I could name a hundred British movies with great scripts but I’ve tried to concentrate on ones where a draft screenplay is actually available for study. This means I can’t really mention a favourite of mine: Michael Eaton’s Fellow Traveller, which you can’t get anywhere, nor Peter Chelsom and Adrian Dunbar’s screenplay for Hear My Song, or Peter Howitt’s Sliding Doors, all three of which are strong genre-bending scripts that I love, not to mention Patrick Marber’s brilliant Closer.
There are also UK-set scripts by US writers, and vice-versa, that I was going to avoid, but there’s an argument for the former if what you want to know is how to write credible UK-set screenplays.
When I list them like this it becomes clear to me that what I’m seeking in British screenwriting is an escape from depressing social realism. I never knew.
So here goes. These are the ones that do it for me.
(You might want to right-click on the ‘Download’ options and ‘Save target as’ if you want to download it rather than read it online).
The Singing Detective
[Dennis Potter]. Yes it’s a near-seven hour TV serial and if you buy the paperback it’s not even laid out properly (no sluglines, etc), so don’t go to this one for anything but the poetry. The most beautifully written script I’ve ever read and the one I get off the shelf when I need to feel inspired and be reminded that screenwriting is an art as well as a craft and can (and should) be a beautiful read. Buy it now.
Four Weddings and a Funeral
[Richard Curtis]. It’s fashionable to hate this but say what you like, it took a US genre staple and made a convincing Brit version of it that sold all over the world. It’s great screenwriting, pure and simple, and anyone who moans about it being unrealistic can do one as far as I’m concerned. [Buy it]
Shallow Grave / Trainspotting
[John Hodge]. Two great group-in-peril thrillers, of a sort. They remind me that we can do gritty, modern and cool as fuck as well as any Americans, and that we don’t have to be so grim up north. [Download / Download]
Shakespeare in Love
[Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard]. Yes, Marc Norman is a yank, but everything else about this is quintessentially English (apart from the Hollywood in-jokes). It’s about a young Shakespeare… as an up and coming (screen)writer… it’s romantic… and funny… and literate… and there’s a bit with a dog. [Download]
The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp
[Emeric Pressburger] A much overlooked screenwriter. Only a Hungarian emigre could write so many brilliant scripts about what it really means to be British, and this is just one of many. Pure gold from start to finish. [Download]
[Laura Jones and Neil LaBute] Another one that’s written by yanks but an adaptation of an English novel, set in England and managing to have its modern cake while, er, eating its heritage (or something). The script that’s available online, written by David Henry Hwang, is obviously an early draft. What later emerged by Jones and LaBute is markedly different and much more appealing in my view. [Download]