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The British Hero by Michael Brooke
Introduction Stiff Upper Lips Working-Class Heroes Heroic Outsiders Heroic Failures The Antihero
Historical Heroes Literary Heroes Cultural Heroes Local Heroes    
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The British Antihero
Still from The Wicked Lady (1945)

Margaret Lockwood as The Wicked
(1945), with James Mason

Few images of the British antihero are more potent than that of Malcolm McDowell at the start of A Clockwork Orange (1971), and McDowell himself already had form: he'd also played the lead in Lindsay Anderson's incendiary If.... (1968), which culminated in him machine-gunning various authority figures from the roof of a boarding school.

But this was hardly a new development for British cinema. Over two decades earlier, the Gainsborough melodramas of the 1940s featured plenty of antiheroes, usually played by James Mason and Margaret Lockwood, both of whom achieved phenomenal popularity on the back of characters with few redeeming features. The most enduring example is Lockwood's The Wicked Lady (d. Leslie Arliss, 1945), a thrilling role model for female audiences temporarily liberated by war, who cheered her rapacious exploits to the hilt.

In 1949, The Third Man demonstrated a similar principle, by featuring Joseph Cotten's earnest Holly Martins on screen throughout while giving Orson Welles' cheerfully amoral Harry Lime only a few minutes. But which one did audiences remember most fondly? And who did they cheer on in Kind Hearts and Coronets - the extended d'Ascoyne family (Alec Guinness), or their ruthlessly methodical killer (Dennis Price)?

As the heroic failure represents what we most dread about ourselves, so the antihero represents what we'd secretly like to be, if only we were brave enough to cast aside morality and the expectations of our peers. Depending on whether one favours brains or brawn, Alan Clarke's Scum (1979) offers two role models, with Carlin achieving power and status via his fists, while Archer undermines the authorities at every turn via a series of smaller but equally satisfying victories by forcing them to cater for his alleged vegetarianism, atheism and refusal to wear leather. At the start of Trainspotting (1996), Mark Renton explicitly rejects the idea of conforming with mainstream society, and the film goes on to undermine traditional concepts of heroism at every turn.

But it's not good enough just to be a charming villain. At the turn of the twenty-first century, in the wake of the success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (d. Guy Ritchie, 1998), many British films sought to exploit the gangster as antihero. Most were dreadful, and it's revealing that one of the few genuinely memorable efforts, Gangster No.1 (2000), was an intelligent, acute examination of a would-be antihero who ends up a decidedly unappealing failure as his limitations are cruelly exposed. Ironically, the older version of this character was played by Malcolm McDowell.

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