A Handful of 80s British Classics

“Don’t threaten me with a dead fish!”

Full marks if you can recognize an indignant Withnail trying to be tough with a gruff poacher in a pub. As far as British movies go, Withnail and I gets my vote as the decade’s best alongside the perpetually bewildered Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday. Now while I think nothing else comes close to these two gems when Maggie ruled the roost, there are plenty of other goodies to enjoy. Here are five I can happily rewatch.

Gregory’s Girl (1980)

There are times on your cinematic journey when you no longer have a yen for watching an eyeball being skewered on a long wooden splinter.

You get tired of terrorists running amok. Gangsters have become so yesterday. The decapitations, explosions, alien invasions and the prospect of seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh’s tits yet again no longer float your boat.

Instead you want your night’s entertainment to be a little… different. Maybe something less full on. You know, gentler.

You can do it, right?

Well, let me suggest Gregory’s Girl.

Now I love a high corpse count as much as the next guy so it’s always one hell of a surprise that I enjoy this malevolence-free picture of high school life as much as I do. There are no bullies loitering in the corridors, no arguments with siblings, no teacher clashes, and zero bitchiness. Yes, we get a bit of perving on an undressing woman (“That’s a brassiere. She’s got a brassiere!”) but it sure as fuck ain’t Porky’s. It’s devoid of conflict so I have no idea how this movie works.

But work it does.

Gregory (a marvelous John Gordon Sinclair) is a gangly, gormless idiot. He’s not only awkward, self-conscious and possibly a little touched in the head, but unable to locate a single muscle on his beanpole frame. He’s the sort of teenager who spends his time doing nocturnal cat impressions. If a waitress happens to ask if he wants black or white coffee, he’ll reply brown.

He’s also the malfunctioning striker in his school soccer team, having not scored in eight consecutive defeats. “It’s a tricky time for me,” he tells his despondent, long-suffering coach before offering the excuse that he’s ‘growing’.

But the coach wants fresh blood, his subsequent trial for new players unexpectedly attracting a girl (Dee Hepburn). The thing is, Dorothy’s not only much more skilful than the other boys but knows how to score a goal, a skill that quickly sees her replace Gregory in the team.

Gregory’s best mate is unimpressed (“If women were meant to play football, they’d have their tits somewhere else”) but Gregory doesn’t care. He’s smitten, even if he does have to jealousy watch the cool and confident Dorothy getting kissed whenever she scores. “That’s disgusting,” he objects. “Perverse. On a football field. With kids watching. That’s the sort of thing that gives football a bad name.”

There’s a fair bit of role-reversal in this beguiling Scottish pic, such as one boy being an ace pastry cook while Gregory has to take advice about fashion, the opposite sex and even bathing from his ten-year-old sister. It’s all intensely sweet-natured and full of quirky, offbeat moments but never cloying. The youngsters are often given intentionally grownup attitudes and dialogue, my favorite example being a reporter from the school magazine keen to do an article on the fifteen-year-old Dorothy. “I want to interview you and that girl in 2A who had the triplets,” he tells her in the dressing room. “You’re an interesting girl, but I want to find the real Dorothy, the one underneath the football strip. Dorothy… the woman.”

Eye of the Needle (1981)

Donald Sutherland had a lot of luck with World War Two. The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes and The Eagle Has Landed are bona fide classics and he managed to make it four in a row with this terrific spy thriller. Unlike the others, though, this one’s no jolly adventure that might lead to a gold-stuffed bank or, better still, a romp on the beach with a nubile Jenny Agutter.

Oh, no. This one’s mean.

And that’s all down to Sutherland’s character, Henry Faber, a Nazi spy operating in England who gets wind of the Allies’ invasion plans to land in Normandy. Codenamed The Needle, he’s an experienced killer, a man who will stick his switchblade in you whether you’re male or female, young or old, a stranger or friend, in uniform or not, able-bodied or in a wheelchair, on your own or in a crowded place. He’ll chuck you off a cliff and then bang your wife five minutes later. He’s the personification of steely, blue-eyed nastiness.

We don’t get too many clues why he’s turned into such a badass, though. He was rebellious at his military academy and flogged, met Hitler before he came to power, and appears resentful toward his pushy, well-connected parents. At one point he pretends to be a writer while worming his way into the affections of a deeply lonely woman (an appealing Kate Nelligan). When she asks what he writes about, he replies: “The war. Not battles and killing, but isolation, the feeling some men have of suddenly being separated from other men.”

Well, Faber’s definitely a loner, and that’s probably why he’s so good at his job. Basically, he’s an intelligent and highly capable blend of spy, serial killer, Nazi, expert liar and chameleon.

Needle is a movie that flies under the radar of great WW2 flicks. It has excellent production values that manage to conjure up a convincing depiction of wartime Britain. It’s old-fashioned with its dash of romance and bursts of swirling orchestral music, but thoroughly modern in its lack of sentimentality and the cold way Faber dispatches his numerous victims.

Welsh director Richard Marquand does an excellent job, his evident talents helping secure the reins of the slightly better known Return of the Jedi two years later. In that movie Darth Vader is the biggest baddie in the galaxy but ends up losing his nerve. 

Faber never does.

Educating Rita (1983)

I can remember a question on my English Literature exam at university in which I was supposed to write an essay on the black page in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. If you’re not familiar with that particular 17th Century ‘comic’ novel, the black page is just that: a black page. You know, an oblong splash of ink.

Sigh.

My discontent with academia had been building for a while but I guess it was only then I truly grasped the need to get the hell away from such pretentious absurdity and do something proper. I mean, I had mates who were sparks and mechanics and there I was at the age of twenty-one having to spend forty-five minutes or so gushing about a color.

As Steve Coogan’s student-hating alter ego Paul Calf might observe: “Bag o’ shite!”

Anyhow, Educating Rita does little to make me rethink my rather low opinion of academia. Arts students and their educators still seem like they’re divorced from reality and living in a pseudo-important bubble.

English Lit ones for sure.

In Educating Rita Julie Walters plays the titular character, a chirpy, working class hairdresser in her mid-20s who’s desperate to avoid a destiny of nappy changing supplemented by weekend pub sing-alongs with her family. She signs up for the Open University, a degree course that involves studying through TV programs and a weekly tutorial at a real university. It’s here she nervously meets Dr. Frank Bryant (Michael Caine) on her journey to becoming an insufferable, up-her-own-ass monster.

Frank has long worked out academia is a bag o’shite. That’s why he can’t be bothered to wear a tie, trim his hair and beard, or even stay sober. Soon we see him in class slouched in a chair staring out the window. Asked by one of those irritating student dweebs if he’s drunk, he replies: “Of course I’m drunk! You don’t really expect me to teach this when I’m sober?” To him William Blake is nothing more than a ‘dead poet’.

Not long afterwards he tries giving Rita the brush-off in his private room but she insists he tutors her because he’s a ‘crazy mad piss artist.’ Now Rita might be appallingly dressed in just about every scene, but at least she’s initially likable. She gives Frank the occasional Nazi salute, writes one-sentence essays, and calls Macbeth’s wife a ‘cow’.

It can’t last, though. Before long she’s bristling when Frank calls her funny, charming and delightful.

“I don’t wanna be funny,” she says. “I wanna talk serious with the rest of ya.” You see what earnestly studying boring old literature can do? Her husband of five years is also suffering, bewildered by her tedious transformation. Eventually, he’s forced to throw her books on the fire, an understandable move that’s still not enough to stop the rot. Rita’s down to earth persona has been replaced by affectation. She’s swapped hairdressing for working in a poncy bistro and has the constant need to ‘talk about things that matter.’ What’s more, she’s surrounded herself with fawning, lightweight student friends, the sort of people that need machine-gunning en masse.

Like her husband, Frank is appalled at the monster he’s helped create. “I’ve done a fine job on you, haven’t I?” he says, his voice breaking. “Why don’t you just go away? I don’t think I can bear it any longer.”

Hear, hear.

As you can probably tell, I’m on Frank’s side. You’re better off listening to his jaded wisdom (“All I know is that I know absolutely nothing”) otherwise you run the risk of spending year after year pointlessly studying American poets, Peer Gynt and Chekhov before turning into someone as intolerable as Rita.

Still, my intense dislike of Julie Walters’ character doesn’t stop me from loving Educating Rita, especially Caine’s drunken dancing and all-round performance. Usually, I don’t care much for movies based on plays as they’re too talky, have limited action and small casts. Something like the lauded Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? strikes me as little more than four angry drunks shouting at each other for two hours-plus. It looks like a filmed play, you know? Educating Rita’s an exception, a terrifically likable flick that manages to disguise its stage origins.

I think I’ll pop up to the attic now, fish out that long-neglected copy of Tristram Shandy and burn it.

Mona Lisa (1986)

Like any director who’s been around a long time, Neil Jordan’s had a hit and miss career. He’s done big-budget boring misfires (Interview with the Vampire) and pretentious drivel (The Brave One) but also good stuff like The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy. However, Mona Lisa is the one that makes me want to shake his hand. It’s a pearl, the sort of movie that unfurls so confidently during its opening minutes you know you’re in for a treat.

George (Bob Hoskins) is a gangster who’s just been released after a lengthy stretch. We meet him wandering around London enjoying his newfound freedom while dreamily accompanied by Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa.

Well, this is going to be a nice little tale, yes?

However, George soon finds himself adrift on a scum-tinged tide of filth in a man’s world where females are relentlessly exploited, abused and attacked. After looking up his old boss Denny Mortwell (Michael Caine), he lands a job driving a ‘tall thin black tart’ called Simone (Cathy Tyson) around the West End’s poshest hotels to service wealthy clients. At one place a suspicious manager latches onto what she’s up to. “Pretend you know me,” she urges George while grabbing his arm in the lobby and trying to shake the manager off.

“I don’t fucking know ya, do I?” he replies.

It’s an ominous bit of dialogue that taps into the deceptive relationships and illusory appearances on display throughout. Mona Lisa likes to blend reality with art as shown through the movie’s title, the appearance of a white rabbit, a mention of The Frog Prince, and the way George happily discusses detective stories with his friend Thomas (Robbie Coltrane). Don’t go thinking there’s anything poncy or artsy-fartsy about this flick, though. Even our goodhearted, curiously na├»ve, tea-drinking hero George is racist, violent and not averse to having sex with a bruised, underage hooker.

And then there’s Mortwell, the parasitical blackmailing boss whom George took a seven-year fall for. Now Caine’s no stranger to playing mean bastards as he showed in the classic Get Carter, but he’s exceptionally unpleasant here and gives the immediate impression of having been marinated in sleaze. “Don’t be sorry,” he tells George. “It’s bad to be sorry.”

And you can bet this piece of shit has never felt that emotion in his appalling life.

Mortwell’s far more sophisticated than George and moves in upper class circles with ease, but even in a tux he looks suspicious. This is an ugly, ugly character that radiates disdain, contempt and menace. Before long he’s pestering George to gather dirt on one of Simone’s wealthy clients but after he’s brought an innocuous photo he explodes into rage.

“Get something better!” he cries, prompting George to ask what. “I mean, dirty, slimy, nasty, kinky!” Honestly, the way the snarling Mortwell jumps to his feet and forces George back with the intensity of his outburst provides one of my all-time favorite Michael Caine moments. Now Hoskins is consistently great in this movie (giving a performance that almost matches his IRA-misjudging turn in Friday) but Caine threatens to steal every scene out from under him.

Tyson also deserves praise as the sad, feisty but never self-pitying high-class hooker. “Everyone should have someone to rush home to,” she tells George in between bouts of Mace-spraying and telling blokes to fuck off. “I’m different… I’m the girl they rush home from.”

Despite its grim subject matter and carefully orchestrated bursts of knife and gun violence, Mona Lisa doesn’t make the mistake of being unrelentingly dark and depressing. It’s far too smart, nuanced and well-rounded for that. George’s burgeoning relationship with his estranged daughter, as well as the wonderful humor generated by his nourishing friendship with Thomas, provide the perfect counterpoint to the sleaze.

Rita, Sue and Bob, Too (1987)

Is it possible to bite off more pussy than you can chew?

Well, our married hero Bob (George Costigan) does his best to find out when he starts shagging two sixteen-year-old schoolgirls in his car.

“Jesus,” Rita (Siobhan Finneran) says upon getting a glimpse of his condom-encased penis, “it looks like a frozen sausage.”

As you can probably tell, this bawdy, foul-mouthed comedy is full of dirty chuckles, knickers being whipped off and demands for a ‘jump.’  There’s finger inserting but thankfully no finger wagging. Lively performances abound and it’s got a lovely, ultimately life-affirming flavor, marking it out as a welcome alternative to all those dour depictions of British working class misery in borefests like Ratcatcher (1999) and Red Road (2006).

Bob’s a middle-class businessman who’s getting on a bit but still fancies himself as a Jack the Lad. He’s married to the uptight Michelle (Lesley Sharpe) who only wants sex once a week after popping out two kids. “The trouble with you, Bob,” she tells him, “is you’re sex mad.”

Now this might be true but the randy bastard doesn’t exactly show his diplomatic side by retorting: “When we have sex it’s like shagging a bag of spuds.”

Luckily the babysitters are to hand and they barely need seducing. All it takes is a night-time trip to the moors and he’s banging one after the other, his frozen sausage never showing the slightest sign of thawing. All three are up for the raunchy, guilt-free arrangement to continue with Bob occasionally trying to lure them away from school for a bit of lunchtime nookie. Of course these days he’d be labeled a predatory pedo and hauled off to clink, even though the girls are of age and 100 percent willing.

It’s true both Rita and Sue (Michelle Holmes) look too old to play teenagers, but otherwise they convincingly portray a pair of good-hearted slappers with their mullet hairdos, plastic jewelry, fondness for pastel colors and awkward dancing to Bananarama. Neither has much going on upstairs, nor any interest in trying to develop it through education, but they are determined to have a good time. Indeed, Bob is the highlight of their week. Well, that’s not much of a surprise given they live on a crappy council estate that’s dotted with boarded-up ground floor windows, fighting dogs, and a kooky, balcony-inhabiting neighbor shouting whacked-out stuff.

There’s a lot to like here with gritty issues such as class, race, miscarriage, adultery, alcoholism, domestic abuse and sexual jealousy all touched upon. However, director Alan Clarke (Scum) maintains a good-natured overall stance, typified by the decision to make Sue’s permanently sozzled dad a harmless, brilliantly funny idiot while also including an apt appearance by the legendarily bad novelty pop band Black Lace singing Gang Bang.

Controversial in its day for its candid depiction of teenage female sexuality and a non-judgmental attitude toward a middle-aged philanderer, its critics tend to ignore the fact it was written by a woman based on her own experiences and filmed on the same council estate she grew up on. However, Rita, Sue and Bob Too is a good example of The Kind of Movie That Wouldn’t Get Made Today. If it were put out in the 21st Century, it would have to focus on ‘abuse of power’, ‘economic exploitation’ and ‘victimization’. It certainly couldn’t straightforwardly depict a pair of cock-happy bubbleheads looking forward to having Bob’s bobbing butt between their legs. I mean, what sort of message is that to send?

Aah, modern movies. Don’t get me started.

Anyhow, Rita, Sue, and Bob Too might have the slimmest of stories but it’s still a thoroughly satisfying slice of earthy working class life.

Superb final freeze frame, too.

Dishonorable Mentions

Chariots of Dire (1981)

The Boys in Poo (1982)

Pink Void: The Pall (1982)

Who Dares Doesn’t Win (1982)

Howling II: Your Sister is in a Bad Movie (1985)

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.