"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.