Crooks, Clubbers and Commies: British cinema’s love affair with Spain

Spain is both home to the largest number of British migrants in Europe, at an estimated 700,000, and last year welcomed a record 17.8 million British tourists, making it by some margin Brits’ favourite holiday destination.

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.

Those 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.

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

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.

READ ALSO: Ten great Spanish films you need to watch now

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.

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.

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


The ultimate binge-watch bucket list of Spanish box-sets

The coronavirus lockdown means that for once in your life, there's no need to feel guilty about binge watching box-sets. In fact, you could end up feeling quite virtuous for choosing to watch Spanish language series, a surefire way to improve your castellano!

The ultimate binge-watch bucket list of Spanish box-sets
Photo: Netflix

Here are The Local's favourite Spanish series:

Las chicas del cable

The first original series produced by Netflix in Spain premiered in March 2016, with a second season released in December of the same year and a recent third season which came out last September. Created by Ramón Campos and Gema R. Neira, it is set in the 1920s and 1930s in Madrid. Lidia (Blanca Suárez), Ángeles (Maggie Civantos), Marga (Nadia de Santiago) and Carlota (Ana Fernández) start working at the national telephone company, located in the centre of Madrid. The series follows their lives and tells stories of love, friendship, secrets and betrayal, set during some important moments of Spanish history.

This historic drama reflects the society of that time while using some elements from the present, such as modern music. Easy to watch and very enjoyable, you’ll hate the cliffhangers but love the characters.

Paquita Salas

This comedy mockumentary series created by Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi was released on the digital platform Flooxer in 2016 and aired on the TV Channel Neox, but in October 2017 Netflix bought the rights and it became an exclusive series of the platform. There was a second season (produced by Netflix) in June 2018, and there is to be a third in the future.

Paquita Salas (Brays Efe), head of PS Management, is a talent representative who was very successful in the 90s but is now struggling with technology and life in modern times. After her most famous actress leaves her agency, she suddenly realises she needs to get her life back on track. Perfect for those with little time to spare (5 episodes per season, around 20 minutes per episode), you’ll swerve between laughing out loud to deep emotion in a flash.


The first season of this drama/thriller series premiered on October the 5th, and only twelve days later Netflix announced that it will be followed in the future by another season of 8 episodes.

Created by Carlos Montero and Darío Madrona, it is set in the most prestigious private school in Spain, Las Encinas. When their high school is destroyed by an earthquake, three students get a grant to study in this elite academy, and the tension created after their arrival ends in a murder. The series looks at issues like inequality between the upper and working class, revealing the contrast between those who have it all and those who have nothing to lose.

La Casa de Papel (Money Heist)

Produced by Atresmedia and Vancouver Media and created by Álex Pina, the series premiered in May 2017 on Antena 3. Netflix bought the rights and edited it for global distribution with the English title Money Heist. A fourth season was released in 2019. It is the most-viewed non-English language series ever on the platform.

In the thriller/crime drama, a man called “The Professor” (Álvaro Morte) recruits eight people with different abilities to carry out the biggest bank heist in history. They enter the Royal Mint of Spain to print €2.4 billion. dealing with police forces and hostages.

La Catedral del Mar

Co-produced by Atresmedia, Televisió de Catalunya and Netflix and directed by Jordi Frades, this series is based on the novel with the same name written by Ildefonso Falcones. It premiered in May 2018 and has only one season of 8 episodes.

The series is set in Barcelona in the 14th century, when the city is at its peak and the construction of the Santa María del Mar church begins. Arnau Estanyol (Aitor Luna) arrives to the city as a slave and climbs the social hierarchy to a comfortable life, provoking the envy of his enemies who report him to the Inquisition. Through the story of this character, the series shows the social problems in medieval Barcelona under tight control of the Catholic Church.

Vida perfecta

Leticia Dolera is a sort of a pragmatic groundbreaker in all things feminist on the Spanish film scene. The image of a quirky, outspoken, urban girl has become that of a director-screenwriter behind one of the best TV productions Spain has to offer.

Maria, Cristina and Esther are three women finding their way around minor and major frustrations of late 30s. Esther, Maria’s sister has trouble breaking away from student lifestyle while struggling to be recognized – by herself and the world – as artist.

Cristina, once idealist, is a corporate women in a marriage void of communication and Maria, the central character played by Dolera, had just broken up with her partner, only to remain pregnant due to a twist of fate.

Yes, it does play on the stereotypes, one in particular, but we do not mind, because it gives such good vibrations. The side characters are well-woven into the narrative, colorful, but never kitschy and played by some of the known names of the local film world.

Premios Ferroz, Spain's equvalent of the Emmys saw Vida Perfecta win the Best Comedy series award, casting away all doubts about the second season hitting the screens in the coming months.

Foodie Love

Director Isabel Coixet is behind this HBO series whose neon-ish billboard ads were everywhere at the end of last year. You'd be forgiven for thinking this an easily digestible series where these two young people fall in love over their shared pleasure in food.

To be fair, these elements are not absent, but rather feature as backdrop.

The first insight is that you need to keep watching beyond episode three. If you do, you will be rewarded as the grim beginning that seems to have little direction beyond that of making you a rather confused participant in a series of encounters showing two people not hitting it off, gives way to a solid narrative, a love story and an underlying tragedy.

Clothes are stylish, places beautiful and naked bodies covered in flour building up on what seems to be an established relationship between nudity and edible matters that Coixet so insistently pursued in her recent film Elisa y Marcela.

El Embarcadero

The first season of this HBO series tells the story of Oscar, Alejandra and Veronica and a love triangle that must be untangled following Oscar's apparent suicide.

We travel between the past and present as Alexandra, his wife and Veronica, his longtime lover, begin to grasp the new reality. As Oscar had concealed the affair from his wife, she in an almost interesting twist in the plot, decides to find and confront the lover.

However, new discoveries lead to a cohabitation between women, with Alexandra discovering her unexplored creativity, sexuality and independence.

Cuéntame cómo pasó (Tell me how it happened)


If you want to delve into a series that charts the tumultuous modern history of Spain, you can do no better than Cúentame cómo pasó, also known as Cuéntame, which charts the highs and lows of one family from the last days of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco into Spain’s new democracy.

The series has been a huge hit in Spain and is currently onto its 17th series which takes place in 1984.

The series was originally created to mark the 25th anniversary of Spain’s transition to democracy and begins in 1968 with the Eurovision victory of Spanish entry Massiel – who some say won because of the fact that Franco bribed the judges.

Gran Hotel


If you are a fan of Downton Abbey then you are bound to like Gran Hotel, set in the upstairs-downstairs world inhabited by the guests and staff at a grand Spanish hotel towards the beginning of the 20th century.

The series, first broadcast in Spain in 2011, follows the disappearance of one of the hotel maids and her brother’s search for the truth about what happened to her.

The series is part period piece, part mystery and was filmed in the beautiful Palacio de la Magdalena in Santander.

El tiempo entre costuras (The Seamstress) 


Based on the bestselling novel by Spanish author Maria Dueñas, El tiempo entre costuras (The Time Betwen the Seams, translated as The Seamstress in English) follows the fortunes of Sira, a seamstress from Madrid.

The series charts her journey of falling in love, travelling to Morocco, then becoming embroiled in the Spanish Civil War, during which she is recruited as a spy and made to sow secrets into the seams of her clothes.

The 11 episodes are 70 minutes each, allowing the epic saga to play out slowly, brewing to its final dramatic conclusion.



Isabel follows one of the most powerful women in history – Isabel I of Castilla, who ruled as queen at a time when the thought of a woman running the kingdom was unthinkable.

The three seasons follow Isabel from the end of childhood and her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon through her patronage of Christopher Columbus and the various turmoils that beset her family. 



Set in a 1950s department store on Madrid’s Gran Via, Velvet follows the love story between the department store heir and one of the store’s seamstresses.

The Velvet department store is the jewel in the crown of Madrid’s fashion scene: elegant, sophisticated and a whole new world of decadence.

The production values are high (each episode cost an estimated €500,000) and the series is available on Netflix in the USA and UK.

El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time)


This Spanish science fiction series, the lovechild of Doctor Who and Quantum Leap, follows a top secret department of the Spanish government that reports directly to the Prime Minsiter: the Ministry of Time. The ministry guards the doors of time to make sure time travellers can't change history for their own benefit.

The series follows the ministry’s newest patrol, made up of Army of Flanders soldier Alonso de Entrerríos, 19th century student Amelia Folch and 21st century paramedic Julián Martínez.

The series features some of history's most famous faces including Franco, Hitler, Picasso and even a cameo from Queen Isabel (the same one from the series Isabel).

Vis a Vis 


While it does bear more than a passing resemblance to Orange is the New Black, if you were into the original you should check out this Spanish TV series which follows the fate of one woman who, because of her boyfriend, ends up being sent to prison.

The series follows how she adapts to prison life, while her family on the outside desperately attempt to find the money to pay for her bail.

El Principe


This crime series is set in the troubled El Principe Alfonso area of Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta, which borders Morocco.

The drama centres around a love story between Javier, a Catholic policeman sent to the area to investigate links to jihadist activities in the Spanish enclave and Fatima, the Muslim sister of a local drug dealer.

The series is a great opportunity to glimpse another side of Spain, in its seldom seen North African enclaves and is quite topical – several suspected jihadists have been arrested in Ceuta in recent months.

Bajo Sospecha (Under suspicion

Photo: artesmedia

This series follows the disappearance of seven-year-old Alicia Vega, who vanishes on the day of her First Holy Communion.

Two weeks later and all police know for sure is that the culprit was linked to the ceremony in some way. To find out more, undercover agents Víctor and Laura pretend to be a married couple and move to the village in an attempt to get to know the girl’s family and friends and in doing so, find the culprit.



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