Lost in the Movies: The Sunday Matinee: This Sporting Life and Billy Liar

The Sunday Matinee: This Sporting Life and Billy Liar

This is an entry in The Sunday Matinee series.

The Sunday Matinee is a series exploring various national cinemas of the 60s – Italian, British, Czech, and French. Usually, the approach is film by film but this week is an exception. This admittedly rather long essay takes a wide view, not just of the two films in question, but of the British New Wave as a whole, and how these particular movies relate to it. Both reviews contain spoilers.

This Sporting Life, UK, 1963, dir. Lindsay Anderson, starring Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts

Story: Frank Machin, a working-class bloke made local hero in a rugby league, tries to establish a relationship with his widowed landlady, but neither of them can escape their past – she because of her suicidal first husband, he because the patriarchs owning his team never let him forget to whom he owes his success.
• • •
Billy Liar, UK, 1963, dir. John Schlesinger, starring Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie

Story: Billy Fisher uses imagination to get him through a life filled with boring dead-end jobs, multiple fiancées, and crushed hopes, but his active fantasy life is challenged by Liz, a free spirit who pushes him to live out his dreams in the real world, rather than in his mind.


The winter of 1962 - 63 was one of the coldest on record for England; one had to go back over two hundred years to find another season so brutal. Blizzards, frozen fog, gale force winds – much of the country was buried in snow for the duration. December saw 20-foot snowdrifts, downed powerlines, and 18 inches of snow in Saffordshire. In January, temperatures dropped to nearly zero degrees Fahrenheit, while the sea froze near Kent and the Thames partially froze (only humming power stations kept the waters flowing in Central London). February met with a 36-hour blizzard, resulting in 20-foot snowdrifts; on the Isle of Man, the wind hit 119 mph. The weather devastated the athletic seasons – football, horse racing, and rugby matches were cancelled far and wide, for months on end.

It was in such an environment that This Sporting Life, about a Rugby League player tormented by exploitative owners and private woes, hit theaters. Taking the simmering emotions of the previous British New Wave films to a boil, showing that the spiritual crises of its protagonists could not be assuaged by financial success, the movie brought all the previous cinematic trends to their apocalyptic conclusion, closing off the epoch of the “Angry Young Man.” A critical success, This Sporting Life was a financial flop – the Rank Organisation, having dipped its toe into the British New Wave and been wiped out, decried the film as “squalid” and made a haughty commitment to abandon the so-called "kitchen sink" aesthetic for future productions. Debut feature director Lindsay Anderson, formerly a contentious critic and gritty documentarian, would not make another movie for five years, at which point If… would bring the Establishment an even greater shock – while also turning a profit.

Perhaps because the winter had been so rough, the English public quickly rebounded with a summer of sex scandals and giddy pop crazes. The Profumo scandal (centering on the seedy connections between a Russian spy, a prostitute, and a government minister) dominated headlines through August, contributing to the downfall of the prime minister’s conservative administration the following year. Piggybacking on the legalization of Lady Chatterlay’s Lover and the approval of the Pill, the Profumo affair capitalized on a mood of loosening mores and hunger for excitement – but it was also, with its indications of corruption and decadence, something of a downer. Within a few months, the press had found an altogether more cheering phenomenon, and one that also tapped into the rise of the Northern regions (previously indicated in theater, literature, and cinema).

While the Beatles were bringing Liverpool wit to the dance halls, theaters, and television sets of the nation, director John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar, a comedy set in Yorkshire, was making its big screen debut. The story had already been told on the page and stage (Albert Finney had turned down Lawrence of Arabia to play the lead role in the play, and the show’s hit status resulted from Finney’s star turn in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; so interrelated were the theatrical and cinematic trends of the time). The film was a success with its cheeky subversions of “kitchen sink” clichés and its orientation towards the growing clarion call of London represented by a literally swingin’ Julie Christie in an early appearance. As Bruce Goldstein observes in his Criterion essay on the film, “The New Yorker critic ended his Billy review presciently—‘I hope that in her next movie [Miss Christie] is in London, in a charming flat, wearing exquisite clothes and speaking sentences that parse’—exactly describing her Oscar-winning role two years later in Schlesinger’s Darling.”

A month after Billy Liar, the final transition between early 60s and mid 60s cinema took place. Director Tony Richardson and writer John Osborne, who had previously kicked off the “kitchen sink” era with Look Back in Anger, collaborated with Albert Finney (the movement’s first homegrown star) on Tom Jones. Despite aiming its satire at class distinctions and established mores, and despite documenting the adventures (sexual and otherwise) of a young man, the film represented an almost total break from the tendencies of the early British New Wave. It was a period piece and adaptation of a literary classic, its tone was cheerfully comical, and stylistically it adopted the frenetic pacing and modernist techniques of the French New Wave, completely abandoning the documentary stylings of the “kitchen sink” films. The movie was a monster success, topping the U.S. box office, winning an Oscar for Best Picture, and (alongside the blockbuster James Bond series) paving the way for a British Invasion of cinemas to accompany the one already unfolding in pop music early in 1964.

Yet by the time of Bond, the Beatles, Jones, and Darling, youthful British cinema had already made the artistic transition – and to see this in process, one must return to those two earlier films, This Sporting Life for bringing the “kitchen sink” era to a close (though not a resolution), and Billy Liar, which we shall examine first, for indicating the way forward. First however, a look back at the anger...

The British New Wave: "Whaddya got?"

As noted in a previous entry, the idea of a "new wave" had different meanings depending on the national context. When asked what he was rebelling against, we all know what Marlon Brando said in The Wild One. Likewise, the youthful rebellion in British, French, Czech, and other cinemas varied depending upon what form the Establishment took. And sometimes the new wavers regarded one another with suspicion. Lindsay Anderson noted regretfully that the French New Wave, for all its excitement, lacked a certain seriousness; while Francois Truffaut's famously scornful attitude towards British cinema (something he called a contradiction in terms) was carried into the new era by many of his admirers. Having once adored British films, Andrew Sarris abandoned them altogether when he embraced auteurism, and indeed the social conscience of the British New Wave was squeezed between the Pop tendencies of hip Americans and Frenchmen - to many it seemed an already dated tribute to Italian Neorealism of the 40s (the strain between pop and politics would remain, with pop triumphant in the mid 60s, only for the two to fuse in radical, unexpected fashion in the late 60s). The British debt to literature and theater (virtually every "kitchen sink" film was an adaptation) probably hurt as well, at a time when many film critics were trying to stake out the cinema's claim as a unique art.

Yet the British New Wave deserves to be mentioned alongside the other New Waves - not just because the films were often so good, but because it represents a uniquely British attempt to forge a new cinematic future and break with the past. Like the French movement, it had its roots in criticism and documentary, and Lindsay Anderson (later to direct This Sporting Life) had a foot in both words. He founded Spectator, a film journal, in the late 40s and went on to initiate the "Free Cinema" screenings in the mid 50s of groundbreaking, socially conscious documentaries (much like those being produced in France by Georges Franju, Jean Rouch, Chris Marker, and Alain Resnais; and presaging the American "direct cinema" of the Maysles, Leacock, and Pennebaker in the 60s). Ironically, Anderson would be the last of the New Wavers to make his feature debut, but between the "Free Cinema" era and the production of This Sporting Life, he busied himself with theatrical work.

This was one major difference between the Brits and other cinematic movements of the time - the close ties with drama. While the first major New Wave film, Room at the Top (1958) was a literary adaptation, it was Look Back in Anger (1959) that really kicked off the movement, for a number of reasons. A fantastically successful and influential play, Look Back in Anger introduced Jimmy Porter as the UK equivalent to Stanley Kowalski - a charismatic dynamo (far more intelligent and articulate than Kowalski, but similarly brutal and intent on shattering conventions). Unlike Brando, Kenneth Haigh was passed over for the lead role in the film adaptation (replaced by Richard Burton); otherwise, the movie kept the play's creative team intact. Not only did John Osborne author the screenplay and Tony Richardson direct, but Osborne and Richardson set up an independent film company, Woodfall Productions, to produce the film; Woodfall would go on to be the signature force behind the "kitchen sink" films.

What followed was a series of iconic classics, each introducing new, dynamic young actors to the British screen, all cultivating an air of intensity and authenticity, and each introducing (or further developing) a new, iconoclastic director to the pantheon. Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) maintained a restrained, classical style while shooting on location and indulging in a gritty narrative and performances. Tony Richardson's follow-up to Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey (1961), was also a theatrical adaptation but it went further than the previous film in "opening up" the play, adopting a documentary look and casting the very young-looking Rita Tushingham in the lead role (on stage, the actresses portraying the teen mom had been in their twenties or even thirties; Tushingham was only about 18). A Taste of Honey, a moving yet unsentimental tale of friendship in an unfriendly world, significantly moved the New Wave milieu from frustrated working-class to downright poverty. It also upped the social radicalism, introducing an interracial relationship and a sympathetic homosexual character (wonderfully played by Murray Melvin, looking much younger than his roughly 30 years).

There are many films which could be considered part of the movement, but a high-water mark was The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), which showed Richardson moving towards the innovative techniques he'd employ in Tom Jones even as the introduction of a lacerating Tom Courtenay as an archetypal "angry young man," and the return to Allan Sillitoe (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) strengthened its ties to the earlier films. That same year, A Kind of Loving brought John Schlesinger, formerly a TV director and documentary filmmaker, into the New Wave fold. He would go on to become probably the most successful of the young directors - sustaining a Hollywood career throughout the late sixties and early seventies with the likes of Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man. A Kind of Loving shows indications of this sort of talent; it "moves" with a flow the more rough-and-ready New Wave films eschew, and while Schlesinger has claimed that he hadn't a clue what to do with camera, editing, or performances in his feature debut, all aspects of the film show a grace and ease that would make him a natural fit for American filmmaking. A Kind of Loving's story, following Vic Brown, a young social-climber stuck in a miserable marriage, remains within the thematic range of earlier New Wave movies, but Schlesinger's next movie would break out of this mold - twice for good measure.

Billy Liar

Billy Liar's first break with the New Wave arrives in its very concept - rather than engage Billy Fisher in an outright struggle or frustrated détente with the limits of his family and day-to-day life, the story allows him an active fantasy life. In his head, Billy is prime minister (though he looks and acts more like a dictator) of Ambrosia, a fantastical country of the mind with a military lore and political mythology, both of which place Billy squarely at their center. While Ambrosia is Billy's preferred venue of escape it is not his only refuge: he also dreams of spraying irritating relatives and condescending bosses with machine gun fire (shades of Anderson's later If...), and of reuniting as a Lord in the back of a limousine with his present employer. He also has dreams that blur the line between fantasy and reality, as when he tells friends and family that he's been hired to write screenplays for famous comic Danny Boon (Leslie Randall). The use of imagination places the movie closer to the French style, while still grounding it in a sense of British realism.

That alone would have been enough to set Billy Liar apart from its forbears – as Bruce Goldstein puts it, “what had seemed fresh and exciting in 1959 was now to many critics (and audiences) the same old stuff—dreary northern locations, by-now stereotyped working-class characters, and often-formulaic situations.” If Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner had begun to incorporate the French spirit in terms of style, Billy Liar seemed to be doing the same in terms of content. Yet the film’s innovation does not stop there. Billy’s dreaminess, however flamboyant, is still couched in terms of limits and frustrations – an escape hemmed in by disappointment and resignation, the angry young man turned inward. The movie’s second departure from form may be the more radical – its introduction, halfway through and apropos of nothing, of Liz (Julie Christie). For the first time, the camera departs from Billy’s side and skips through the streets alongside a purse-twirling, face-mugging, skip-dancing young woman, the very image of carefree modernity (she even gets to snuggle with Billy’s idol Boon for a photo op, though he hardly seems worth the trouble). Having liberated Billy Liar, Liz sets out to liberate Billy himself as well, sharing in his fantasies of Ambrosia but pushing him to take his ambitions and restlessness one step further – by joining her on a jaunt to London.

Significantly, Billy is not trapped by economic circumstances, but by a mindset. In this sense he is the reverse of earlier Angries like Arthur Seaton or Cortenay’s own Colin Smith. He has a decent clerical job at an undertaker’s, and, living with his folks, he's presumably been able to save a bit of money. His father repeatedly berates him by listing all the advantages he’s had – a grammar school education, a good job; the litany resembles the litanies that would come to represent a growing generation gap later in the 60s (my personal favorite comes from A Hard Day’s Night: “I fought the war for your sort.” “Bet you’re sorry you won!”). A Kind of Loving also featured an upwardly mobile protagonist, albeit one trapped by marital circumstances and still conscious of his class roots; from his first film, Schlesinger was moving away from an exclusive focus on limits and constrictions to a more ambiguous dialectic between these and fresh opportunities. When Liz asks Billy to go with her to London, money is hardly mentioned; she assumes that only his psychological blocks keep him from going and ultimately this proves true.

His grandmother recently having passed away, his father having launched one last departing shot, Billy shows up at the train station nervous and fumbling. He gets on the train and sits next to Liz, but calculates a way to “accidentally” strand himself at the station – hopping off the train to purchase milk, taking his sweet time at the machine, Billy makes a show of jogging after the train as it pulls out, but he isn’t fooling himself or his disappointed but unsurprised companion. Pouting playfully and shrugging as she looks out the window, Liz watches Billy recede into the distance. His loss. Trudging back to his home in the dead of night (is it Saturday night or Sunday morning now?), Billy suddenly sees himself in full military regalia, a fleet of soldiers marching behind him. He grins ear to ear and comfortably inserts himself back into the domestic milieu he loves to kick against but is afraid to break away from. He is not, significantly, marching into the future of British cinema, which has pulled out of the station with Liz and is chugging towards London. (“Hollywood UK,” a BBC series documenting the era in British cinema, reflects the geographic shift in its episode titles, going from “Northern Lights” to “Making It in London,” and using Christie’s receding-train visage as the transition point). The future favors the likes of Liz.

The very efficiency of Billy Liar in manifesting the thematic, stylistic, and geographical shifts in British cinema might serve to make any other transitional film seem redundant by comparison. Yet in 1963, the New Wave was not just turning in one direction, it was branching out in many. If Billy Liar represents one branch, the more fertile one, This Sporting Life represents another, initially withered, dry, forbidding, yet ultimately sporting twigs and stubs which grow further and more prodigiously than any other. If This Sporting Life initially seemed to represent a dead end in the British New Wave, that’s because it is both a climax and a breakthrough – into something that transcends both 60s cinema (pointing ahead to dark, expressionistic British films of coming decades) and British cinema (it presages, among others, the gritty, brooding New Hollywood masterpieces of the late 60s and early 70s). Like the fist slamming into the spider at film’s end, This Sporting Life smashes through the constrictions of genre and movement, expressing a personal vision and pointing a way forward that may not be trendy, but is nonetheless vital.

This Sporting Life

Right away, there’s something different about This Sporting Life. You can’t quite put your finger on it. In Criterion’s gorgeous transfer, the inky blackness sets it apart from earlier New Wave films, in which the black-and-white photography seems to be a necessity; here, it feels like an artistic choice (later, in If…, Anderson would skip back and forth between color and monochrome, turning a material limitation into an aesthetic strategy). Most of the excellent directors of the “kitchen sink” films were, in the final analysis, less auteurs than skilled craftsmen, willing to adopt different means to tell their story and allowing the milieu and source material to shape many of their decisions. As with all of his peers, Anderson is working from another source - David Storey’s semi-autobiographical novel – and yet… The story structure and mise en scene of This Sporting Life indicate a personal, subjective vision. Alone among the Brits, Anderson emerges as a full-fledged auteur, shaping his observations and material through the prism of a personal vision that is fiery, melancholy, and painful.

Undoubtedly, Richard Harris is the focal point of this intense energy. He gives a searing performance, managing not to balance the physical toughness and emotional sensitivity of Frank Machin but rather making them seem inseparable. Indeed, throughout This Sporting Life, physical and emotional pain are linked, with the former becoming a metaphor for the latter. The movie opens on a rugby field, with another player smashing into Frank’s mouth. This triggers a series of flashbacks, which continue to unfold while Frank is gassed out at the dentist’s, recalling Frank’s rise to fame as a “footballer” (in the film, Association football is called “soccer” as it is now in the U.S., while rugby is referred to as “football”). His rise is facilitated by ambiguous, at times vaguely homoerotic relationships with a scout (Frank sees this as father-son, while others see something else) and the team's owner, Weaver, an arrogant industrialist whose supercilious demeanor and clenching pat of Frank's leg suggest an ambiguous sexuality (Weaver's wife, a bourgeois swinger, tries to seduce Frank; when he refuses her overtures, his relations sour not just with her but with her husband).

More importantly, the flashbacks reveal Frank’s pursuit of Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts), his landlady. A widow and single mother, Margaret cannot let go of her dead husband, who died in a factory “accident” (a conversation with the factory’s owner, who also happens to own Frank’s team, suggests it was suicide). She even leaves his boots by the fireside, and while Frank with an athlete’s determination makes some advances into her bed and her heart (the former more successfully), he cannot completely break through. A fur coat does not assuage Margaret’s worries about being a “kept woman” and Frank’s furious rages, initially verbal, eventually physical as well, prove too much for her. At film’s end she lies comatose in a hospital and the movie, already harboring avant-garde inclinations, takes the plunge into all out Bergmanesque expressionism. A spider crawls along the wall and then falls behind Margaret’s bed; Frank looks down and sees blood streaming from Margaret’s mouth. She is dead. Letting out a pent-up scream of rage when the spider re-emerges on the wall, Frank slams his fist into the bug and kills it too, a forceful but impotent gesture.

In previous New Wave films, the protagonists are usually seen as representatives, be it of Northern disenchantment, working-class resentment, or generational anger (usually all of the above). These characters are individual people, of course, but their social attributes are always pronounced and foregrounded. When Arthur warns his fiancee that he hasn't thrown his last stone, it's like a warning to the postwar British order (and the women who expect their men to submit to it); when Vic settles with his wife and severs the connection to his mother-in-law, a generation has announced its tentative break with the past (if not with convention); when Colin stops running just short of the finish line, he's serving notice that working-class strivers won't be monkey-boys for the rich any longer. As in Loneliness, one could see Frank's athletic career as a metaphor for working-class ambitions stifled and controlled by an upper class still pulling all the strings. Yet unlike Colin, Frank has broken out of the ghetto and what's more, he can't go home again. His flashy car and neat clothes make him stand out in his old neighborhood; locals gossip behind his back and he hurls insults at their homes under the night sky. When, his relationship over and his career in decline, he attempts to lodge at a boarding house, he's regarded with baffled amusement as a slummer.

Yet he can't fit in with the hoity-toity crowd either; a visit to a fancy restaurant results in a devastating tweaking of customs and fellow customers. What's more, the implications of his behavior are ambiguous: on the one hand, he's giving the finger to the stuffy conventions of wealth, on the other he demonstrates a monstrous sense of privilege, lashing out at the waiters who undoubtedly make far less than he does. So Frank is a man without a world; no wonder he becomes so fixated on Margaret (who falls more within a recognizable type than Frank, though her relationship with him takes her out of this category somewhat). She's his last link to anything real, to any sense of moorings, but she doesn't want him and in the end he's alone, bruised and battered on the rugby field, metaphorical and otherwise. At the end of Richardson's film a year earlier, Colin demonstrates his break with the titular "loneliness" of the runner by establishing his class solidarity and defiance of the established order. A far more lonely figure is Frank at the end of This Sporting Life; unlike Colin, he can't simply refuse to play, as the managers will just give him the sack and move on. These are economic circumstances, to be sure, but they are presented as fundamentally psychological matters - This Sporting Life turns social criticism into psychodrama, fusing the two but giving the latter the upper hand in presentation.

Anderson recognized his position when he made the film. "Throughout This Sporting Life," he later acknowledged, "we were very aware that we were not making a film about anything representative; we were making a film about something unique. We were not making a film about a 'worker,' but about an extraordinary (and therefore more deeply significant) man, and about an extraordinary relationship. We were not, in a word, making sociology." It is in this sense that This Sporting Life represents both a culmination of the previous films (which hinted at a bleak worldview but stopped short of demonstrating it) and a break with them. The energies manifested in the "kitchen sink"/Angry Young Man works were redirected but not subsumed by the onrush of prosperity, pop music, and fashion. The sixties was not just the joy of Swingin' London but also the darkness of Vietnam, the explosive destruction of student riots, the experimental urge to invent a new society in the midst of an ossified civilization. Anderson gave voice to this new mood (and acknowledged its roots in a different, less working-class milieu) with If..., set in a tony public school (in fact, the one he attended) and climaxing with a massacre of officialdom that resonated with the anarchic uprising sweeping through Parisian streets in May '68.

Indeed, it was in France, the United States, and Germany that the defiant mood of resistance would find its full expression, not in England. This Sporting Life does not at all indicate a resistance to power or a positive assertion of the individual, but it does convey a dark, personalized vision which resonated with the apocalyptic tones of the late 60s and perhaps even more strongly with the depressed, disappointed mood of the 70s, which followed those heady times. In this sense, This Sporting Life was far ahead of its time and it would be the work of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and others that would carry forward its vision in British cinema, while Martin Scorsese and other gritty auteurs of the 70s would give it expression in America (Raging Bull in particular seems a child of This Sporting Life; and Scorsese has acknowledged his admiration for Anderson's masterpiece). If the New Wave had already crested by the end of '63 (or reformed into a different, larger, yet somehow more diffuse wave) its undertow continued to exert a pull, one which would remain for many years to come.


When I began this segment of the Sunday Matinee with a review of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, I intended to just review three films, in isolation from one another, rather than look over and address an entire movement. Yet in that very piece I found myself devoting several paragraphs to the overarching context, and I've been unable to shake that fascination since, resulting in an expansion of my original points, and a deeper exploration of these films (in the past few weeks, I saw A Kind of Loving, A Taste of Honey, and Billy Liar for the first time). Apologies to those who have followed along with the series and read or re-read similar points (I've tried to diversify my approach, but acknowledge some redundancies along the way) - this series has been a work in progress rather than a pre-established overview. Next week begins a look at the Czech New Wave, and while I don't intend to take as broad an approach as I did with the Brits, it will probably contain some history as well; as with the British New Wave, I hope to learn a lot in the process. It's a tribute to these cinematic milestones of a half-century ago that they still retain their power and freshness with so much water under the bridge - and, perhaps, inspiration for more water and waves to come.

(Information on the winter of '62-'63 comes from Jonathan Gould's CAN'T BUY ME LOVE and Wikipedia.)

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.


Doug's Blog said...

I've seen most of these films--and consider "This Sporting Life" and "A Taste of Honey" all all-time favorites, and am very impressed with how you discerned each director's choices in reflecting English class divisions or reaching toward a more unique storyline. Thanks Joel.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Doug. This Sporting Life is probably my favorite out of the group, with maybe The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner next in line. A Taste in Honey, which I only saw in anticipation of writing this post, I liked quite a bit. As a Beatles fan, I found it amusing that the song they covered wasn't actually featured in the film...

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