Charlie Bubbles (Albert Finney) is a hugely successful author who has moved from the Manchester he grew up in, married in and became a hit in, to a London where he mixes with the glitterati and lives in a large mansion. Today he has arrived at the gentlemen's club where he has arranged to meet his agent and accountant, and they tell him that he has made so much money that he will have to move abroad for tax reasons. As Charlie wonders aloud whether he should increase his alimony payments to his ex-wife (Billie Whitelaw), he spots fellow Northern writer Smokey Pickles (Colin Blakely) at another table - a chance to get back to his roots?
Ah, but you can never go home again is the message here, a theme that is hammered into the ground for the course of the film's ninety-odd minutes; it would be monotonous if Finney the director and Shelagh Delaney the scriptwriter were not so adept at bringing life to what was in danger of being a story that wore out its welcome after half an hour. Delaney's past hit on the big screen had been an adaptation of A Taste of Honey, a tale that was about as Northern as it was possible to get in the sixties, so perhaps she had mixed feelings about the success she had been awarded.
Similarly Finney might have felt the same about his fame, those mixed feelings which come when doing well in your chosen field begins to separate you from what are commonly referred to as your "roots", and this film could be seen as an apology to all those whom he saw as criticising him for leaving his background behind. Although you're tempted to tell him, and his Charlie character, to get over it and enjoy the fruits of his labour, this is one of the few films that tackled the downside of prosperity and celebrity in such a manner.
In fact, this is a very eccentric film all over, as Charlie sees that he might get back in touch with the North where he hailed from by having some fun with Smokey, starting with cheerfully covering each other with food (the shots of them walking down a busy London street decorated with their dinner are pretty funny). They swap their suits for flat caps and overcoats and head for the nearest working class entertainments, suggesting a satirical leaning in the narrative, but by the time they're at Charlie's mansion, with Smokey roaring drunk, the malaise has once more descended. Still, hope springs eternal and Charlie takes his secretary Eliza (Liza Minnelli in her debut) on a trip through the night up to Manchester.
It cannot be any coincidence that that is the home city of Albert Finney, and there's a sense here that while he may be able to adopt a critical distance he knows all too well of what he speaks (or directs, anyway). Along the way there's a bizarre meeting with Yootha Joyce at a motorway cafe, which goes largely unexplained, and when they get to the hotel Eliza attempts to seduce him (with a surprising hint of oral sex) but Charlie is simply too tired to respond. When he does finally meet up with his wife and son, neither are particularly pleased to see him, and it becomes clear to him that nothing he can do will ever make things the way they were when he was poorer but more content. So what is left to do but run away? This whimsical ending was done down in some quarters, but after all that numbness and dissatisfaction, you can see how this would appeal to the protagonist. It's a one note film, but the handling holds the attention. Music by Misha Donat.