Back in cinemas in April as part of our celebration of Woodfall Films, Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger remains an archetypal slice of downbeat kitchen-sink realism. This faithful adaptation of John Osborne’s 1956 play helped usher in the British New Wave, with Richard Burton on rousing form as a poor graduate railing against the middle-class superficiality personified by his wife Alison (Mary Ure).
One aspect of the film that’s often glossed over is its Midlands backdrop, inspired by Osborne’s own unhappy stint in Derby as a young actor. The Monthly Film Bulletin review from the time opens with a fleeting reference to “a drab English town”, while Film Quarterly mistakenly identifies the setting as London’s East End. The error may be forgivable, given that Richardson blends establishing shots of Derby with sequences filmed at Deptford Market and Dalston Junction station, but it’s typical of an issue that hampers screen representation of England’s misunderstood mid-section: a paucity of distinguishing features or instantly recognisable landmarks.
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Robert Shore, author of Bang in the Middle, a book that tackles the region’s image problem head on, attributes the Midlands’ anonymity in part to “the national media’s obsession with the so-called ‘north/south divide’”. This has certainly played a role in a general underappreciation of the region’s cinematic heritage, with Look Back in Anger and other great Midlands-based dramas frequently discussed as representatives of a broader ‘grim up north’ brand of British cinema.
In fact, Midlanders have plenty to be cheerful about when it comes to the region’s representation on screen. The tale of Sherwood Forest-dweller Robin Hood continues to inspire swashbuckling blockbusters to this day, while the historic homes and rolling hills of rural Derbyshire have provided a breathtaking backdrop for a raft of lavish period dramas, including Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Saul Dibb’s The Duchess (2008).
Here, then, are 10 must-see films that go some way to dispel the notion of the Midlands as the UK’s featureless central thoroughfare.
Sons and Lovers (1960)
Director: Jack Cardiff
Jack Cardiff’s handsome adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s third (and many would argue finest) novel captures its source material’s emotional intensity, if not its sexual frankness, produced as it was under the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code. Set in a stifling Nottinghamshire mining town in the early 20th century, Sons and Lovers charts the compromised coming of age of Paul Morel, an aspiring artist cooped up at home with his hard-drinking, anti-intellectual father Walter (Trevor Howard) and his well-meaning but possessive mother Gertrude (Wendy Hillier).
An opportunity to flee the nest presents itself when a haughty art collector sees potential in Paul’s paintings, but Gertrude’s apron strings prove tricky to cut. This eyebrow-raising mother-son bond also casts a shadow over Paul’s attempts at courtship, first with the chaste Miriam (Heather Sears), then with the self-assured suffragette Clara (Mary Ure). Sons and Lovers bristles with a sense of frustrated yearning, while Freddie Francis’s Oscar-winning black-and-white cinematography captures the bleak beauty of its rural Midlands setting.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
Director: Karel Reisz
Nottingham was decisively marked on the cinematic map with this blistering adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel. Albert Finney delivers a star-making turn as Arthur, a handsome, swaggering young anti-authoritarian who offsets the tedium of his work as a lathe operator with raucous nights of drinking and womanising. It’s clear from a fairly early stage that his affair with an older married woman (Rachel Roberts) is unlikely to end happily, but director Karel Reisz refrains from heavy-handed moralising, content to observe the hedonistic highs and stifling lows of postwar working-class life.
Sillitoe’s pithy dialogue left an indelible mark on British pop culture, with the Arctic Monkeys pilfering a line verbatim for the title of their 2006 debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which itself was crammed with tales of angry young men wreaking drunken havoc in urban England.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
Director: Tony Richardson
In the wake of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’s surprising commercial success, Sillitoe spun more of his prose, in this instance a 1959 short story, into screenplay gold. With Tony Richardson, by this point established as the British New Wave’s foremost filmmaker, in the director’s chair, the result was another potent slice of Midlands-set existential angst.
Tom Courtenay takes centre stage as Colin Smith, a rebellious young runner serving time in a juvenile detention centre. Richardson relays Colin’s story in playfully non-linear, visually frenetic fashion, interspersing vignettes of borstal life with flashbacks to the ill-advised antics that landed him in there in the first place. While the boy’s innate athletic ability appears to offer a clear path to redemption, Colin reaches the questionable conclusion that he can only wield a modicum of power by refusing to kowtow to authority under any circumstance. The result is a damning indictment of Britain’s class system that remains sadly relevant today.
Robin Hood (1973)
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Nottinghamshire’s foremost folk hero had to feature on this list somewhere, but Disney’s loose riff on the legend of Robin Hood also earns its place as what must be the most irreverent, idiosyncratic evocation of the Midlands in screen history. Director Wolfgang Reitherman imagines Nottingham as a enchanting forest town populated exclusively by anthropomorphic animals, most of whom speak with anachronistic American accents. At a stretch, you might argue that the downbeat musical number “Not in Nottingham”, in which impoverished, starving residents shuffle around dejectedly in the pouring rain, might owe something to the kitchen-sink realism one more readily associates with the region. But otherwise, Disney’s Robin Hood remains charmingly untethered from reality.
Generally regarded as one of the Mouse House’s lesser features, there’s nevertheless much to love here, thanks largely to a stellar voice cast. Peter Ustinov hams it up to portray Prince John as a cowardly lion with unresolved mother issues, Monica Evans conveys a strangely moving sense of wistful longing as a vixen Maid Marian, and Roger Miller channels Bob Dylan as a freewheeling minstrel rooster.
The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
Director: Ken Russell
The Peak District provides an atmospheric backdrop for Ken Russell’s delirious slice of high-camp, Hammer-esque horror. Loosely based on Bram Stoker’s final novel, it sees the occupants of a Derbyshire B&B become hilariously entangled in the impending resurrection of a pagan snake god.
The Lair of the White Worm offers an irresistible opportunity to witness several British stars on the rise, really giving their all to roles they surely wouldn’t touch with a bargepole these days. Amanda Donohoe steals the show as the decadent Lady Sylvia Marsh, with scenes in which she scandalously seduces a teenage boy scout and wields a spiked dildo proving particularly memorable. But Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi also deliver admirably committed performances as a roguish aristocrat and a budding archaeologist respectively. True to form, Russell serves up a handful of outrageously sacrilegious hallucinatory sequences, involving a crucified Christ and impaled nuns galore.
Felicia’s Journey (1999)
Director: Atom Egoyan
Atom Egoyan’s impeccably restrained psychological thriller, adapted from William Trevor’s 1994 novel, sees shy, sad Felicia (Elaine Cassidy) flee her oppressive Irish hometown for Birmingham, where she hopes to be reunited with her estranged boyfriend, whom she believes is working in a lawnmower factory. Exuding vulnerability as she explores the city’s gloomy industrial quarters, she crosses paths with Joseph Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), a factory catering manager whose unwaveringly gentle demeanour masks a dark, and potentially deadly, inner turmoil.
In typically deadpan fashion, Egoyan seems to delight in gently wrong-footing the viewer. He sows the seeds for a schlocky cat-n-mouse chiller, but delivers instead a gently moving portrait of two damaged individuals desperately trying to escape the cloying grip of overbearing parents. Hoskins delivers one of his finest performances as a Brummie Norman Bates, whose glib turn of phrase is by turns wryly amusing and deeply unsettling.
This Is England (2006)
Director: Shane Meadows
This scrappy evocation of working-class life under Thatcher, together with its trilogy of TV mini-series sequels, remains the pinnacle of Shane Meadows’ career to date. Inspired by the filmmaker’s own experiences of growing up in 1980s Uttoxeter, and set in an unspecified Midlands coastal town, This Is England centres around 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), whose diminutive frame and undeniable resemblance to a young Keith Chegwin make him an easy target for school bullies.
Falling in with a slightly older group of skinheads, he finds a surrogate older brother in the good-natured Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and an unexpected taste of romance with the charmingly awkward Smell (Rosamund Hanson). But things take a decidedly dark turn when older gang ringleader Combo (Stephen Graham) returns to town from prison espousing an aggressive form of nationalism. Exhibiting a world-view that’s equal parts youthful optimism and deep-seated despair, Meadows blends self-deprecating humour, nostalgic warmth and unflinching violence to potent effect.
Director: Nick Whitfield
Nick Whitfield shot his dazzlingly inventive debut feature in and around his home village of Bonsall in Derbyshire. Clearly indebted to the deadpan surrealism of Charlie Kaufman, Skeletons charts the exploits of a pair of psychic investigators, who literally raid their clients’ closets in order to unearth dark secrets and repressed memories. Ed Gaughan is a droll delight as pernickety bureaucrat Davis, while Andrew Buckley is oddly endearing as his lumbering partner Bennett.
Whitfield performs a deft balancing act in the opening section, throwing the viewer headfirst into a flat-out baffling milieu, but offering just enough exposition to ensure this feels thrillingly strange rather than frustratingly so. When the duo are hired by a middle-aged woman (Paprika Steen) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her husband, the film changes tack, evolving into a poignant exploration of individuals being held captive by their past. Throughout, the lush Derbyshire countryside serves as a soothing counterpoint to the jolting narrative lurches.
Director: Andrew Haigh
Andrew Haigh’s electrifying lo-fi love story is unquestionably enriched by its Midlands setting, offering as it does a relatively rare glimpse of modern British LGBT life outside of London, Manchester or Brighton. As a twentysomething gay man living in Nottingham, Russell (Tom Cullen) exists in a fairly benign state of limbo. He evidently feels somewhat out of step with his core group of straight friends, who seem to all be in the process of coupling off and having kids. But when he sneaks off from a tame suburban house party to a gay club in the hope of a drunken Friday night hook-up, it becomes clear he doesn’t really identify as part of the limited local queer community either.
Happily, his inebriated antics lead to an unexpectedly meaningful encounter with Glen (Chris New), whose uninhibited sexuality Russell appears to eye with a mixture of admiration and trepidation. The cruel kicker is that Glen is moving to the US on Monday morning. From here, Weekend emerges as one of the most touchingly romantic two-handers this side of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), and one of the finest LGBT films ever made.
Director: Steven Knight
Steven Knight’s bold one-man drama is immeasurably more gripping than it has any right to be. Tom Hardy stars as Ivan Locke, a Birmingham-based construction foreman careering, both literally and figuratively, towards an uncertain future. The film takes place almost entirely in Locke’s car, as he drives down the M6 from his place of work to London. Over the course of a series of increasingly fraught phone calls, it transpires that both his professional and family life hang in the balance on account of an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement.
Hardy, adopting a velvety Welsh baritone accent with shades of Richard Burton, is astonishing as a man being forced to reckon with his own shortcomings in real time. The film’s inclusion here is perhaps slightly contentious – technically, just over half of it takes place on Midlands soil, with our protagonist hitting Luton around the 55-minute mark. But the vast majority of off-screen action, as relayed over the phone, unfolds in Birmingham, with a surprisingly vivid portrait of the city’s social structure emerging as the various strands of Ivan’s multi-faceted predicament begin to cohere.