With the much anticipated release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in theatres today, WhatCulture! were challenged with coming up with our 10 best British ensemble casts. With Tinker’s all star British cast – including the likes of Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch – it was a bloody hard challenge to come up with ten that could even come close to rivalling such a solid cast!
Read on to discover what we came up with!
10. GOSFORD PARK (2001)
The murder mystery genre is always one that employs a vast and impressive ensemble cast and Gosford Park is a prime example of how effective a film can be when this is done proficiently. A range of talented British stars fill the screen, disclosing the everyday workings of a 1930s mansion house from the privileged inhabitants and their wealthy guests, right down to the most invisible of servants. A roster of stars recognisable the world over embody a range of characters, from Helen Mirren’s portrayal as the head servant, to Kristen Scott Thomas’s turn as the lady of the house.
The mixture of British and American actors is varied and impressive, but the homegrown talent is particularly memorable with roles for Michael Gambon, Charles Dance, Laurence Fox, Camilla Rutherford, Stephen Fry, Clive Owen, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi and Richard E. Grant. Director Robert Altman brings his directorial charm to good ol’ Blighty after great success with U.S. ensemble cast dramas: and he certainly knows how use his pool of luvvies to great effect in his efforts here.
09. LOVE ACTUALLY (2003)
A few weeks back I included Love Actually in a Top 10 British Films of All Time entry, much to the surprise and objection of many readers. No matter what individual opinions are on the film itself, it definitely features an impressive ensemble cast of British talent.
The sheer volume of popular and stellar Brit actors makes this one of the strongest casts found in this type of film, a genre that is arguably uniquely successful in the UK. From global superstars such as Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson and Alan Rickman to more home-grown talent like Martine McCutcheon, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page, Rowan Atkinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Andew Lincoln, the film is rammed with recognisable faces, brought together by the king of British comedy, Richard Curtis.
The multi-strand narrative is engaging due to the solid cast and everybody embodies their character fully to create an enjoyable romantic romp!
08. EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982)
Consisting of a host of British talent that is recognisable on both sides of the pond, Evil Under the Sun brings together some spectacular talent. Diana Riggs, Maggie Smith, Peter Ustinov, James Mason and Jane Birkin combine to perfectly capture the glamour and mystique of this 1930s set murder mystery.
Set on a fictional island gifted to Smith’s character, Daphne Castle, by the King of Tyrania (also fictional), the cast offer solid performances via a range of roles. Riggs is hilariously vampish with her bitchy side remarks and self-importance and audiences are almost a little relieved when she’s finally bumped off! Smith is endearing but equally catty as Daphne, a character that loves her job as a hotel owner, but finds herself in a frightful flap after the unexpected death. Ustinov fully embodies the character of Poirot, capturing all of the little Belgian detective’s unique quirks. He’s simultaneously irritating and awe inspiring and Ustinov manages to keep the character on just the right side of irritating.
Excellent support comes from Mason, Birkin and a plethora of less well known British actors, as well as some from the U.S. Overall, the film is a jolly romp made even more enjoyable by it’s superb cast!
07. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959)
The world of Hammer horror films has always been swamped with a plethora of talented British actors, despite their low budgets and B-grade classifications. Almost single-handedly launching the careers of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing – two of Britain’s most enduring and well-loved actors – Hammer always managed to drag its films out of the low grade gutter by employing stellar casts that could virtually always transcend even the poorest of scripts. Over the years, stars such as Michael Gough, Andrew Keir, Oliver Reed, Ralph Bates, Michael Ripper, Stephanie Beacham, Martine Beswick, Valerie Leon and Barbara Shelley made appearances, along with a host of international talent like Ursula Andress, Raquel Welch, Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Fontaine, Forrest Tucker and Herbert Lom.
The Hound of the Baskervilles – one of Hammer’s early horror ventures – stars one of the most solid British casts in a film that is uniquely of its home country. The primary cast consists of Lee, Cushing and fellow Hammer regular Andre Morell. This trio of talent are perfectly cast, but combined with a remaining cast of unknown talent; a truly realistic feel is evident. The Hound of the Baskervilles excellently demonstrates that a successful ensemble cast does not have to be made up entirely of big name stars.
06. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993)
If there’s one genre of film that only us Brits could tackle gallantly, it’s that of the Shakespearian drama. Although Kenneth Branagh’s excellent 1993 film features some stellar performances from American actors such as Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves, the cast of British talent is simply second to none when it comes to filmed Bard adaptations.
With lead roles for Branagh and his then wife Emma Thompson, support comes from a range of talented stars from Richard Briers, Imelda Staunten and Phylida Law to a very young Kate Beckinsale. The challenging nature of the source material puts each cast member through their paces and obviously certain talent – such as Branagh, Thompson and Briers – fare better than others, but as a whole, the cast gels extremely well, exhibiting a genuine chemistry, to breath new life into an old classic.
05. MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)
Britain’s most entertaining comedy troupe takes multiple roles in this big screen outing that is one of the funniest – and most inaccurate – historical capers to ever grace the silver screen. Actors John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin are all well known comedians in their own rights, but together they manage to create a unique brand of humour that is second to none. Flawlessly bouncing off each other throughout the narrative, they become even stronger comedians together than they are separately.
Holy Grail demonstrates how a cast of essentially five men can in fact produce side-splitting comedy and memorable sequences. The daft nature of the films plot, whilst still being funny, would have failed to be as entertaining had the chief ensemble cast not played multiple roles. It’s also an extremely proficient film, with the cast giving exceptional performances despite the rather ridiculous nature of the script. Holy Grail proves that for an ensemble cast to really be funny in a parody, they have to be intelligent enough to highlight the irony… Take note Scary/Epic/Date/Disaster etc etc Movie franchises!
04. THE LADYKILLERS (1955)
During their ten-year comedy tenure between 1947 and 1957, Ealing Studios managed to produce some of the most solid farcical films to ever come out of the UK. The Ladykillers is perhaps one of the most well known of these films, primarily due to its memorable British cast. Ealing regular Alec Guinness is joined by Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker, Danny Green, Frankie Howerd and international star Herbert Lom in one of the studio’s most entertaining comedies. Also cast is actress Katie Johnson – a popular actress from the 1930s until her death in 1957, but who has slipped from popular contemporary conscience – in a role that helps her virtually steal the film from right under her co-stars’ feet!
The entire ensemble is quite simply perfect, generating laughs and suspense in equal doses and creating a truly classic film through superb acting. Recently remade as a Hollywood blockbuster in 2004, with Tom Hanks and Marlon Wyans in major roles, the charm of the original film was all but lost in what was essentially a crude and unfunny mess. With a poor cast, this terrible remake goes a long way in demonstrating just how excellent the orginal cast really were!
03. CARRY ON DOCTOR (1967)
Like the Ealing comedies before them, the Carry On films are a unique British institution, with their saucy double entendres and rib tickling jibes at our very own culture. The series managed to generate its own roster of stars, with many becoming regulars. For a lot of the actors involved in the productions, the comedies became what they were most recognised for. Over the years the films made household names out of Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Joan Sims, Hattie Jacques, Leslie Phillips, Shirley Eaton, Kenneth Connor, Amanda Barrie, Frankie Howerd and the indomitable Barbara Windsor, to name but a few!
Along with Carry On Camping, Carry On Doctor is one of the most popular films in the series and boasts one of the strongest casts. With roles for James, Williams, Jacques, Sims, Windsor and a host of other talented comics, the film flies by with a barrel of laughs as each actor does what they do best. As the series progressed, each actor slotted into his or her stereotypical role perfectly and Doctor is one of a handful of films where they got it exactly right!
02. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
Yet another murder mystery (I did tell you that they offer the best ensemble casts!), Orient Express features some truly remarkable talent. British stalwarts such as Albert Finney, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset converge, with help from legendary international talents Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Martin Balsam and Anthony Perkins. This exceptional cast bring a faithful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s source novel to the screen and the British stars involved are a veritable crew of acting royalty at the time of production.
Finney – the films main star – brings the most realistic portrait of Poirot to the screen, rarely deviating from Christie’s characterisation, which many viewers often find difficult to watch after the more pleasant and less infuriating portrayals brought to the screen by Peter Ustinov and David Suchet. However, because Finney plays the character without restraint, the ensemble cast works extremely effectively to generate real tension, mystery and intrigue on screen. Working together in harmony, this is one of the strongest ensemble casts to adorn the silver screen.
01. THE HARRY POTTER SAGA (2001-2011)
The Harry Potter saga has featured performances from a vast number of recognisable British talent, as well as creating some more in the process of the productions. The original film (The Philosopher’s Stone) launched young actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint on to the scene and their talents have certainly developed across the series. The earlier productions feature more impressive performances from the host of supporting talent rather than the lead stars, but with the later offerings Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have come into their own to embody the full extent of author JK Rowling’s creations.
Across the series, in various roles, the following stellar talents gave cropped up: Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, David Tennant, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes, Julie Walters…and many more have light up the screen in the magical fantasy world of the onscreen action. Literally a who’s who or A-Z of British talent, the Harry Potter films undoubtedly have the most impressive ensemble cast ever put together in the UK!
This week’s Top 10 was certainly a challenge (dropping the British out of the title would have made it a whole lot easier!); so if you have any comments or suggestions you’d like to make, let us know below…