It’s over 70 years since one of our all-time favourite flicks, Brief Encounter, first captivated cinema audiences around the UK. All these years later, we still can’t control our bottom lip when Celia Johnson bids a buttoned-up but grief-stricken farewell to her forbidden love, Trevor Howard (above), as he disappears into the train smoke and out of her life forever. That film had us all daydreaming around railway refreshment rooms, longing for our own dashing doctor to begin a whirlwind locomotive romance with…
But it was the clipped, cut-glass accent and quietly heart-breaking eyes of Celia Johnson that stole the show. Celia’s performance also set a precedent for glamorous yet gritty British actresses making a name for themselves in some of the greatest films in movie history. Here's our nod to the other British screen actresses who have defined the decades.
It was clear this flame-haired beauty was going to go far as MGM excitedly announced, “Deborah Kerr – rhymes with star”. Most of us will remember getting to know her best as schoolteacher Anna in The King and I, where she’s summoned to tutor the countless wives and children of the King of Siam.
Her gleeful galloping around the palace floor with a barefoot Yul Brynner to Shall we Dance – giant- hooped skirt spinning out behind her – is a piece of true movie musical magic. You might also remember her alongside Cary Grant in the devastating An Affair to Remember or from THAT unforgettable beach scene which shocked Hollywood in From Here to Eternity.
Just as we were just starting to wear mini skirts and backcomb our hair, Julie Christie became a model for how to live the Sixties dream. She first strutted onto our screens, swishing her handbag and smoking a cigarette, in her spectacular entrance to Billy Liar. She went on to play Lara in Dr Zhivago, and had Rod Steiger and Omar Sharif falling at her feet. But we understood how she felt when she fell devastatingly in love with handsome Terence Stamp’s Sergeant Troy in the movie adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.
We know her best today as gentle Sister Julienne in Call the Midwife, but it all began for Jenny Agutter when she waved her red petticoat in front of a train. As Roberta in The Railway Children, she made her mark with the words, “Daddy, my Daddy!” that make us blubber even now! She also played the memorable scantily-clad Jessica, in the futuristic film, Logan’s Run.
Initially trained as a nurse, we’re thankful Julie Walters decided to change career after she started sparring with fellow National Treasure, Victoria Wood. Quickly becoming the beloved actress of choice for no-nonsense northern writers Alan Bennett and Alan Beasdale, she became a bona fida star as working-class hairdresser-turned-English-student in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, first on the stage and then opposite Michael Caine on film.
It’s hard to believe Brenda Blethyn remained relatively unknown until she was in her 40s. Her big break came in 1996 with Mike Leigh’s film, Secrets & Lies (above), where she played a box factory worker, who meets her daughter years after she gave her up for adoption. We also loved her as Mari, the overbearing mother of painfully shy Laura in the film Little Voice.
When it comes to prestigious roles, you can’t get much grander than the Queen. And Helen Mirren has been talented enough to play three! While she made her name in various theatrical spots, as well as TV detective series Prime Suspect, she catapulted to fame after winning her first Academy Award nomination as Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George. She then played Queen Elizabeth I and II on the big and small screen, and starred in roles in some of our Noughties film favourites including Calendar Girls and Hitchcock.