10 great British summer films

Temperatures are rising in these British bids for the canon of great summertime movies.

28 May 2015

By Sam Wigley

The Goob (2014)

The British summertime, unpredictable and undependable, has not inspired half the sun-kissed coming-of-age films, beach movies or heatwave-in-the-city thrillers as its American equivalent. While the beach party film was a subgenre of the Hollywood teen movie unto itself in the 1960s, our closest equivalent – 1963’s Summer Holiday – found Cliff Richard and friends abandoning these shores one miserably wet summer for the blazing heat of the Mediterranean. The preference remains today, with British movie teenagers more likely to head for a Greek island or the Balearics for their summertime kicks (cf. Donkey Punch, 2007; The Inbetweeners Movie, 2011).

For those seeking a sunny cinematic staycation, however, there are enough homegrown films that take place when the temperatures are soaring, the seaside beckons and fluffy clouds scuttle over blue skies. The latest is Guy Myhill’s debut feature, The Goob, which takes place over a hot summer in rural Norfolk. Newcomer Liam Walpole plays the eponymous Goob, who, on finishing school for the year, divides his languorous break between fruit-picking work and helping out at his mum’s transport cafe. He attracts the fancy of a seasonal worker, Eva (Marama Corlett), while also finding himself on a collision course with his new stepdad, the bullying Gene (Sean Harris).

The Goob was backed by the BFI Film Fund.

More than any film in recent memory, Myhill’s debut captures that odd, idyllic boredom of a long teenage summer. Aspects of the Goob’s existence in this remote outpost of Britain’s big sky country are grim and plodding, yet the euphoria of a party under the stars or a high-speed drive along the country lanes is never far away. Troubled as it is, the Goob’s endless summer already feels golden with the glow of future nostalgia.

To celebrate the arrival of both The Goob and, with any luck, the warmer weather, set your watches to BST for our tour through the sunnier climes of British cinema…

Bank Holiday (1938)

Director: Carol Reed

Bank Holiday (1938)

This entertaining comedy-drama is set over a scorching August bank holiday weekend and follows a disparate group of Londoners who set off for the fictional Sussex seaside resort of Bexborough. Central are nurse Catherine (Margaret Lockwood) and her boyfriend Geoffrey (Hugh Williams), who’ve come away for a romantic weekend – only Catherine can’t stop thinking about a recently departed patient’s bereaved husband (John Lodge). Also in town – for a beauty contest – are ‘Miss Fulham’ Doreen (René Ray) and her best friend Milly (Merle Tottenham), as well as a family whose wastrel father keeps disappearing into the local pubs.

An early film from Carol Reed, who later gave us Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949), Bank Holiday is fascinating for its observational detail and depiction of Londoners at leisure in the year before the outbreak of the Second World War. It’s also surprisingly subtle in its dramatisation of Catherine’s increasing emotional infidelity – most memorably during a night-time moment on the beach, where throngs of holiday-making families are sleeping out under the stars.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

One swallow does not a summer make, as Aristotle is said to have said. But, in A Canterbury Tale, all it takes is one bird and the magic of an edit for Powell & Pressburger to propel us centuries forward in time, from the film’s opening among Chaucer’s medieval pilgrims to an August afternoon in 1943. In a history-compressing jump cut copied by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the falcon is instantaneously replaced by a plane flying over the Kent countryside and we find ourselves transported – not only to the dog days of a wartime summer, but also into the midst of one of the strangest and most wonderful films ever made on these fair isles.

Three modern-day pilgrims (a British and an American sergeant, and a land girl) arrive off the train in the fictional village of Chillingbourne. The American had disembarked too early (he thought he was already in Canterbury), but is persuaded to stay a while to help unmask a mysterious assailant who pours glue into the hair of local women. What ensues is not a thriller but an idiosyncratic meditation on faith, national identity and the mystical undercurrents of the English landscape.

Passport to Pimlico (1949)

Director: Henry Cornelius

Passport to Pimlico (1949)

It’s a heatwave – how terribly un-British! But un-British is what the residents of Pimlico become in this sprightly Ealing comedy when the discovery of an ancient parchment reveals the London district to have been ceded to the Duchy of Burgundy back in the 15th century.

During an unseasonably hot summer, the neighbourhood gleefully secedes from Westminster’s authority, ditching rationing and pub closing hours into the bargain. However, they find themselves not quite equipped to deal with the libertarian free-for-all that ensues. Based on one of six screenplays written for Ealing by T.E.B. Clarke, this is an immortal piece of postwar British wish-fulfilment, both anarchic in its rebellious rejection of authority and conservative in its abashed reimposition of the old order. The new Burgundians remain English to the core and eventually retreat from their newfound independence; the heatwave ends with the fairytale and plain old Pimlico is rewarded with a downpour.

Accident (1967)

Director: Joseph Losey

Accident (1967)

From director Joseph Losey’s collaborations with Harold Pinter, we might equally have chosen 1971’s The Go-between, their ravishing adaptation of the L.P. Hartley novel set during a golden Edwardian summer in Norfolk. But while that film veers close to the prettification of heritage cinema, Losey and Pinter’s earlier work on Accident is icily penetrating in its laying bare of middle-class, middle-aged ennui. It begins with a fatal car crash outside the gates of an Oxford professor’s country house, before peeling back in time to unravel Stephen’s (Dirk Bogarde) mid-life crisis, which is centred on professional jealousies and his marriage-endangering lust for his prize pupil’s beautiful fiancée (Jacqueline Sassard).

The central drama plays out over a weekend gathering at Stephen’s home: lunch is eaten, tennis is played, while Losey expertly modulates the brittle disquiet that underscores every word and glance between the frustrated don and his assembled guests. It’s a British film that’s close to the European modernism of Alain Resnais in its use of fractured timelines and broken-eggshell editing to expose fractious emotions.

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

Director: Peter Greenaway

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

One fine summer during the reign of William and Mary, a Mrs Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman) assigns a rakish artist, Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins), to draw 12 plans of her husband’s Wiltshire estate. In return – as their contract dictates – she will agree “to meet Mr Neville in private and to comply with his requests concerning his pleasure with me”.

What begins as a saucy exchange of sex for sketches deepens into an English country-house mystery like no other in Peter Greenaway’s ludic drama, which scored an unlikely commercial breakthrough for the unapologetically erudite director. The 17th century has never looked so decadently over the top on film, with extravagant wigs, white-powdered faces and oversized frocks providing surface beauty for a world of deception and impropriety. Michael Nyman’s Purcell-derived score is among the most memorable in 80s cinema.

Life Is Sweet (1990)

Director: Mike Leigh

Life Is Sweet (1990)

Mike Leigh’s third theatrical feature was his most commercially successful to date and remains among his most entertaining. Filmed over a bright summer in suburban Enfield, north London, it’s a comic family drama featuring many of Leigh’s regulars on sparkling form: there’s Jim Broadbent as Andy, the affable husband who buys a derelict food van on a whim; Alison Steadman as his irrepressible wife Wendy; and Timothy Spall as their eccentric family friend Aubrey, about to open The Regret Rien, a restaurant with such delicacies as liver in lager on the menu. Andy and Wendy have two daughters – tomboyish Natalie (Claire Skinner) and embittered Nicola (Jane Horrocks), a secret bulimic with an ideological opposition to most things going – while David Thewlis shows up as Nicola’s boyfriend, who indulges her predilection for being smeared with chocolate.

In contrast with the oppressive urban world of Leigh’s subsequent film, Naked (1993), Life Is Sweet is a lighter experience, which while turning through some dark thematic corners never loses sight of a warmth towards its characters, however foolish they may be.

Young Soul Rebels (1991)

Director: Isaac Julien

Young Soul Rebels (1991)

Winner of the critics’ prize at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, Isaac Julien’s debut feature is set against the summer of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 and pulses to a soundtrack of Funkadelic, Sylvester and The O’Jays. In a Dalston defined by its youth subcultures – punks, soulboys, skinheads – two pirate-radio DJ friends, Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and Caz (Mo Sesay), are shocked by the murder of one of their friends by a homophobic killer. The black community suspects that the National Front is involved, but it’s Chris who is hauled in by the police…

Though the murder plot gets confused and some of the performances betray their inexperience, Young Soul Rebels is cherishable for its evocation of inner-city London in the year that punk broke. Julien’s debut presents a world where racism, homophobia and urban unrest are rife, yet it’s simultaneously an optimistic film about friendship, attraction and the joys of dancing into the night.

My Summer of Love (2004)

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

My Summer of Love (2004)

For modern audiences, this may be the film that first trips off the tongue when thinking about British summertime films. Caught somewhere between our social realism tradition and something headier and more impressionistic, it’s the story of a teenage girl, Mona (Natalie Press), who – estranged from her born-again ex-con brother Phil (Paddy Considine) – finds friendship with her well-spoken neighbour, Tamsin (Emily Blunt). Tamsin’s parents are largely absent over the summer, so the pair have the run of their country home, telling stories, playing games and falling in love, while fantasy, flirtation and lies eddy dangerously around their affair.

Following his British debut, the Margate-set immigrant drama Last Resort (2000), Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski turns his outsider’s eye to rural Yorkshire, capturing an English summer when it’s hot enough to sunbathe on a hillside, take a cooling plunge in a forest river, or while away hours in the garden as the sun goes down.

Fish Tank (2009)

Director: Andrea Arnold

Fish Tank (2009)

It’s nearing the time that we can start calling Andrea Arnold’s second feature a classic. It’s certainly still one of the most distinctive British films of recent times, and a clear influence on many of the more impressionistic social-realist films that have emerged since. Set in the hinterlands where outer London dissolves into Essex, it follows the life of an unruly 15-year-old girl, Mia (Katie Jarvis), and her relationship with her mum’s charismatic new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender).

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw acclaimed its “glorious, almost Turner-ish images of the Essex countryside, with its racing summer skies”. Certainly part of what distinguishes Fish Tank from other bleaker, slices of life in Broken Britain is its sensuous visuals and eye for detail. Shot in the unusual 4:3 Academy ratio by master cinematographer Robbie Ryan, it fairly crackles with energy and inspiration both in its camerawork and in its feeling for place and character. Jarvis and Fassbender – she petulant but impressionable; he charming but ominously so – are simply terrific.

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

Director: Patrick Keiller

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

In the wake of the 2008 credit crisis, Patrick Keiller made this late, third entry in his series of Robinson films, documenting the wanderings of a never-seen eccentric through the depleted landscapes of millennial England. Paul Scofield, the narrator of London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), had died during the interim, so the mantle is taken up by Vanessa Redgrave. Robinson too is more than absent than ever – Redgrave pieces together his latter-day preoccupations and perambulations from a diary and some film reels found in the character’s Oxford squat, where he’d been living after a period in prison for anarchism.

This is a longer, slower film than its predecessors, and arguably more impenetrable in its theoretical digressions, but it’s also an extraordinarily beautiful record of late spring and summer in the fields of Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties. Despite the pessimism of the film’s recounting of the economic meltdown, Keiller appears to have developed a late-flowering biophilia: one of Robinson in Ruins’ most spellbinding moments sees a spider methodically constructing its web as Redgrave’s voiceover gravely recalls the day the markets tumbled. 

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