One Monday morning in 1963 a teacher, whom I remember with uncommon affection, bounced into our O level history class rhapsodizing about a new film he’d seen over the weekend. It was the story of a young undertaker’s clerk whose escapist daydreams were enacted through sudden jump-cuts away from the humdrum of everyday. One moment he’s using an electric shaver while his father berates him over a missing monkey-wrench; next, the shaver is a tommy-gun and he is mowing his old man down in a blaze of fire. Then, strolling past the football ground as the crowd roars for a goal, he becomes a dictator orating to a vast stadium crammed with his adoring people, before switching again to the persona of a scandalous writer, of whom newspaper hoardings scream: BILLY FISHER – GENIUS OR MADMAN? The film was John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar, a faithful adaptation by Keith Waterhouse of his own 1959 novel. I didn’t see the film for some time but soon got hold of the three-shilling Penguin, with its cover showing Tom Courtenay as Billy kitted out in a Panzer commander’s cap and fleece-lined leather jacket.
The novel is a beautiful collision between The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Catcher in the Rye, translated to the streets of Stradhoughton. This is a fictional West Yorkshire town derived from Hunslet, which stands across the River Aire from the city centre of Leeds, and is where Waterhouse grew up. I loved the novel from the first page, and I still treasure its vinegary sense of place and sardonic anti-establishment humour, perfect credentials for the wave of northern working-class fiction then rolling across Britain’s literary seabed. But Billy Liar went on to transcend the genre. Schlesinger’s film, the long-running stage play by Waterhouse and Willis Hall, which also became a school set text, the TV sitcom, the West End musical: these have combined to promote Billy Liar
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