Off to Ambrosia with Billy Liar

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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.

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