Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay’s finest hour) is stuck in a dead-end job – he’s a clerk at Shadrach & Duxbury’s Funeral Emporium in the provincial Northern town of Stradhoughton.
He’s patronised by past generations, sneered at by his peers and gets engaged too often. He is engaged to two girls; the prissy Barbara (Helen Fraser) and loud Rita (Gwendolyn Watts). They do not know of each other’s existence, meaning he has to constantly ferry the engagement ring back and forth.
His father (Wilfrid Pickles) is a bullying tyrant, his mother (Mona Washbourne) a right nag, and his grandmother (Ethel Griffies), who lives with them, is senile. Billy’s boss is the creepy Mr Shadrach (Leonard Rossiter), who organises funeral processions as though they were wartime bombing raids.
Billy cannot open his mouth without uttering a lie and daydreams of escape, machine gun retribution and being Prime Minister of a fantasy land, called Ambrosia.
The one bright spot in his life is Liz (Julie Christie), a free-spirited young woman whom Billy is secretly crazy about. The scene where she walks along swinging her handbag without a care in the world became an iconic moment of 60s British cinema.
Liz finally persuades him to go south to London, but his nerve fails him at the last minute.
Courtenay is truly superb as the gentle but emotionally frail hopeful without any balls, and the free-spirited Christie is irresistible as usual, although ultimately not to Billy. I mean, given the choice, who would you rather be with? Julie Christie or Wilfred Pickles?
This must-see film is a faultless blend of social realism and satirical fantasy, and signalled the change in mood of the early sixties.
John Schlesinger’s faultless adaptation of Keith Waterhouse’s modern classic remains poignant, relevant and hugely entertaining to this day.
The movie was later re-done as a television series and was also made into a popular live musical for the stage. Ee by gum . . . it’s grim up North!