Dwarling, it's wonderful!

Billy Liar at 50.

To mark the 50th anniversary of John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (scripted by Keith Waterhouse from his own novel), a digitally restored edition of the film is released next week on DVD and Blu-ray. Dwarling, it’s wonderful. Not just the sorts of bits-and-bobs that augment any reissue - interviews with the film’s stars, Tom Courtenay and Helen Fraser, and with the latter-day filmmaker Richard Ayoade, whose debut feature Submarine was influenced strongly by Schlesinger’s picture. But Billy Liar itself has stood up spectacularly well.

It’s the director’s most assured work, and it includes Courtenay’s greatest performance. The young actor balances zestiness and frustration, levity and rage, and never soft-pedals his character’s more unsympathetic tendencies. For those unfamiliar with the film or novel, I should say that William Fisher (Courtenay) is a discontented undertaker bristling at his drab Yorkshire life and unimaginative elders, but doomed never to quite summon the guts to leave it all behind. He wants to be a comedy writer, and certainly has the spiky wit, but he’s on the outside of the showbusiness world, looking in; he resents his responsibilities but has somehow got himself involved with three women, the brightest of whom, Liz (Julie Christie), represents an escape route from his life that he may not be brave enough to take. Most of his energy is expended on cultivating a rich interior fantasy life, where he enjoys prestige, wealth and fame - but even this is shot through with rancour, satire and class resentment.

It made an illuminating double-bill for me this week with the tale of another mentally-anguished Bill: It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the debut feature from the animator Don Hertzfeldt. The film explores in painstaking but dispassionate detail the daily life and warped imagination of Bill, a crudely-drawn stick man overwhelmed by his own illness and the world around him.

Watching the movie, which is only just over an hour long, is a rich and exhausting experience. The dispersed frame favoured by Hertzfeldt - with the screen separating into three or more panels in which individual actions unfold - provides exotic food for the eyes, with the surreal spectacle of Bill’s life incorporating live-action footage or abstract imagery. A less impressive device, I felt, was the dry, self-consciously amused and ceaseless narration; listening to the shopping-list of wacky sights witnessed or imagined by Bill (birds squawking into mobile phones, a boy with aluminium hooks for arms), I felt strongly as though I were eavesdropping on David Sedaris reciting a Surrealist’s shopping-list. It seemed heavy on affectation in a way that the film’s visuals were not. But there’s no denying that Hertzfeldt has a voice and a vision, or that It’s Such a Beautiful Day is unique. I think William Fisher, wherever he may be, would appreciate it greatly.

"Billy Liar" is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday. "It’s Such a Beautiful Day" is at London’s ICA Cinema from 3-10 May, before touring various venues nationwide.

Julie Christie (left) and Tom Courtenay at the 1963 Venice Film Festival (Photograph:Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Show Hide image

Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.