Off to Ambrosia with Billy Liar

Billy Liar 2
Tom Courtenay as Billy Liar (1963)

Is Billy Liar really 50 years old? It’s one of the key sixties films catching Britain at a time of transition, mirrored by Billy’s dreams of escape from small town doldrums to something more ‘swinging’. In the early 1990s there was a wonderful BBC weekly retrospective of the era, with all the key films beautifully introduced and the icons interviewed.

Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay

Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay, 1964

Back then you could still wander London and feel the spirit/myth of the locations (there was a kind of indie ’90s is 60s upside down’ thing at the time). The ephemera had lived on in 1980s youth with The Smiths and their legendary sleeve artwork and videos; I remember my oldest brother bringing home the records which introduced Terence Stamp, Rita Tushingham, Pat Phoenix, Yootha Joyce, Alain Delon, Viv Nicolson, The Family Way – a long line of the spirits of an age.

The Smiths Covers

I was wondering to someone about the unselfconscious types who in my childhood bicycled everywhere in wing-framed glasses and tweed overcoats with faces ‘washed bright with carbolic soap’ (a phrase I got from my grandma). Where did they go? It seemed every second of their lives was spent doing quiet practical things. They didn’t need excitement. I thought it was punk that changed things. I was corrected – of course it was the sixties (I was too young to remember: a moment to cherish).

And now in the 21st century it seems people want these culturally marginalised types back, or at least to know they are there in the background, unfazed by the digital age. We even have lots of cake-making, village fete TV. The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ has backfired and in Brand Britain for tourists today it has no hint of irony, just as John Lydon now advertises butter.

This clip from Billy Liar is pure perfection in articulating a yearning for ‘something more’. It’s about the stuff that fuels the best bands, and a particular type of indie pop where edited if not imaginary worlds are held fleetingly in bubbles. Here too is Julie Christie in one of her earliest roles, and probably quite revolutionary in not being squashed into a perfectly made-up fifties ideal. The Yorkshire (Bradford) setting is familiar from my own family and I defy anyone not to want to be on that 12.05 train in 1963.

Elsewhere on WordPress I found this essay The Romance of Grime which celebrates and pinpoints the spirit of the British kitchen sink drama and is well worth a read.


  1. Sonya Chasey · April 6, 2013

    I can’t seem to get the sound to work for the video!

    Those Smiths album covers do have something 80s despite also seeming 60s. But then maybe I’m being influenced by knowing they are from the 80s. Still, the typography seems 80s – I couldn’t really say why though.

    At the time, it felt as though punk was ages removed from the 60s & that the music was totally unconnected! Now in hindsight I realise that this wasn’t the case at all. Maybe it’s because the music you didn’t live through seems like history when you’re a child. Also you can’t take a broader step back & a few years feel like an eternity! Now the 90s could feel like yesterday!

    On the other hand, that doesn’t explain why my own children seem to be much more aware of the connections & influences between different eras of music than I was even by their age; I wonder if that’s because mine was the era of just radio or records & tapes so there was less possibility of experimenting with different genres & so on.

    Interesting comment about people going back to simple pass-times. Perhaps it’s reassuring? Or maybe as well, some people never really left off doing those things & it’s the new stuff that’s picked up & focused on by the media, so we just thought they’d stopped? Or maybe it’s being picked up as the next lifestyle to aspire to, along with the commodities that are going to sell? Or perhaps it’s both ?

    Apparently record players are becoming fashionable again (probably at an exorbitant price)!
    One of my sons said he’d “really like one of those things that read vinyl”!! To which his brother replied “It’s called a record player” (It seems his girlfriend’s got one, so he knows!).

    • whistlesinthewind · April 7, 2013

      Not sure about sound on clip – sometimes I get the laptop sound muted or the Youtube volume turned down, usually when a dog paw bangs on the keyboard… working OK here, but perhaps search for ‘Billy Liar key scenes’ on Youtube and see if that works?

      So true about a few years feeling like an eternity when you don’t have the years to take a broad step back: and yes, the 90s seem like yesterday! I saw one of my favourite bands from when I was 17 or 18 the other week and realised it was the equivalent of, when back in the 80s, going to see a band from the early 60s – which would have seemed ancient and weird at that age. And yet The Primitives mix Velvet Underground with 60s girl groups and punk to make something associated with 80s indie. We’re all inspired by/nostalgic for a time we never knew, and the internet lets us ‘remember’ in a really three dimensional way, whereas in the 80s we just had record sleeves, books and TV by appointment to follow up references etc. I suppose that’s why your family seems more aware than the 80s generation.

      I think you’re right with the simple practical thing – media ignores anything it perceives as ‘dull’, the kind of thing the 60s and 70s dismantled… for the reasons I suppose in part Billy and Liz explain above, wanting freedom from an old Victorian mindset. And yet how many bands retire to become country gentleman (e.g Alex from Blur)? There’s a love/hate thing with ‘England’, and now it seems there’s a need to retain the old cliches of it, but reinvented – like the media’s new ‘lovable’ version of the Queen. People might not want the reality of that old England, but some need to know it is there in the background, a comfort thing.

      You’re spot on re this as a lifestyle – ad slogans like ‘live simply’ are everywhere just now, and the whole practical, unassuming lifestyle is big business – with furniture and clothes to match…

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