England: Recommended Books and Movies

By Rick Steves

To learn more about England past and present, check out a few of these books and films.

Books: Nonfiction

  • All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot, 1972). Herriot's beloved semi-autobiographical tales of life as a Yorkshire veterinarian were made into a long-running BBC series (1978–1990).
  • The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British (Sarah Lyall, 2008). A New York Times reporter in London wittily recounts the eccentricities of life in the UK.
  • Cider with Rosie (Laurie Lee, 1959). This semi-autobiographical boyhood novel set in a Cotswolds village just after World War I has been adapted for TV three times, including once by the BBC in 2015.
  • Dead Wake (Erik Larson, 2015). Larson gives an evocative account of the doomed 1915 voyage of British luxury liner Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat during World War I.
  • England: 1000 Things You Need to Know (Nicolas Hobbes, 2009). Hobbes presents a fun peep into the facts, fables, and foibles of English life.
  • Fever Pitch (Nick Hornby, 1992). Hornby's memoir illuminates the British obsession with soccer.
  • A History of Britain (Simon Schama, 2000–2002). The respected historian presents a comprehensive, thoroughly readable three-volume collection.
  • A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr, 2007). This searching look at the transformations in British life over the last few decades accompanies a BBC documentary series of the same name.
  • How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow (Harry Mount, 2012). Mount offers a witty, engaging look at the symbiotic relationship between the English landscape and English culture.
  • The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain (Paul Theroux, 1983). After 11 years as an American expatriate in London, travel writer Theroux takes a witty tour of his adopted homeland.
  • A Land (Jacquetta Hawkes, 1951). This postwar best seller is a sweeping, poetic natural history of the British landscape and imagination.
  • The Last Lion (William Manchester, final book completed by Paul Reid; 1983, 1988, and 2012). This superb, three-volume biography recounts the amazing life of Winston Churchill from 1874 to 1965.
  • Literary Trails (Christina Hardyment, 2000). Hardyment reunites famous authors with the environments that inspired them.
  • My Love Affair with England (Susan Allen Toth, 1994). Toth brings England vividly to life in a captivating traveler's memoir recalling the country's charms and eccentricities.
  • Notes from a Small Island (Bill Bryson, 1995). In this irreverent and delightful memoir, US expat Bryson writes about his travels through Britain — his home for two decades.
  • A Traveller's History of England (Christopher Daniell, revised 2005). A British archaeologist and historian provides a comprehensive yet succinct overview of English history.
  • With Wings Like Eagles (Michael Korda, 2009). An English-born writer gives a historical analysis of Britain's pivotal WWII air battles versus the German Luftwaffe.

Books: Fiction

For the classics of British fiction, read anything — and everything — by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and the Brontës.

  • Atonement (Ian McEwan, 2001). This disquieting family saga set in upper-class England at the start of World War II dramatizes the consequences of a childhood lie. The 2007 motion picture starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley is also excellent.
  • Behind the Scenes at the Museum (Kate Atkinson, 1995). Starting at her conception, this book's quirky narrator recounts the highs and lows of life in a middle-class English family.
  • Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh, 1945). This celebrated novel examines the intense entanglement of a young man with an aristocratic family.
  • Bridget Jones's Diary (Helen Fielding, 1996). A year in the life of a single 30-something woman in London is humorously chronicled in diary form (also a motion picture).
  • High Fidelity (Nick Hornby, 1995). This humorous novel traces the romantic misadventures and musical musings of a 30-something record-store owner. Another good read is Hornby's 1998 coming-of-age story, About a Boy. (Both books were also made into films.)
  • Macbeth (William Shakespeare, 1606). Shakespeare's "Scottish Play" depicts a guilt-wracked general who assassinates the king to take the throne.
  • Mapp and Lucia (E. F. Benson, 1931). A rural village in the 1930s becomes a social battlefield. In Lucia in London (1927), the protagonist attempts social climbing in the big city.
  • A Morbid Taste for Bones (Ellis Peters, 1977). Brother Cadfael, a Benedictine monk-detective, tries to solve a murder in 12th-century Shropshire (first book in a series; also adapted for British TV in 1996).
  • The Murder at the Vicarage (Agatha Christie, 1930). The prolific mystery writer's inquisitive Miss Marple character is first introduced in this book.
  • The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters, 2014). This realistic and suspenseful tale of love, obsession, and murder plays out amid the shifting culture of post-WWII, upper-class London.
  • The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett, 1990). This epic set in a fictional town in 12th-century England chronicles the birth of Gothic architecture.
  • Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier, 1938). This mysterious tale set on the Cornish coast examines upper-class English lives and their secrets.
  • Restoration (Rose Tremain, 1989). This evocative historical novel takes readers to the heights and depths of 17th-century English society.
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1996). This famous Gothic yarn by a Scottish author chronicles a fearful case of transformation in London, exploring Victorian ideas about conflict between good and evil.
  • SS-GB (Len Deighton, 1979). In a Nazi-occupied Great Britain, a Scotland Yard detective finds there's more to a murder than meets the eye.
  • A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1888). This mystery novel introduced the world to detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr. Watson.
  • The Sunne in Splendour (Sharon Kay Penman, 2008). Penman's big, entertaining book paints King Richard III as a rather decent chap (one in a series of historical novels).
  • The Warden (Anthony Trollope, 1855). The first novel in the "Chronicles of Barsetshire" series addresses moral dilemmas in the 19th-century Anglican church.
  • White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000). The postwar lives of two army buddies, a native Englishman and a Bengali Muslim, are chronicled in this acclaimed debut novel.
  • Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel, 2010/2012). At the intrigue-laced Tudor court of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell becomes the king's right-hand man.

Movies and TV

  • Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). Mike Myers stars in this loony send-up of mid-century English culture, the first film in a three-part series.
  • Battle of Britain (1969). An all-star cast and marvelous aerial combat scenes tell the story of Britain's "finest hour" of World War II.
  • Bend It Like Beckham (2003). A teenage girl of Punjabi descent plays soccer against her traditional parents' wishes in this lighthearted comedy-drama.
  • Billy Elliot (2000). A young boy pursues his dream to dance ballet amid a coal miners' strike in working-class northern England.
  • Blackadder (1983–1989). This wickedly funny BBC sitcom starring Rowan Atkinson skewers various periods of English history in the course of four series (also several TV specials).
  • Call the Midwife (2012–). London's poor East End comes to gritty, poignant life in this BBC drama tracing the lives of a team of nurse midwives in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
  • Chariots of Fire (1981). This Academy Award winner traces the lives of two British track stars competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics.
  • Doc Martin (2004–). A brilliant but socially inept London surgeon finds new challenges and opportunities when he opens a practice in a seaside village in Cornwall.
  • Downton Abbey (2010–). This popular aristocratic soap opera explores the travails of the Crawley family and their servants in early 20th-century Yorkshire (shot at Highclere Castle, about 70 miles west of London).
  • Elizabeth (1998). Cate Blanchett portrays Queen Elizabeth I as she learns the royal ropes during the early years of her reign. Blanchett reprises her role in the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).
  • Elizabeth I (2005). In this BBC/HBO miniseries, the inimitable Helen Mirren chronicles the queen's later years with a focus on her court's intrigue and her yearning for love.
  • Foyle's War (2002–2015). This fine BBC series follows detective Christopher Foyle as he solves crimes in southern England during and shortly after World War II.
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). The headmaster of a boys' boarding school in Victorian-era England recalls his life in this romantic drama.
  • Gosford Park (2001). This intriguing film is part comedy, part murder mystery, and part critique of England's class stratification in the 1930s.
  • A Hard Day's Night (1964). The Beatles star in their debut film, a comedy depicting several days in the life of the band.
  • Hope and Glory (1987). John Boorman directed this semi-autobiographical story of a boy growing up during World War II's London blitz.
  • Howards End (1992). This Academy Award winner, based on the E. M. Forster novel, captures the stifling societal pressure underneath the gracious manners in turn-of-the-century England.
  • The Imitation Game (2014). Cryptanalyst Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is recruited by British intelligence agency MI6 to help crack the Nazis' Enigma code during World War II.
  • James Bond films (1962–). These classic films follow a dashing officer in Britain's Secret Intelligence Service who likes his martinis "shaken, not stirred."
  • Jane Eyre (2011). Charlotte Brontë's 1847 gothic romance has been made into a movie at least nine times, most recently this one starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender.
  • The King's Speech (2010). Colin Firth stars as the stuttering King George VI on the eve of World War II.
  • Lark Rise to Candleford (2008–2011). Based on Flora Thompson's memoirs, this evocative series chronicles life in a poor Victorian-era hamlet and its neighboring, more hoity market town.
  • A Man for All Seasons (1966). Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More incurs the wrath of Henry VIII when he refuses to help annul the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
  • Mr. Bean (1990–1995). Rubber-faced comedian Rowan Atkinson's iconic character bumbles through life barely uttering a word in this zany sitcom (that also spawned two motion pictures).
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). This surreal take on Arthurian legend is a classic of British comedy.
  • Notting Hill (1999). Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts star in this romantic comedy set in the London neighborhood of…you guessed it.
  • Persuasion (1995). Set in 19th-century England, this Jane Austen tale of status was partially filmed in Bath.
  • Poldark (2015–). In this hit BBC series, Ross Poldark returns to Cornwall after fighting in the Revolutionary War to find his estate, tin mines, and relationship in ruins.
  • Pride and Prejudice (1995). Of the many versions of Jane Austen's classic, this BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth is the winner.
  • The Queen (2006). Helen Mirren expertly channels Elizabeth II at her Scottish Balmoral estate in the days after Princess Diana's death. Its prequel, The Deal (2003), probes the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
  • The Remains of the Day (1993). Anthony Hopkins stars as a butler doggedly loyal to his misguided, politically naive master in 1930s England.
  • Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987). An unconventional middle-class couple's promiscuous adventures expose racial tensions in multiethnic London.
  • Sense and Sensibility (1995). Star Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of Jane Austen's 1811 novel of the Dashwood sisters, who seek financial security through marriage.
  • Shakespeare in Love (1999). Tudor-era London comes to life in this clever, romantic film set in the original Globe Theatre.
  • Sherlock (2010–). Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) are excellent in this BBC update of the detective's story, set in present-day London.
  • Sherlock Holmes (2009). Robert Downey Jr. tackles the role of the world's most famous detective.
  • Sweeney Todd (2007). Johnny Depp stars as a wrongfully imprisoned barber who seeks revenge in this gritty Victorian-era musical.
  • To Sir, with Love (1967). Sidney Poitier grapples with social and racial issues in an inner-city school in London's East End.
  • The Tudors (2007–2010). Showtime's racy, lavish series is a gripping, loosely accurate chronicle of the marriages of Henry VIII.
  • Upstairs, Downstairs (1971–1975). This TV series follows an aristocratic family and their servants in their new home at 165 Eaton Place.
  • Waterloo Bridge (1940). This Academy Award-nominated romantic drama recalls the lost love between a ballerina (Vivien Leigh) and a WWI army officer.
  • Wolf Hall (2015). This excellent BBC historical miniseries details the exploits of Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister to King Henry VIII.

For Kids

  • A Bear Called Paddington (Michael Bond, 1958). A bear from Peru winds up in a London train station, where he's found and adopted by a human family.
  • B is for Big Ben (Pamela Duncan Edwards, 2008). Explore England from A to Z with rhymes, trivia, and bright illustrations.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia books (C.S. Lewis, 1950–1956) and movies (2005–). Four siblings escape from WWII London into a magical world. The first of the seven novels, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, was also a BBC miniseries (1988).
  • Harry Potter books (J. K. Rowling, 1997–2007) and films (2001–2011). After discovering he's a wizard, a young boy in England gets whisked off to a magical world of witchcraft and wizardry. There, he finds great friendships as well as grave evils, which he alone can destroy.
  • A Little Princess (1939). In this film adaptation of the classic novel, Shirley Temple plays a girl whose fortunes fall and rise again in a Victorian London boarding school.
  • Mary Poppins (1964). Though filmed on a set in California, this beloved musical starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke is set in Edwardian London.
  • Peter Pan (2003). The latest in a long line of films adapting the classic 1902 novel Peter and Wendy, this live-action version flies real English children to Neverland.
  • Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow (Robert D. San Souci, 2010). This illustrated retelling is a good introduction for youngsters to the legend of Robin Hood and his merry men.
  • The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911). Orphaned Mary discovers nature and love in a gloomy Yorkshire mansion on the edge of a moor in this beloved classic, which has been adapted for stage and screen.
  • Wallace & Gromit TV series and films (1990–2012). Absent-minded inventor Wallace and his dog Gromit may live in northwest England, but these unique characters are beloved by children around Great Britain and the rest of the world.
  • Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (A. A. Milne, 1926–1928). This two-volume classic children's tale, set in England, revolves around a bear and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. The success of Milne's books has led to numerous book, film, and TV adaptations.
  • Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). A young Sherlock and his sidekick, Watson, work to solve the mystery of a series of nonsensical suicides. The film includes some scenes that may be frightening for younger children.