Julie Christie in Billy Liar: The girl who showed the way to the future

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Some 50 years ago, Billy Liar became a cinematic hero – but, argues John Walsh, it was Julie Christie's Liz who hinted at a new way of life

British cinema of the early 1960s was a relentlessly downbeat affair, studiedly realist in a manner pinched from the French New Wave, cautiously unflashy and obsessed with failure. The key directors of the period were British intellectuals – Jack Clayton, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger and Karel Reisz – whose chosen subjects were working-class dramas set in the provinces; not worlds with which they were wholly familiar.

The films explored British lives stuck in ruts of post-war hopelessness and looking for a way out: Clayton's Room at the Top (1958) dramatised social climbing in Yorkshire; Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) portrayed a Nottingham machinist determined to escape a life of domestic drudgery; Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) saw Tom Courtenay, a young bank robber, refusing to play ball with the Borstal authorities; Schlesinger's A Kind of Loving (1962) watched a Mancunian draftsman (Alan Bates) becoming trapped in marriage and domestic ennui.

Click here or on "View Images" for Julie Christie films in pictures

In British Cinema: the Lights That Failed, James Park argued that all the “kitchen-sink” movies were broadly similar, “a cycle of films with proletarian heroes who, for all their bluster, see their dreams shrivel into melancholy and their little rebellions crash to the ground. Defeat is built into the genre.” But in their midst was one movie which, while sharing the same glum subject matter, is an enduring triumph. Billy Liar features a blustering proletarian hero full of dreams – but it's altogether a different quality of film. Both its realist details and the hero's rebellion are played for comic, rather than tragic, potential. And, far from defining a world in which characters were fixed immovably, Billy Liar shows a world on the cusp of change. It's a movie that vividly heralded the Sixties world of freedom, romance and escape.

It's 50 years old this spring. A digitally restored DVD is out on Blu-ray on 6 May. It screened last week at the Bradford International Film Festival where its hero, Tom Courtenay, the festival's guest of honour received a lifetime achievement prize. There's a screening at the British Library on 26 April introduced by Michael Parkinson, a friend of Billy's creator, Keith Waterhouse, who published the original novel in 1959 and later adapted it, with Willis Hall, as a play, a musical and a TV series.

The plot concerns 19-year-old dreamer Billy Fisher (excellent Courtenay, boyish and desperate) who responds to the dullness of his Yorkshire town and his terror of being “ordinary” by telling tall stories about his parents and his circumstances to everyone he meets, and fantasising about a heroic life in his imaginary kingdom of Ambrosia. He dreams of going to London to work as a scriptwriter for an awful comedian called Danny Boon (catchphrase: “It's all happening!”) And he's uncomfortably engaged to two awful girls: Barbara, virginal, yappy and as wholesome as the oranges she obsessively eats; and Rita, a beehive-wearing harpy whose every word drips condemnation and attack. (We assume she has let Billy sleep with her and is demanding she be made an honest woman.)

In a single day, Billy must leave his job at the local undertakers, clear up a misunderstanding about missing calendars and purloined postage money, find a way to stop either fiancée from visiting his parents, then catching the train to London and a new life as a writer. But it's not that simple…

Schlesinger's camera moves restlessly through the modern townscape, noting (in the brilliant title sequence) how old urban England is being demolished, to be replaced by new styles of faceless architecture, anonymous high-rises, the coming of supermarkets, the idiocy of TV-celebrity culture. An eloquent elegy for the Old Ways is delivered by the dignified Councillor Duxbury (Finlay Currie), co-owner of the funeral parlour where Billy works. But the emergent modern world has its embodiment too, and she nearly steals the film.

It's Liz, played by Julie Christie, in her third screen role (after gamely playing unlikely girlfriends to Leslie Phillips and Stanley Baxter in Crooks Anonymous and The Fast Lady). She plays Liz, a local beauty of a kind never seen before. Though she joins the narrative in the movie's last third, we see her in a key early scene when Billy (Courtenay) tells his friend Arthur (Rodney Bewes) about her, after glimpsing her in a lorry's passenger seat. “Where's she been?” asks Arthur. “I dunno,” says Billy in admiration. “She goes where she likes. She's crazy… She works as a waitress, a typist, last year she was at Butlins – she works until she gets fed up and goes somewhere else. She's been all over.”

It's not her (vivid, glowing) beauty or her (natural, un-beehived, Bardot-ish) blonde hair that attracts him; it's her freewheeling restlessness. She's a girl who can't be pinned down and won't get stuck and, in 1963, this was a crazily unconventional position. Schlesinger celebrates it in a justly famous tracking shot, in which a long-lens camera watches Liz walking through her northern home-town, in a simple white shirt, skirt and jacket. We see her from inside shops, as she passes by, unselfconsciously swinging her handbag, smoking a cigarette, running her fingers along railings, her face smiling, grimacing at her own reflection, showing impatience at a pedestrian crossing. We watch her as an objectified consciousness: an emblem of independence.

It's a great cinema moment because she's being watched, not by Billy (who only caught a glimpse of her in a lorry) but by Schlesinger, who draws our attention to this natural beauty like someone showing off a lover. And that insistence on her life being in transit – well, a whole Sixties dream of unfettered behaviour, of hippie wandering and road movies, was about to unfold from right there.

One could argue that Kerouac and On the Road got there first. You could bring up “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, James Thurber's 1939 story about a chronic fantasist, which is Billy's distant ancestor (it was filmed in 1947.) But Billy Liar enunciates a very specific moment in the British psyche, when a desire to escape the humdrum homogeneity of the present meets a terror of the wild freedom that beckons in the future. It's a touching drama of Hamlet-like indecisiveness amid the social comedy, the machine-gun rebellions and the dreams of victory.

This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar magazine

 

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits