Top 10 British Comedy since 1980

Britain has always fared well when pointing its camera lenses towards comedy. Off the back of quality radio (the wit of Spike Milligan and The Goon Show, accompanied ably by the delightful antics of Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe) and television (the Monty Python team constantly obscuring the day-to-day British regime with side-splitting skits) there’s always been plenty of source material for cinema to draw on.

Even thought the Ealing comedies of the 1950s had some success across the pond, it was the appeal of Monty Python and the subsequent release of films “And Now For Something Completely Different”, “Holy Grail”, and “Life of Brian” during the 1970s that took British comedy to a world stage. John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle became household names, and Terry Gilliam became one of the world’s most interesting and visually impressive filmmakers.

Living up to the Monty Python team’s best work – “Holy Grail” and “Life of Brian” – has been a difficult task since the end of the seventies, even for the Python’s themselves. They released “The Meaning Of Life” in 1983 which features my favourite sketch of theirs. John Cleese, playing a schoolteacher, advises a class on sex education. Making no attempt to be subtle, he introduces his wife to the ‘children’ (played entirely by the adult Python actors) and they proceed to get undressed so he can educate the class on exactly how it should be done. It’s a classic scene, however, one of only a few in the hit and miss “Meaning of Life”.

Cleese, Palin, Idle, Terry Jones, and Gilliam worked on individual projects, many allowing them to re-team for cameo appearances or writing stints. Some of their films didn’t work and failed to appeal to mainstream audiences, but some certainly did work. It’s these that make up a major part of the best British comedy since 1980.

withnail and i / bruce robinson

10. East Is East (Damien O’ Donnell, 1999)
Dir. Damien O Donnell; screenplay by Ayub Khan-Din; starring Om Puri, Linda Bassett, Jordan Routledge, Archie Panjabi, Chris Bisson, Jimi Mistry
Setting: Manchester, England

A surprise hit that struck a chord with modern audiences with its depiction of a multi-cultural Pakistani-British family. The film is funny yet poignant and at times quite dark. It is also, even within its 1970s setting, a telling remark on present day Britain.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk: Blu-ray

9. About A Boy (Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz, 2002)
Dir. Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz; screenplay by Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz; starring Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz, Sharon Small
Setting: London, England

Based on the Nick Hornby novel, this is yet another successful cinematic adaptation of his work. What makes “About A Boy” better than “High Fidelity” is that it retains the British setting.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk: DVD

8. Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996)
Dir. Mark Herman; screenplay by Mark Herman, starring Pete Postlewaite, Tara Fitzgerald, Ewan McGregor, Stephen Tompkinson, Jim Carter, Philip Jackson, Peter Martin
Setting: Barnsley, England

At times it might resort to soap-opera melodrama but this powerful and frequently funny film about political discontent and coal mine redundancies during the middle 1990s is an important and culturally significant piece of entertainment. However, what makes it stand out is the music, performed wonderfully by the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band (of whose actual experiences the film loosely bases its story on).

Buy from Amazon.co.uk: DVD

7. Gregory’s Girl (Bill Forsyth, 1981)
Dir. Bill Forsyth; screenplay by Bill Forsyth; starring Gordon John Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Clare Grogan
Setting: Cumbernauld, Scotland

The most widely praised film of Bill Forsyth’s career, “Gregory’s Girl” is a observant and funny story about weird kid Gregory Underwood as he learns about love when his place on the football team is taken by a girl.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk: DVD

6. Educating Rita (Lewis Gilbert, 1983)
Dir. Lewis Gilbert; screenplay by Willy Russell, starring Michael Caine, Julie Walters
Setting: Liverpool, England

Willy Russell adapts his own successful stage play for the screen in which Michael Caine and Julie Walters (who played Rita on stage prior to the film) take on the roles of dispassionate, alcoholic teacher and overzealous, mature student.

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5. Clockwise (Christopher Morahan, 1986)
Dir. Christopher Morahan; screenplay by Michael Frayn; starring John Cleese, Sharon Maiden, Stephen Moore, Penelope Wilton
Setting: Midlands

John Cleese is brilliant in this post-Monty Python era film about an overtly punctual school headmaster who conducts his life based on strict regimen and perfect time-keeping but finds his entire day, en-route to a headmaster’s conference, disrupted by one mishap after another.

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4. A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)
Dir. Charles Crichton; screenplay by Charles Crichton, John Cleese; starring John Cleese, Michael Plain, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Maria Aitken, Tom Georgeson
Setting: London, England

This list could become a battle of the Monty Python team. Michael Palin and John Cleese star in Charles Crichton’s manic crime-farce with both Python’s stealing the show. Although, Kevin Kline, as the delightfully sadistic Otto runs them close.

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3. Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981)
Dir. Terry Gilliam; written by Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin; starring John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall, Ralph Richardson, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Michael Palin David Warner, David Rappaport, Craig Warnock
Setting: Various

Another surreal masterwork from Terry Gilliam. A wonderful and varied dreamland setting beautifully brings to life Gilliam and Michael Palin’s funny yet twisted and ironic fairytale story.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk: DVD

2. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
Dir. Terry Gilliam; screenplay by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown; starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, Iam Holm
Setting: Fictional future city

Terry Gilliam was always going to feature on a list of the greatest British comedy films, the only question was where and how many times. The answer: twice – second and third place. “Brazil” pips “Time Bandits” to the silver prize because its message is still as relevant today as it was in 1985.

Buy from Amazon.co.uk: DVD

1. Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson, 1986)
Dir. Bruce Robinson; screenplay by Bruce Robinson; starring Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, Ralph Brown
Setting: London, England

Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical foray into the hazy world of drugs and alcohol through his wonderful creations Withnail and best friend known only as ‘I’ is easily the best British comedy since 1980.

Read my full review HERE

Buy from Amazon.co.uk: Special Edition DVD | Bargain Anchor Bay DVD | Blu-ray

See also: Top 25 Films to make you happy

Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Ross McG Reply

    pretty good list, wouldnt class East is East as a comedy though – its one of the most depressing films ive ever watched. good to see About A Boy in there, really underrated. Educating Rita may be set in Liverpool but it was filmed in Dublin!

  2. Dan Reply

    Haha…are you working for the Dublin tourist board now Ross! Although the exterior locations of Educating Rita are lovely and all, I would have preferred them to stick to the stageplay and set it entirely in a couple of rooms. But I guess, if they had done that, they wouldn’t have got the go ahead to make the film. Great performances by Caine and Walters.

    I’ve always found East Is East laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moving which I think is a great trait of many British comedy films. Like, for example, About a Boy, Brassed Off, and Educating Rita, as well as the likes of Shirley Valentine and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

  3. Ross McG Reply

    Dan, we have nominated you for an award, go to our site to check it out

  4. Alex Reply

    Cool list! I would have had an Edgar Wright film up there but then again I’m not incredibly educated on British comedy! I really have to see Withnail and I- I’ve been meaning to for at least a year, but I always put it off.

  5. gbollard Reply

    What …
    – No Monty Python
    – No Bridget Jones

    I don’t think so.

  6. Dan Reply

    ‘No Monty Python’ – the only Python film that qualifies is the weaker, albeit still great, “Meaning of Life”, Gavin. However, there’s still a python-esque flavour to many of these movies – Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits” and “Brazil”, and you could even include the John Cleese-starring “Fish Called Wanda” and “Clockwise”. If it’s Monty Python you’re looking for, this list serves it up nicely.

  7. JasonW Reply

    Great list. The Meaning of Life would have probably made it on to mine but it’s great to see Educating Rita and About A Boy recognised!

  8. Dean Reply

    Terrific list. Withnail and I is my favourite film of all time!

  9. Steve Kaplan Reply

    Brazil and Time Bandits are great, but no Holy Grail? No Life of Brian? And no offense to Brassed Off, but for working class comedy, what about The Full Monty?!?

  10. Dan Reply

    Thanks for the comment Steve. Life of Brian and Holy Grail couldn’t make the list as they were released in the 1970s.

  11. M. Carter @ the Movies Reply

    Yeah, I’d like to see “Bridget Jones” on here — the first one, not the sequel, which was 95% crap.

    I also love “Withnail & I” and “Shaun of the Dead.” And what about “Death at a Funeral” (again, the original, not the Chris Rock remake)? I found it crazy but enjoyable.

  12. Top10Films Reply

    Death at a Funeral – Good call Miss Carter!

  13. Magpie Reply

    What about:

    Hot Fuzz
    Still Crazy
    Shaun Of The Dead
    Splitting Heirs
    Nuns On The Nun
    The Full Monty
    The Pope Must Die
    Run Fatboy Run
    Plunkett & Macleane
    Water
    Britannia Hospital
    Brazil

    Among others.

  14. M Reply

    I totally agree. Time Bandits is one of the great films of all time. Brazil though is simply freaky. Also you might want to have included some of the Ealing Comedies- Passport to Pimlico, The Man in the White Suit, Kind Hearts and Coronets. You might want to check out http://thepurpleworldblog.blogspot.com/ for there list of the top ten British films, Educating Rita is also on their list.

  15. Rodney Reply

    It’s been ages since I saw Time Bandits, and the same goes for Brazil. Two awesome films. Really must get around to picking them up on BluRay/DVD!!!

  16. sundryandco Reply

    Withnail and I is infinitely more fascinating than the geranium.

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