I’m often asked, “what’s your favourite British comedy?” That’s an almost impossible question to answer. How can I select just one? Favourite contemporary comedy? Favourite Ealing comedy? Favourite Python? There is no favourite because these are some damn funny apples and oranges.
So I can’t claim that these are the favourite. What I can do is make a list of my favourite artists, writers and performers, and pick which one of their films I most enjoy. So here’s my list of my favourite British comedies. These might not make your list as the favourite, or even what you think are the funniest (remember “funny” is subjective) but they’re the ones which I think most epitomise what’s greatest in comedy writing, performance and filmmaking.
Favourite Peter Sellers movie: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb
A pitch-black satire that promised to help us “stop worrying and love the Bomb. In a film abounding with great performances (George C. Scott as a general eager to make love or war, Sterling Hayden as a man willing to go to any lengths to protect his Precious Bodily Fluids), Peter Sellers tops them all with his portrayal of the fastidious RAF officer Lionel Mandrake, the slightly overwhelmed President of the United States Merkin Muffley and the eponymous Dr. Strangelove, a maniacal ex-Nazi scientist who has figured out how to make the Armageddon as enjoyable as possible
Favourite moment: Slim Pickens, riding the bomb down to oblivion as he waves his cowboy hat and “Wa-Hoos” his way to oblivion. The film was originally financed with the understanding that Sellers would play four parts, including Major T.J. “King” Kong, but Sellers sprained an ankle, and was unable to film in the cramped bomber set, so he was replaced by veteran western actor Pickens.
Favourite British comedy about Shakespeare: Shakespeare in Love
This period charmer, co-written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (I guess this is also my favorite Stoppard movie), Shakespeare in Love is a witty and passionate wet kiss to the theatre and features one of the truly delicious turns by Geoffrey Rush as an unscrupulous yet goodhearted producer, Philip Henslowe (He must be a distant ancestor of Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock from The Producers.)
Favourite moment: Shakespeare, watching aghast as a stuttering actor prepares to open the play. In agony, he turns to Henslowe, “We are lost!” Henslowe replies, “No, it will turn out well.” “How will it?” Will demands. Henslowe simply replies, “I don’t know, it’s a mystery.” All those who work in the arts know the feeling that nothing will work out, and yet, often it does. How? It’s a mystery.
Favourite Nick Hornby/Hugh Grant comedy: About a Boy
More than a bromance, About A Boy is a rom-com without a rom, but one with more heart and soul than most other romantic comedies that are featuring age and gender appropriate partners. And maybe now we can put to rest the old saw that says that voice-over narration is a *&#*ing crutch. The Hugh Grant’s VO in this film conveys character, tone, theme and delivers the best of Nick Hornby’s prose.
Favourite Wallace & Gromet comedy not about Wallace & Gromet: Chicken Run
Yes, Chicken Run. Maybe not as classic as a Wallace and Gromet short, but where else can you find the poultry version of The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and Prison Break all rolled up into one?
Favourite supporting chicken: The delightful Babs, a permanently befuddled chicken constantly knitting her way from calamity to another.
Second favourite non-Python Python movie: A Fish Called Wanda
Yes, there’s Michael Palin and an insanely inspired Kevin Kline, but the beating, passionate heart of this film is John Cleese in his best acting job since . . . ever. It was directed by the then 80-year-old Charles Crichton, who had helmed such classics as of British cinema as Dead of Night and The Lavender Hill Mob. “On the first day of shooting, Cleese gave Crichton a t-shirt that said ‘Age and Treachery Will Always Overcome Youth and Skill.’”
Favourite speech: Cleese as Archie Leach (Cary Grant’s real name) is trying to explain to Wanda why being with her makes him feel free. “Wanda, do you have any idea what it’s like being English? Being so correct all the time, being so stifled by this dread of, of doing the wrong thing, of saying to someone “Are you married?” and hearing “My wife left me this morning,” or saying, uh, “Do you have children?” and being told they all burned to death on Wednesday. You see, Wanda, we’ll all terrified of embarrassment. That’s why we’re so… dead. Most of my friends are dead, you know, we have these piles of corpses to dinner. But you’re alive, God bless you, and I want to be, I’m so fed up with all this. I want to make love with you, Wanda. I’m a good lover – at least, used to be, back in the early 14th century. Can we go to bed?”
Favourite non-Python Python Movie: Brazil
Is it even a comedy? Is it even British? It’s my list, and I say, “Yes!” and I say it’s Terry Gilliam’s mess of a masterpiece. Studio exec Sid Sheinberg obviously agreed that it was a mess, and since the film was a few minutes over the contracted length, had it recut to eliminate the dark ending the complexity, under the rubric, “Love Conquers All.” Sheinberg was determined to release the film with the “Love Conquers All” cut, but Gilliam was able to hold several illegal private screenings in LA, including screening the film for the LA Film Critics Association “who promptly voted it Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director, even though it hadn’t been released.” End result? Masterpiece won out over mess, and Gilliam’s cut was eventually released.
Favourite Moment: Robert De Niro first appearance as the gun-wielding, swat-team attired heating engineer, Harry Tuttle.
Favourite “our economy’s in the shi**er” comedy: The Full Monty
OK, six guys take their clothes off, but more than that, the movie explores the social disruption of the Thatcher years and finds hope in a bunch of working class blokes exposing all to regain purpose and camaraderie in their lives.
Favourite Moment: Dancing in the dole queue to “Hot Stuff.”
Favourite Simon Pegg comedy: Hot Fuzz
Which also makes it my favourite Edgar Wright (director) and Nick Frost (co-star) movie as well! Better than parody, Hot Fuzz is a loving if loopy, tribute not only to those buddy-cop action pics starring Gibson, Willis or Schwarzenegger but also to the bucolic English villages that harbour the quaint, eccentric British characters.
Favourite Moment: High noon shoot-out on the High Street.
Favourite comedy about terrorism: Four Lions
You can’t make a comedy about a bunch of terrorists out to blow up London, can you? Well, maybe you can, but Chris Morris’ apocalyptic satire finds the humanity in the inhuman actions of a bunch of inept would-be suicide bombers. Despite yourself, you find yourself empathising and rooting for our heroes to somehow get out of their own way and to, well, not blow us, or themselves, up.
Favourite Python movie: Monty Python and the Life of Brian
More than a series of sketches, The Life of Brian is a brilliant, complete film, with a coda that captures in a song the entire meaning of comedy and meaning of life.
Favourite moment: the whole film, from the wise men barging into the wrong stable through to Eric Idle singing:
For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow.
So that’s my list. You probably have a completely different list of 10. And you know what? You’re right too. As a Yank, I’m probably overlooking some gem that might not have translated so well on my side of the pond, just manes that I have some gems I can look forward to discovering! So let’s watch ‘em all!