Crooks, clubbers and commies: British cinema’s love affair with Spain

Rory Jones
Rory Jones - [email protected]
Crooks, clubbers and commies: British cinema’s love affair with Spain
Ray Winstone played a London gangster hiding on the Costa del Sol. Photo: Sexy Beast.

From sunburned gangsters to young revolutionaries, Balearic ravers to misty-eyed actors, here are some of our favourite portraits of Brits in Spain to have hit the silver screen.


Brits in search of the good life have for decades flocked predominantly to the costas but also to Madrid, Barcelona and the Balearics.

It should come as no surprise, then, that their lives and exploits have inspired scores of filmmakers - the history of Britain’s long love affair with Spain is nowhere better reflected than in cinema.


The Trip to Spain (2017)

In Michael Winterbottom’s third instalment of the bickering, ego-fuelled antics of a fictionalised Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon sent on a newspaper assignment to review restaurants together, the duo head to Spain to recreate Coogan’s teenage road trip from Cantabria to Andalusia. Coogan’s hilariously pretentious fantasy of following in the footsteps of Laurie Lee in ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ is offset by Brydon’s whimsical humour, as the pair discover the different faces of Spain and its food culture, visiting Aragon, Rioja and Castile along the way.


The Business (2005)

Understandably, the Costa del Sol has dominated Spain’s representation in British cinema. The lack of an extradition treaty between the two countries made the Andalusian ‘Sun Coast’ a favourite hideaway for British criminals in the 1970s, a phenomenon that saw British cinema send its much-loved cockney gangsters on holiday. Nick Love’s sometimes cheesy, always entertaining crime flick The Business stars a young Danny Dyer as Frankie, a South Londoner who flees an assault charge to work for a mobster on the Costa del Sol, and ends up smuggling cannabis and cocaine.

Love affectionately evokes the atmosphere of 80s Marbella, with a soundtrack that favours David Bowie and Roxy Music and wardrobe choices that squeeze bloated Brit gangsters into tiny Fila shorts, ensuring Dyer’s Scarface-like rise and fall has a very ‘Brit abroad’ feel.

Sexy Beast (2000)

Though it was released five years earlier, Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast could quite easily have been a sequel to The Business. Ray Winstone’s Gal is exactly where we expect Dyer’s Frankie to be in the present day: roasting on a sun lounger in the Andalusian heat, a former villain turned model expat retiree, seeking nothing more than the quiet life and employing a local kid to clean up and bring him beers.


Gal’s Spanish dream is humorously summed up in his opening monologue eulogising the sun, while banal conversations with his wife about the pool tiles register the lazy nonchalance of retired life abroad. This utopian state of affairs is however soon interrupted when Ben Kingsley’s unhinged Don Logan rocks up at the villa demanding Gal take on one last job, and the pressure is slowly cranked up as Gal’s paradise starts to crumble.


Morvern Callar (2002)

No film captures Spain in the British imagination quite like Lynne Ramsay’s mesmerising second feature, Morvern Callar. The eponymous heroine, played by Samantha Morton, wakes up one day to find that her boyfriend has committed suicide and left her funeral money and instructions to send his novel off to publishers.


But rather than fulfil his wishes, Morvern submits the novel under her own name and uses the money to leave the dreary, muted Scottish gloom for a sun-drenched Spanish resort with her best friend. The sense of escapism shared by the hordes of Brits that throng these resorts every summer is palpable, as Morvern sticks her head out of the airport taxi window and cracks a smile for the first time in the film.


Kevin & Perry Go Large (2000)

This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Harry Enfield's cult favourite beloved of generations of young teenagers. In the big-screen debut of his trademark sketch character, Enfield sends Kevin the Teenager and Kathy Burke’s gormless Perry to Ibiza to try and make it as DJs, and in so doing sends up the sometimes po-faced dance music scene that has driven young Brits to the island for decades. It might be full of crude humour, but with its pumping trance soundtrack, egotistic Balearic DJs and scenes in iconic club Amnesia, Kevin & Perry Go Large goes some way to reflect the Ibiza of the late nineties.


Land and Freedom (1995)

What links all of the previous films is their lack of Spanish characters - while Spain plays a large role in their tone and visual style, they all but ignore the existence of natives to the country in which they’re set. Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, meanwhile, breaks this mould by exploring British solidarity with the Spanish Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. The film follows David Carr, a Liverpudlian worker who leaves home for Spain to fight with the International Brigades. On the front line, Carr bears witness to the ideological conflicts that divided the Republicans and led to their defeat. Land and Freedom was critically lauded and sparked a longstanding collaboration (and marriage) between Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty and Icíar Bollaín, the Spanish actress/director that plays Maite in the film.


READ MORE: Ten must-watch films about the Spanish Civil War

Spanish Fly (1976)

Filmed on location in Menorca, the 1976 British film ‘Spanish Fly’ starred some well-known British names of the time, including Leslie Phillips, Terry-Thomas and Graham Armitage, as well as German actress Nadiuska who had become something of a celebrity in Spain in the 70s. If you’re a fan of slightly risqué sexy comedies or Carry On films this may appeal to you, but be warned, Barry Norman in The Observer described it as "least funny British funny film ever made".

Sir Percy de Courcy had been living the good life in the Mediterranean for many years but has no income, so he comes up with a plan to sell some cheap local wine. However, he soon discovers it’s so bad that it's undrinkable, and orders his butler Perkins to try and salvage it. After accidentally adding an aphrodisiac to the wine, an old schoolmate arrives on the island and Percy tries to sell the lot to him – to ‘hilarious’ results!


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