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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses