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10 best low budget british comedy films of all time

The 10 best low budget British comedy films of all time

Now a leading force in the world of TV and cinema with budgets so big they make your eyes water – think Netflix’s Game of Thrones (2011) or The Crown (2016) or Paramount’s Harry Potter series – UK production hasn’t always had it so good.

In fact, many of the best British comedy films of all time have been made on not much more than a shoestring budget.

When it comes to film, for much of the latter half of the twentieth century, ‘low budget’ and ‘British’ seemed to go hand in hand, with the highest budgets lent to massive IPs or animations like the string of Aardman classics.

While some genres, such as action or sci-fi, may have struggled with the lower price tags, comedy had no such issue, and the past fifty years have seen the UK create some powerhouse chuckles with impressively little spend.

So from the Ealing comedies filmed in studios soundproofed with hay, to noughties underrated gems filmed out the back of a caravan, here are my 10 best low budget British comedy movies of all time.

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The 10 best low-budget British comedy films of all time

10. East is East (1999)

One of those British comedy films that could technically be a dramedy, and by far the most serious film on this list. However, East is East qualifies due to some skilful comedy set-ups that pay off during some of the tensest moments to create moments as memorable as they are hilarious.

The story follows a mixed-ethnicity family living in Salford, Lancashire, as they try to embed themselves in the mundanity of the mother’s Roman Catholic British/Irish life while staying true to the father’s Muslim heritage.

East is East is essentially a film set on a knife-edge, finding drama and humour in the balance between the brightest and bleakest aspects of both Christian and Muslim and British and Pakistani culture. It’s a comedy film with a huge heart and an even larger statement to make, and through a good laugh and cry, it lifts the veil on modern British life.

East Is East Poster
Movie poster for East is East (1999). Image courtesy of Atalanta Filmes.

9. Death at a Funeral (2007)

If there’s one thing British comedy is exceptionally good at, it’s farces, and Death at a Funeral serves chuckles from the moment you read its name.

Since its release, Death at a Funeral has been a little forgotten about, but with a cast including Peter Dinklage, Kris Marshall and Keely Hawes, it more than deserves your attention for its 90 minutes running time.

The story follows a dysfunctional family who all come together for the first time in years to attend their father’s funeral. All while trying not to ignore the underlying tensions bubbling under the surface that made none of them want to be there in the first place.

Another film that relies on farces during an incredibly dark time to constantly pile the pressure, and the comedy, onto the protagonists. What sets Death at a Funeral apart is that it’s a true ensemble. With no huge acting names to steal the limelight, each character gets a big comedy moment to create a toxic atmosphere to bubble until it reaches boiling point.

Death at A Funeral
A movie poster for Death at a Funeral (2007), image courtesy of Verve Picture

8. The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

One of the original five St. Trinian’s films and by far the one with the biggest laughs. The film features an ensemble cast of some of the biggest names of the time in British comedy, Frankie Howard, Reg Varney, Richard Wattis, Eric Barker and Dora Bryan, to name a few.

The story focuses on a newly relocated St. Trinian’s school becoming caught up in a train robbery after the robbers attempt to reclaim their stashed loot from the building that the students and teachers now inhabit. The film is partly based on the actual Great Train Robbery that took place in 1963, enabling it to spoof many of the political and societal ideas of the time.

One of the highest-grossing films of 1966 in the UK, the story has one of the most satisfying second acts of any picture in this list. Not one but three trains get stolen and race each other up and down a section of track as the teachers, school kids and robbers all try to steal the carriage carrying the loot from one another. It’s frantic, farcical and an absolute blast.

The Great St Trinians Train Robbery
Movie poster for The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966), image courtesy of British Lion Films.

7. Clockwise (1986)

A little-known absurdist comedy film starring John Cleese, and at the time said to be the “best script [he’d] ever read”, manages to capture the whimsical nature of rural Britain in the 1980s.

Released a year before the iconic US comedy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), Clockwise has rather a lot in common with it.

Clockwise tells the story of a compulsively organised headmaster, Brian Stimpson, who prides himself on running his school “like clockwork”.

Stimpson gets invited to be the first non-private school host of the prestigious Headmaster’s Conference, but a series of mishaps during the journey makes him run dreadfully late for the event. Cue a farce of nail-biting timekeeping as you wonder whether Brian will ever make it to the event on time or at all.

What starts as several minor mishaps slowly escalates into a spectacle of farce and poor decisions as Stimpson desperately tries to retain a shred of dignity under immense, self-inflicted stress. In Clockwise, Cleese is in his element: able to bounce between a stiff upper lip demeanour and panic-stricken frenzied outbursts – well worth a watch.

Clockwise Film Poster
Movie poster for for Clockwise (1986), image courtesy of Moment Films

6. The Plank (1967)

With a mere 50 minute runtime, The Plank is the shortest film to make this list, but what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in comedy impact.

Filled to the brim with some of the best comics from the era, including Eric Sykes, Tommy Cooper and Jimmy Edwards, this near-silent film harks back to the period before the “talkies” using grunts and sound effects.

The story follows a couple of hapless carpenters building a house and coming up one floorboard short, so they head to the wood yard to purchase a new one. What follows is a return journey fraught with difficulties: a plank that never quite ends up in the right place and car doors that can never shut at the same time.

Another farce in the vein of Clockwise and Planes, Trains and Automobiles that may well have served as inspiration for both, The Plank is slapstick in its purest form. The story is simple, the plot is simple, and the characters are simple, but that’s the charm of it. It’s a film of growing frustration that forever keeps you guessing over what’s coming next.

The Plank (1967)
Movie poster for The Plank (1967), image courtesy of Associated London Films

5. The Ladykillers (1955)

Perhaps the greatest of all the comedies to come out of Ealing Studios, known as the ‘Ealing comedies’, in the 1950s.

At the time of its release, the script was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and Best British Screenplay at the BAFTAs – remarkable given the writer William Rose said he dreamt the entire plot and just had to note it down.

The story focuses on an eccentric old lady who is unknowingly drawn into a plot by a ruthless gang to steal a fortune. Yet when she discovers the truth and threatens to tell the police, the gang decide they must kill her to keep themselves free from prison – except none of them can bring themselves to do it. Cue the criminals crossing, double-crossing and accidentally killing each other in quick succession.

What makes The Ladykillers so memorable is its ironic contrasts. The unassuming old lady versus the tense and deceiving criminals, the vast sum of money versus the film’s setting in a tatty house over a railway line, and the intricately woven plot as serious as any crime movie versus the comedy tone. It’s as tight-a-written script as you’re ever likely to come across.

The Ladykillers (1955)
Movie poster for The Ladykillers (1955), image courtesy of Ealing Studios

4. Sightseers (2012)

So dark-a-comedy it sometimes verges into outright horror. Sightseers is what many people believe actually going on a caravan holiday might be like.

One of Edgar Wright’s earlier films that firmly cemented his highly saturated directing style, Sightseers won the BIFA Award for Best Screenplay at the time of its release.

The story follows a downtrodden couple, aspiring writer Chris and his girlfriend Tina, who is henpecked into oblivion by her own mother, as they venture on their first-ever holiday together – in their caravan. It’s all light and smiles until Chris has an argument with a dog walker and ends up running him over with his car, thus commencing the first of a murder spree.

Sightseers creates comedy in the mundane mixed with the horrific. The pleasant, if a bit dull caravan sights and local village pubs morph into bloodbaths whenever serial killers Chris and Tina appear. The violence is chilling but always carried off with utmost confidence by the protagonists to create an exquisitely British blend of quirky romantic comedy horror that’s as funny as it is uneasy.

Sightseers Film Poster
Movie poster for Sightseers (2012), image courtesy of Studio Canal

3. The Full Monty (1997)

Released in 1997 to quickly become the highest-grossing British film of that year until overtaken by Titanic, The Full Monty was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning Best Original Musical or Comedy Score. The film has since been ranked 25th on the BFI’s list of best British films of all time.

The story follows six unemployed men, four of whom are former steelworkers, who decide to establish a male striptease act to earn money and allow the main character, Gaz, to visit his son.

A social-justice comedy film, The Full Monty touches on subjects such as homosexuality, father’s rights, unemployment, suicide and working-class culture – treating each one the respect it deserves without throwing the light-hearted and good-nature tone off-piste.

Ultimately, the pairing of an eclectic script with the electric on-screen chemistry of the actors, including Robert Carlisle, Tom Wilkinson and Mark Addy, is what elevates the film to the stratosphere.

The Full Monty Film Poster
Movie poster for The Full Monty (1997), image courtesy of Redwave Films

2. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

No list of low-budget British comedies would be complete without this behemoth. Life of Brian was created by the Monty Python group, who would become some of the biggest names in British comedy, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian tells the story of Brian Cohen, a young Jewish-Roman man who is born next door to and on the same day as Jesus Christ and is mistaken for the Messiah. Cue the infamous line, “he’s not the messiah; he’s a very naughty boy.”

With sharp wit, absurdist humour, and low-budget British charm, Life of Brian manages to throw the spotlight on religion without losing its lighthearted, wholesome edge.

During its release in 1979, the film became the highest-grossing British film in America for that year and has since been named the greatest comedy film of all time by several critic sites. The film has become so synonymous with British culture that its theme song, “Always look on the bright side of life”, even got a slot at the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

Life of Brian British Comedy
Movie poster for Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), image courtesy of HandMade Films.

1. Withnail & I (1987)

Much like Life of Brian, no list of the best low budget British comedy films could be complete without Withnail & I.

Listed in 1999 by the BFI as the 29th greatest British film of all time and often cited as one of the best comedy films ever made, Withnail & I launched Richard E. Grant’s movie acting career and ensured huge profiles for its entire cast.

The plot revolves around two jobless actors, Withnail and “I,” who occupy a run-down apartment in Camden Town. In need of a holiday, they obtain the key to Withnail’s eccentric uncle Monty’s country house in the Lake District but soon find the weekend isn’t as relaxing as they’d hoped.

Referred to as a tour de force in British comedy, Withnail & I will resonate with anyone who has ever watched their dreams slip away from them. With lines such as “When you’re hanging on to a rising balloon, you’re presented with two choices; either let go or hang on, which brings up the question of how long you can keep your grip on the rope?”, the Shakespearean-influenced dialogue mixes tragedy and comedy with a biting sense of dread and apathy to make this black comedy something genuinely spectacular.

Withnail and I
Image poster for Withnail & I (1987), image courtesy of Hand Made Films

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Editor & Artwork/Banner (Film Forums): Richard Williams
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