The 1960s oversaw a boom in art and culture—especially in London. After the drab post-war years of the 1950s, a new generation of young people sought out a fresh lifestyle of music, fashion and partying. With third-wave feminism on the horizon, and “Beatlemania” sending shock waves through the UK and beyond, a new kind of world was in the making. Hippies and skinheads; ska and psychedelic rock; pop art and minimalism. Everything was new and exciting. And with this new found freedom, kids began to carve out their own identities. Mods. Rockers. Rude Boys. Carnaby Street was packed with all kinds of people during the Swinging Sixties. But how has Generation X—the counter cultures they created and swore by—been portrayed on screen?
A niche theme within a film industry dominated by Hollywood blockbusters, let’s take a look at what Sir Michael Caine eloquently summarised in the documentary My Generation (dir. David Batty, 2017)—incidentally the first in our list.
8. My Generation (2017)
Through archive footage and key influential figures—such as the famous, wide-eyed model Twiggy—My Generation celebrates the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Caine is a fitting presenter for the documentary, with his famous cockney accent—now beloved by Hollywood (Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, 2014, and The Dark Knight Trilogy, 2005-12)—really setting the tone of the time. Caine’s career launched during the 60s, leading iconic roles in The Italian Job (dir. Peter Collinson, 1969) and Zulu (dir. Cy Endfield, 1964). Here, viewers are warmed by that familiar London accent once more, recounting his personal experiences during that revolutionary decade.
The Who dazzle on My Generation’s soundtrack—if you hadn’t already guessed from the title—alongside other emblematic bands of the era. The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, and Small Faces each encapsulate the rhythm of this new world, where rock, pop, soul and blues merged in glittering new ways. Whether you’re nostalgic for the past or just intrigued by the music, My Generation is sure to place you right in the midst of groovy old-school London.
7. Cemetery Junction (2010)
A feel-good coming-of-age drama, Cemetery Junction is the story of boys becoming men in the working-class world of Reading, 1970s. The rebel, the brains and the dumb-sidekick form an entertaining trio; Bruce, Freddie and Snork navigate the adult world with chemistry and wit.
Drinking, fighting and chasing girls fashion the backbone of British teen culture—arguably more back then than it does now. But when Freddie is offered a job selling insurance, his must leave his wild days behind him. Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode and Felicity Jones also star in an all-English cast, directed by the pioneers of awkward British comedy Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.
6. Northern Soul (2014)
Many musical genres took the UK by storm in the 60s, 70s and 80s. New wave, beat, glam rock—the list goes on. One important movement that emerged was Northern Soul. Rooted in black American soul music (dominant in Detroit, Chicago etcetera), Northern Soul made its way into clubs of Britain. Especially popular within the Mod scene, DJs around England sought out the genre’s fast tempo and thudding beat.
Directed by Elaine Constantine in 2014, Northern Soul takes place in Lancashire, 1974. The not-unfamiliar story of an angsty teen “saved” by music takes place, when young John breaks free of his overbearing parents, aspiring to be a disc jockey. Sweat-soaked and electrically charged, Northern Soul transports viewers into the groove of the time with great period detail. Constantine’s feature debut captures the new generation with grit and style, particularly tapping into British audiences as—despite originating in America—the genre remains a niche market aloof within the USA.
5. Alfie (1966)
There’s a reason Caine was chosen to present My Generation, as that’s because of his cinematic influence during the 60s. One of his most famous early films is Alife, adapted from Bill Naughton’s play of the same name. The romantic comedy is narrated by Caine as a he walks viewers through the streets of London in direct address. Directed by Lewis Gilbert, the BFI puts Alfie at number thirty-three of the Top 100 British Films ever made.
Alfie is a cocky, self-centred womanizer—yet we can’t help but like him. His wit and charisma not only draw in the female characters of the film, but the audience as well. It’s this connection established between Caine and the British public of the time that makes Alfie—as well as all his other films—such an important gem in British cinema. Though the 2004 remake (directed by Charles Shyer and starring Jude Law) was fairly well received, it lacks that quirky Cockney charm that awards its place in our list.
4. Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Moving now into the 80s, Christian Bale and Ewan McGregor star in Todd Haynes 1998 musical Velvet Goldmine. Memorializing the British glam rock of the 70s, Velvet Goldmine tells the story of fictional star Brain Slade through the eyes of a journalist—once his biggest fan. The hoax death of Slade—purposefully reminiscent of music legend David Bowie—takes the public by storm. But there’s more to this scoop than meets the eye…
Velvet Goldmine probes and questions ideas of sexuality and masculinity—the 70s being a crucial time for society’s evolving viewpoints. Once the button-down breadwinners who rejected any form of femineity, men in bright makeup and sequin tights now graced the music industry. Thanks to figures such as Bowie and Prince, pop culture took a new turn into individual expressivity—something this movie commemorates. The title “Velvet Goldmine” refers to a track recorded by Bowie in 1971.
3. Life on Mars (2006-7)
Another reference to David Bowie, Life on Mars (and its successor Ashes to Ashes) is a classic example of British life during the 70s. Created by Matthew Graham, the show aired on BBC One in 2006 and has since gone onto spur various foreign adaptations—American, Spanish, Russian, Czech, South Korean and Chinese. This alone speaks volumes of the show’s success.
Set in Manchester, DI Sam Tyler is hit by a car and awakens in 1973. Decked out in his flares and leather jacket, he wanders back to the police station he’s employed at in modern day. There he finds the same station, only as it was three decades earlier: clouded in smoke, with no computers and distinct air of sexism, it sure is an ode to the old ways of working. Clashing with the violent, day-drinking DCI Gene Hunt, Sam and Gene make a comical love-hate duo. DI Alex Drake goes onto form a similar bond with Gene in the follow up series Ashes to Ashes; this time waking up in 1981.
2. This is England (2006)
Many people automatically associate the skinhead stereotype with the Nazi’s, as far-right white nationalists came to claim the style. However, the skinhead way of life originally began as an innocent aesthetic—shaved hair, Fred Perry polo shirts and Doc Marten boots—and music taste. The West Indies culture of ska and soul music swayed into England during the 60s, as Shawn Meadows explores in his 2006 British drama This is England.
In a documentary style of archive footage, the opening credit sequences give viewers a taste of Britain’s socio-political landscape. From there we follow grieving 12-year-old Shaun as he joins a gang of skinheads. An oftentimes funny, other times harrowing journey of self-discovery takes place for Shaun, winning the Best British Independent Film Award. The ensemble joins again for a gritty television follow up, guiding viewers through the rough-and-ready world of the 1980s.
1. Quadrophenia (1979)
Number one spot has to go to the angsty cult classic Quadrophenia. Franc Roddam’s feature debut, Quadrophenia follows young Jimmy Cooper in London, 1964. Zoot-suited up and raring to go, Cooper devotes himself to becoming a Mod: zooming around on his Lambretta, stealing amphetamines and brawling with the Rockers. The nation-wide rivalry ends up on the chilly beaches of Brighton, where the real-life subcultures clashed in a series of iconic riots.
Made in 1979, Quadrophenia really taps into the heart of Mod culture as it was still knocking around right into the 80s. The film that arguably immortalised the scene, Quadrophenia boasts a Who-central soundtrack, re-released as an album. The movie itself is loosely based on the The Who’s 1973 rock opera. Though is not to be mistaken as a musical—but a coming-of-age drama.