In the canon of British New Wave films, few are as surreal and playful as John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963). Mixing its urban and suburban northern setting with a fantastical, absurdist bent created one of the most unique and visually striking films of the period.
Based on the 1959 novel by Keith Waterhouse, Schlesinger’s BAFTA -winning film follows daydreamer Billy (Tom Courtenay) as he escapes his dreary but stressful life working at a funeral directors in Bradford. Juggling several fiancées, as well as his duties as ruler of his imaginary state of Ambrosia, Billy hopes to be a writer. He has a plan to impress visiting celebrity Danny Boon (Leslie Randall) who once wrote back to Billy about his material. Falling for fellow fantasist Liz (Julie Christie), in spite of being engaged to both Barbara (Helen Fraser) and Rita (Gwendolyn Watts), Billy must decide whether he stays daydreaming up north forever, or tries to make those dreams a reality in London.
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Like many British New Wave films, location filming was key to Billy Liar. Whether in the picturesque suburbs of the fictional ‘Stradhoughton’ or the inner-city streets of Bradford, Schlesinger documented urban Yorkshire on the brink of change. Appropriately, however, not everything in the film is quite what it seems. Here are five locations from the film as they stand today.
Unfortunately for Billy, he still lives with his parents – Geoffrey (Wilfred Pickles) and Alice (Mona Washbourne) – and grandmother (Ethel Griffies), and their house appears regularly in the film. The building was just outside of Bradford town centre in Shipley, at 37 Hinchcliffe Avenue.
The roads and area surrounding the house are seen repeatedly. This shot of Billy leaving for work shows the sloping view down Midland Road.
The house is also the last thing we see in the film, the final view shot further down Midland Road at night.
On a lunchtime wander with his friend Arthur (Rodney Bewes), Billy takes in a few of Bradford’s sights. We see them walk past the town’s cenotaph, which still stands today on Little Horton Lane.
Billy and Arthur walk further; Billy faking a war wound in order to limp across a busy street. The street was Bank Street, recognisable today because of some of the buildings seen in the background.
The funeral directors where Billy works is seen regularly throughout the film from various different angles. Often it’s seen next to a range of steps coming down from a high street. The steps are the Southgate Steps descending from Sunbridge Road. Today, the shop front is just a breezeblock wall.
There is also a view of the other side of the road when Billy initially meets up with one of his fiancées, Barbara. The road itself is the curving Southgate, and the building Barbara stands next to is now a closed-down branch of T.J. Hughes.
One of the film’s most important scenes occurs in a dance hall. Aside from having to juggle his various fiancées on its dance floor, it’s here where Liz helps Billy decide to explore the real world with her. The location was the Locarno Dance Hall at 110 Manningham Lane. Today, the dance hall has been replaced by a general events venue.
At the end of the film, Billy is faced with a choice: make the jump to the capital with Liz and try and realise his dreams, or stay in the fantasy world he’s created in Bradford. The choice comes down to whether to catch a train to London with Liz.
The final irony of the film is that this is one of the few segments not filmed in Bradford at all but in London. The scene was shot at Marylebone Station and, though this busy interchange has extensively changed since, the general remnants of how it looks can still be seen.
Marylebone Station would play a surreal role in other 1960s films too, with The Beatles taking a train journey that both starts and ends there in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964). No less bizarrely, once you know where the scene was shot, Billy must decide whether to go to London while actually already there.
Billy Liar screens at BFI Southbank as part of our Northern Voices season.
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