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“It’s all happening!”

April 6, 2011

Here’s Julie Christie in Billy Liar, skipping through early-1960s Bradford (though the town hall is borrowed from Manchester). As the smitten Tom Courtenay puts it: “she’s crazy, she just enjoys herself.” He’s not wrong — I mean, she’s just got back from Doncaster of all places.

The odd thing about watching this film now is that the shots of modern Bradford under construction (there’s lots of talk throughout the film about ongoing “planners’ meetings”) look remarkably similarly to Bradford, after the destruction of the modern town centre. It’s old but pathetically ongoing news that the supposed reconstruction of the city centre is an ongoing farce showing no signs of conclusion. As someone has reasonable asked in the picture below: Good times – when?

It’s quite eerie seeing on film the construction of what has since been destroyed. The latter part of the clip above shows the opening of a new department store — as the catchphrase of the camp southern comedian goes: “It’s all happening!” Modernity has arrived to the postwar northern city. Fifty years later, there are very few shops standing in Bradford’s centre. It isn’t all happening any more. It’s easy to suppose, as some Youtube commenters seem to have done, that the modernisation that the blame for Bradford’s current sorry state is directly traceable to the moment captured here, the moment of construction. In retrospect, the cranes and diggers look ominous: the kind of people who instinctively recoil at the idea of “planning” would probably suppose that modernisation should never have happened.

I don’t think that’s the film’s point at all, though. All the grumbling about “planners” and lamenting the loss of open fields comes from a fusty old Councillor who is firmly aligned with the past, with the undertakers where Billy works and the overbearing Undercliffe cemetery (where I went on several school trips) where Billy wriggles out of marriage proposals. Councillor Duxbury – note the appropriately feudal surname – is soundly mocked and mimicked by the modernised Billy, though Duxbury, functioning as a kind of overseeing lord of the land, has his revenge by reporting Billy’s attempts to discard some stolen workplace calendars on the moors.

Of course, there are plenty of impressive Victorian buildings still standing in Bradford. And let’s at least thank Owen Hatherley for reminding us that although there were some clangers (most of them soon demolished), some of Bradford’s postwar buildings are rather good. He’s absolutely right about High Point, and I also like the Arndale Centre and the Library. Let’s hope they last, though others have fallen.

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