Billy Liar came out at the tail-end of the British New Wave cycle that flowered from the late ’50s to the early ’60s.
Half a century on, it feels a lot more vibrant than many of its bolshier ‘kitchen-sink’ contemporaries.
Tom Courtenay, fresh from his borstal-boy rebellion in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962), excels as the titular Walter Mitty character, a Yorkshire undertaker’s clerk repeatedly retreating into his fantasy kingdom of Ambrosia.
Caught between two fiancées, he ends up falling for a third girl, Liz – who, as played by Julie Christie, comes across as the living, handbag-swaying embodiment of the swinging ’60s. (Or as critic Alexander Walker once memorably put it, “With Julie Christie, the British cinema caught the train south”).
But does Billy have the balls to up sticks with Liz and become a gag writer in London for TV comedian Danny Boon?
Directed with gear-shifting gusto by John Schlesinger, Billy Liar vividly captures an England in transition: a wrecking ball’s being taken to the old tenements of the northern city, and supermarkets and high-rises are springing up in their place.
And while Billy daydreams about machine-gunning his relatives and employers (look out for Leonard Rossiter predicting a future of plastic coffins), the irreverent laughs are leavened by a real tenderness, not least towards Billy’s grandmother (Ethel Griffies) in a poignant hospital waiting room scene.
The extras include warm-hearted tributes by TF columnist Richard Ayoade and Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley.
Shame, though, that neither of these pop-culture savvy commentators gives a shout out to US indie rock band Yo La Tengo’s song ‘Tom Courtenay’…