Five great British road movies

Ahead of the release of Scottish road movie Moon Dogs, we seek out five other examples of the few road movies made on the British Isles, from Christopher Petit's existential Radio On to the ridiculous cross country antics of Monty Python

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 29 Aug 2017

More than most genres, the road movie would seem to offer an easy route (sorry) for budding screenwriters. Though the individual style of a given film will differ, the basic narrative structure largely tends to stay the same. As such, it’s a little strange that the pool of notable British road movies is relatively small, especially when compared to the output of North America and mainland Europe – hell, Wim Wenders has made several entries on both continents.

Maybe it’s because the UK’s dual carriageways and motorways lack a certain cinematic appeal evidently in abundance in those other territories. Maybe it’s because few British road trips last more than a couple of hours, if you don't mess them up. Maybe the M1 just isn’t sexy enough.

Whatever the reason, new Scottish road movie Moon Dogs, concerning a young trio journeying from Shetland to Glasgow, subsequently stands out a bit in the Brit-film marketplace. To mark its release, we decided to highlight five other British road movies, excluding documentaries, that offer either a unique spin on the genre or at least an endearing set of travelling companions...

Soft Top Hard Shoulder (1992)

Dir. Stefan Schwartz

Considering that Moon Dogs concerns a road trip to Glasgow, it only seems right to highlight a film with the same destination. Peter Capaldi plays Gavin, the artistic son of a Scots-Italian ice cream dynasty, who turned his back on Glasgow for life in London and the pursuit of a career in children’s literature. That was eight years ago and he’s not made much progress. Frustrated and facing eviction, he’s soon provided an enticing offer from a visiting uncle: to get his cut of the proceeds of his father selling the family business, Gavin must return to Glasgow in a few days time for his father’s birthday party, or not receive a penny of his share.

Things obviously don’t go to plan as Gavin faces vehicular breakdowns, consistent bad luck, and various misunderstandings, all while accompanied by Yvonne (Elaine Collins), the mysterious hitchhiker he’s picked up along the way and for whom he starts to develop feelings. It’s a sweet, gently funny movie with an appealing cast (also including Richard Wilson and a young Jeremy Northam), and also features an earworm in the form of Chris Rea’s title track.

Last Orders (2001)

Dir. Fred Schepisi

While all the films in this feature are road odysseys, Last Orders is also a memory odyssey. Based on Graham Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel, it follows three war veteran friends (Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings) on a road trip to Margate to scatter the ashes of their departed chum, Jack (Michael Caine). The man’s adopted son (Ray Winstone) drives them there, while we also get an insight into the late man’s wife (Helen Mirren) who has her own reasons for not joining the trip, a journey spurred by Jack’s reported last wishes.

Through frequent, nonlinear flashbacks that stretch across multiple decades, we come to understand the events that brought these five surviving players to this respective point in their lives, as well as the late Jack to those of his final months. It’s a moving enough narrative in its own right, though the fact that two members of its stacked ensemble (Hoskins and Hemmings) have passed since its release adds another layer of melancholy.

Butterfly Kiss (1995)

Dir. Michael Winterbottom

Long before he made The Trip trilogy, Michael Winterbottom gave British audiences a considerably more disturbing spin on the two-hander road movie with Butterfly Kiss.

Amanda Plummer, adopting a Lancastrian accent, plays Eunice, a psychotic soul who haunts petrol stations searching for someone named Judith. She quizzes perturbed cashiers about a song she can’t quite name before asking if they’re Judith. Answering the query incorrectly proves to have fatal consequences for most of the unlucky people she encounters, but one attendant, Miriam (Saskia Reeves), manages to save her own life through interacting with Eunice in a state of intrigue rather than irritation – a consequence of her naivety and arrested development.

Intrigue turns to love at first sight, and erstwhile innocent Miriam ends up accompanying the swathed-in-chains madwoman on her journey, abandoning her job, home and ailing grandmother and soon enough becoming an accomplice to murder. And then even more of a participant than that.

Deliberately oblique, Winterbottom’s film is a disorienting psychological thriller. And, not to get into spoilers, it’s also likely to make you never think of New Order’s World in Motion in quite the same way again.

Radio On (1979)

Dir. Christopher Petit

Debunking the idea British cinema can’t produce the sort of mythical road movie lapped up by overseas arthouse audiences, Christopher Petit’s Radio On not only has the feel of a 70s Wim Wenders film but also lists Wenders among its producer credits. A black and white time capsule of decaying British landscapes and roadscapes that have since been transformed, Radio On follows a man driving from London to Bristol to investigate his brother’s death, encountering various odd people along the way.

Plot isn’t really of primary importance for this leisurely-paced, sombre movie though, but there’s a richness to its dialogue scenes when they do actually happen. Quite unlike anything in British cinema at the time, it also comes across as somewhat prescient in arriving just a few years before MTV; set to an array of tunes by David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Ian Dury and more, the film works on one level as one long music video.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Dir. Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam

Who says road movies necessarily need, uh, roads? Or vehicles... for the most part.

The Pythons’ comedy classic concerns a cross-country journey with a motley crew of misfits, all travelling with a grand purpose that’s constantly disrupted by dangerous foes and obstacles that cross their paths. If that doesn’t count as a road movie, then call our mothers hamsters and imply our fathers smell of elderberries

Moon Dogs is released 1 Sep by Amber Content