Reel Britannia is a four-part TV series looking at the modern history of British cinema. The show, made for streaming service BritBox in association with the BFI, uses archive clips from good, bad and forgotten films from the 1960s to the present day, alongside new interviews with a host of major filmmakers. Giving their unvarnished opinions on the why and how of British cinematic failures and successes are luminaries including Edgar Wright, Terry Gilliam, Gurinder Chadha, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Sally Potter, Stephen Frears, Hanif Kureishi and Terence Davies. Each part is narrated by comedian Nick Helm, delivering an intelligent and funny narrative written by series director Jon Spira.

Jon Spira

Spira was given a free hand to create the show with his regular producer Hank Starrs, having had success at BritBox with their last documentary feature, Hollywood Bulldogs: The Rise and Falls of the Great British Stuntman (2021). The pair previously collaborated on Elstree 1976 (2015), a look at actors and extras who appeared behind masks in Star Wars (1977). 

We caught up with Spira over a long, leisurely lunch at his favourite eatery in Golders Green, north London, where he was happy to passionately discuss 10 of his favourite unsung British cinematic gems.

Gorgo (1961)

Director: Eugène Lourié

Gorgo (1961)

Jon Spira: 

My hypothesis about why Edgar Wright films are so popular is because they show you what big Hollywood films would look like if they were made in Britain. That’s what’s funny about them. There’s that level to Gorgo. It’s also the only kaiju movie, as far as I know, from Britain. 

It’s the British answer to Godzilla. It starts in Scotland in a little fishing village, and there’s a volcano under the water and the creature comes out. They find Gorgo, stick him on a flatbed lorry like King Kong, ship him down to London, and then his mother comes looking for it.

You see Gorgo destroying Piccadilly Circus – eating Piccadilly Circus. To see London attacked with really great model effects is wonderful. Weirdly, it’s directed by Eugène Lourié, a French guy who had been a production designer for Jean Renoir. He only actually directed a handful of films, which mainly have monsters in them. But it’s beautiful. The destruction of London is gorgeous.

Charlie Bubbles (1968)

Director: Albert Finney

Charlie Bubbles (1967)

Jon Spira: 

Albert Finney made a killing on Tom Jones (1963) – a huge film internationally. It made him a millionaire. Charlie Bubbles is the only film he ever directed, and it was written with Shelagh Delaney, who wrote A Taste of Honey (1961). 

There is no film like Charlie Bubbles. He plays a guy who’s from up north, writes a bestselling book, becomes hugely wealthy, and then there’s nothing left for him to do in life. He has business dinners, goes out with dates and just gets bored. He’d abandoned his family, his son and his wife, Billie Whitelaw. He decides to drive up from London to the north to reconnect. For some reason, Liza Minnelli goes along with him. No idea why. It’s just a very strange film and really watchable.

It’s got the weirdest ending in film history. He looks out the kitchen window and sees a hot air balloon. He walks across to it, climbs in it, chucks the sandbag out and flies away. It’s nuts! It works because it’s got the guts and the confidence to do what it wants to do. It’s one of those things that could not be made today, because if they took that script, or even the idea, to funding people, it would be workshopped to death.

The Reckoning (1970)

Director: Jack Gold

The Reckoning (1970)

Jon Spira:

Nicol Williamson plays a guy from Manchester from a working-class family, and he’s part of that baby-boom generation. He’s a businessman in London, but he is really good at intimidating people. He’s the guy who they call to deal with difficult people and the guy you don’t really want to cross. He’s very ambitious, working for established people, but he’s the first of that generation to come down south and do good, which is what that generation did. That was the only really upwardly mobile generation we’ve ever had in this country.

It’s before Get Carter, and it’s a lot like it. He travels up north to sort out the people who killed his dad but, in doing that, in having to equate himself with his past again, he starts to unravel. I would say it’s not that violent a film, but it asks a really interesting question for that generation about upward mobility. In a way, it’s quite an arrogant premise: “Can a leopard change its spots?” Because in a way it’s saying, “Are working class people behaving like animals?” But he is such an incredible actor. You can’t take your eyes off the screen.

The 14 (1973)

Director: David Hemmings

The 14 (1973)

Jon Spira:

David Hemmings, a big actor in the 1960s, made this oddity. June Brown has 14 children, living in a slum ready to be condemned. In the first 10 minutes, she drops dead. The oldest, Jack Wild, tries to keep them all together as a family, and you’ve got various social services trying to break them up. You’ve got relatives coming in, occasionally. All these people, all these things they have to go through to stay together. The thing that I really love about it was it was made at that moment when London was undergoing modernisation.

They were throwing up skyscrapers and tearing down the slums. He knew what he was doing and got a lot of it on camera. It feels like you’re watching London history happening. You could go further and say these are the people who have been left behind. These are real London people. Almost Dickensian, because in the 60s, 70s, you still had these Dickensian figures and Dickensian housing.

It’s a really lively film. The kids have got so much energy, so it’s funny, sad and wide-reaching. It’s just one of those great London films, where you see so much of London on screen. You either go, “I know where that is. That’s amazing seeing that in the 70s,” or you go, “I can’t believe I get to see it looking like this.”

A Private Enterprise (1974)

Director: Peter K. Smith

A Private Enterprise (1974)

Jon Spira:

It’s the first ever British-Asian film. It’s very low budget, but it’s interesting. It’s about an Indian guy who decides he wants to start his own business; he wants to open a factory up in Birmingham. It’s about him navigating his life, what was expected of him from the old country and for his family who are there. It’s him trying to navigate modern British life. 

In the course of it, he dates Indian girls from families who are trying to get him into an arranged marriage. He dates white women that he meets on trades and stuff. He deals with industrial disputes. It’s really everything that would’ve been going on in the head of a young Indian man living in Britain in 1974.

Black Joy (1977)

Director: Anthony Simmons

Black Joy (1977)

Jon Spira:

It’s the best Brixton film! A Guyanese guy fresh off the plane has to negotiate life in Brixton. It’s the characters he meets, it’s the colour, the location, it’s everything. The thing that is so good about it is, it’s not an issue film. It’s not about racism. It’s not about social disruption. It’s not a violent film. It’s not a sad film. It is a joyous, happy, delightful film.

Norman Beaton skips off the screen. The second you see him, he’s bigger than the street, and then they pair him up with Paul J. Medford. Lovely child actor. Then, surprises on surprises, Floella Benjamin. She’s amazing in it. She was a wonderful figure in my childhood. How is this woman not one of our most important screen actors? Her performance is clearly ahead of its time, because she is portrayed as a strong woman, who is a business owner, a single mother, conducting her own love life on her own terms. 

It’s one of those rare films which is not cheesy. The feeling you get when that film finishes is, why don’t we want more films like this? They made however many Confessions films at that same time. Why is there not this Black British comedy genre? Why doesn’t that exist now? That film is one of the great British films, and any racist wanker who talks about Britain on film, to me, that is Britain on film. That feels like Britain.

Restless Natives (1985)

Director: Michael Hoffman

Restless Natives (1985)

Jon Spira:

It’s a modern version of the Robin Hood story. Two guys living in Edinburgh, unemployed, looking for fun. They’re sick of all these huge, wealthy, American tourists who think they’re Scottish, doing the bus tours. They get a tiny motorbike. One of them wears a clown mask, the other wears a werewolf mask. They have little confetti guns, and they start holding up tourist buses in the Highlands. They take all the money off the tourists, and then they drive back to Edinburgh and throw it around, give it to the poor. They keep doing this every day, and it gets to the point where people are taking trips because they want to be held up by them, because, also, they’re really nice. They’re really charming. 

It’s got a lot to say about Thatcher and what she did to Scotland. It’s just so much fun. Big Country do the soundtrack. That’s 1980s Scotland, that music. Ned Beatty plays one of the American tourists, who’s a copper. He becomes a bad guy. It becomes like a caper. It’s just beautiful.

Paperhouse (1988)

Director: Bernard Rose

Paperhouse (1988)

Jon Spira:

It’s about an 11-year-old girl who gets ill. When she’s awake, she draws pictures. When she goes into her fever dreams, she’s in those pictures. The production designs aren’t like anything else, because they build houses that look like an 11-year-old’s drawing. 

Rose explores dreams and dreamscapes with a lot of his work. Paperhouse is unlike anything else. It’s got a tone unlike anything. You get all these people who make films with dream sequences or trying to capture dream-like qualities. Paperhouse, for my money, is the only one which has ever successfully done that. It feels like you’re watching a dream, and it’s a film that doesn’t really have a point. You just have to surrender to it. It’s just a viewing experience. I don’t know who it’s for, because it’s about an 11-year-old girl and yet it’s nominally a horror film. Certainly not for 11-year-old girls or boys. That’s why I think it’s overlooked. It’s a film which never really had an audience, but when something’s good, everyone should see it.

Quite often when you see dreams in films, there’s a horror element to it and it’s a tangible horror element. The difference with Paperhouse is that it has you on edge, but it doesn’t use any tropes to do that. It has you on edge because it’s just how dreams are. You just feel uncomfortable.

I don’t know how he storyboarded it. I don’t know how he talks with production to sort it out. I don’t know how they managed to make this film, which genuinely looks like it’s lifted out of someone’s subconscious. This is a truly, truly creative mind. 

Erik the Viking (1989)

Director: Terry Jones

Erik the Viking (1989)

Jon Spira:

Terry Jones is the overlooked Python. John Cleese went off and did hardcore comedy. Eric Idle went into musicals and sitcoms. Michael Palin became hugely respected as a journalist and documentarian. Terry Gilliam obviously got all the big ups in the film world. Terry Jones created his own tidy little film career. He wrote Labyrinth (1986). He wrote and directed Erik the Viking, and he adapted and directed The Wind in the Willows (1996). For my money, there are no better children’s fantasy films than those films. He could create a world, which is a hard thing to do, and he never got the credit for having done that. Erik the Viking is an epic film. I saw it twice the day it was released, and I went back to the cinema four times, because it was so beautiful in the cinema.

Erik the Viking visits a soothsayer, played by Eartha Kitt of all people. One of the strangest things about this film is the casting. The Viking chief was played by Mickey Rooney. Why Mickey Rooney? Ridiculous. It’s such a strange choice. Doesn’t even put on an accent. Erik is an unnaturally sensitive Viking who decides there must be more to the world than rape and pillage. 

The production design is stunning. It’s unbelievable, and it’s magical, and it’s a great cast of British character actors: Antony Sher, Charles McKeown, Richard Ridings. How many epic films have we made in this country? That’s why I love that. It’s a proper fantasy film, and he deserves his props. 

A Room for Romeo Brass (1999)

Director: Shane Meadows

A Room for Romeo Brass (1999)

Jon Spira:

It was the only film I’ve ever watched where I went, “That’s what my childhood felt like.” Shane Meadows is such a rare talent. It’s so evocative. He’s so good at capturing feelings and moments in film that no one else has ever caught on film before. When I was researching Reel Britannia, I suddenly realised – and I could be wrong with this – but he’s the only filmmaker who genuinely has come from working-class and made working-class films. Shane Meadows walked off the street. He was a petty thief. He suddenly picked up a video camera, started making films with his mates. Everything he does is so honest. So heartfelt, so true.

It’s two boys about 11 or 12. They live a normal life. Romeo’s best friend has to have a back operation. This weird older guy suddenly just appears on the horizon. Paddy Considine, his first ever film. He comes from nowhere and makes friends with them, but it turns out he’s actually deeply unhinged. He drives a wedge between the two boys. 

It has all of those feelings of childhood. Those feelings of fear that come out of nowhere. That thing where you suddenly realise you’ve got yourself into a situation that you are too young to handle.

The end almost feels improvised because it’s so bizarre. Frank Harper plays Romeo’s dad. Harper is a really ubiquitous character for British cinema, but he’s usually cast as a gang boss. You don’t realise what a great actor he is. When he’s given a chance, he’s so good. At that moment, at the end of Romeo Brass, where he gets his moment, your fucking heart soars.

Reel Britannia is currently on BritBox.