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Added by cornishlee on 18 Jun 2015 04:45
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Great British Actors and Actresses

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Widely believed to be the greatest British actor of the twentieth century, his reputation was built principally on stage and especially Shakespearean roles. One auditorium of the National Theatre and the West End Theatre Awards were both renamed to honour him.

Must see: his 1944 production of Henry V, which takes the stage to the screen.
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Average listal rating (73 ratings) 7.3 IMDB Rating 0
No-one's position is unassailable and the 'who's better - Olivier or Gielgud?' debate still raged in theatrical circles long after the former's death. Similarly to Olivier he was honoured late in his life when the Globe Theatre was renamed the Gielgud.

Must see: late in his career Gielgud took Sheakespeare in a thoroughly avant-garde direction, starring in Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books.
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Along with Olivier and Gielgud, Richardson was the third of Britain's internationally recognised "great trinity of theatrical knights". On film, Richardson's roles often differed from those of the other Trinity members, however, even becoming a Hollywood lead in Lumet's acclaimed Long Day's Journey into Night.

Must see: Richardson steals the film in his last performance, in Hugh Hudson's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. A far better film came earlier in his career though, in Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol.
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Cinemaphiles can confidently answer the Olivier or Gielgud question by saying neither - Alec Guinness was the greatest actor. All of which only serves to emphasise the particularities of different acting styles. Guinness's performances were often subtle but powerful, something which translated well to the big screen.

Must see: Guinness will forever be closely associated with the Ealing Comedies. He comes close to steeling the film in The Ladykillers and plays every role in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Although he never directed any films he did write one - The Horse's Mouth, in which he also starred. It's a brilliant film carried by Guinness's very un-Guinness like bravura performance - indeed his intense, bullying portrayal of the character could almost have been a template for Al Pacino.
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Average listal rating (582 ratings) 7.7 IMDB Rating 0
Judi Dench's career trajectory is pretty much the opposite of what is expected for leading actresses. She became a household name late in life, after having established a successful career as a stage and television actor in the 1970's and 1980's. In the mid-nineties she replaced Bernard Lee as 'M' in the Bond franchise and received her first Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown (originally intended as a TV drama). From there she was catapulted into 'national treasure' status and has never looked back.

Must see: He Who Rides a Tiger epitomises the acting strengths that made Dench an early award winner - an understated but controlled performance that also reveals a little vulnerability - that foreshadow her later screen success. Skyfall, the last of her outings as 'M', is probably her greatest as she's given a role more central to the story of the film and once again portrays a woman trying to appear in control whilst her world implodes, and having to trust someone she might previously have avoided, just as she did in Mrs. Brown.
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Average listal rating (1182 ratings) 8.2 IMDB Rating 0
In many ways, Ian McKellen's career is a bit of a throwback - more closely mirroring that of his predecessors of the Olivier & Gielgud generation than that of his contemporaries such as Caine, Connery, Finney, Courtney, Fox, et al. McKellen was a highly acclaimed stage actor, appearing in films only sporadically from the 1960's through the 1980's. Like with that earlier generation, it was a reprisal of a Shakespeare production for the big screen that first won him international recognition - 1995's Richard III. In the 21st century he was introduced to a new audience through his role in the X-Men and Lord of the Rings films, again, arguably redolent of one of his predecessor's career moves - Guinness in the Star Wars films.

Must see: Throughout his career, McKellen has produced compelling portrayals of early twentieth century cultural icons in biopics. His performance as an ageing James Whale in Gods and Monsters remains one of his best.
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Average listal rating (273 ratings) 6.9 IMDB Rating 0
Bob Hoskins was very much an actor of two parts - usually playing tough or gruff men to great effect in British films from the 1980's through to his death in 2014, but often cast as a slapstick fall-guy in Hollywood films. Many of the latter are probably best avoided, although Who Framed Roger Rabbit? deserves mention as a very honourable exception. His performance there and in the Eric Sykes slapstick short The Big Freeze suggest that any shortcomings were the movies' and not his own.

Must see: Hoskins will forever be remembered for his rather different turns in the 1980's British gangster films The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa. The former saw him predicted in The Hollywood Reporter to be 'the new Jimmy Cagney', the latter won him his first Oscar Nomination. Both won him a BAFTA and both are essential viewing for British or gangster film fans.
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Average listal rating (571 ratings) 7.6 IMDB Rating 0
Arguably best known in some quarters as 'that guy who had the alien come out of his stomach', John Hurt has enjoyed a lengthy career in British film and television. After breaking through in a supporting role in A Man for All Seasons he has appeared in almost every genre of film as either a supporting or lead actor. His chameleon-like abilities could have seen him thought of as a character actor but his performances in his occasional lead roles have ensured his place in British cinema history.

Must see: Hurt's performance as John Merrick in David Lynch's biopic The Elephant Man remains a highlight of human spirit cinema.
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Of all the actors on this list, Richard Griffiths is probably the most tenuous, being arguably a great character actor rather than a great actor. Indeed, he was never afforded that opportunity on film (a requirement for which is often some level of physical attractiveness, after all, if not exactly athleticism) although he did enjoy several years as a TV detective in Pie in the Sky. Griffiths was recognisable on film not only from his physical presence but from the great sensitivity he brought to all of his roles.

Must see: Griffith's role as Uncle Monty in Withnail and I is scene-stealing and displays all of the emotional intensity and vulnerability that was his signature.
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Helen Mirren's career has few missteps and has probably outlasted many people's predictions. Beginning in the 1960's she played overtly sexual and sensual women without ever quite overstepping the mark into pornography (although several of her roles do involve full-frontal nudity, including some when she was in her forties). Her acting talent was always evident and she seemed to make the transition to playing older, less siren-like roles almost effortlessly in the 1990's.

Must see: For an actress who described being treated 'like a piece of meat' at an early casting call, starring as 'his wife' in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover must have involved some courage and it's a very brave performance straddling the two halves of her career.
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Average listal rating (1613 ratings) 8.4 IMDB Rating 0
Gary Oldman's performances have sometimes drawn criticism for being over the top; they are not, however, hammed. It's this style, born through his commitment to stage acting throughout his career, that saw him become one of the legion of British rent-a-villains in 1990's Hollywood. His accent ability and versatility have earned him an impressive portfolio of cinematic work either side of this period though, even if his most challenging films continue to be British.

Must see: Oldman's portrayal of Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy was arguably his breakout role. It's a typically committed performance (he was, afterwards, hospitalised for weightloss) and remains his most compelling.
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Peter O'Toole was nominated for an Oscar more times than any other actor without actually winning one (eight). Described by his friend Richard Burton as someone who could elevate acting to something beyond a craft his talents often dwarfed those around him, despite it being hard to pin down a defining characteristic of his acting.

Must see: O'Toole's breakthrough performance in Lawrence of Arabia, for which he was originally, at most, director David Lean's third choice, remains one of the greatest pieces of acting in cinema history.
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Attenborough may have matured into playing eccentric older men, after spending the middle part of his career primarily as a director, but in his earlier years he could perform parts that delivered very real screen menace. 10 Rillington Place perhaps goes some way towards showcasing this switch, as he plays a serial killer that outwardly is a pillar of the local community.

Must see: Attenborough's first starring role, in Brighton Rock, remains one of the greatest performances, in one of the greatest films, of British cinema.
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If Guinness stood out from his peers as a film actor among classical greats, it's probably not unfair to say that the reverse is true of Branagh. Mentored by Derek Jacobi, we was hailed as 'the new Olivier' in his early career. Like that great he went on to direct films and star in several British comedies. Classical acting was perhaps never going to going to hand him Hollywood leads in the 21st century though.

Must see: the Olivier comparisons were cemented through Branagh's Oscar-nominated performance in his version of Henry V.
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Average listal rating (34 ratings) 7.2 IMDB Rating 0
As with so many other British actors, Stott spent some considerable time acting on the stage. His distinctive voice and quietly compelling presence eventually earned him starring roles on British television, beginning in the 1990's, primarily playing detectives.

Must see: Stott translated the detective roles he is so famous for from the small screen to the big one in Shallow Grave.
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Emma Thompson's career exploded through starring in several Merchant Ivory productions and through association with her first husband, Kenneth Brannagh. Both partners worked hard to avoid the media but it was impossible to completely avoid the spotlight as they were dubbed a golden couple, with ill-conceived comparisons to Burton and Taylor. She featured in several of her husband's films, including Peter's Friends, which also featured her mother, Phyllida Law. Her performance in that film, as an insecure thirty-something, remains a highlight of her comedic abilities and in some ways foreshadowed her part in Love Actually. It also demonstrated, if evidence were needed, that she wasn't limited to period and Shakespearean roles.

Must see: Thopmson's scenes, playing the lead, in Saving Mr. Banks were enough to convince several critics and large sections of the public that it was a much better film than it really is.
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Average listal rating (84 ratings) 6.7 IMDB Rating 0
Probably best known to the British public for his eponymous role in the TV adaptation of Cadfael, Jacobi is Kenneth Brannagh's mentor and one of only two British actors to hold two knighthoods for his service to dramatic arts (British and Danish, the other was Laurence Olivier). Although he rarely, if ever, plays the lead on the big screen, his sensitive character portrayals often make his performances memorable.

Must see: Jacobi turns his sensitive bearing and mentoring role on their heads playing Claudius in Brannagh's Hamlet.
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First coming to wider attention in Britain as Mr. Darcy, or even more simply as 'that gorgeous guy in the wet shirt', Colin Firth embraced his new-found romantic lead role with gusto. Throughout his late-thirties and early forties he appeared in numerous British romcoms and romantic dramas, becoming a household name. Although still working primarily in the British cinema industry he has found international acclaim in his fifties, both for his comedic roles (e.g. Kingsman) and his more serious ones (The King's Speech, for which he won an Oscar).

Must see: it's arguably a very personal choice but Firth delivers a great performance in the very British Fever Pitch, displaying all of the pathos, romance, irritability and subtlety for which he later became so renowned.
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Trevor Howard's easily overlooked. Often taking second or third billing on the films he starred in, often nominated for the big awards but only ever winning one BAFTA, he's been largely forgotten by the cinema going public. He brought a very English kind of steeliness to his roles, similarly to his contemporary Jack Hawkins. Not a hard man per se - his approach was too dignified for that, he brought a quiet dignity and resolve to roles both as a young man (where his talents were perfectly suited to playing military officers) and later as an elder statesmen.

Must see: Howard's performance (alongside Mills's) nearly makes up for the shortcomings of Lean's bloated Oscar winner Ryan's Daughter.
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Average listal rating (1740 ratings) 8.2 IMDB Rating 0
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Average listal rating (23 ratings) 7.6 IMDB Rating 0
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Average listal rating (113 ratings) 7.7 IMDB Rating 0
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Average listal rating (59 ratings) 8.2 IMDB Rating 0
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Average listal rating (452 ratings) 7.8 IMDB Rating 0
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Average listal rating (9 ratings) 8.3 IMDB Rating 0
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The Un-British

Average listal rating (1060 ratings) 8.1 IMDB Rating 0
Sean Connery was not a great actor. What he did have, however, was great screen presence - he was a genuine star. He belongs in the pantheon of Bogart, McQueen and Ford. Actors who palpably exude machismo on screen, drawing attention from anyone else sharing it with them. In the right roles and films this can deliver experiences that no other medium can - it could be argued that it's what cinema, as distinct from theatre or photography, was made for. Certainly it can be captivating and in the right films Connery was just that. Cast him in the wrong role or film, however (On the Fiddle for example), and the result is the proverbial sore thumb.

Must see: James Bond made Connery into a star and the first three of those films are all excellent. My choice here though is The Hill, where all of Connery's macho persona is directed towards a different, but equally captivating, end.
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The greatest film actors from the British isles, in no particular order.

Honourable mentions go to:

Jenny Agutter
Stanley Baker
Chritian Bale
Linda Bassett
Brian Blessed
Brenda Blethyn
Jim Broadbent
Simon Callow
Robert Carlyle
Julie Christie
Warren Clarke
Robbie Coltrane
Tom Courtenay
Brian Cox
Liam Cunningham
Peter Cushing
Timothy Dalton
Phil Daniels
Charles Dance
Ralph Fiennes
Albert Finney
Edward Fox
Michael Gambon
Cary Grant
Jack Hawkins
John Henshaw
Bernard Hill
Anthony Hopkins
Jane Horrocks
Angela Lansbury
Bernard Lee
Christopher Lee
Geraldine McEwan
Paul McGann
Ewan McGregor
Ian McNeice
Ian McShane
Liam Neeson
James Nesbitt
Bill Nighy
Geoffrey Palmer
Sean Pertwee
Leslie Phillips
Vanessa Redgrave
Miranda Richardson
Alan Rickman
Kristin Scott Thomas
Michael Sheen
Alastair Sim
Maggie Smith
Timothy Spall
Imelda Staunton
Tilda Swinton
David Tennant
David Thewlis
Timothy West

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Comments

Posted: 2 years, 5 months ago at Jun 19 8:56
I think Anthony Hopkins should be here. Guinness was, for me the greatest British screen actor, whereas Olivier and Gielgud, as you say, were considered the greatest stage actors.
Posted: 2 years, 5 months ago at Jun 19 9:26
Thanks, this is very much a list in progress at the moment, as you probably guessed from the lack of comments on most of the included actors. Hopkins is a strong contender to get added, as are Maggie Smith, Michael Caine and possibly Sean Connery. For the latter two, in particular, I think I have to try and disentangle screen presence from acting ability.

Great actors, in the full sense meant here, I think should mean someone equally capable of delivering a compelling lead as a strong support. Caine probably can do that (some of his early performances, even in semi-leads such as Zulu, are not stereotypically Caine-like). On the other hand, there are great supporting actors, such as Jim Broadbent, who I hesitate to add to this list due to a lack of defining roles (even if he does come close to stealing the show in The Crying Game).
Posted: 2 years, 5 months ago at Jun 19 10:27
This is an excellent list! I'm glad to see it's based on talent and not necessarily popularity.

If I were to suggest some an actor, I would recommend Christian Bale, for his versatility and commitment.
Posted: 2 years, 5 months ago at Jun 19 10:35
Thanks - Bale is another under consideration. I thought he was excellent in American Psycho but that was quite some time ago now and I'd be interested to see him stretched as an actor more than he has been in, for example, the Batman films.

As you say, popularity doesn't come into it and for that reason most of the actors on here are older. Most (McDowell, Withers and Neagle being obvious exceptions) have had quite extended careers. As well as Bale, Robert Carlisle and Ewan McGregor are actors of a similar age who have produced some great performances at times. Very different career trajectories for each of them though!

I'm pleased by the discussion this list is prompting.

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