God Bless You, Mr. Schlesinger

From Angry Young Men to Swinging London, apparently “the soot and the soul are palpable in The Brit New Wave” extolled Andy Webster, New York Times Film Critic. At the iconic repertory cinema known as the Film Forum, Greenwich Village, Manhattan. Once named by Time Out’s guidebook to the big apple as the “Best Theater for Classic Films”. The dedicated cinephile and film preservationist Bruce Goldstein, curated a program calendar boasting a 32-film celebration of the best of Old Blighty. An appearance by one of the directors John Schlesinger himself would attend the screening of a new 35mm print of ‘Billy Liar’ possibly my desert island disc choice of film, so you know I was going to be there.

Schlesinger had already made a BAFTA winning short documentary Terminus (1961) and was enjoying the box office success of his debut feature, A Kind of Loving (1962). Where he first collaborated with Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall who did the adaption of Stan Barstow’s book. This time the adaptation from the pair was from their own play and from Waterhouse’s own bestselling novel.

From the first frame Schlesinger’s dark comedy masterpiece, flair for reportage which he was able to finesse at his time spent at the BBC is clearly on display. Cleverly using the opening title sequence to introduce the story with a fly on the wall style. A popular radio program ‘Housewives’ Choice’ is heard as the real radio announcer appears, ‘Winifred God’ as he was known, the real Godfrey Winn who was a big hit amongst woman listeners. “Your great day”. Then cut to a semi-detached house where two women rush out of their front door in reaction, banging on their neighbor’s window to notify them as Scottish operatic tenor Kenneth McKellar belts out a traditional tune, “The Song of the Clyde”. And so, begins the titles over the panning shot of the house’s as it dissolves back to Winn, “she likes to sing”, then continues to read out yet another ladies address then cut once again to another housewife this time on a landing of a council estate shaking out her table-cloth of crumbs only to drop it upon hearing her name. Cut once more to another pan of the inner-city housing as a monastic dirge resounds. “and last but not least there is Mrs. Betty Bullock.”. Cut to the demolition of a house as a piano concerto by Clifford Curzon tinkers. There is some detailed information put in the first three minutes without swamping the viewer.

“Today’s a day of big decisions,” a precursor for the events that are about to unfold.  Billy Fisher (Tom Courtney) is our misguided dreamer who may fancy himself as a writer but writing gags for a London comic Dany Boon. (Leslie Randall) has got to be better than working for Shadrack & Duxbury in an undertaker’s business. Billy resides with his old before their time parents Wilfred Pickles, Mona Washbourne and his non-stop chattering granny (Ethel Griffies) three different age groups all under one semi-detached roof that’s a little too comfortable for our Billy. The social and generational gap between the family members is apparent every mealtime, but it’s a dynamic Billy seems to perversely enjoy. This satirical view of a society under constant barrage of radical physical change amid bulldozers demolishing buildings just as a new supermarket opens, “it’s all happening”. As the old are pitted against the young in a social war that are never more clearly represented than with Billy’s employer’s the forward-thinking ambitious Emanuel Shadrack, (Leonard Rossiter) who imagines a time when the deceased will be entombed in a sleek plastic coffin and then there is the obsolete, antiquated Councilor Duxbury, (Finlay Currie).

I never thought that this was in anyway a depressing melancholic film or as the Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw spewed, “insidiously depressing and defeatist”, “massively overrated”. Choosing to be obtuse or is it a simply a matter of empathy that people from a certain upbringing or class structure can understand and why others regard Billy with a less than generous spirit, but an air of conceited skepticism cloaked in anger. He also stated, “I can live without Billy Liar”, and I can happily live without you mate.

The last act is all about his being granted a wish fulfillment or being a grown up to face his responsibilities or simply too afraid. The sexier choice is to high tail it with the delectable Liz (Julie Christie) who wants to have sex with our Billy, if he comes with her to the big smoke down south. He can escape the clutches of his family and in particular his overbearing pater. The entrapment in a fruitless occupation with no doubt more headaches from Shadrack banging on about those blooming calendars and there is that small matter of the petty cash. Then embarrassingly the possible shaming by his two fiancés who he neither cares for. It’s an easy choice but then again is it for gnawing at his conscious there’s his grief-stricken mother who just declared very uncharacteristically in a very public place, the waiting room of the General Hospital, where his gran had only just died, that she needed him. I doubt that he had ever heard such a shocking revelation.  I doubt if she had ever said anything so vulnerable to him because this emotional guarded generation were not affectionate to each other, would never be  demonstrative, especially in public. What it really comes down to is despite his over eager imagination with all his bravado, Billy’s indecision is his fear to escape from the drab reality that chains him to a life which is for better or worse than the devil he knows.

Back at the Film Forum when Goldstein had rung to invite a rather bemused Mr. Schlesinger who allegedly answered. “Do you think anyone will show up?”. Baffled slightly, only to be utterly deliriously delighted with the warmth of a “grateful” enthusiastic, sold out house.

Mark D Cassar

Mark D.Cassar was a freelance film and video editor in New York, having worked for HBO and Warner Bros Pictures. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.