Hull-born Billy Liar star Sir Tom Courtenay receives lifetime award at Bradford International Film Festival.

Sir Tom Courtenay

Sir Tom Courtenay - Credit: Archant

It’s 50 years since Thomas Daniel Courtenay first hit the big time as William Terrence Fisher, eponymous hero of the Bradford-based New Wave film Billy Liar.

And to celebrate this cinematic – and personal – landmark, Sir Tom has enjoyed a special Yorkshire homecoming at Bradford International Film Festival, where he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

‘Billy Liar is a key component within Bradford’s rich film heritage and formed part of our bid to become the world’s first UNESCO City of Film,’ said David Wilson, director of the successful Bradford UNESCO City of Film. ‘It’s still an important reference within film studies and I’m pleased the 50th anniversary edition will bring the film to a whole new audience.’

The film hit the big screen in 1963, but Sir Tom made his professional acting debut three years earlier as Konstantin in The Seagull at the Old Vic. He had come a long way from his modest family home in Hull, where he was born in 1937 and where the green shoots of his future career first pushed through the bomb rubble on Hessle Road.

‘I found it terribly exciting when the air raid sirens sounded,’ said Sir Tom, looking back on his early days in Hull. ‘I loved getting up in the night to rush to the shelter and, once, everyone let me stand up and give them a song. It all seemed great fun.’

He went to West Dock Avenue Boys’ School, then to Kingston High, a grammar school a bus-ride away from his terrace home.

‘It was a terrific school,’ said Sir Tom. ‘I loved it, partly because we had the opportunity to stand on the stage at assembly and read the lesson at prayers.

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‘It was a comfort to know that the boys who were much better than me at sport would have died if they’d been asked to stand up and read the lesson. I, on the other hand, loved it – particularly as everyone was quiet while I spoke.’

He went on to study drama at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts before causing a stir with his first professional role in The Seagull, touring in two Shakespeare plays and then, pivotally, assuming the title role in Billy Liar from Albert Finney at the Cambridge Theatre in 1961.

The story of a Walter Mitty-esque Yorkshireman who creates a fantasy world to shield himself from his mundane middle-class woes proved to be the spark that ignited Sir Tom’s career.

He soon became firmly established in an illustrious generation of fiercely talented actors that also included Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave and Michael Caine, and quickly gained international acclaim with an Oscar nomination for his role in Doctor Zhivago.

‘I don’t want to peak too early,’ he said, after finding fame. ‘The worry is that you never know until it’s all over whether you peaked at all – and then you’re finished and it’s too late.’

But it was far from over. Sir Tom landed a second Oscar nod for The Dresser in 1983 – a role that netted him a Golden Globe – and has been BAFTA-nominated five times, winning for The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and for his TV role in A Rather English Marriage.

During the 1970s, he worked extensively on stage, television and radio, with his stints on Broadway landing a brace of Tony nominations. And he’s shown no signs of slowing down in recent years either, with TV appearances in Little Dorrit, Flood and The Royle Family, and big screen outings in Last Orders, Nicholas Nickleby, The Golden Compass and, most recently, in Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet alongside Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins.

Sir Tom’s talent has stood the test of time and seen him acclaimed as an acting master, but throughout his long and successful career he has never forgotten his Yorkshire roots. He’s a lifelong fan of both the Yorkshire cricket team and Hull City AFC, even managing to persuade his Doctor Zhivago co-star Omar Sharif to become a Tigers’ fan.

And he’s never become too starry-eyed either: ‘The film business is absurd. Stars don’t last very long – it’s much more interesting to be a proper actor.’

But then what else would you expect from a man whose real acting debut was made at the age of four on the bombed out remains of Hessle Road?