When it comes to film music, our ears are somewhat automatically drawn to Hollywood. It’s true that the ancestral home of narrative film scoring is to be found in California (by way of Europe and Broadway), but Britain has produced fantastic examples. So who and what might be considered the very best?


It’s a tough one, but here are 11 of the very best 20th-century British film scores, in order of their release.

Best British film scores

Arthur Bliss - Things to Come (1936)
Bliss was the first classical composer to take to film scoring and he did so with this scintillating accompaniment to a rather dystopian story by HG Wells. His March from the score is perhaps the most familiar to listeners today.

Richard Addinsell - Dangerous Moonlight (1941)
The film’s makers wanted music akin to something Rachmaninov would write – indeed, they apparently approached the man himself to compose something, but he declined. Step forward Richard Addinsell, who penned this score; including its most famous asset, the Warsaw Concerto.

William Walton - Henry V (1944)
William Walton was Laurence Olivier’s composer of choice when it came to his big screen Shakespeare adaptations. The composer had previously written music for As You Like It (1936), in which Olivier starred. He went on to write music for the Olivier-directed films of Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955). This score is a standout, though; its most famous cue being ‘Touch Her Soft Lips and Part’.

Henry V Suite’ (arr. Muir Mathieson)

Eric Coates - The Dam Busters (1955)
Okay, this is a bit of a red herring. Coates didn’t actually write the score for The Dam Busters, Leighton Lucas did. BUT the film’s producers fell for Coates’s march and convinced him they should use it in the film. And who didn’t run around the playground with their arms out like wings humming the iconic theme? Okay, maybe only children of a certain age…

Fun fact: Eric Coates also wrote the Desert Island Discs theme tune.

Malcolm Arnold - Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Arnold won an Academy Award for his rousing and dramatic score for David Lean’s classic film, starring Alex Guinness and William Holden. That said, it’s his use of the pre-existing ‘Colonel Bogey March’, written by Kenneth Alford in 1914, which really sticks in the memory.

Eric Rogers - Carry On… (1962-78)
Rogers’s colourful music for this most British of cinematic institutions became as familiar as the many faces of its stars. The comedy, crack-pot storylines and mad-cap carnal cravings were underscored with a nod and a wink. Saucy!

‘Carry On.. Medley’ at the BBC Proms (John Wilson Orchestra)

Ron Goodwin - 633 Squadron (1964)
Goodwin was a legend of British film music, penning more than his fair share of iconic scores over the years, from Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) to Hitchock’s Frenzy (1972). He did a good line in war films, too, taking over from William Walton on The Battle of Britain (1969) and this brilliant score with its thrilling theme.

John Barry - From Russia With Love (1963)
He may not have written the ‘James Bond Theme’, but his handling of Monty Norman’s score for Dr. No (1962) led the producers to give him the job of scoring this, the second of 007’s outings. The rest, as they say, is history.

We named John Barry one of the greatest film composers of all time

Richard Rodney Bennett - Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Sidney Lumet’s lavish and star-filled murder mystery inspired Richard Rodney Bennett’s most brilliant film score. Rousing, colourful and deliciously entertaining, his music is quite the ride – the dizzying waltz theme is an absolute classic.

‘Murder on the Orient Express Suite’ – BBC Proms (BBC Concert Orchestra)

Mark Knoppfler - Local Hero (1983)
Dire Straits guitarist, singer and songwriter Mark Knoppfler took to film scoring like a duck to water. Or so it would seem, based on this first foray into cinema. The guitar is centre stage and his music is perfectly pitched against Bill Forsyth’s quirky and heartwarming highland tale. Knoppfler would go on to write scores for The Princess Bride (1987), Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) and Wag the Dog (1997).

Rachel Portman - Emma (1996)
This adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel might have aided the rise of Gwyneth Paltrow’s star, but it didn’t do Rachel Portman’s career any harm either. The composer won a much-deserved Oscar for her music, which has equal measures of charm, wit, drama and gossamer beauty. It’s a perfect accompaniment.

What about great recordings?

The Film Music of Ron Goodwin

The Great British Film Music Album

The Film Music of Richard Rodney Bennett


Top image credit: Getty Images


Michael BeekReviews Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.