Yorkshire (indeed, northern) stories tend to fall into three distinct categories:
- Hope extinguished
- Charming misfits find meaning in collective endeavour
- Foreboding community reveals a heart of gold
1. Hope extinguished
Yorkshire as an overwhelmingly malevolent presence which will destroy your dreams, take away the only thing you love and leave you broken. This goes for people wanting to get out, and those who once escaped but were foolish enough to return. Examples: A Kestrel for a Knave/Kes; This Sporting Life; The Selfish Giant; The Damned United; Red-Riding Quartet.
Any beauty is illusory; any happiness fleeting.
2. Charming misfits find meaning in collective endeavour
Generally these feature groups of working class men hard on their luck. Examples: The Full Monty, Brassed Off, Up and Under. These dried up around Blair’s first government when people stopped caring about the British working class and switched to protesting general injustices of climate change and international capitalism. The most recent example, showing the evolution of the form, is Calendar Girls.
3. Foreboding community reveals a heart of gold
Eccentric and taciturn locals give an outsider the cold-shoulder before eventually letting him in. This is the rural brand, best exemplified by All Creatures Great and Small.
Billy Liar falls into category 1.
The film begins with scenes of Britain, the camera panning by well-tended houses and flats. Places are named: West Bromwich, Nottingham, Slough, Lincoln. Then… a shithole!
Ey up, we’re in Yorkshire!
This time the location isn’t named. Settings in the industrial north are rarely granted specificity. We know where we are: Grimsville. No need to scare the audience by mouthing “Bradford”. I know, Keith Waterhouse was from Leeds, but most of the filming was done in Bradford: that’s the city the characters walk around.
He works for undertaker* (symbolism alert!) with Leonard Rossiter (where would excellent British films of the 1960s be without him?) and Rodney Bewes (you can normally rely on a Likely Lad to turn up in these kinds of films: Bolam’s in A Kind of Loving and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner).
Billy is full of playful charm but, let’s face it, if you had a business you wouldn’t employ him, and you wouldn’t want him near your daughters (or gay sons).
He’s imaginative and creative which feminizes him in this world (“he’s like a lass himself”). This is not a place for men like him, by which I don’t mean petty thieves and fantasists, I mean imaginative creatives.
Somehow he’s managed to trick three women into getting engaged, one of whom is Julie Christie.
Now, Julie Christie. There’s a lot of talk about her walking down a street and bringing in the carefree ’60s and all the rest of it. There’s less talk of her dodgy accent work. It’s not as bad as Harris’s shocker from This Sporting Life, but still… Get a Cockney accent wrong and you’re damned forever. Get a Yorkshire one wrong and you’re “ushering in a new spirit”.
The film’s central question is: will Billy leave the suffocating north and go to London with Christie to pursue his scriptwriting dreams. What do you think happens? Let’s look at the flowchart.
Of course he doesn’t go! This is a Yorkshire story.
However, it may not be a tragedy. As Billy’s mother (the film treats women as badly as Billy does, she’s the only one with any internal life) says:
If you’re in any more trouble, Billy, it’s not something you can leave behind you, you know. You put it in your suitcase, and you take it with you.
Maybe he needs to sort out his messes before doing anything else.
You’ll notice in the flowchart that something is missing. Yorkshire (/The North) is always a place people are from, it is not the destination. One of the reasons why depictions of The North are often nostalgic is its creators left, so their work looks backwards to a “North” of the memory (honourable exception: Sally Wainwright).
There is no space in the chart for stories from migrants from the rest of the UK or abroad. The classic journey, thwarted or otherwise, is southwards. You can move to London and immediately be a Londoner. Is the opposite possible? Can you be of Yorkshire without being from Yorkshire?
Manchester has managed it. It’s now a goal, somewhere people go to do things, not just a place they have in them while they work elsewhere. Can Yorkshire do the same? Might contemporary Billys come to realise their dreams here?
Billy missed his train but I took it. I escaped limited horizons, gossip and the workaday and found space, and freedom. But I went in the other direction.
(Actually I was squeezed into the cab of a removals van with two Polish blokes, but let’s not allow the brutal truth to get too much in the way of a pleasing symmetry.)
* Another Bradford undertaker: presumably LA Without a Map is a homage of sorts.
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