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 & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit