Billy Liar (1963) stars Tom Courtney as Billy Fisher, a young man with an overactive imagination struggling to come of age in an industrial Northern city. He looks to escape his dead-end job at a funeral director’s, his tangled love life and his oppressively ordinary family by escaping to London to become a scriptwriter. But what makes Billy Liar a masterpiece of British Cinema is that it is not a classic Bildungsroman –a ‘how I became a writer/artist/filmmaker story’ – but a tragedy. It is the story of a flawed character striving to better himself, doomed to failure and to retreat into his imagination. It is also a painfully funny comedy.
Billy is a product of class confusion. Having passed his eleven-plus and received a grammar school education, he finds himself alienated from his working-class parents, even though they live in a semi-detached house. He has none of the work ethic of his father or the know-your-place-in-society of his mother. ‘I’m not ordinary folk, even if she is,’ claims Billy. The class conflict is internalised by Billy as he flits between accents, from a parody of well-spoken RP to a Yorkshire brogue full of thees and thous. His two fiancées also emphasise this conflict: Barbara is a nice but boring and unimaginative girl who Billy calls ‘Dwarling’ as they make plans for their cottage in Cornwall; Rita, a mouthy waitress who demands an engagement ring, claiming ‘You don’t handle the goods unless you intend to buy.’ Although he aspires to that classic middle-class dream – a job in the media – he is not prepared to work for it.
Whatever you call it, either the British New Wave or kitchen sink realism, the brief period from the late 1950s into the 1960s (from Jack Claytons’s 1959 film Room at the Top to 1969’s Kes, by my reckoning) produced some great moments in British cinema. The films are wonderfully written. A concurrent literary movement, especially in the theatre, brought a mix of social conscience, comic wit and a new urge to tackle difficult issues to film writing. Many of the films were based on current plays or books by Keith Waterhouse, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney and others. Yet despite their origins on the stage and page, kitchen sink films are very cinematic. Many of the directors had previously worked in documentaries and as part of the Free Cinema movement, which spawned Lyndsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. Their films were strongly influenced by French poetic-realism and a particular love of Jean Vigo.
However, John Schlesinger was never really part of the Free Cinema movement. He had made documentaries, but had also worked in television directing episodes of Danger Man. Thus Billy Liar is less self-consciously ‘poetic’ and less gritty realist than A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1962) or This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963), and although a little slicker (at times looking like an Ealing comedy, with darker humour) and more openly ‘entertaining’, it is a brilliantly directed film. For a movie in which so little happens, the dramatic pacing is excellent – Hitchcock would struggle to put so much suspense into someone buying milk before catching a train. The performances are all exceptional, with Courtney’s distracted nervousness as Billy nothing short of brilliant.
From its opening travelling shots of British housing estates, from semi-detached to terraced houses, to rows of flats, the use of locations is stunning. Largely shot in Bradford, we see the city as it modernises, with wrecking balls bringing down the old and cranes building up the new. New supermarkets are opening – the world is changing. As the celebrity ribbon-cutter Danny Boone says, ’It’s all happenin.’ The fantasy scenes, however, were shot in Leeds, creating a somewhat lesser Kansas versus Oz dream/reality contrast.
Schlesinger’s reputation has suffered over the years, culminating in his Party Political Broadcast for John Major, a grammar school boy who dreamt of becoming Prime Minister. It is tempting to subsequently look for evidence of this conservatism in his earlier works. His outsiders and anti-establishment characters are rarely rewarded at the end of films (1965’s Darling, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy and of course Billy Liar) and are all certainly flawed characters. Billy and Darling’s Diane are incredibly selfish – Billy stops to pull faces at himself in a mirror when he is supposed to be hurrying to fetch his grandmother’s medicine. ’You’re idle and you’re scruffy and you’ve no manners,’ Billy’s mum tells him. But Schlesinger should be applauded for allowing such flawed heroes, and certainly for allowing the heart-breaking ending, which is amongst the greatest in cinema. Dreams are for dreaming, it tells us, not achieving. Anyway, if Billy had made it to London he would have spent the next 20 years writing sit-coms for Leonard Rossiter.
The results of achieving your dreams can be seen in Schlesinger’s following film, Darling, which stars Julie Christie playing almost the same character as in Billy Liar. Liz, the free-spirited, handbag-swinging object of Billy’s desires, shows him the possibilities of escape and adventure. She has ’been all over’, even as far as a Butlin’s Holiday Camp and Doncaster, we learn. In Darling she makes her entrance (although now called Diane) swinging her handbag as in Billy Liar. She goes on to become the ‘Happiness Girl’ and an Italian princess, and thoroughly miserable.
In some ways Billy Liar is a film very much about the post-war period, the war still colouring Billy’s imagination. In his dreams he is Churchill, or a general leading the victorious marching armies of Ambrosia, or simply machine-gunning his boss. And yet the film’s appeal is timeless; Morrissey putting Tom Courtney on a record sleeve and air-machine-gunning the Top of the Pops audience helped another generation discover this classic, and I’m sure there are enough good-for-nothing daydreamers around now for it to continue to resonate with audiences.
I once watched Billy Liar with a girl I was trying to impress. ‘And you can relate to this loser!’ she exclaimed at the end. ‘It’s much worse than that,’ I told her, ‘this is the closest I’ve come to seeing myself in a film.’ It is a film for us underachievers, that shows what is means to grow up intelligent, imaginative, semi-educated and bone-idle.
Watch a clip from Billy Liar: