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Top 10 British Screenwriters

By Ally Sinyard · March 4, 2011

Where are all the British Screenwriters, I ask ye?

You would think that compiling a list of the top 10 British Screenwriters would be an easy job when there are barely 20 to start with. However, in my research I found so many non-screenwriters who dabble in screenwriting that it was surprisingly difficult to sieve out the gold.

During my struggle, I scoured through the BFI Top 100, only to find that many of the screenplays had either been one-offs by playwrights and novelists or were written by Americans. This is especially the case for the iconic British films from 50 years ago. As a result, identifying what a “British Screenwriter” actually is proved rather difficult. If a novelist only writes one screenplay in his lifetime, should he or she then be classified as a screenwriter?

Today I have found that, depending on the genre you’re looking into, you’ll find a lot of recurring names: Richard Curtis does Rom-Coms, Danny Boyle has Simon Beaufoy, Alex Garland and John Hodge, and if it’s British social realism, you think Mike Leigh. It’s no longer just the realist and escapist films from the World War II era. There are specific genres, and with that comes specific screenwriters. It is a lot easier today for a British director to say, “I want to make a film about X, and since person Y writes screenplays in the X genre, I’ll call him.” As a result, this Top 10 British Screenwriters list is mostly comprised of contemporary writers. But, of course, by no means does that mean I’m generationally biased. (Well, maybe just a little).

I am completely aware that I have omitted some brilliant British films, written by fantastic screenwriters. Trainspotting (1996), written by Andrew Macdonald from John Hodge’s novel, in particular, was a bit torturous to leave out, and I know many of you will be poised to pounce upon this exclusion, so here is my reasoning: Trainspotting is an average adapted screenplay turned to movie magic through Boyle’s exceptional direction. Simply put, I didn’t have enough evidence to support prowess within the screenplay, and thus the screenwriter, as a thing of its own. And there it stands… So let the debate begin.

10. Alex Garland

Alex Garland started off his career by writing the novel “The Beach,” which later became the film by Danny Boyle, with the screenplay by John Hodge. Like Hodge, Garland continued to write for Boyle, writing the screenplays for 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007). More recently, he adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, which received mixed reviews. Unlike Simon Beaufoy, another writer for Boyle, Garland favours a simpler writing style. Description is sparse but, in the case of the Never Let Me Go screenplay, the simplicity adds to the poignancy and bleakness of the story itself. However, this simplicity also reflects Garland’s lack of enthusiasm as a screenwriter. He said, in an interview with, “I like writing, I guess … so I'm not too keen on doing another adaptation, but Jesus, my mortgage payments might get difficult.” In my personal opinion, if you find writing a chore, it’s probably not the job for you. If you’re not careful, this can become very obvious is your work, not just your interviews. I also don’t like people who weep over their gloriously large cheques.

9. Bruce Robinson

Bruce Robinson is probably going to be the screenwriter on the list that most people will ask, “Who??” I have put him on this list for one reason and one reason only, Withnail and I (1986). It is one of the biggest cult films in Britain: a black comedy that launched the career of Richard E. Grant. The film is in fact an adaptation of an unpublished novel by Robinson, which was handed to wealthy oil heir, Moderick Schreiber. Schreiber requested an adaptation and subsequently funded half the film, alongside Handmade Films. This largely autobiographical film follows two young, unemployed actors named Withnail (Grant) and the unnamed “I” (Paul McGann). Richard Griffiths also features as a hilarious, flamboyant uncle. The screenplay is both hilarious and incredibly dark, as well as being incredibly quotable. It features such wonderful lines as “Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day;” “I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary;” and “Jesus. You’re covered in shit.” If you are yet to see this film or read the screenplay, give yourself ten lashings and then… queue it, rent it, buy it – do whatever it takes to see this cult classic.

8. Jane Goldman

Also known as Mrs. Jonathon Ross, this divine, red-headed creature straight out of some sexy comic book is the only woman on my list. I realise that I’m shooting myself in the foot by objectifying the only female screenwriter, but you can’t not comment on that hair! Anyway, I’m not about to set my bra on fire, but the ratio of male-female here is pretty alarming. Where are all the female screenwriters? Especially female screenwriters who aren’t just plonked into the Rom-Com category? Goldman is best known for writing the screenplays for Stardust (2007), Kick-Ass (2010) and the upcoming X-Men: First Class, all of which were directed by Matthew Vaughn. With the sudden rise of graphic novel adaptations, she must have offers piling up! A lover of comic books, you can be certain that she enjoys her day job and this is reflected in her writing. Her speciality is writing fun, fantasy films for adults with cheeky wit and great lines. There’s been a bit of controversy over Hit-Girl, violence and the c-word, but at the end of the day, comic books about superheroes are often violent and why shouldn’t we, the adults, be allowed to enjoy it in all its gory glory?

7. Peter Morgan

Personally, I’m not normally a fan of reading screenplays from historical events.  Arguably, as with adaptations, it leaves a lot less room for a writer’s originality and imagination to shine through; but it cannot be denied that Peter Morgan is the go-to-guy for screenplays of this sort. As well as being a prolific TV writer, he’s the writer of such films as The Queen (2006), The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) and Frost/Nixon (2008). He is also lined up to be a co-writer on the next Bond film. One of the reasons behind Morgan’s success is his ability to write about real-life events impartially. The script for The Queen, for example, could have come under fire for being biased, yet Morgan successfully avoids this. Audiences are able to enjoy his work without feeling the need to locate a hero and a villain.  Despite his great success in Hollywood, he manages to stay grounded, pointing out that “if authorship is what keeps you alive, as it does with me, then you have to accept that keeping it local is probably the best way to go” (LoveFilm interview).  Because of writers like this, Britain is still able to produce well-balanced and sensible films.

6. Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright

It’s probably a bit controversial, lumping these two together in this way, but otherwise it’s all a bit confusing. Spaced (1999) was written by Pegg and Jessica Stevenson and directed by Wright; Shaun of the Dead (2004) was written by Pegg and Wright, as was Hot Fuzz (2007). More recently, Paul (2011) was written by Pegg and Nick Frost, meanwhile Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010) was adapted by Wright and Michael Bacall. Some might say that if I’m going to write about these two, I should write about them separately, but they are more-often-than-not a team. And I believe they work best as a team. They have a very unique style of comedy that I’ve never seen before: fun, clever, yet self-deprecating without being stupid or trashy. Their characters are also unique and memorable, never cookie-cutter stereotypes. I greatly anticipate their next collaboration: The World’s End.

5. Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis is best known for his work on British Rom-Coms and sitcoms. He wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and the Bridget Jones adaptations (2001, 2004). He is also one of the creators of the popular sitcom Blackadder (1983-1989), alongside Rowan Atkinson and Ben Elton. His Rom-Coms are often criticised for being too sentimental, but it is his comedy writing that I’m praising. Blackadder is my favourite British sitcom, just ahead of Fawlty Towers and Peep Show. Despite operating with limited sets and a small cast, Curtis proves with Blackadder that you don’t need a huge budget and A-list talent to showcase great writing. The writing speaks for itself.

4. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Powell and Pressburger are two of the most important British filmmakers of the 1940s and 1950s. Screenplays were written together, with Powell often taking control of directing and Pressburger producing and editing. Their most famous films are The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1949). They made the most of being writers, directors AND producers, combining imaginative screenwriting with beautiful cinematography, making for some very memorable films – even if they were often accused of pretentiousness. It’s not surprising that critics were not impressed with their overall work, but they should be recognized for helping to bring a refreshing, yet unappreciated, change from the misery of British wartime cinema. This duo was a rare, and greatly missed, breed of tireless and inventive screenwriters.

3. Christopher Nolan

At first I had to double-check if Christopher Nolan was British! It can be hard to tell once we’ve lost another one to Hollywood. Nolan is known for writing some very brave, inventive pieces, most notably Memento (2000) and Inception (2010). Often criticised for going “mainstream,” there can be no denying that Nolan has balls when it comes to making films. It also cannot be denied that his films are visually stunning. All hail the writer/director! All hail blockbusters with substance! There is just one glaring problem that a friend of mine (many thanks, Shugz!) argues; despite his amazing plot weaving, Nolan often fails to present us with characters that we care about. They are just there, somewhat superficial, and the emphasis is often placed on capturing the world of the story instead of on actual character development. Why should we care if our protagonists succeed? In the case of Inception, yes, Nolan makes us sympathise with Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) by bringing in a tragic, domestic story. If you don’t want him to see his children ever again, you’re going to hell. But what about the other members of the team? Who are they and are they deliberately superficial? It seems that it doesn’t matter, as long as we get to see more shiny-shiny!

2. Simon Beaufoy

An Oxford graduate and Academy Award winner, Beaufoy is like the golden boy of British screenwriting. He is best known for his work with Danny Boyle: he wrote the screenplays for Slumdog Millionare (2008) and, more recently, 127 Hours (2010). According to “The Telegraph,” he also wrote the “most profitable movie ever to come out of Britain” – The Fully Monty (1997). It tells the story of six unemployed British men who form a male striptease act. Social realism is an area that Beaufoy frequently writes about, and he does it brilliantly! Reading his screenplays is like reading a novel and just a rewarding as seeing the film; he does more than just show us what’s going on, and does it in a way that’s never excessive. In Slumdog Millionaire¸ for instance, one feels as violently dragged through the screenplay as through the film itself! Perhaps that is one of the luxuries that writers are allowed once they’re established; they can write however the hell they want. Don’t believe me? Read a Tarantino script – he breaks all the “so-called” rules.

1. Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh is the Don of social realism in British cinema. I had a seminar today where we discussed important, contemporary filmmakers, and Leigh was first up. In his films, not a great deal happens but that’s because the focus is on the characters, which are developed spectacularly. The screenplays start off as a brief sketch where even the actors don’t know what is going to happen. Lengthy improvisations are then carried out, with Leigh often working one-on-one with each actor. The characters are thus developed very naturally and avoid becoming cliché. Everyone has a friend like a character in a Mike Leigh film. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) is incredibly optimistic and cheery to the point where I wanted to reach into the TV and throttle her. I found her frustrating to watch but that is, if anything, proof of Leigh’s success. He creates such realistic characters that you genuinely respond to them. You could argue that he is not a screenwriter in the same way as Nolan or Morgan, as his work is mostly improvised with contributions from the actors, however, I believe he belongs at the top of this list as a creator of touching stories and unforgettable characters.