Another film celebrating its half-century, the acclaimed Billy Liar (1963) has just received a release on Blu-ray. A comedy from the British New Wave, both the screenplay and direction mark a celluloid bridge between kitchen sink cinema such as Schlesinger’s own A Kind of Loving (1962) and later British films such as Alfie (Lewis Gilbert ).
William aka Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) has a dull life and deeply vivid imagination, both of which seem to be proving advantageous and a hindrance to his existence. He also has a love of women. And indeed is happy to become engaged to anyone who will say ‘yes’, although there may be some confusion as to who the engagement ring actually belongs to. Family life is similarly inconclusive and his job has more problems than he cares to contemplate as his boss, the undertaker Emanuel Shadrack (Leonard Rossiter in a marvellous phlegm ridden managerial role), is concerned about some missing leaflets. How much better it would be for Billy if he could retreat into his rampant imagination and instead become employed as a script-writer to comedian Danny Boon (Leslie Randall) or, better yet, a literary novelist of repute, which is what he believes his future prospects entail. That would, of course, involve moving away from Bradford and living in the big city of London. He even gets the chance to go when his old friend Liz (Julie Christie) has a crazy idea that they could do that just by getting on a train. In Billy’s world, real or imaginary, anything could be possible. And often is, even if it’s not in the way he anticipates.
As the title suggests, Billy’s life is imbued with deceptions that are both extreme and yet completely consistent within his world. You shouldn’t like him, but somehow you do. The strength of his character lies with the sincerity of his convictions. His pronunciations of commitments, relationships or declarations of his grand ambitions, whilst amusing, sometimes border on mean spirited or downright criminal but are nevertheless lies that may be perceived as truth by the other characters, the viewer or, often it seems, by Billy himself. Reality itself is a myth for Billy, so when life becomes a bit too much, he simply retreats into his imagination.
Billy Liar is carefully constructed in a way that reflects its source and its characterisation. The black and white cinematography (the detail of which is superb in this digital transfer from celluloid) helps emphasise key issues by managing to place the successful play (by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall from Waterhouse’s 1959 novel) in a more visual and geographical context. This is accentuated when the film depicts the conflicts within Billy’s daily attempts at subterfuge with those of a more notably fantastical nature inside his imagination. These flights of fantasy involve everything from Billy imagining shooting people (think Lindsay Anderson’s If…. ) to the armed troop warfare of Billy’s regal dominance of his imagined kingdom of Ambrosia. The transition between grim reality and outrageous fantasy is as seamless to the viewer as it is in Billy’s mind.
A comedy drama that is very much of its time, Billy Liar’s depictions of dead-end jobs, fashion, public house opening hours and dance crazes highlight the class issues and perceptions of the North/South divide at the time, but then blend the fantastical elements within Billy’s imagination to produce a whole that makes for thoroughly engaging viewing.
All you could really want is TV series (check), musicals (check) or Billy Liar on the Moon, which he actually grew up to do in Keith Waterhouse’s 1977 book. Really!