John Schlesinger’s classic British New Wave comedy has a warm and light touch
Not many classic films have also enjoyed success as a book, play, sitcom and musical. It’s testament to the timelessness of Keith Waterhouse’s source novel, about a 19-year-old lad who ‘can’t say two words to anybody without telling a lie’, that the story has resonated so widely since its 1959 publication.
John Schlesinger’s 1963 film is arguably the most famous incarnation, now restored to mark its 50th anniversary. Tom Courtenay is enthralling as Billy Fisher, clerk to an undertaker in a dull Yorkshire town and engaged to two girls while pining after another, taking refuge from daily drudgery in Walter Mitty-like fantasies.
While filmed in the cinema verité style typical of the 60s British New Wave, Schlesinger’s film has a warm and light touch that’s refreshingly out of step with the period’s humourless focus on misery. Courtenay and Julie Christie (as kooky, free-spirited Liz) embody the new style of swinging 60s anti-hero/heroine and there are also eye-catching supporting turns from British character actors Mona Washbourne, Leonard Rossiter and Finlay Currie.