Lockdown entertainment: The best of the best Northern Films
With us all cooped up inside and scrambling to find things to do, help is at hand from Northern Soul. We’ve canvassed an array of contributors and friends to ask for their favourite Northern films. Among what follows, we hope that you find some inspiration for your viewing pleasure.
Kevin Bourke, Northern Soul writer
When my wife and I moved to Dobcross in Saddleworth around 10 years ago, I (pretty much) immediately gained a whole new appreciation for two Northern-made films, Brassed Off and Yanks. The former, which I’d rather patronisingly thought of as just another of the heart-warming tale of lovable working class folk in which Film Four seemed to specialise at that point, took on a much deeper resonance as I began to grasp the profound, moving importance of the brass band tradition locally. The Whit Friday brass band parades and competition in and around our village is now one of the highlights of our social calendar and has been really missed this year.
Yanks, a 1979 drama directed by John Schlesinger and starring Richard Gere (at the time, one of the hottest properties in film), is set during the Second World War as American soldiers interacted with the local population during the build-up to Operation Overlord in 1944. Big chunks of it were filmed in and around Dobcross and Saddleworth, and so around 20 or so years ago some enterprising locals decided to celebrate the fact with a Yanks Weekend of wartime entertainment, period stalls, dancing, a military vehicle parade, flypasts by vintage bomber aircraft and, inevitably, lots of drinking and eating. It’s great, slightly silly fun rather than a glorification of war and, most memorably for me at least, has featured the carefully choreographed recreation in front of local pub The Swan of the scene in which a jug of piss is poured from an upstairs window over an over-exuberant G.I. Another recreation just yards away (filmed at the house of a neighbour who is a World Champion whistler, I kid you not) was a little less carefully choreographed and, given that it involved some sexual shenanigans abruptly curtailed by Military Police, was even less suitable for family viewing. Gere has yet to participate, but his co-star Lisa Eichhorn guested one year.
Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul
I’m tempted just to write ‘Willy Russell‘ and have that be my choice for best Northern film. But pressed to choose from the playwright’s body of work, two films (adapted from Russell’s plays) stand out. There’s Educating Rita (1983) of course, the story of the unlikely friendship between an alcoholic professor and a hairdresser seeking more from the life assigned to her. When Julie Walters puts her oomph behind that heavy, no-incomers door. When Michael Caine realises, slowly and heart-breakingly, how great her talent is and how far he has fallen. Educating Rita is a masterpiece.
Dancin’ Thru the Dark should be mentioned in the same breath but for entirely different reasons. An adaptation of Russell’s 1978 play Stags and Hens, this 1990 film charts a night on the lash in Liverpool culminating in the bride and groom’s respective parties ending up at the same club. Like Russell’s Blood Brothers, it’s peppered with tragic and magical songs, Northern wit, and emotions and dilemmas so achingly writ that I defy anyone not to cry. As a teenager, it spoke to me like no other film of the time and led to a humongous crush on the lead, Con O’Neill. When I interviewed him a couple of years ago for Northern Soul, my 16-year-old self had to have a little sit down.
Stephen Lucas, Northern Soul writer
The Fruit Machine is a bonkers mash-up of camp, melodrama, surrealism, Stock Aitken Waterman and Rachmaninoff. What’s not to like, basically? It’s also a document of Liverpool and some of the hardships of being a gay, working class teenager in the late 1980s.
In Kirkby, Eddie (played by Emile Charles, younger brother of DJ and actor Craig) watches Golden Age Hollywood films with his mum. Meanwhile, best mate Michael (played by Tony Forsyth) is Eddie’s polar opposite: a street-smart rent boy who we first meet in an amusement arcade, picking up an ageing punter as Mel & Kim sing “we ain’t ever gonna be respectable”. On-the-money camp touches like this are pretty much non-stop. And then there’s Eddie’s playing it straight in front of his homophobic, man-spreading dad (Brookside and Corrie’s Louis Emerick) but the mask slips as he gets lost in a Marilyn Monroe film – or ‘Shite’ as his dad prefers to call it. High melodrama follows, but coming out could get melodramatic back then. And when’s melodrama ever been a reason not to get caught up in a film?
Letter to Brezhnev is scriptwriter Frank Clarke’s love letter to Liverpool and features an iconic performance from his sister Margi as bold-as-brass Teresa. “Food first, filth later,” she tells her fella, making a beeline for the chippy where she lets him feel her “chicken arms” – buff from stuffing “800 chickens arses” a day at her grim factory job. The raucous comedy is offset by trademark Liverpudlian poetry and dreaming, and together they make this Chris Bernard-directed film one of my enduring favourites.
Next up is The Selfish Giant. This film is about the devil-may-care lengths we’ll go to for those we love. Or, as Oscar Wilde puts it in his children’s story of the same name (upon which the film is based), “the wounds of love” we’re prepared to suffer. Front and centre in Yorkshire-born director Clio Barnard’s 2013 feature is the friendship between hyperactive Arbor and soft-hearted Swifty (brilliantly played by Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas respectively). Set in Bradford and briefly Huddersfield, it’s in the latter city that Arbor flexes some hard-headed entrepreneurial nouse that sets in motion a chain of events that clip along to a denouement that KOs all and sundry – viewer included.
Robert Martin, Digital Marketing Consultant
Based on his own experiences of growing up in working class Liverpool in the 1940s and early 50s, Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives is a stunningly original look at the life of a family. Discarding any traditional narrative, it weaves events and characters together in seemingly unconnected scenes, like snapshots from a photo album, building the family’s story in a bold, unique and mesmerising style. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, cruel and gentle, heartbreaking and evocative. No film I’ve come across before or since has used music and singing to better effect.
Karen Connolly, Northern Soul writer
Set in the brutal poverty of inner-city Salford in the 1960s, the film version of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey follows the hopes and dreams of Jo, played by Rita Tushingham, the neglected 16-year-old daughter of a selfish, slovenly and promiscuous mother played brilliantly by Dora Bryan.
I must have seen this film at least 20 times and I’m sure I’ll see it 20 times more. It’s full of squalor, anger, pity and typical dead-pan humour seen so often in the ‘kitchen sink’ genre of film. We witness the love story between Jo and Jimmy, a black sailor and, after he leaves, the pregnant Jo’s enduring friendship with the achingly compassionate Geoffrey, her gay flatmate.
Throughout this harrowing look at post-industrial Britain – before the arrival of The Beatles and Ready Steady Go – the film deals with all the usual, humdrum stuff of daily life in a back-street slum. There are no heroes or perfect endings, it shows real people in their human complexities – their stupid choices, their petty quarrels, self-centred decisions and, above all, their desperate and emotional honesty. All the actors are outstanding, the black and white cinematography captures grimy Salford perfectly (you can almost feel and smell the mould in the flat that Jo shares with her mum at the beginning), and it’s bleak, funny and moving at the same time.
Lee Stoneman, photographer
Based in a gritty Newcastle and its surrounding areas, Get Carter is a great film with the gangster overtones and underworld of a bygone Newcastle. Based on the book by Ted Lewis, I love watching it to see how things have changed in 50 years, from the so-called Get Carter car park in Gateshead to the high level bridge over the River Tyne. It’s a classic that I will never get sick of watching.
Susan Ferguson, Northern Soul writer
I’ve been taking my government-sanctioned daily exercise in and around Salford’s recently renovated Peel Park. From one of the park’s perfectly curated information boards I discovered that Harold Brighouse had set an important scene in his play Hobson’s Choice here and that David Lean’s 1954 film of the story was partly filmed on location in Salford.
Intrigued, I downloaded it from Amazon and discovered an absolute gem. Henry Hobson, portrayed by a magnificent Charles Lawton (watch out for the Dali-esque scene where he struggles with delirium tremens), is the widowed alcoholic father of three daughters (Prunella Scales in her film debut plays the youngest). The film is set in his Chapel Street cobblers where Hobson drinks, the two younger sisters giggle and flirt and Maggie (Brenda da Banzie) runs the show. Hobson thinks Maggie will look after him in his dotage (at 30, he deems her too old to get married) but the brilliant Maggie has other plans involving Willie Mossop (John Mills), the most skilled of the cobblers in the shop.
David Lean spent eight days filming on location in Salford. The war-torn, back-to-back terraces stood in perfectly for Brighouse’s Victorian Salford. Peel Park and the River Irwell both have starring roles and the protagonists dream of opening a high-class cobblers in St Ann’s Square. Highly recommended.
Emma Yates-Badley, Northern Soul’s Deputy Editor
One of my favourite Northern films is the 1998 musical film, Little Voice. Based on the Jim Cartwright play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, the film stars the brilliant Jane Horrocks as Laura Hoff, a reclusive woman who lives with her mother (played by Brenda Blethyn) in a working class home in Scarborough. Nicknamed LV (or Little Voice) because she is so timid, she spends a great deal of time alone in her room listening to the records – and mimicking the voices of – stars like Shirley Bassey and Judy Garland. What follows is a wonderful film about overcoming hardship, finding courage, self-worth and, ultimately, your own voice and name. It’s also one of my housemate’s favourite films which, to me, makes it extra special.
Desmond Bullen, Northern Soul writer
It’s the kind of overstatement that the late Tony Wilson himself might have favoured; the first half of 24 Hour Party People is the best film to be made about pop since Expresso Bongo, a 1959 film satire of the music industry. Steve Coogan’s portrayal of the aforementioned Tony affectionately emphasises his self-knowing brew of vanity and brilliance, just as the tone of Michael Winterbottom’s film judiciously balances the comedic with the tragic, deftly eschewing the reverence of nostalgia while it traces the twin ascendancies of Joy Division and Factory Records.
That it all rather falls apart with the ramshackle antics of Happy Mondays and the eventual unsustainability of The Haçienda is at least poetically true, even if – from a structural perspective – it lends the film’s second act something of the quality of an overlong run-out groove. Nevertheless, like Factory itself, the film hits heights of sustained inspiration that linger in the memory longer than the lulls of its occasional missteps.
Cathy Crabb, playwright and Northern Soul writer
I went to see Ken Loach’s 1993 film Raining Stones on my own in Manchester. My oldest friend Elizabeth grew up in Langley, Middleton (where Raining Stones was filmed) and I lived in a nearby street in a flat with a boyfriend and a mice infestation. I was 17.
I love Langley. It’s very hilly and full of green space. Lots of greens. I always see it in my mind, in the Summer. I hope kids still play out there. I mean not now, obviously. But before and once this is over. The only thing I would say is that there were more dogs around at the time than shown in the film. There were always a few packs of dogs about. In a film about a man who can’t afford to buy his daughter a First Communion dress, and makes terrible choices while trying to raise the cash, my favourite moments include the dad crying after his daughter gives him money. Oh, and the helicopter lights moment. I’ve always lived in places where helicopters put you in the spotlight. Even now in the sticks.
Billy Elliot is a true celebration of the power of dance. The film highlights the captivating nature of dance and a young boy’s growing love for something so alien to his life and surroundings. It doesn’t shy away from the challenges facing a young lad who wants to dance, as well as the impact on his familial relationships. There are at least two moments in the movie that always reduce me to tears, despite having seen it many times: the letter, and leaving home for London. It also showcases a fantastic central performance from Jamie Bell in his first role and, as always, a brilliant turn from Julie Walters as his dance teacher.
And Looking for Eric. Although I’m a Man City fan, you can’t help but enjoy this film about a man whose life has hit rock bottom. Of course, his love for football and his idol Eric Cantona help to get his life back on track.
I also have to mention Brassed Off. I’ve always felt that it was a better film than The Full Monty (released just one year apart) although the latter gained all the plaudits. The aforementioned is a celebration of traditional culture and community against all the odds and tells the story of a Pit Colliery brass band which finds a way to continue and perform in the national championships at the Royal Albert Hall, despite the closure of the pit. There’s also a heartbreaking performance from Stephen Tompkinson (the scene in the clown suit in particular), and a barnstorming performance from Pete Postlethwaite as the band leader.
Janet Harrison, Founder of Cracking Wine
For me it’s Eaten by Lions, written and directed by Manchester-based Jason Wingard and co-written by David Isaac. Not only was it shot in the North (based mostly in Blackpool), it is a celebration of the North. In these grim times, this film will make you laugh and demonstrate what great talent we have here, both in front of and behind the camera.
Omar and Pete are half-brothers. When their parents are eaten by lions, they embark on a journey to find Omar’s real father. What follows is a funny, heart-warming journey of self-discovery for both boys…in Blackpool.
Chris Holmes, Northern Soul’s Gaming Editor
Withnail and I is one of the finest, quintessentially British films of all time. Following the misadventures of two struggling actors hopelessly addicted to whatever substance they can get their hands on, Bruce Robinson’s brilliant script sees Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and our narrator, ‘I’ (Paul McGann), attempting to escape the drudgery of their inner city hovel with a trip to the Lake District. The Cumbrian landscape provides the perfect combination of bleakness and beauty, reflecting the bittersweet portrayal of failed ambition and toxic co-dependency at the film’s heart.
Regardless of the central themes, this is one of the finest and most quotable black comedies ever made with pretty much every scene providing comedy gold. Whether it’s McGann getting the fear while attempting to wash month-old dishes, or a pissed up Withnail threatening to buy a prim teahouse and “install a f*cking jukebox”, if you haven’t seen this film before, you have to watch it immediately. I insist. In fact, this is the film by which I measure potential friendships – if you can’t see the genius here, then we have no future. A fitting sentiment for an incredible film.
Dave Moutrey, CEO of HOME
I choose Hell is a City, 1960, Stanley Baker and Billie Whitelaw. The final scene is filmed on top Manchester’s Refuge building and, if you look carefully, you can see Cornerhouse before it was Cornerhouse.
Ruth Sunderland, City Editor of The Mail on Sunday
Get Carter captures Newcastle perfectly at a moment of profound change. The film takes me hurtling back to childhood. Those pubs. Those street houses and back alleys with washing strung out like my gran’s. And outside loos. Also, a great story – and that ending.
Robert Hamilton, Opera and Gin Correspondent
Northern films abound and my choice is the classic Hobson’s Choice. I’ve chosen it for two reasons. Firstly, it is really funny. It stars Charles Laughton as Henry Hobson, the irascible, acerbic and alcoholic owner of a bootmakers shop on Chapel Street, Salford. His eldest daughter, Maggie (Brenda De Brandie), hatches a plot to escape his tyranny by opening a rival shop with the help of his timid but talented employee, Will Mossop (John Mills). Part of her plot involves courting Will in Peel Park with much of the exterior shots filmed on location in Salford. Which is my second reason for choosing it. It was shot just around the corner from where I live making it both Northern and local.
If I needed a third reason it would be that it was directed by David Lean who had already made the station clock on Carnforth Station a cinematic icon in Brief Encounter. Lean is one of the greats and, in this time of lock-ins (Hobson’s favourite pastime), his back catalogue is well worth a look.
Andy Murray, Film and Music Editor
What was the North up to while London was busy swinging? An answer can be found in The White Bus, a striking and occasionally surreal film with scant dialogue that unfolds like the Magical Mystery Tour took an unexpected detour via derelict bits of Salford.
It follows an unnamed character – the luminous presence of Patricia Healey, who combined a steady acting career with being Mrs Engelbert Humperdinck – as she takes a train back home to Piccadilly Station and wanders onto the eponymous bus with a group of touring civic dignitaries. Their travels take in Manchester Town Hall, Trafford Park, Kersal Flats and Pendleton High School for Girls, so it’s a remarkable time capsule of a lost period. It also boasts a corking ‘ooh, what’s he been in?’ cast of cameos including Arthur Lowe, John Savident, Stephen Moore, John Sharp and – in his big screen debut, no less – yer actual Anthony Hopkins.
The White Bus was written by Salford’s own Shelagh Delaney, adapted from her own original 1964 short story and salvaged from a capsized BBC TV drama adaptation. In its own way it’s unvarnished and satirically amusing, but it’s also weirdly beautiful. The atmosphere is generally strange and still, and it’s easy to believe that these times and places felt exactly like this, even if it’s being conveyed in an impressionistic, dream-like fashion as opposed to gritty realism.
Esther Lisk-Carew, freelance film host
I first saw Control the week that Tony Wilson died. I remember him recording his radio show at Cornerhouse until near his death. Later, I concluded that Craig Parkinson’s portrayal of Manchester’s iconic son was (with all due deference to Steve Coogan) my favourite. It’s of a piece with the quality of the performances and aesthetic and attention to detail in Anton Corbijn’s film about Joy Division, one of the most iconic bands of the North West. It balances the energy of a young band of Northern lads discovering fame and fortune alongside a delicate portrayal of Ian Curtis’s struggle with epilepsy and depression. Yes, this a sentimental choice, but it’s also a cracking film and screams the North to me like nothing else.
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