indie regulars and non-actors (including a magnetic James Howson, cinema’s first black Heathcliff). The result is an immersive experience unlike any other.