English actors have been causing quite a stir this year, with everyone from Colin Firth ( The King’s Speech) to Lesley Manville ( Another Year) to up-and-comer Andrew Garfield ( The Social Network and Never Let Me Go) drumming up Oscar buzz.
But British comedienne and actress Tracey Ullman—who, as a girl, would skip school to go see movies at theaters where “you would see rats running underneath the seats and there was always some guy getting his willy out”— reminds us that fine British acting on the big screen is a longstanding tradition.
She told The Daily Beast’s Nicole LaPorte that while the cinema-going experience in England may have been “horrible,” the movies were anything but. Here are her favorite British performances of all time:
1. David Bradley in Kes (1969)
The actor who played Kes (David Bradley) was amazing. He just looked physically right. It’s a very moving story of a boy who adopts a bird—he finds it, trains it, feeds it, loves it— and paradoxically examines the toughness of his life, which is playing soccer at school. The soccer teacher is a real asshole, who thinks he’s on TV-- in his mind, there’s a music soundtrack. It’s so funny, it’s beautifully shot, and it’s just heart-wrenching at the end. The poster was very controversial because Bradley is giving the “f--- off” sign, which, in England, is not the finger, but a “V.” It’s not “V” for victory—it means “f--- off.” I remember thinking, ”Wow, this is really rebellious.”
2. Richard E. Grant in Withnail & I (1987)I think the greatest, funniest film that I can actually watch again and again and again, is Withnail & I. It’s a genius cult British film and Richard E. Grant gives the greatest comedic male performance I’ve ever seen. It’s about two out of work actors in the late 1960s. Grant plays an alcoholic who’s just going on the whole time with comments like, “I live in a horrible flat and we’ve got rats in the sink…“ I can quote lines from it and my son, who wants to be an actor, has pictures of Grant on his dorm room wall. When we watch it, we just weep with laughter.
3. Peter Sellers in I’m All Right Jack (1959)The Boulting brothers (directors John Edward Boulting and Roy Alfred Clarence Boulting) made a lot of social satires in the 1950s. This particular one is a great ensemble film with a lot of wonderful, British character actors who inspired me. Peter Sellers— and this is Sellers before he went international—plays a shop steward in a union. The film is all about loving Russia; Sellers’ character feels that if he went to Russia, all these wonderful things would happen. “Can you imagine it, Mother? Working in the fields by day and ballet at night?” he says. It’s that kind of idealism of a Communist utopia that obviously didn’t pan out. I love performances that make me laugh, but really, I’m crying because these characters are so tragic.
4. Dennis Price and Joan Greenwood in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)Many people have said to me in my career, “You do all these characters-- why don’t you do a remake of Kind Hearts and Coronets?” Alec Guinness plays eight different family members, who get bumped off one by one. But when I took a look at the film, I realized that what makes it so wonderful is the actor Dennis Price and his relationship with this woman played by Joan Greenwood, who always talks like a pussy cat. You think it’s all about Alec Guinness, but it’s not. Price and Greenwood completely hold this film together with their incredible comedic timing.
5. Dora Bryan in A Taste of Honey (1961) In England, it took a long time for working-class actors to actually play working-class roles. If you look at films from the 1940s and 1950s even, it’s always the same people who you know are not Cockney, playing Cockney people, and it used to piss me off. But Dora Bryan was from Southport, Lancashire. Her father was a salesman. She’s the real thing. That’s why I love her performance in A Taste of Honey. She’s a wonderful character actor-- very funny, real, and authentic. She’s not one of those Royal Academy of Dramatic Art actresses. She defied the notion that everyone had to have a posh voice in order to be a star.
6. Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter (1945)She’s the epitome of the upper-middle-class woman after the war. I loved the tragedy of the unrequited love in Brief Encounter-- and her vulnerability, her wonderful voice, and her big eyes. Your heart just broke for her with that gorgeous voice. You wanted her so much to be happy. And the way she talked—nobody talks like that anymore. It’s my mother’s generation of accents. It was a time before women were liberated and could work and have affairs. It was just another era. Johnson’s is one of the posh performances I actually liked.
7. Julie Christie in Darling (1965)Darling was big-- it went over the pond. And Julie Christie won an Oscar for her performance. She was extraordinarily beautiful, but she was just a brilliant, naturalist actor, too. I think she’s one of the few British actors who can have that minimal screen presence. I don’t think Laurence Olivier-- although he made some wonderful films-- ever quite had the subtlety of an Ed Harris or a William Holden. They have this nice simplicity on the big screen. Christie was minimalist and very modern. She didn’t seem like she was of previous eras; she was just of that moment. She went on to be a huge movie star. I love the line in Darling when Dirk Bogarde’s character says, “I don’t take whores in taxis.” In that line, she knows he knows-- and her reaction is amazing.
8. The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964)When I was a young girl, every time I saw the Beatles, I screamed. I had feelings that no five year old should have. It was weird. My mother took me to see them for my birthday when I was five and I just cried and cried. I loved A Hard Day’s Night especially—it was really well-directed and I think it paved the way for a lot of music videos. Richard Lester, the director, did it in the Beatles’ kind of irreverent way. You can tell they’re having fun. There are also great character actors in that film who really work well with the Beatles. I recently realized that none of the Beatles lost their hair-- none of them went bald. That’s what’s amazing about the Beatles. I love all their films, but in A Hard Day’s Night, they were just this delicious unit of Liverpudlian humor.
9. The Sex Pistols in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980)The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle is a mess (or it eventually becomes a mess), but there are moments in that film that had me screaming with anarchy. I loved that. I love that the Sex Pistols were just winding everyone up and people got offended. I thought it was hilarious. They also wrote damn good songs that have lasted. They couldn’t act, but I just love the whole concept of them. It’s a theme for me—films that shake it up, point it out, and laugh at it, in a positive way. I don’t like mean films or horror films or sci-fi films-- just earthy, real stuff.
10. Rupert Everett in Another Country (1984)Another Country is the only movie I really like about the class system. I think Rupert Everett’s performance was just fantastic. It’s really about how he plays it. The film is based on a very famous spy case from the early 1960s and how the seeds of Communism were sown in Oxford and Cambridge in the 1930s. Everett is so divine-- he sort of epitomizes that English boy. There’s just a sadness to him, a poignancy, and a disappointment in himself that comes through.
11. Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)This film is yet again about the class system. It’s about a youth offender named Colin (Tom Courtenay) in a reformatory, who is really good at running. He’s picked out because he’s so good at it and Michael Redgrave plays this posh governor who essentially tells him, “Listen, boy, you could really go somewhere with this.” He encourages him to run. And then, the day of the big race, Colin just stops and looks at him, and basically says, “ F--- you, Authority.” At that time, an American film never would have ended like that. He’d be like, “Yay! I’ve been given the chance! I could really be something!” I think a few Americans would have said, “Why did he stop?” I loved that he stopped and that he looked at this posh guy and said, “F--- you. Don’t patronize me. I am not going to win you your prize.” I just love the rebelliousness.