“A lazy, irresponsible young clerk in provincial Northern England lives in his own fantasy world and makes emotionally immature decisions as he alienates friends and family.” Everyone loves Billy Liar. Apart from whoever wrote imdb’s current bizarrely censorious plot summary above. But when I was making a British social realism landmark programme for Radio 3’s Night Waves back in January it became obvious that it marked a watershed; between the end of those darker dramas such as This Sporting Life, and the frivolous japes of swinging London 60s cinema. And how interesting it might be to explore a film all about Northern male fantasy and ambition from a female perspective.
Oldham-born Helen Fraser was at RADA with Tom Courtenay and starred as Barbara (the repressed one of his 3 girlfriends) in the film of Billy Liar. On the programme yesterday she revealed that Julie Christie joined the cast late; a second choice for the original actress selected (no, she wouldn’t say who). But we had a great time discussing the legacy of the film with historian Melanie Williams. You can listen to it here. And this post covers the other ideas that got cut from the final edit because of time. What’s dated about the film is the sexual politics. The curse of the dollybird, swinging her handbag to a light jazz soundtrack became lazy shorthand for youthful innovation and freshness. Though there are issues with the portrayal of working class women and sex in kitchen sink dramas too. The current DVD cover features a graphic of Helen Fraser’s lacy black basque, (specially made for her, she remembers) filled with the fantasies of Billy Fisher. Fraser remembered feeling very self conscious and finding it very hard to play sexy, in the fantasy sequence where Billy imagines her as a nubile sex goddess, instead of a “not till we’re married” frump. “We had to shoot it three times,” she recalled.
What hasn’t dated is the charm of the documentary style realism of the location shooting. Fraser met her husband, the renowned sound recordist Peter Handford on the set. She told me how groundbreaking was the decision to record their dialogue on location, with the natural ambient sounds filling out a very real sense of place. There are plenty of excellent train sounds,too, not least in the climax at the station — Handford’s speciality. He had recorded the end of the steam age and was to go on to win an Oscar for his work on Out of Africa. Director Schlesinger used that location sound to remarkable effect with the naturalistic dialogue of minor characters in the background. Look out for the scene near the end where two ageing prostitutes try to chat up a young squaddie in the station buffet.
Rewatching the film since the recession sent youth unemployment rocketing and hopes spirally downwards, what’s most poignant is how booming Bradford was. Cranes everywhere on the skyline, a packed city centre with new supermarkets opening — gently mocked in Schlesinger’s film. Billy’s boss Mr Shadrack (Leonard Rossiter) is keen to embrace the plastic coffins and new technology in the undertaking business. There’s real warmth to the portrayal of the old Bradford characters — Councillor Duxbury and Billy’s mother (the wonderful Mona Washbourne). Fraser in the programme discussed the strange circularity of having played Mrs Fisher on stage recently.
Fraser also pointed out how local extras added such depth and charm to those scenes. The football stadium has terrific closeups of faces on the terraces. It looks so alive and vibrant. Supposedly a dull town our hero is desperate to escape, I notice mainly the full employment — school leavers with money in their pocket to go dancing at the Roxy every Saturday night and a direct regular midnight train service to London. It looks like a modern Billy Liar’s fantasy, not a nightmare.
References to the novelty of “blackie” doctors and postmen are markers of how fast the city’s ethnic profile has changed since 1963, with the impact of Pakistani mill workers and a very overt Islamisation in parts of the city.
Schlesinger’s subsequent Darling, which starred Julie Christie and won Oscars, is the film that really looks dated now. You recognise his trademark skill and wit with adverts, fake newsreel and deluded celebrities giving media interviews. But it’s a cold film about celebrity culture with little sympathy for the heartless wench at the centre of it all. (Incidentally I remember watching it on a nightshift the night after Princess Diana died. BBC schedulers had clearly failed to notice, in their careful sifting of programme plans for sensitive content, that it saw Julie Christie’s swinging model turn into “our very own Princess Diana” trapped in a miserable marriage with an older prince. )
Billy Liar the character dated fast. There was the charm of TV’s The Likely Lads, which bridged the gap of northern boys turning into men (starring Billy Liar’s best friend, co-star Rodney Bewes, as well as Helen Fraser in a supporting role.) But Keith Waterhouse’s novel sequel Billy Liar On The Moon is, in my memory, pretty sorry — a 70s adulterer of the kind you saw in sitcoms and minor British sex comedies. Billy Liar’s whimsy did though feed back into the new post-social realism. Lindsay Anderson’s If… is most remembered for its machine gunning fantasies, first seen in Billy Liar. And there is a moment right near the end which is a powerful throw back to British social realism: at the station milk machine.
But it’s not till Midnight Cowboy that you get Billy Liar’s real sequel and Schlesinger’s masterpiece: a poetic film about a deluded small town boy with a fantasy of making it, not as a script writer, but in the new sexually “liberated” 70s as a stud. He does actually catch the train (or rather the Greyhound bus) to the big city, with heartbreaking consequences. Listen again to BBC Radio 3 Night Waves on Billy Liar. First broadcast May 1st.