Forget Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne: the 1960s was the Golden Age for British Oscars

Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Andrews, Julie Christie... TV and radio presenter Paul Gambaccini recalls the last time the Brits swept the board at the Academy Awards


The British film industry is obviously in a very healthy state, since so many Brits have Oscar nominations. But will the industry ever match its golden era – the 1960s?


A British actress won in 1961 – Elizabeth Taylor. In 1965, it was Julie Andrews. In 1966, Julie Christie. In 1967, Taylor, again. In 1970, Maggie Smith, and in 1971, Glenda Jackson.

Rex Harrison and Paul Scofield won best actor during the 1960s. Films with either a British director or a British subject – Lawrence of Arabia, Tom Jones, My Fair Lady, A Man for All Seasons and Oliver! – won best picture Oscars in the 60s.

These were the films the world wanted to see. So when Colin Welland got up in 1982, what he was really saying was: the British are coming back. Since then there was the great freak of Gandhi winning eight Oscars, the year after Chariots of Fire, and other occasional spikes – such as the one man acting domination of Daniel Day-Lewis, the only man to win best actor three times. But there has been no real domination, just a sense of presence.

I don’t think this will be a year of British success, other than, perhaps, for Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. The awards ceremonies so far have been remarkably consistent – with the exception of best film, where it’s either Boyhood or Birdman and neither is British.

Britain traditionally has a fighting chance in the craft categories, particularly in costume. However, this year The Grand Budapest Hotel seems to have it sewn up. Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) has no chance of taking best actress, as every awards body has singled out Julianne Moore.

Not only did she give a great performance in Still Alice, but it is her “turn”. In the Oscars, the factor of it being somebody’s “turn” is very significant – and this is where Michael Keaton has a sentimental edge over Eddie Redmayne. Redmayne’s hope lies in the Academy’s liking for roles where people are perceived to be challenged. Redmayne’s is both a physical and an emotional performance.

Not only do we have a solid new generation of actors, this year’s British films have universal themes. Stephen Hawking is known around the world, so people have a key to open the door to that film. The Imitation Game has been successful because people can relate to Alan Turing, the man who did so much to defeat Hitler. When you combine universal themes with the craft that Britain has always done best, you have a real global winner.  

As told to Patrick Foster


Coverage of the 87th Academy Awards begins on Sunday 22nd February at 11.30pm on Sky Living