Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Billy Liar: 50th Anniversary

To mark the 50th anniversary of its original theatrical release, StudioCanal release on DVD and Blu-ray, Billy Liar.  John Schlesinger's adaptation of Keith Waterhouse's breakthrough novel of the same title, is seen as the most respected film of the Kitchen Sink Dramas of the early 1960s that brought a veritable feast of talent to the British screen.

Starring Tom Courtenay in his most famous role, and cast because he was more 'dainty' than his contemporary Albert Finney who starred in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960).  Courtenay has a real cheekiness in his performance that fits the dark humor and whilst he did not have the sheer physicality or masculinity as Finney, Alan Bates (A Kind of Loving, 1962) or Richard Harris (This Sporting Life, released the same year); those performers were reacting against the world, Billy Liar/Courtenay reacts in spite of the world.

Billy Liar or William Terence Fisher, an apt surname considering he is fishing for any sort of hook to get out of Bradford.  The kitchen sink dramas were about aspiration of the angry young man, to escape the mundanity of working class life and yet ultimately they feel trapped by their social being which would fall if they did not stay, much like the decision Billy has at the end of the film.

Billy is tempted by Liz, played with all the vivacious savvy by Julie Christie is indicative of the impending Swinging Sixties that she and her contemporaries Twiggy and Marianne Faithfull would embody.  Liz is very much the sexualised conquest that Billy would chase after if he ever got to the big smog.

It seems a shame watching this fine print, that Courtenay did not break into the Hollywood mainstream like Finney and Harris - this may have to do with his complexion which is distinctly English; yet the sheer verve of performance into Billy's fantasy life is all the more remarkable that Courtenay's talent was overlooked across the Atlantic.

Billy's off-the-wall social observation and swapping of genres from kitchen sink to 1950s library in one dream sequence to his gunning down his family as he shaves.  This sort of material was clearly ahead of its time.

The keen eye for detail and wonderful use of CinemaScope lends Bradford a vista for Billy's fantasies, as well as the numerous times the film breaks the fourth wall with Billy addressing the camera.  My impression was that Michael Caine as the eponymous Alfie (1966) was the first film to do this; whilst Caine spoke directly to camera, Courtenay seems to wink and smile at the camera as if to tell the audience this is all the joke.  There may be a difference in the conduct but the influence on Lewis Gilbert's film is undeniable.

Schlesinger also uses an overhead shot to split Billy in the toilet and Mr. McShadrack (Leonard Rossiter) on the outside trying to get in - the kind of shot familiar to the work of Brian de Palma.  The influence of the banter between Billy and Charlie (Rodney Bewes), a work colleague, is also reminiscent of the forthcoming BBC sitcom The Likely Lads in which Bewes starred with James Bolam, who has a similarity to Courtenay.

Might Billy Liar be one of the most influential films of the 1960s? - a film that was off-the-wall with its distinctly un-British humour, a jazzy soundtrack, gave the world Julie Christie.  It was as if John Schlesinger could see the Swinging Sixties coming on the horizon and decided to make as free a film as possible, and in doing so made a film that is still vibrant and rich as that era became.

BILLY LIAR: 50th ANNIVERSARY is released by StudioCanal on Monday 6th May on both DVD and Blu-ray at £15.99 and £19.99 respectively.

Special features include Remembering Billy Liar with Tom Courtenay and Helen Fraser; an interview with Richard Ayoade; interview with Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley; stills gallery and trailer.

1 comment:

  1. I am the manager and good friend of muriel day who appeared in billy liar playing the singer on the stage. Muriel has went on to be the first female to represent ireland in the eurovision, supported dusty springfield, host her own tv shows, sing for hew heffner etc etc watch Muriel a few years ago in the waterfront hall in belfast at "do you come here often" performing the massive hit by dusty springfield "you dont have to say you love me" who muriel supported on tour

    Watch Muriel, the 1st female to represent ireland in the eurovision song contest and also the 1st person from northern ireland

    clip of Muriel in the film "billy liar" muriel was asked to step in and mime this song in the film as the orginal singer was heavenly pregnant

    Muriel singing a bit northern soul song "nine times out of ten"

    She would love to get in touch with the cast of the film after a half century and would be up for performing, shes got a brand new album coming out shortly
    Many thanks
    Malcolm McDowell