Sunday, 24 April 2011

Billy Liar - 1963

Sixties Cinema
Billy Liar (1963) is probably the most fun of the 'new wave' films - indeed the only one which is intended largely as a comedy. As is often the way with comedy, the provision of good jokes and laughter enables the audience to take on board difficult truths and complex ideas that might be more unpalatable in dramatic work.

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Based on the novel by Keith Waterhouse, and on his and Willis Hall's subsequent play, Billy Liar is structured something like a classic TV sitcom. In 1963, Galton and Simpson's Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-74) was a huge hit, and there are interesting parallels. Like Harold Steptoe, Billy is a fantasist determined to transcend his everyday humdrum existence but unable to actually leave it in reality. At the end of the film, rather than face the chance of a new life and happiness with Liz, Billy prefers to wallow in the comfort of his fantasy life. He walks back to his front door and imagines the massed ranks of the Ambrosia army's band marching behind him. As with Steptoe and Son the structure is circular; we end where we began. There has been a challenge to Billy's mix of dreary reality and fantasy through Liz and his scriptwriting ambitions, but it has come to nothing.
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Despite the topical jokes about Godfrey Winn and the 'twist', the film holds up today better than most. It is wonderfully performed, especially by Courtenay as Billy, with his mixture of deceit and good intentions, immaturity and intelligence. It is also genuinely funny. The stream of verbal wit and the humour of recognition are enlivened by the Ambrosia sequences, and Billy's more and more outrageous lies are hugely entertaining.
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Schlesinger, Waterhouse and Hall had all worked on A Kind of Loving (d. John Schlesinger, 1962) and Billy Liar is a comic, subversive take on the environment of that film. The idea of failures wishing they were successful but lacking the wherewithal to change their lot is an important motif in English culture, from Dickens to Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-). Later Schlesinger transposed it to America with great success in Midnight Cowboy (US, 1968).
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The poignancy of Billy the loser is highlighted by the contrast with the beautiful, imaginative and unfettered Liz, played by Julie Christie at her most devastating. Unlike Liz, Billy, for all his dreams, will never get the train. The audience is forced to recognise that most of us are Billy rather than Liz.



Published by


Volume 30,No.356,September 1963,pages 126-7


Billy Fisher's real world is bounded by a dull Northern town, a job as clerk in an undertaker's office, a quarrelsome relationship with his parents, and a potentially explosive one with two girls, noisy Rita and silly Barbara, to whom he has simultaneously become engaged. A compulsive liar, Billy is also ruler and commandant-in-chief of his own fantasy kingdom, Ambrosia, to which he retreats when circumstances become too much for him, and from which he emerges, machine-gun blazing, to mow down his enemies in his dreams. Billy has sent some material to a TV comedian, and genuinely believes he has the promise of a job in London. But this illusion doesn't survive an encounter with the comedian; and, simultaneously, all Billy's problems catch up with him. His employer, Shadrack, finds that he has been purloining the petty cash and is still in possession of two hundred of the firm's unposted Christmas calendars. Rita and Barbara brawl over the engagement ring which they have unwittingly been sharing. But Billy still has his hope of escape through Liz, a cheerful, self-reliant wanderer, home for the moment between adventures, who persuades him that only a ticket to London stands between him and a more exciting reality. Returning home to pack, Billy finds that his grandmother has been taken ill after a family row. He follows his mother to the hospital, learns that his grandmother is dead, but still goes ahead with his escape plan. He gets to the station, even to the train, before his nerve fails him. Liz goes off alone; Billy returns to home and Ambrosia.

Billy Liar stakes its claim with a splendid sequence accompanying the credits, with the camera moving at speed over nightmares of suburban architecture, while Godfrey Winn announces records chosen by the lucky inhabitants. Then into Billy's Ambrosia fantasies, rather monotonously military and uniformed, and out again into his blundering dealings with reality. Perhaps Schlesinger and the two writers, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, are all a little too fond of the fantasy; at any rate, they haven't resisted the temptation to fantasticate Billy's daily life, in slightly forcing the characterisation of his father, his employer, and his two rival girl-friends. Billy's encounters with people he finds sympathetic - Liz or his friend Crabtree - are on a different level, and it may be that the intention (though it is certainly not allowed clearly to emerge) was to let us see everything through Billy's eyes. But caricature on occasion gets the upper hand; and there's a snapping of mood at a dangerous moment when Billy, who has seemed genuinely moved by his grandmother's death, slides away into a fantasy of a military funeral.

The result of all this is that the film, and Tom Courtenay's flexible and vital performance, are most effective when most openly funny: when Billy is warding off terrible encounters with neighbours to whom he has lied, or combating his mother's determination to get into his wardrobe, or planning his resignation speech to Shadrack. If Billy's life is all fantasy, then there's no particular reason why it should move us. The exception to this is the whole treatment of Liz, played with great dash by Julie Christie, and here the film becomes unbalanced in a far more interesting way. Our first introduction to Liz, cheerfully swinging through the town, is a bit of New Wave-style film-making which has been genuinely assimilated, and therefore genuinely works. One can't quite believe in her relationship with Billy, yet the unforced way the character is presented somehow makes her the most interesting person on the screen. At all kinds of points, one has the feeling that Schlesinger's film is running away from him; but there's also the impression of a talent energetic enough to risk even the occasional howling blunder. On the evidence of this uneven, stimulating film, he looks one of the better bets for the future of the British cinema.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.

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