Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner

Song and dance on the big screen

Main image of Musicals

"It has long been almost axiomatic that the British cannot make musicals", sighed an anonymous Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer in July 1959. But although there are few challengers to Singin' in the Rain (US, d. Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen, 1952), The Sound of Music (US, d. Robert Wise, 1965) or a Busby Berkeley extravaganza, there have been enough distinctive British musicals over the past 75 years to give the lie to this casual dismissal.

The first British screen musical was released the same year as the country's first sound feature, Blackmail (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1929). As with that film, and the first American screen musical, The Jazz Singer (d. Alan Crosland, 1927), the Harry Lauder vehicle Auld Lang Syne (d. George Pearson, 1929) was initially shot as a silent film, before being hastily converted to sound for commercial reasons.

As in Hollywood, the golden age of the British musical was undoubtedly the 1930s, which alternated adaptations of stage hits (including The Good Companions, d. Victor Saville, 1933, and Chu-Chin-Chow, d. Walter Forde, 1934) with original musical comedies. Indeed, stars like Arthur Askey, Cicely Courtneidge, Gracie Fields, George Formby, Jack Hulbert, Stanley Lupino and Tommy Trinder had as much (and often more) of a reputation for comedy as they did for music.

The era's biggest star, Jessie Matthews, made enough of a song-and-dance impact in films like Evergreen (d. Victor Saville, 1934) and First A Girl (d. Saville, 1935) for the great Fred Astaire to take notice, though they never worked together. She was, however, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, in the pleasant if hardly characteristic Waltzes from Vienna (1933).

For understandable reasons, British musical production slowed during the war years, though Formby, Askey and Trinder continued their prolific output. Memorable individual titles include music-hall tribute Champagne Charlie (d. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1944) and I'll Be Your Sweetheart (d. Val Guest, 1945).

The immediate postwar years were dominated by husband-and-wife team Anna Neagle (star) and Herbert Wilcox (director), whose Spring in Park Lane (1948) and Maytime in Mayfair (1949) entertained audiences still suffering from war-induced austerity. 1948 saw the release of Powell and Pressburger's delirious ballet film The Red Shoes, which was followed by two Offenbach adaptations, from the opera The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and the operetta Die Fledermaus (Oh!! Rosalinda, 1955).

But these both flopped at the box office, as did The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (d. Sidney Gilliat, 1953), and the decade saw few other musical standouts aside from a remake of The Good Companions (d. J.Lee Thompson, 1956). The Neagle and Wilcox collaboration continued with Lilacs in the Spring (1955) and The Heart of a Man (1959), but their The Lady is a Square (1958), a romance between a classical music fan and a budding pop star, showed the way things were heading.

From the late 1950s, British musicals were almost invariably linked to successful chart acts. The biggest of these were Tommy Steele (who literally played himself in The Tommy Steele Story, d. Gerard Bryant, 1957, and effectively did so in several other films) and Cliff Richard, with Expresso Bongo (d. Val Guest, 1959), The Young Ones (d. Sidney J.Furie, 1961) and Summer Holiday (d. Peter Yates, 1963) becoming much-loved British icons.

In 1964, A Hard Day's Night (d. Richard Lester), a promotional quickie for The Beatles, became a cultural phenomenon, leading to the more elaborate Help! (d. Lester, 1965) and the animated feature Yellow Submarine (d. George Dunning, 1968). The best of several cash-ins was Catch Us If You Can (1965), a vehicle for the Dave Clark Five that was John Boorman's lively feature debut, with less successful titles including sci-fi-influenced Gonks Go Beat (d. Robert Hartford-Davis, 1965). Meanwhile, the 1968 Best Picture Oscar went to a thoroughly traditional British screen musical, Oliver! (d. Carol Reed), which by then had become an endangered species, Michael Winner's The Cool Mikado (1963) having done little to revive it.

1970s British musicals were dominated by Ken Russell. After the furore over his Richard Strauss fantasy Dance of the Seven Veils (BBC, tx. 15/2/1970), Russell moved his musical preoccupations to the big screen, with The Music Lovers (1970), Mahler (1973) and Lisztomania (1975) being sensationalised biopics of Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Liszt respectively. Russell's most ambitious musical feature was a typically gaudy, star-studded (Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson) adaptation of The Who's rock opera Tommy (1975). In stark contrast to their flamboyant vulgarity, The Boy Friend (1971) was an underrated pleasure, adapting Sandy Wilson's charming 1920s musical with uncharacteristic U-certificate restraint.

Although not technically musicals, That'll Be The Day (d. Claude Whatham, 1973) and Quadrophenia (d. Franc Roddam, 1979) derived their inspiration from 1950s rock'n'roll and The Who's 1973 concept album respectively. The sequel to That'll Be The Day, Stardust (d. Michael Apted, 1974) featured more onscreen numbers, as the self-destructing career of Jim McLaine (David Essex) was depicted in pitiless detail. Meanwhile, Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man (1973) used Alan Price's songs (performed onscreen) to provide an ironic running commentary, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (d. Terry Jones/Terry Gilliam, 1975) included several wickedly funny Neil Innes-composed musical numbers.

Alan Parker's prolific musical output includes the children-as-gangsters vehicle Bugsy Malone (1977), stage-school drama Fame (US, 1980), a mixed-media visualisation of Pink Floyd's The Wall (1982), the raucous tale of Dublin soul band The Commitments (US/UK, 1990) and a glossy Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita (US/UK, 1996). Had Julien Temple matched that commercial track record, he might well have made rather more large-scale musicals: a pioneering music video director, his big-screen output includes the notoriously over-hyped Absolute Beginners (1986) and two definitive Sex Pistols films, The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (1980) and The Filth and the Fury (2000).

The Pistols' punk revolution rapidly invaded the cinema, key films including the factual The Punk Rock Movie (d. Don Letts, 1977), the semi-documentary Rude Boy (d. Jack Hazan/David Mingay, 1979), the fictional Breaking Glass (d. Brian Gibson, 1980); and Derek Jarman's ambitious, uneven Jubilee (1978), while The Tempest (d. Jarman, 1979) concluded with 'Stormy Weather' sung by veteran Elisabeth Welch. The near-simultaneous ska revival was marked by concert film Dance Craze (d. Joe Massot, 1981) and the likeable Take It Or Leave It (d. Dave Robinson, 1981), about London band Madness, while Babylon (d. Franco Rosso, 1980) starred Aswad's lead singer in a drama about reggae sound systems.

Post-1980 musicals include the bizarre vampire snooker fantasy Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985), an unlikely vehicle for social realist director Alan Clarke, while Don Boyd produced Aria in 1987, with ten very different directors (including Britons Bill Bryden, Jarman, Roddam, Nicolas Roeg, Russell, Charles Sturridge and Temple) visualising a favourite operatic highlight.

Babymother (d. Julian Henriques, 1998) was a long overdue black British musical, Mike Leigh's delightful Topsy-Turvy (1999) revisited the story of Gilbert and Sullivan with more depth and wit, while Kenneth Branagh fused Shakespeare with 1930s musical comedy in Love's Labour's Lost (1999). But the most successful recent genre entry was 24 Hour Party People (d. Michael Winterbottom, 2002), a hilarious picaresque portrait of the 1980s Manchester music scene with Steve Coogan as Factory Records ringmaster Tony Wilson.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 'Beat' Girl (1959)'Beat' Girl (1959)

Cautionary tale about a respectable girl turned sleazy stripper

Thumbnail image of Babymother (1998)Babymother (1998)

Black British film about a young mother with ambitions to become a reggae star

Thumbnail image of Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985)Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985)

The world's first (and for some reason only) vampire snooker musical

Thumbnail image of Bugsy Malone (1976)Bugsy Malone (1976)

Alan Parker's delightfully original children's gangster musical

Thumbnail image of Catch Us If You Can (1965)Catch Us If You Can (1965)

Lively pop musical that was John Boorman's feature debut

Thumbnail image of Champagne Charlie (1944)Champagne Charlie (1944)

Lively recreation of the bawdy atmosphere of Victorian music-halls

Thumbnail image of Commitments, The (1991)Commitments, The (1991)

Lively, raucous tale of working-class Dublin teenagers forming a soul band

Thumbnail image of Evergreen (1934)Evergreen (1934)

Jessie Matthews plays two roles in this Rodgers and Hart musical comedy

Thumbnail image of Expresso Bongo (1959)Expresso Bongo (1959)

Cliff Richard comedy about the discovery of a new musical star

Thumbnail image of Good Companions, The (1933)Good Companions, The (1933)

Adaptation of J.B. Priestley's popular play about a performing troupe

Thumbnail image of Hard Day's Night, A (1964)Hard Day's Night, A (1964)

The Beatles star in one of the defining films of the Swinging Sixties

Thumbnail image of London Town (1946)London Town (1946)

Notoriously disastrous Technicolor musical extravaganza

Thumbnail image of Mikado, The (1939)Mikado, The (1939)

Lavish Technicolor version of the perennial Gilbert and Sullivan operetta

Thumbnail image of Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955)Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955)

Powell & Pressburger musical comedy based on 'Die Fledermaus'

Thumbnail image of Oliver! (1968)Oliver! (1968)

Lionel Bart's Oscar-winning musical adaptation of Dickens' Oliver Twist

Thumbnail image of Piccadilly Incident (1946)Piccadilly Incident (1946)

Stirring Anna Neagle melodrama about a couple separated by WWII

Thumbnail image of Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)

Alan Parker and Gerald Scarfe's visualisation of the epic concept album

Thumbnail image of Red Shoes, The (1948)Red Shoes, The (1948)

Powell and Pressburger's beautiful and delirious ballet film

Thumbnail image of Rock You Sinners (1957)Rock You Sinners (1957)

Lively musical capturing the birth of the rock'n'roll scene in Britain

Thumbnail image of Sailors Three (1940)Sailors Three (1940)

Jolly wartime naval comedy starring Tommy Trinder

Thumbnail image of Stardust (1974)Stardust (1974)

Brutally cynical account of the price of fame

Thumbnail image of Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)

Technicolor biopic of the masters of the Victorian operetta

Thumbnail image of Summer Holiday (1962)Summer Holiday (1962)

Cliff Richard and chums cross Europe by double-decker bus

Thumbnail image of Tales of Hoffmann, The (1951)Tales of Hoffmann, The (1951)

Visually ravishing Powell & Pressburger film of the Offenbach opera

Thumbnail image of That'll Be The Day (1973)That'll Be The Day (1973)

David Essex is teen rebel Jim Maclaine in this 1950s rock'n'roll fable

Thumbnail image of Tommy Steele Story, The (1957)Tommy Steele Story, The (1957)

Early rock'n'roll musical charting the rise to fame of the South London singer

Thumbnail image of Young Ones, The (1961)Young Ones, The (1961)

Exuberant musical in which Cliff Richard and pals fight to save their youth club

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Musical Comedy in the 1930sMusical Comedy in the 1930s

A closer look at the golden age of British musical comedy

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Beatles, TheBeatles, The


Thumbnail image of Fields, Gracie (1898-1979)Fields, Gracie (1898-1979)


Thumbnail image of Formby, George (1904-1961)Formby, George (1904-1961)


Thumbnail image of Matthews, Jessie (1907-1981)Matthews, Jessie (1907-1981)

Actor, Dancer

Thumbnail image of Neagle, Anna (1904-1986)Neagle, Anna (1904-1986)

Actor, Producer

Thumbnail image of Parker, Alan (1944-)Parker, Alan (1944-)

Director, Producer, Writer

Thumbnail image of Richard, Cliff (1940-)Richard, Cliff (1940-)

Singer, Actor

Thumbnail image of Russell, Ken (1927-2011)Russell, Ken (1927-2011)

Director, Producer, Writer, Actor