Looking Back At BILLY LIAR - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At BILLY LIAR

Tony can never tell a lie…


Billy Liar is a very peculiar kind of comedy. Or at least, it would be, in most other countries at most other periods in time. But, being made in Britain in 1963, you could also make the case for it being an early encapsulation of the kind of comedy that would prevail on British TV for the next sixty years. It’s a comedy of desperation, intense circumstantial misery, and the airless striving for something different and somehow better. Because, y’know, the lols.

In a sense, if Billy Liar had its comedy imagination scenes cut from it, it would be more or less Look Back In Anger, by John Osbourne. Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall give us the comedic flipside of the phenomenon of the angry young man – in this instance, the angry young man who lacks at every turn the courage to turn his anger into positive action, and so seems perennially trapped between a mediocre reality and an increasingly out-of-control fantasy life.

No, honestly, it’s a comedy. It’s just… y’know… a post-war, post-imperialist, terribly, terribly BRITISH comedy.

It’s the story of a young man, Billy Fisher (played by Tom Courtenay) who, motivated partly by desperation at the disparity between the enclosed smallness of his Yorkshire world and the vaunting metropolitan ambitions to which he feels entitled, and partly by his being a devious, opportunistic cheat, creates an endless web of lies around almost every aspect of his life.

In one sense, you could mark Billy Fisher out as a potential future serial killer – he has the facility to lie smoothly at the drop of a hat, and feels the pressure intensify when his lies are challenged or revealed, leading to explosive outbursts.

But in another sense, he’s an avatar for a social system that, in 1963, had yet to really open up the world to young people of his class and location. Ironically, in 1964, the year after Billy Liar was released, the Beatles blew the doors off the world and at least gave opportunities to creative types from north of Watford to take on the world.

But in 1963, Billy’s life feels impossible, so he invents a nation in his head, and disappears there whenever the world feels too challenging.

And that’s the line the film walks from start to finish. The contrast between the crushing ordinariness of Billy’s actual life, and the fantasies with which he fills his head. Those fantasies are delineated into three separate modes – each of which is at least as important to Billy as the real world around him.

He has ‘complete’ fantasies, of his dreamed-up nation of Ambrosia, where Billy takes on many a role depending on his mental needs in any given moment (including, it’s worth noting, that of a Hitlerian dictator).

He has ‘impulsive’ fantasies, where for instance, he regularly machine-guns the people in his life when they ask him awkward questions or pressurise him even slightly. He also spins fantasies to explain the slightest awkwardness in his life – he invents a sister he doesn’t have (and then kills her off just as suddenly), for instance, and, for reasons of his own, tells people his father’s had his leg amputated.

And then he has ‘aspirational’ fantasies – in particular, of moving away to London, and working as a scriptwriter for a big-time comedian, Danny Boon (Leslie Randall).

Where all that gets troublesome is that some of his impulsive fantasies, and his aspirational fantasies, become effectively ‘real’ – he attempts to resign his job on the basis of having accepted a scriptwriting role with Boon, who has barely heard of him, and only pays for scripts by the joke. His story about his father’s leg makes the dad (Wilfred Pickles) if not exactly a laughing stock, then certainly the subject of behind-the-hand tittering.

He's also living the lie that he’s done nothing wrong to anyone. That’s brought home hard when it emerges he was given a load of promotional calendars to post out, and instead, stashed them in his wardrobe, and kept the postage money for himself. He’s also stringing along two girls with the same engagement ring, continually telling each of them in turn that it needs fixing or re-sizing, so as to be able to give it to both for periods of time.

Then there’s the third girl, who’s been out of the picture for a while as she’s a free spirit and goes just where she wants. When the girl, Liz (Julie Christie) comes back into town, it forces one of many emotional crises in Billy to a head.

The thing about Billy Fisher is that while there are signs of the serial killer in his nature and behaviour (slick and regular deception, distorted self-image, buckling under pressure when his fantasies are threatened, extravagant self-aggrandisement unmatched by verifiable reality, etc), his actual offences are softened as we watch by the fact that for all his lying, he is fundamentally bad at being bad.

His parents, and his father particularly, have no truck with Billy’s creative and whimsical ideas, demanding he knuckle down and do a hard day’s work as soon as he can recognise what one looks like.

His calendar postage money scheme, along with a history of account-fiddling, is not only known by his boss, Mr Shadrack (an impeccably fussy Leonard Rossiter), it’s understood, if never condoned. His attempts to juggle the two girls, Barbara and Rita (Helen Fraser and Gwendolyn Watts, respectively) would be laughable were they not so inherently cruel, and the miracle is that neither of them have found about the other until they meet as Billy’s web of lies collapses.

There’s also probably a doctoral thesis to be written on the choice of Billy’s girlfriends and what it says about young men’s ambitions in the early Sixties – Barbara is romantic and achingly respectable, to the point where even when Billy (and let’s make no bones about this) spikes her drinks with ‘passion pills’ in an attempt to ‘loosen her up,’ she still refuses his kiss and chides him for putting a hand on her knee. Rita on the other hand is available for fun, but wants the engagement ring on the principle that ‘you don’t handle the goods unless you intend to buy.’

The third of the young women in Billy’s life, Liz, is both a breath of fresh air in a stagnant situation, and the only woman to really understand Billy’s needs and his mind – she’s something of a dreamer herself, but she has the courage to take her impulses and go with them, where Billy is always seized by fear and second thoughts. She’s also the perfect combination of Barbara and Rita – Sixties-respectable, but open to pleasure and no longer any kind of fearful virgin.

We won’t tell you how the film ends, but the mood shifts smoothly through some emotional gears in its third act, as the chance to walk away from the life that he feels is oppressing him is offered to Billy on a plate.

There’s more to that than it there might seem. Leonard Rossiter’s Shadrack refuses to accept Billy’s resignation until the postage money is repaid, and may well be prosecuting him for loss of good will. Billy’s father loses his temper with him and tells him he won’t accept any more of his dreaming. His reputation looks to be in tatters after he’s overheard explaining the way his mind works to Liz. And his hopes of becoming Danny Boon’s scriptwriter have been dashed to pieces.

There’s even a death before the end – and Billy, understanding where he wants to make his destiny – still tries to grab for his happiness, in spite of an increased pressure to stay home.

But whether his fundamental nature will let him be happy in the real world is a whole other last reel question, and the resolution is, above all, British – for which, read bittersweet – rather than as potentially triumphant as it could have been.

Perhaps the weirdest, bitterest (and again, not to harp, but most serial killer) aspect in the film is that we learn late in the day that Billy and his friend Arthur have written a song, which has just caught its first local dance hall play, and which might – had Billy been able to knuckle down and apply himself to the real world – have made future fortunes for the pair as songwriters, rather than scriptwriters. That inability to ultimately invest in the real world in any way that differs from his fantasy feels destined to be the real tragedy of Billy Fisher.

The direction of Billy Liar, from John Schlessinger, is almost documentary-real when it deals with the here-and-now, borrowing from a variety of movie styles for the fantasy sequences, to emphasise the difference between Billy’s real and imaginary lives. And Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s writing adds to that reality/fantasy dichotomy with the kind of seeming effortlessness that probably took enormous hard work.

It’s impossible to understate the power of the performances that make the movie work, though. Tom Courtenay dominates the film as Billy, which it’s easy to expect with sixty years of hindsight. But the sheer force of personality that comes through the role is actually a tsunami from which it’s difficult to tear your eyes.

Wilfred Pickles and Mona Washbourne as Billy’s parents each turn in performances that feel absolutely naturalistic, so you feel all the strain of love, pride, exasperation and anger between them and Billy.

Julie Christie, in the role that first blew open her career, is exactly what’s needed in the role of Liz – she bounces through the picture like a breath of fresh elsewhere-air. Rodney Bewes (just a year away from landing himself a lead role in huge British sitcom, The Likely Lads) gives deeply credible support to Courtenay as Billy’s friend, Arthur.

And speaking of future sitcom stars, Leonard Rossiter, a decade away yet from carving his name indelibly into sitcom history as both Rigsby in Rising Damp and Reginald Perrin in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, is intensely believable as Shadrack, a fussy man, but not exactly an arch-ogre, as he’s shown unbending in his personal life at a local dance. He’s pitched perfectly – he’d be irritating to many people, sure, but never outright evil. Simply by being an implacable expression of the real world of the here and now though, he becomes Billy Fisher’s arch-nemesis. Or at least, who Billy thinks is his arch-nemesis, constantly seeking an externalised reason for his failures as he is.

Billy Liar is nearly 60 years old, and in its claustrophobic world and the problems it tackles, it might feel a little out of reach for children of the internet era. But that it’s an entertaining, funny, tragic, hopeful, bittersweet, quintessentially British film that still punches hard on both its tragic and comic notes after all these years is flatly undeniable.

And that’s the truth.

Watch Billy Liar today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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