“A man can lose himself in London, Mr Shadrack…LOSE himself.”
Billy Liar is one of the most brilliant depictions of English working-class life ever realised on screen. From the riveting beginning with the camera panning across monotonous rows of terraced houses and apartment buildings to the slushy sounds of Housewives’ Choice (a BBC light music programme popular among housewives in the early sixties) to the poignant ending, it captures both the enormous frustrations and the small consolations of growing up working-class and bright in a depressed Northern industrial town.
William Fisher (Billy Liar, so called because he cannot help embroidering his existence in florid detail) is a restless young man working as an undertaker’s clerk in the firm of Shadrack and Duxbury. He is daily enraged by the hectoring of his parents and the dullness of his paper-shuffling job. He has also managed to get himself engaged to two girls at once, the Pollyanna-ish Barbara and the wonderfully loud, brassy Rita, not out of a womanising nature but an inability to make up his mind. He interfaces constantly between his humdrum daily life and a violently dramatic, overblown fantasy world in which he is president of a small military state called Ambrosia, complete with marching bands. When real life becomes too alarming he slips easily into his alter ego, dealing out death and destruction to his enemies and giving speeches to crowds of appreciative thousands.
Billy’s big ambition is to move to London, in his mind a sort of El Dorado, and there write scripts for a comedian called Danny Boone, a man whose vacuous catch-phrase is “It’s all ’appenin’!” The irony is that it is not all ’appenin’, especially not for poor Billy Fisher, grammar school-leaver with nowhere to go; Danny Boone, having made it himself, is certainly not going to give another working-class young man a leg up.
Every second in every scene counts. The acting is particularly fine, with Tom Courtenay (who was actually a little old for the role at the time) combining just the right amount of repressed sensitivity and longing with adolescent cockiness and animal rage at adults and the stifling little world which he inhabits. Julie Christie is perfect as his fantasy lover and beatnik alter-ego, with a mixture of innocence and knowingness, together with the ability to convey an impression of not being quite real, that is most winning. Leonard Rossiter, whose Shadrack is a melancholy Northern Jewish undertaker on whom there are no flies (contrary to Billy’s initial belief), and Finlay Currie as Councillor Duxbury (no flies there either) are both brilliant in their roles. The film veers in its perfectly-plotted course from absolute hilarity to extreme poignancy.
At the time it was made it had a lot to say about the England it depicts: to begin with, it was a devastating comment on the failure of the welfare state to provide opportunities for those it had educated in the economically-depressed regions of the country, a theme which crystallises in the scene in which Billy rages at his father about his dead-end job and how, when he was going through school, his parents constantly told that he should be grateful for his scholarship. It captures very clearly the wedge that the better education for the young drove between them and their parents, not so much in terms of parents being envious of their children’s chances, but being unable to understand what made their offspring tick and sympathise with their children’s ambitions. It also has many interesting things to say about working-class Englishness, showing, for example, the tenderness that lurks under the roughness of Billy’s parents, in Billy’s mother’s dignified grief over the death of her mother and in her attempt to tell him that he is loved and needed at home, and in his father’s blistering tirades about Billy’s shiftlessness and dishonesty, a manifestation of his inner concern about his son. It shows the conflict between wanting to stay working-class and wanting to get ahead in life; it is no accident that the two women Billy is engaged to have very different outlooks, with Rita quite contented to be common, in contrast to the aspirational Barbara, who wants a house with a fishpond somewhere in Devon. It poignantly underlines the industrial devastation of the North and the remaking of the town in a new image: “This were all green fields when I were a lad”, says Councillor Duxbury, looking out over the town. “There were two chapels, but now they be tearing all the old buildings down.” (The wrecking ball is a recurring motif in the film, from the very opening credits.) It also shows the constricting effect of the industrial town on the northern spirit: it is instructive that the scenes in which Billy seems to feel free take place in the natural environment (the scene on the hill overlooking the town and his encounter with Liz). The natural world seems to become a setting of emotional release for Billy. It is in this setting that he has his first meaningful contact with an old person, Councillor Duxbury (in direct contrast to his interactions with his grandmother at home) who he begins to realise can see through him and understands his frustration at being unable to get anywhere, telling Billy to forget about a job in London and to try to find something realistic for himself at home: “So think on, lad.” When Billy returns to the town, however, he seems unable to manifest much emotion at his grandmother’s death and cannot comfort his mother. The message is clear: Billy comes alive and is able to relate meaningfully to others outside the town, in the surroundings of the moors and the sky. The town stifles him completely, eventually even preventing him escaping it for vistas new with Liz.
Billy Liar is a film about many things. It is about rebellion, about family, about working-class frustration and the confusion brought about by town living, about alienation and belonging. Taken as a whole, it is one of the most hilarious, sad and human films I have ever seen, a great cinematic achievement that is as fresh today as it was when it was made. It is arguably the late John Schlesinger’s most original film, and one of the most vibrant achievements of the working-class neo-realism movement of the late fifties to early sixties. It is rare that a film based on a novel is as good as the book: Billy Liar is one such film. –Isabel Taylor