By Rick Steves
To learn more about Britain past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
For a serious historical overview, wade into A History of Britain, a three-volume collection by Simon Schama. Literary Trails (Hardyment) reunites famous authors with the environments that inspired them. A Traveller’s History of England (Daniell), A Traveller’s History of Scotland (Fisher), and A History of Wales (Davies) provide good, succinct summaries of British history.
Other options include the humorous Notes from a Small Island, (Bryson), The Matter of Wales (Morris), or any of the books by Susan Allen Toth on her British travels. If you’ll be spending time in the Cotswolds, try Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee’s boyhood memoir set just after World War I. If you’ll be visiting Scotland, consider reading Crowded with Genius (Buchan) or How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Herman), which explains the influence the Scottish Enlightenment had on the rest of Europe. The Guynd (Rathbone) is a memoir of a woman who married into a historic Highlands estate. And the obsessive world of British soccer is illuminated in Nick Hornby’s memoir, Fever Pitch.
For the classics of British fiction, read anything — and everything — by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and the Brontës.
Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson, is a fantastic adventure story set in Scotland. Sharon Kay Penman brings 13th-century Wales to life in Here Be Dragons. In the romantic, swashbuckling Outlander series (Gabaldon), the heroine time-travels between the Scotland of 1945 and 1743.
Pillars of the Earth (Follett) traces the building of a fictional 12th-century cathedral in southern England. For a big book on the era of King Richard III, try The Sunne in Splendour, one in a series by Sharon Kay Penman. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (Mantel) transport readers to the court of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, while Restoration (Tremain) returns readers to the time of King Charles II.
Set in the 19th-century Anglican church, The Warden (Trollope) dwells on moral dilemmas. Brideshead Revisited (Waugh) satirizes the British obsession with class and takes place between the World Wars. A rural village in the 1930s is the social battlefield for E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia. A family saga spanning the interwar years and beyond, Atonement (McEwan) takes an intense look at England’s upper-middle class. For evocative Cornish settings, try Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or The House on the Strand.
Mystery novels have a long tradition in Britain. A Morbid Taste for Bones (Peters) features a Benedictine monk-detective in 12th-century Shropshire. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple was introduced in 1930 in The Murder at the Vicarage. And Ian Rankin’s troubled Inspector Rebus first gets his man in Knots and Crosses, set in present-day Edinburgh. For other modern mysteries, try any of the books in the Inspector Lynley series by Elizabeth George.
For a more contemporary read, check out Bridget Jones’s Diary (Fielding), Behind the Scenes at the Museum (Atkinson), White Teeth (Smith), Saturday (McEwan), or anything by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy).
Movies and TV
In terms of world influence, Britain’s filmmaking rivals its substantial literary contributions. Here are some films that will flesh out your understanding of this small island, past and present.
For a taste of Tudor-era London, try Shakespeare in Love (1999), which is set in the original Globe Theatre. In A Man for All Seasons (1966), Sir Thomas More faces down Henry VIII. Showtime’s racy, lavish series The Tudors (2007-2010) is an entertaining, loosely accurate chronicle of the marriages of Henry VIII. For equally good portraits of Elizabeth I, try Elizabeth (1998) and its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), or the BBC/HBO miniseries Elizabeth I (2005).
Written and set in the early 19th century, the works of Jane Austen have fared well in film. Among the many versions of Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth is the winner. Persuasion (1995) was partially filmed in Bath. Other Austen adaptations include Sense and Sensibility (1995, with Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet) and Emma (1996, with Gwyneth Paltrow). The 1995 SoCal teen comedy Clueless also (freely) reinterprets Emma. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has been made into a movie at least nine times, most recently in 2011 (with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender).
In The Elephant Man (1980), the cruelty of Victorian London is starkly portrayed in black and white. Sweeney Todd (2007) captures the gritty Victorian milieu, as do two highly stylized Sherlock Holmes films (2009 and 2011). Sherlock shows up again in an excellent British TV update of the detective’s story, set in present-day London (2010–present).
How Green Was My Valley (1941), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, was set in a 19th-century Welsh mining village.
In 1995, Scottish history had a mini-renaissance, with Braveheart, another winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and Rob Roy, which some historians consider the more accurate of the two films. The UK television series Monarch of the Glen (2000), set on Loch Laggan, features stunning Highland scenery and the eccentric family of a modern-day Laird.
The upstairs-downstairs Edwardian era of the early 20th century has inspired many films. Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory teamed up to create many well-regarded films about this era, including Howard’s End (1992, which captures the stifling societal pressure underneath the gracious manners), A Room with a View (1985), and The Remains of the Day (1993).
The all-star Gosford Park (2001) is part comedy, part murder mystery, and part critique of England’s stratified class system in the 1930s. Its screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, went on to create the wildly popular Downton Abbey (2011–present), a spot-on portrayal of aristocratic life before and after World War I (filmed at Highclere Castle, about 70 miles west of London). Chariots of Fire (1981), about British track stars competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics, ran away with the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Wartime London has been captured in many fine movies. The King’s Speech (2010) won the Best Picture Oscar, with Colin Firth named Best Actor for his portrayal of King George VI on the eve of World War II. Hope and Glory (1987) is a semi-autobiographical story of a boy growing up during WWII’s Blitz. In Foyle’s War, a BBC series (2002–2013), detective Christopher Foyle solves crime amid wartime in southern England.
British acts became all the rage in the States in the 1960s, thanks to a little band called the Beatles, whose A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is filled with wit and charm. During this time, “swinging London” also exploded on the international scene, with films such as Alfie (1966), Blowup (1966), and Georgy Girl (1966). For a swinging spoof of this time, try the Austin Powers comedies.
England goes mainstream in a series of 1990s hits: Hugh Grant charms the ladies in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999); Gwyneth Paltrow lives two lives in Sliding Doors (1998); and John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Kevin Kline hilariously double-cross one another in A Fish Called Wanda (1988).
For a departure from the typical Hollywood fare, see My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), a gritty story of two gay men (with Daniel Day-Lewis). For another portrayal of urban London — and the racial tensions found in its multiethnic center — look for Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987). Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) is a violent crime caper set in the city.
Billy Elliot (2000), about a young boy ballet dancer, and Bend It Like Beckham (2003), about a young girl of Punjabi descent who plays soccer, were both huge crowd-pleasers. An Education (2009), about a bright schoolgirl who falls for an older man, takes place in 1960s London. V for Vendetta (2006), based on a British graphic novel, shows a sci-fi future of a London ruled with an iron fist. Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men (2006) takes place in a dystopian future London.
In The Queen (2006), Helen Mirren expertly channels Elizabeth II during the days after Princess Diana’s death. If you enjoy The Queen, don’t miss two other reality-based films by the same screenwriter and with many of the same cast members (most notably Michael Sheen as Tony Blair): The Special Relationship (2010, about the friendship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton) and The Deal (2003, about Tony Blair’s early relationship with Gordon Brown).
Britain has offered up plenty of comedy choices over the years. If you’re in the mood for something completely different, try Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), a surreal take on the Arthurian legend. The BBC’s deeply irreverent “mockumentary” series The Office (by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant) inspired the gentler US television show. In The Full Monty (1997), some working-class Yorkshire lads take it all off to pay the bills.
Brit-o-philes of all ages are likely to enjoy Mary Poppins (1964), My Fair Lady (1964), A Little Princess (1995), the Wallace & Gromit movies, Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean television series and movies, and the Harry Potter films (adults can watch them, too).