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

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star