There were a whole spate of British movies in the early 60s that introduced us to the shabbier side of everyday life among the wreckage of the Industrial Revolution. They launched the careers of a number of actors and directors -- Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Julie Christie, Tony Richardson, and Tom Courtenay among them.
Here, Tom Courtenay is a juvenile delinquent who lives in a crummy house with his sour puss Mom, his dying father, his noisy younger siblings, and, later, a dressed-up dude who is his Mom's guest. He can't wait to get out from under it all.
Busted for a minor crime he's sent to a reform school where the well-intentioned manager, Michael Redgrave, spots his ability as a long-distance runner and encourages him to train and to enter the contest against the local public school. Imagine -- a Borstal boy taking the cup from a team of pampered poufs! Running is hard but it suits Courtenay well, as it gives him a sense of escape from his drab and unpromising surroundings. Alas, when the big race against the Aryans who all speak with the received pronunciation arrives, he discovers that you can't run away from your background. He strikes a blow against the establishment by deliberately stopping before crossing the finish line. Michael Redgrave, who had visualized Courtenay in the Olympic games, is not pleased. In his own mind, Courtenay has struck a blow for the underprivileged working man, but only at his own expense.
These movies about the shabby lives of the working class with its small-reward system were refreshing and new at the time. It had hardly been done before with such style. They were as fascinating as some tribal ethnography of Amazon head hunters. In retrospect, a lot depends on how involving the plot was. Episodes illustrating the minor flaws, the dirty brick, the rough bonhomie, don't add up to much unless there is a narrative peg strong enough to hold their weight. This movie qualifies just barely. We don't see much running, and Courtenay's life may be unfocused and its texture abrasive, but he's not particularly lonely.
I knew a marathon runner once. Like all the others he was more than six feet tall and had the long legs of a giraffe. When he crossed the finish line he was panting and sobbing, not merely tired.
I kept thinking about the interaction between genetics and environment. Take a soul with Courtenay's inborn characteristics -- that talent for running, especially long-distance running which takes more than momentary concentration. Give him that adventurous and slightly iconoclastic spirit. Then, instead of having him born to a poor and dysfunctional family, give him to a middle-class household with a sensitive mother and a healthy father and send him to that hoity toity public school. He'd cross that finish line with a grin a mile wide and go on to be a clever lawyer.