Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

10. Billy Liar (1963), dir. John Schlesinger

Some time in my early teens (I think), I watched this film with my Dad, who is rather partial to Julie Christie, but my memory had obviously got very distorted in the intervening period, as I had somehow come to believe that it is set in London. In fact, it's set in a fictional Yorkshire city, constructed mainly out of Bradford, although it is true that London does get frequent mentions as a symbol of the better, more exciting and more fulfilling life which Billy would like to escape to. Billy Liar's tragedy, though, is that his imagination is rather too good. He may dream of a job as a script-writer for a famous comedian, a free-spirited girlfriend and a house containing a special room where the two of them can go and play Imaginary Countries, but the problem is that his dreams are basically satisfying enough on their own, so that he lacks the drive or the courage to make (the more realistic parts of) them a reality. Inevitably, the climactic scene in which he and the dream girlfriend meet at the station to get the overnight train to London to start their new life together ends with her face, wry but unsurprised, looking back at him through the glass as the train pulls out without him.

Anyway, the film was screened last night as part of the Leeds Back in the Day series at the Cottage Road Cinema, and I went along with the usual crowd (ms_siobhan, planet_andy and big_daz) to rediscover it. It was a great evening, complete with the usual vintage ads and tasty ice-creams-from-a-tray during the intermission, and this time the organisers had even gone to the trouble of contacting some of the stars of the film in advance to let them know it was getting a big-screen showing Oop North. Messages from Tom Courtenay (Billy) and Julie Christie (Liz, the dream girlfriend) were read out before the screening, saying how pleased they were to hear about it, while Julie Christie said she felt this one had stood the test of time much better than many of the films she had made. I think she is right. I loved the way it balanced its comedy and its tragedy so adeptly, and the way it captured the fast-changing world of the early '60s - for example in its portrayal of the generation gap between its older and younger characters, or the way so much of the action took place with scenes of old buildings being demolished and new ones being constructed in the background.

As big_daz has been pointing out on Another Social Network, it is of course also ripe for those of us who live Oop North to indulge in a bit of location-spotting - for all that the very demolition and construction work documented in the film means that some of them have changed a great deal since it was made. I managed to recognise Leeds Town Hall, and the war memorial plus various of the general street scenes in Bradford, while there's a pretty good page here about the locations used, which allows you to compare stills from the film with more recent views. They do seem to have completely overlooked the scenes set in the wonderfully-gothic Undercliffe Cemetery, though, which ms_siobhan has been sending me lovely photos of today.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Billy Liar is the occasional evidence that he does actually have real talent, for all that he doesn't usually manage to apply it very effectively. About two thirds of the way through the film, Billy finds himself in a local night-club steering a precarious path between three different girlfriends, when the band on the stage suddenly starts playing a song he's written with his friend Arthur. This comes rather out of the blue, since we've only previously heard about him wanting to be a script-writer, and Billy himself doesn't even seem to know that the band were planning to play his number. In any other film (e.g. The Glenn Miller Story; Back to the Future) this would be the main focus of the story - the budding songwriter's struggle to win musical recognition. But here it seems like a casual thing which Billy has stumbled into (perhaps led mainly by Arthur?) while hardly even noticing that anything is happening. To my ear, though, the song captures the pop sound of the day absolutely perfectly, and could clearly be the basis of a glittering career if Billy felt so inclined. I've been humming it all day, and will close with the relevant Youtube clip so that you can enjoy it too:

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Tags: bradford, films, films watched 2014, friends, leeds, reviews

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