No nation has a sense of humor quite as distinctive as Britain. Although their humor isn’t for everyone, it’s difficult to deny that a huge percentage of the all-time great comedy films come from Britain.
Typically, British humor is incredibly dry, inappropriate, and bursting with social commentary and satire. British comedy often has a dark tinge and does not shy away from the controversial subject matter. That’s what makes it both shocking and hilarious.
The comedy genre is one which is saturated with mediocre films, but these 10 British gems are a cut above.
10. In Bruges (2008)
One of the great modern British comedies is In Bruges. This dark comedy is written and directed by Martin McDonagh. It stars Colin Farrell as Ray and Brendan Gleeson as Ken, two Irish hitmen who are ordered to lay low in Bruges by their crime lord boss, Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes). Whilst there, Ken is informed that he must take out Ray, who is wracked with guilt after his first hit saw him accidentally kill a young boy.
Although packed with plenty of dark jokes and classic British humor, a lot of the charm of In Bruges comes from the contrasting personalities of the two hitmen. For instance, the younger Ray wanting to go out drinking, while Ken wants to lay low and see the historical sights. Harry is also a fantastic and distinctly English character.
9. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
British comedy lends itself well to the romantic comedy genre. This fact is most evident with the 1994 classic Four Weddings and a Funeral. Directed by Mike Newell, it is the first of several collaborations between Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant. Moreover, it’s a rom-com that even those who don’t like the genre may enjoy.
This ever-so-British film sees a bumbling and socially awkward young gentleman (Grant) fall for a beautiful American named Carrie (Andie MacDowell) at a wedding. They then cross paths again over three more weddings and a funeral, but each time their timing is slightly off.
Four Weddings and a Funeral is a heart-warming film. Plus, there are dozens of laugh out loud moments. Most of which spring out of socially awkward situations, a classic staple of British humor.
8. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
When one thinks of British comedy, John Cleese is the first person to spring to mind for many people. Although he is best known for Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, the 1988 heist comedy A Fish Called Wanda is a fantastic example of his work in comedy.
Written by Cleese and Charles Crichton, the film stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Monty Python alum Michael Palin. Together, they play a crew who undertake a successful diamond heist. However, things go awry when the leader of the gang hides the diamonds just before being arrested. The thieves then proceed to manipulate and double-cross one another in a bid to find the diamonds for themselves.
A Fish Called Wanda is packed with smart yet equally dark jokes and humor, all of which can make for a delightfully cringe-worthy watch at times.
7. Snatch (2000)
You will struggle to find a film that is more “British” than Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, the sequel to the also fantastic Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
As much a crime film as it is a British comedy, Snatch features an ensemble cast that includes Jason Statham, Stephen Graham, Alan Ford, Robbie Gee, Vinnie Jones, Adam Fogerty, Benicio del Toro, and Brad Pitt (who steals the show as an impossible-to-understand Irish traveler). The smartly-written plot follows two interweaving stories. One follows the search for a stolen diamond, while the other involves a boxing promoter who convinces an Irish bare-knuckle boxing champion to fight for him.
Smart, slick, explosive, and packed full of British humor, Snatch is one of the great modern crime films that just so happens to be very funny.
6. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
One of the all-time great political satires is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It’s a black comedy that satirizes the fear of nuclear conflict between the USA and USSR during the Cold War.
The film stars Peter Sellers and George C. Scott. It also features Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, and Slim Pickens. Sellers’ steals the show by playing three different characters; a British RAF exchange officer, the President of the United States, and the titular character, a wheelchair-bound nuclear war expert and former Nazi. The story sees an unhinged Air Force general order a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, prompting the President and his advisers to desperately try to recall the bombers to avoid nuclear war.
Dr. Strangelove is preserved in the National Film Registry. Plus, it is remembered for many classic quotes, including “Gentleman, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
5. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The first — and arguably best — of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s hilarious “Cornetto Trilogy”, Shaun of the Dead is modern British humor at its best. This is evident in the film’s international success.
Shaun of the Dead follows Shaun (Pegg), a man attempting to get his life on track and his girlfriend back whilst a zombie uprising causes death and destruction across the country. The film is rife with social commentary. It’s also packed with hidden jokes and references which ensure that you pick up something new each time you watch it. Plus, many of these jokes carry through to the subsequent films in the trilogy: Hot Fuzz and The World’s End.
In addition to Pegg and Nick Frost (as Shaun’s best friend Ed), the film boasts many well-known British actors and comedians. This includes Dylan Moran, Bill Nighy, Lucy Davis, and Kate Ashfield. For fans of Pegg’s former TV series Spaced, there is also a cameo by co-star Jessica Stevenson.
4. The Ladykillers (1955)
British comedy is a genre that is still going strong today with many fantastic films being released just within the last few years. Despite that, there are many earlier movies in this genre that have stood the test of time and influenced all those that followed.
One example of this is 1955’s The Ladykillers, which is one of the later Ealing Comedies (films initially made by Ealing Studios from 1947 to 1957). The film sees an elderly woman (Katie Johnson) who often reports suspicions she makes up to the police, only to have a gang of criminals move into her building.
The success of The Ladykillers and how it has stood the test of time is evidenced by the movie being remade for American audiences in 2004. This time directed by the Coen brothers and starring Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, and Ryan Hurst.
3. Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949)
As one of the earliest British comedies, 1949’s Kind Hearts & Coronets certainly inspired all the great films that followed. It is a black comedy which sees Alec Guinness play a whopping eight characters. In addition to Guinness, it also stars Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, and Valerie Hobson.
The film falls under the Ealing Comedies umbrella. As such, it is perhaps the most notable example. These films aimed to reflect British national values to the masses. In the case of Kind Hearts & Coronets, the value being satirized is the British class system. The plot follows an aristocratic serial killer, who schemes to kill the eight people — all played by Guinness — before him in the line of inheritance.
Kind Hearts & Coronets is a highly entertaining film. Much of this is powered by Guinness’s clever and funny portrayal of the different characters.
2. Withnail and I (1987)
One of the great British films, Withnail and I is loosely based on writer and director Bruce Robinson’s life in London during the 1960s. It follows Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann), two unemployed actors who are flamboyant alcoholics living in squalor in Camden during the late 60s. The two decide to rent a country cottage in the Lake District. They then embark on a very drunk and funny journey to the cottage for their holiday, which is not quite as relaxing as they had anticipated.
Since release, Withnail and I has developed a cult following. In the UK, it is one of the most quoted movies of all-time. There is even a drinking game associated with the film!
Withnail and I would launch Grant’s very successful comedy career and inspired many debauched comedies to follow.
1. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
All of the Monty Python films could have easily featured on this list. However, for inclusion’s sake, we picked the best – Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Monty Python was a surreal British comedy group that had a profound impact on British comedy and popular culture as a whole. Many state the influence of The Holy Grail, The Life of Brian, and The Meaning of Life to be the equivalent to The Beatles’ influence on music.
Life of Brian is a satirical swipe on organized religion. The film follows Brian Cohen, who is mistaken for the “Messiah”.