Tag Archives: British culture

Billy Liar

billy liar
Billy Liar

Format: DVD + Bly-ray

Release date: 6 May 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: John Schlesinger

Writers: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall

Cast: Tom Courtney, Julie Christie

UK 1963

98 mins

Billy Liar (1963) stars Tom Courtney as Billy Fisher, a young man with an overactive imagination struggling to come of age in an industrial Northern city. He looks to escape his dead-end job at a funeral director’s, his tangled love life and his oppressively ordinary family by escaping to London to become a scriptwriter. But what makes Billy Liar a masterpiece of British Cinema is that it is not a classic Bildungsroman –a ‘how I became a writer/artist/filmmaker story’ – but a tragedy. It is the story of a flawed character striving to better himself, doomed to failure and to retreat into his imagination. It is also a painfully funny comedy.

Billy is a product of class confusion. Having passed his eleven-plus and received a grammar school education, he finds himself alienated from his working-class parents, even though they live in a semi-detached house. He has none of the work ethic of his father or the know-your-place-in-society of his mother. ‘I’m not ordinary folk, even if she is,’ claims Billy. The class conflict is internalised by Billy as he flits between accents, from a parody of well-spoken RP to a Yorkshire brogue full of thees and thous. His two fiancées also emphasise this conflict: Barbara is a nice but boring and unimaginative girl who Billy calls ‘Dwarling’ as they make plans for their cottage in Cornwall; Rita, a mouthy waitress who demands an engagement ring, claiming ‘You don’t handle the goods unless you intend to buy.’ Although he aspires to that classic middle-class dream – a job in the media – he is not prepared to work for it.

Whatever you call it, either the British New Wave or kitchen sink realism, the brief period from the late 1950s into the 1960s (from Jack Claytons’s 1959 film Room at the Top to 1969’s Kes, by my reckoning) produced some great moments in British cinema. The films are wonderfully written. A concurrent literary movement, especially in the theatre, brought a mix of social conscience, comic wit and a new urge to tackle difficult issues to film writing. Many of the films were based on current plays or books by Keith Waterhouse, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney and others. Yet despite their origins on the stage and page, kitchen sink films are very cinematic. Many of the directors had previously worked in documentaries and as part of the Free Cinema movement, which spawned Lyndsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. Their films were strongly influenced by French poetic-realism and a particular love of Jean Vigo.

However, John Schlesinger was never really part of the Free Cinema movement. He had made documentaries, but had also worked in television directing episodes of Danger Man. Thus Billy Liar is less self-consciously ‘poetic’ and less gritty realist than A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1962) or This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963), and although a little slicker (at times looking like an Ealing comedy, with darker humour) and more openly ‘entertaining’, it is a brilliantly directed film. For a movie in which so little happens, the dramatic pacing is excellent – Hitchcock would struggle to put so much suspense into someone buying milk before catching a train. The performances are all exceptional, with Courtney’s distracted nervousness as Billy nothing short of brilliant.

From its opening travelling shots of British housing estates, from semi-detached to terraced houses, to rows of flats, the use of locations is stunning. Largely shot in Bradford, we see the city as it modernises, with wrecking balls bringing down the old and cranes building up the new. New supermarkets are opening – the world is changing. As the celebrity ribbon-cutter Danny Boone says, ’It’s all happenin.’ The fantasy scenes, however, were shot in Leeds, creating a somewhat lesser Kansas versus Oz dream/reality contrast.

Schlesinger’s reputation has suffered over the years, culminating in his Party Political Broadcast for John Major, a grammar school boy who dreamt of becoming Prime Minister. It is tempting to subsequently look for evidence of this conservatism in his earlier works. His outsiders and anti-establishment characters are rarely rewarded at the end of films (1965’s Darling, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy and of course Billy Liar) and are all certainly flawed characters. Billy and Darling’s Diane are incredibly selfish – Billy stops to pull faces at himself in a mirror when he is supposed to be hurrying to fetch his grandmother’s medicine. ’You’re idle and you’re scruffy and you’ve no manners,’ Billy’s mum tells him. But Schlesinger should be applauded for allowing such flawed heroes, and certainly for allowing the heart-breaking ending, which is amongst the greatest in cinema. Dreams are for dreaming, it tells us, not achieving. Anyway, if Billy had made it to London he would have spent the next 20 years writing sit-coms for Leonard Rossiter.

The results of achieving your dreams can be seen in Schlesinger’s following film, Darling, which stars Julie Christie playing almost the same character as in Billy Liar. Liz, the free-spirited, handbag-swinging object of Billy’s desires, shows him the possibilities of escape and adventure. She has ’been all over’, even as far as a Butlin’s Holiday Camp and Doncaster, we learn. In Darling she makes her entrance (although now called Diane) swinging her handbag as in Billy Liar. She goes on to become the ‘Happiness Girl’ and an Italian princess, and thoroughly miserable.

In some ways Billy Liar is a film very much about the post-war period, the war still colouring Billy’s imagination. In his dreams he is Churchill, or a general leading the victorious marching armies of Ambrosia, or simply machine-gunning his boss. And yet the film’s appeal is timeless; Morrissey putting Tom Courtney on a record sleeve and air-machine-gunning the Top of the Pops audience helped another generation discover this classic, and I’m sure there are enough good-for-nothing daydreamers around now for it to continue to resonate with audiences.

I once watched Billy Liar with a girl I was trying to impress. ‘And you can relate to this loser!’ she exclaimed at the end. ‘It’s much worse than that,’ I told her, ‘this is the closest I’ve come to seeing myself in a film.’ It is a film for us underachievers, that shows what is means to grow up intelligent, imaginative, semi-educated and bone-idle.

Paul Huckerby

Watch a clip from Billy Liar:



Format: Cinema

Screening date: 7 July 2012

Venues: Rio, London

Release date: 20 July 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Cornerhouse

Director: Andrew Kötting

UK 2012

93 mins

Perfectly timed for the arrival of the Olympics, an event even the most hardened Londoners are sick to the back teeth of before it has even begun, this collaboration between artist, filmmaker and restless rambler Andrew Kötting and writer, cultural investigator and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair is a match made in heaven. Kindred spirits who both share a physical and spiritual attachment with the South Coast, the pair first met when Sinclair reviewed Kí¶tting’s Gallivant for Sight & Sound and then maintained a correspondence before collaborating, tentatively, on the filmmaker’s cross-channel Offshore.

In many ways a summation of the themes and practices that have acted as signposts in their respective careers, the film, commissioned as part of Abandon Normal Devices, is a travelogue-cum-odyssey of suitably Olympian ambition as the two fearless explorers and a stolen plastic swan pedalo christened ‘Edith’ (named after the ancient English queen Edith Swan-Neck, whose statue can be seen at the Hastings suburb of Bulverhythe, cradling the dying King Harold after the Battle of Hastings) travel Jerome K. Jerome-style on the waterways of south-east England to the riverside fortress that will become East London’s Olympic 2012 site.

Having aborted several attempts to pen a synopsis, here is the filmmaker himself on the kernel of Swandown: ‘For four weeks throughout the months of September and October 2011 Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair pedalled a plastic swan over 160 miles from the seaside in Hastings to Hackney in East London. They drank 84 litres of water, 2 bottles of whisky, 4 bottles of wine and 24 cans of special brew. They got through 8 pairs of sunglasses, a handmade suit, a pair of walking boots and a camper van. Andrew Kötting wore the same clothes throughout. Iain Sinclair was changed regularly. They met all sorts en route, from the hoi polloi to the hoity toity, from the very old to the very young, with the pedalo acting as catalyst and magnet. Sometimes they were accompanied by invited guest pedallers - sage and comics creator Alan Moore, comedian and cultural commentator Stewart Lee, actor Dudley Sutton [who appeared in Kötting’s Emile Zola-inspired second feature This Filthy Earth], neuroscientist Dr Mark Lythgoe and artist Marcia Farquhar.’

A liquid road movie evocative of Gallivant, which Swandown frequently echoes, it also conjures the ghost of Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, playfully referenced via audio excerpts of Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams. Shots of the two self-confessed ‘codgers’ strenuously dragging their vessel across fields and roads to the next stretch of water add to the Herzogian tone. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is another frame of reference. I was also, if a little perversely, reminded of John Huston’s The African Queen. For its creator, the endeavour also acts as a tribute to the acclaimed performer, traveller and conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who in 1975 was lost at sea attempting to cross the Atlantic in a pocket cruiser. ‘Swandown was always meant to be a homage to him and the ridiculousness of his quest,’ comments Kötting.

Jovially described by Sinclair as ‘a blend of Benny Hill, Stan Brakhage and Joseph Beuys’, Kötting adopts the role of athlete, fool and visionary, larking about and cheerfully interacting with the flotsam and jetsam of British life. He is both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The director suffers for his art, contracting trench foot from his waterlogged boots and a nasty leg infection from a dog encountered en route. Sinclair is cast in the role of the cynical, weary, literary, philosophising wordsmith. Will Self in Shooting Stars in essence. The blend is perfect.

During their journey our intrepid, increasingly stiff-legged Marco Polos listen to the ambient echoes of British culture (historical, literary, political and depicted through Super 8 and archive newsreel footage from the South East Film and Video archive as well as a re-enactment of Shakespeare’s Ophelia as depicted in Millais’s pre-Raphaelite painting) and tune in - like ‘flesh radios’, as Sinclair says, channelling the cultural unconscious - to the secret voices of England today and yesterday. The result is a factual, frolicsome and fun film/text/Dada performance piece that offers an artistically riotous response to the corporate spirit dominating London in Olympics year. As Stewart Lee comments, ‘Iain Sinclair hates the Olympics. He doesn’t think anything should happen in Hackney without his permission’.

The two key points on the Swandown itinerary are its start and end: Hastings (from where ‘Edith’ originates and the actual physical launch point of the trip, a disastrous and inauspicious event hilariously captured on camera) and Hackney, homes to Kötting and Sinclair respectively. ‘The two geographies are intimately connected,’ says Sinclair - ever since a chunk of Hackney’s old artistic-bohemian population moved down to the South Coast, in search of freedom, inspiration and an affordable cost of living. ‘The old Hackney of anarchy and poverty has drifted down towards Hastings, whereas Hackney is now a virtual Wizard of Oz city of supermalls and surveillance. We had the idea of doing an anti-project, against the global corporate entities of the huge projects being done in Hackney in the name of the Olympics.’

Sadly, Sinclair’s commitments force him to abort the voyage before the Olympian Citadel is breached, leaving Kötting to pedal the final leg of the journey alone. The tone of the film becomes ever more melancholy as rural idyll gives way to urbanisation (a river littered with rubbish, frequent shouts of abuse rather than encouragement from passers-by and fellow river-dwellers) and a sporting project ensnared in bureaucracy, security and secrecy. The somewhat downbeat conclusion, however, never for a moment overshadows the project’s impish inquisitiveness and quintessential Englishness. Featuring many of Andrew Kötting’s long-time collaborators, including musician Jem Finer, cinematographer Nick Gordon-Smith and sound recordist Philippe Ciompi, this is an enduring and entertaining male buddy movie the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

The East End Film Festival opens on 3 July and runs until 8 July 2012. For more information please visit the East End Film Festival website. Swandown screens on 7 July at the Rio (London) and is released in the UK on 20 July by Cornerhouse.

Jason Wood