10 great British thrillers of the 1980s

From Edge of Darkness to Mona Lisa: as Stephen Poliakoff’s mystery thriller Hidden City emerges on Blu-ray, we round up some of the best homegrown 1980s thrillers from film and TV.

Hidden City (1987)

Screenwriter Colin Welland’s rallying cry “The British are coming!” on the night Chariots of Fire (1981) won a best picture Oscar was short lived. A perfect storm of bad luck and bad economics meant that for the UK’s film industry, things went – to use the enduring British expression – ‘tits up’.

In 1980, only 31 British films were made – half that from the year before. This dropped to 24 in 1982. The Americans withdrew funding thanks to an uptick in talent on their own soil, the Tory government scrapped the Eady Levy (which subsidised British film production via a percentage taken from ticket sales), and some costly misfires all but obliterated homegrown film production. TV and video supplanted cinema trips, throwing further fuel on the raging bin fire. 

It was tough for filmmakers, but the decade saw notable achievements, particularly in serialised TV dramas which often addressed pressing social questions of the day. The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986) alongside TV series Edge of Darkness (1985) and A Very British Coup (1988) not only won awards but also reflected the era’s darker preoccupations with nuclear threat and the hidden machinations of the British establishment.

The 1980s is memorable for its lows, but also for its brilliant, albeit brief triumphs – with revolutionary TV dramas and cult hits springing up like green shoots from ashes. Hidden City (1987), directed by Stephen Poliakoff, emerged as a fascinating thriller from the later half of ‘80s when things were looking up for British cinema. 

It follows a civil servant and a young researcher who delve into a labyrinth of hidden archives beneath London, uncovering an occult cover-up as they hunt for a lost piece of film. With its rich intrigue, paranoid atmosphere and preoccupation with conspiracy, it encapsulates the era’s fascination with the obscured and the clandestine, while also offering a glimpse into some of London’s secret spaces. To celebrate its release on Blu-ray, here’s a small selection of the decade’s pulse-pounding highs across film and television. 

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Director: John Mackenzie

The Long Good Friday (1980)

John Mackenzie’s frenetic gangster epic is memorable for lots of reasons. Its seedy glamour. Its blistering soundtrack. Its moments of shocking savagery (scenes of slaughterhouse interrogations and a bottle to the neck will linger). But what stands out above all is its seemingly uncanny predictions about London gentrification in the decade to come. Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a Cockney kingpin aspiring to enter the world of legitimate (or semi-legit) business. The story charts his attempts to secure funding off the New York mafia so he can redevelop the city’s then-derelict docklands into a commerce and sporting hub. It all goes awry when bombs go off shortly after his international guests arrive.

Made in 1979, the year Thatcher came to power, it blends several of the period’s hot topics into its storyline, including the free market, IRA violence, white flight, and Tory consumerism to name but a few. It also offers one of the great performances of Hoskins, who, with his endlessly expressive (and adorably round) mug, brings disarming humanity to his turn as a racist, post-imperialist mobster. Keep an eye out for a young Pierce Brosnan as a honeytrap twink in his first on-screen appearance.

Outland (1981)

Director: Peter Hyams

Outland (1981)

Produced a few years after Alien (1979), this blue collar space thriller never reached the heady heights of its intergalactic cousin – some going so far as to call it a knockoff – but that does it a great disservice. Full of stunning miniatures, visceral flight scenes, and awash with gorgeously gaudy Technicolor hues, it may lack the intellectual depth of Ridley Scott’s triumph, but it offers something seedier and more lived-in. It’s grubby and gritty; you can almost smell the sweat and engine oil.

In a somewhat lumpen performance, the nevertheless highly watchable Sean Connery plays William O’Niel, a field marshal posted to a titanium mining outpost on one of Jupiter’s moons. As O’Niel navigates a failing marriage amid hostile space-station environs, unexplained miner suicides lead him headfirst into a lethal drug ring conspiracy intended to boost worker productivity. It’s a very 80s David and Goliath story about a man who stands up to power and risks obliteration in the process – but it’s also a more personal identity tale, with O’Niel risking life and limb to prove he’s not the kind of complacent, corrupt person who’d thrive out there.

Smiley’s People (1982)

Director: Simon Langton

Smiley's People (1982)

It’s a common theme in John le Carré’s writing that winning an intelligence war is only possible by giving up what makes it worth winning. Paper shuffling in shabby Edwardian rooms and sad, booze-sodden conversations between people in their winter years form the bulk of the action as George Smiley (Alec Guinness), drawn from retirement, pieces together fragments in a 30-year-long battle against his career-long nemesis – the head of Soviet intelligence, Karla (Patrick Stewart). He’s about to exploit the one human weakness of his opponent, and to do so, he cuts himself off from everyone, becoming more withdrawn than ever.

The series offers a slow-burn ride rather than seat-of-your-pants thrills, with an intricate cold war spy plot set against a more emotional tale of betrayal and regret. And, like all good sequels, it adds new richness to the original while benefiting from the brilliance of its predecessor. Guinness’s performance across both series is a career-defining masterpiece; subtle and enigmatic, he expresses an infinitely rich variety of expressions from behind those thick old glasses.

Widows (1983 to 1985) 

Directors: Ian Toynton and Paul Annett

Widows (1983 - 1985)

Written by Lynda La Plante, Widows shook up the crime genre, not least because its opening heist scene sees most of the participants blown to smithereens. The story then shifts to their widows who, under the brusque guidance of 30-a-day Dolly (Ann Mitchell), plot to redo the heist and jet off to Rio. This twist was particularly striking at the time, because, as John Williams writing for BFI says, “most crime thrillers…tended to feature women as either clinging spouses or brassy tarts, but nearly always as ciphers rather than convincing characters.”

With big hair and bigger charisma, not only is Widows led by a cast of enormously watchable women, they’re also fully fleshed out people with flaws and struggles that reflected the (often misogynistic) attitudes of the day. It’s not entirely successful in subverting patriarchal norms – Dolly in particular is one step removed from the ‘crazy cat woman’ trope as she dotes on a pet poodle in lieu of a child – but progress is rarely a clean leap forward, and for the time, it was truly trailblazing. The series went on to form the basis of British director Steve McQueen’s 2018 film of the same name.

The Hit (1984)

Director: Stephen Frears

The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears’ Costa del Crime thriller blends black humour with nerve-wracking thrills in this highly stylish gangster road movie. Terence Stamp plays Willie Parker, a London thug who snitches in court for a softer sentence. Fast forward 10 years and a vengeful crime boss (played by John Hurt) and his wildcard partner (a young and brilliant Tim Roth) have weeded him out of his Spanish hideaway. Guns flailing, they bundle him into a car and set off for Paris via Malaga with Maggie (Laura del Sol) in tow. The sun-drenched backdrop provides a striking counterpoint to rising tensions as the group barrel down the highway with execution on their minds.

Clad in white and with a mystical approach to his approaching murder, Stamp’s performance isn’t unlike his otherworldly role as The Visitor in Theorem (1968); all enigmatic smiles and placid gazes. Meanwhile, Hurt brings hard-boiled inscrutability to his performance as a supposedly ruthless hitman who leaves a trail of incriminating clues along the way. It’s hard not to like this trio of scumbags, all of whom have redeeming features that ultimately prove their undoing in this ruthless world. In another life, they may have been pals.

Edge of Darkness (1985)

Director: Martin Campbell

Edge of Darkness (1985)

With its foreboding tone and complex plot, Edge of Darkness’s phenomenal success (six awards at the BAFTAs) came as something of a surprise, but few other dramas so perfectly captured the mood of the nation with such elegiac power. Critics loved its ambitious political themes and emotional core, with Sean Day-Lewis in the Daily Telegraph saying “It is one of those very rare television creations so rich in form and content that the spectator wishes there was some way of prolonging it indefinitely.”

Troy Kennedy Martin’s story follows Ronald Craven (Bob Peck), a grieving detective investigating the death of his activist daughter (Joanne Whalley) who is mysteriously gunned down by his side. What starts out as a local whodunit balloons into a murky global conspiracy as he attempts to find the killer. Bob Peck’s alienated protagonist and his search for the truth amid corruption and nuclear threat deeply resonated with audiences of the period, while sharing a thematic blueprint with other contemporary thriller fictions, including 1985’s political potboiler, Defense of the Realm.

Mona Lisa (1986)

Director: Neil Jordan

Mona Lisa (1986)

A breakthrough film for director Neil Jordan (who shortly after made The Crying Game, 1992) Mona Lisa journeys into the seedy underbelly of London’s gangland, where dealers, thugs and underage prostitutes inharmoniously mingle. Interwoven with the harder plot elements is a quietly touching family drama and a noir-inflected love story that forms its memorable beating heart.

In a BAFTA-winning performance, Bob Hoskins plays George, a working class ex-convict fresh from prison. Reduced in status, he’s assigned the role of driver and bodyguard to Simone, a high-end sex worker (Cathy Tyson in a highly praised performance). An unlikely romance forms, awakening courage in our sweet-hearted hero. Sadly for him, he exists in an uncompromising world that ultimately poisons off anything good, and especially something as tender as love. While the bare bones of the plot are paint-by-numbers noir, there are some lovely offbeat touches, including Michael Caine as a rabbit-loving crime boss, Robbie Coltrane’s fake spaghetti-peddling comic foil, and Hoskins’ tough-guy-with-a-heart performance, all of which bring warmth to this nihilistic tale.

The Living Daylights (1987)

Director: John Glen

The Living Daylights (1987)

It was all-change for Bond in the 80s as Roger Moore stepped aside as the martini-swilling spy after 12 years and seven films. This meant The Living Daylights needed a new leading man. After some back and forth between Sam Neil, Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton, the latter put on the famed tux. His take marked a departure from Moore’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink portrayal and a step closer to Ian Fleming’s downbeat source material, offering a nervy Bond who’s not entirely comfortable with the business: “I definitely wanted to recapture the essence and flavour of the books, and play it less flippantly. After all, Bond’s essential quality is that he’s a man who lives on the edge. He could get killed at any moment…”, said Dalton.

While not without its flaws (its female and Arab representation haven’t aged too well), it offers one of the richer Bond experiences, including flashes of humour, plenty of 80s glamour, heart-pounding action sequences, and such fun as a wolf whistle-triggered keyring-bomb and a cello case escapade in the snow.

White of the Eye (1987)

Director: Donald Cammell

White of the Eye (1987)

Donald Cammell’s freaky, fascinating cult hit offers a reprieve from grey skies and political paranoia, as well as from cinematic conventions full stop. It’s a serial killer thriller about a string of murders that happen in a wealthy desert community in Arizona. The opening is strong: through a series of candy-coloured close-ups, we see a rich housewife slaughtered by an intruder. The domestic idyll is shattered in an explosion of red wine, smashed glass and flying tulips, while a goldfish gasping on a slab of ribs plays sole witness to the giallo-inspired brutality.

The director first came to prominence after co-directing the psychedelic gangland thriller Performance (1970) with Nicolas Roeg. He made three features after relocating to Los Angeles, the last of which was White of the Eye, adapted from the 1983 novel Mrs. White, written by Margaret Tracy (the pseudonym of brothers Laurence and Andrew Klavan). Brazenly high style, low substance, the film does sink into camp chaos towards the end, but Cammell’s outsider eye’s attention to kitschy detailing is superb. Fans of Heathers (1988) or the films of John Waters and Terry Zwigoff will love it.

A Very British Coup (1988)

Director: Mick Jackson

A Very British Coup (1988)

Labour MP Chris Mullin wrote A Very British Coup in 1982. It was then adapted by screenwriter Alan Plater and turned into a criminally neglected miniseries by Channel 4 after the party’s third successive defeat in 1987. The thrilling three-parter follows Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally), a Labour leader whose radical agenda – to dismantle monopolies, leave NATO and disarm nuclear weapons – triggers fierce opposition from insidious secret forces. The “simple minded” former steelworker soon faces an array of smear campaigns that threaten to topple him.

Antiquated tech aside, the series feels thoroughly ahead of its time. Its concerns about nuclear weapons and a hidden British establishment could very well be repackaged as this decade’s fears about the Deep State, Corbyn’s rise and nuke-based oblivion. Talking of prescient, it is, as Danny Birchall for the BFI notes, “all the more enjoyable for knowing that future ‘king of spin’ Alastair Campbell – later to perform the same role for Tony Blair’s popular and radical, but much more right-wing, Labour government – was one of the production’s advisers.”