Wednesday November 7th 1962 was a big night for dancers at the Mecca Casino in Ashton-under-Lyne. A very big night indeed!
For regular club-goers were joined by an international film crew and one of the most popular British movie-stars of the 1960s – Tom Courtenay.
He was in Manchester to shoot sequences for the film Billy Liar. And, much to the delight of the local jivers and rockers, he danced a few steps too!
Student Yvonne Smith, 16, from Ashton-under-Lyne found herself rock-and-rolling with Courtenay on film. Other members of the cast, including Julie Christie and Leonard Rossiter, also joined in the fun.
For Courtenay, Billy Liar helped forge a connection with Manchester that has endured for nearly six decades.
The film, based on Keith Waterhouse’s novel and play, tells the story of Billy Fisher who escapes his humdrum life by inventing stories and situations.
Many of Fisher’s fantasies centre around the mythical kingdom of Ambrosia where he is a decorated wartime hero. Our photo shows an action sequence being filmed on a demolition site in the North West, complete with tanks, burning buildings and fleeing civilians.
In 1962, a year before Billy Liar, Courtenay starred as rebellious youngster Colin Smith in Tony Richardson’s film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.
The script, written by playwright Alan Sillitoe, revolves around Smith being sent to an approved school or borstal for his part in a robbery on a bakery. He receives special treatment, however, due to his ability as a runner.
Courtenay’s performance earned him a BAFTA for most promising new actor. The movie was also voted the 36th best British film ever in a 2018 poll.
In December 1966, Courtenay starred with Helen Mirren and Lucy Fleming in Charley’s Aunt at Manchester’s Little University Theatre.
A the time Mirren, who was 21, had just joined the Royal Shakespeare Company after playing Cleopatra in the National Youth Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra at London’s Old Vic theatre.
Mirren returned to Manchester in 1996 to film series five of the TV police drama Prime Suspect, written by Lynda La Plante.
It saw Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, brilliantly portrayed by Mirren, battle crime boss The Street, played by Steven Mackintosh.
The Street ran a drugs operation with brutal smugness – and always seemed to stay one step ahead of Tennison as she tried to break his hold on the local criminal underworld.
Courtenay was back on the Manchester University stage in 1969 to appear in J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.
In the same year he played Hamlet at the Royal Exchange – the building that was to become the home of the Royal Exchange Theatre in 1976. John Nettles, of Bergerac fame, was Laertes in the same production.
Courtenay has since acted in many plays at the Royal Exchange, initially with director Casper Wrede. One of his first roles was that of Faulkland in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals.
In 1999, he played Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Royal Exchange and took the lead in the 2001 production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
In March 1980, the Royal Exchange premiered Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser, which starred Courtenay as Norman and Freddie Jones as ‘Sir’ – the ageing actor whom Norman had dressed for decades.
The play transferred to the Queen’s Theatre in London in April 1980 and then New York’s Broadway in November 1981 – again with Courtenay playing Norman.
The Dresser ran for 200 performances at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway, with Paul Rogers in the role of ‘Sir. It was nominated for two Tony Awards – best play and best actor in a play (Courtenay).
A major film based on the play teamed Courtenay with Salford-born actor Albert Finney as ‘Sir’ in 1983. Both received nominations for Best Actor in the 1983 Academy Awards, but the coveted Oscar went to Robert Duvall in the film Tender Mercies.
Sandwiched between The Dresser’s stage run and film release, Courtenay played Andy Capp alongside Val McLean as Flo in the stage musical written by singer and composer Alan Price.
Andy Capp opened at the Royal Exchange on September 24th 1982 before transferring to the Aldwych Theatre in London.
Courtenay married Isabel Crossley, a stage manager at the Royal Exchange, in 1988. The couple have a home in Manchester as well as London.