The 1963 comedy-drama film Billy Liar seems mostly forgotten today, but it was one of the most popular and important movies from the British New Wave (Or “Kitchen Sink Drama”) movement. It stars Tom Courtenay as Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay), an undertaker’s clerk who resides with his parents and grandmother in a drab northern England town but finds comfort in his fantasy world of Ambrosia.
Billy’s imagination seems to comfort him from his very dull home life. His parents do not him any respect and think he is a complete waste of time. His father (Wilfred Pickles) sarcastically refers to him as “his lordship” and both parents continually question his honesty.
Even Billy’s ambitions are fantastical. Billy tells his closest workmate Arthur Crabtree (Rodney Bewes) that he will be handing in his notice to his boss, Emmanuel Shadrack (Leonard Rossiter) at the bleak undertaker’s office so that he can take up his new role as a scriptwriter for comedian Danny Boon (Leslie Randall). This, of course, is not true.
Billy’s love life is in a tangle because he is engaged to two women. However, the return of the independent Liz (Julie Christie) forces Billy to confront his dilemma: should he remain in his private fantasy world or begin a reality with his true love Liz in London?
Billy Liar is a funny and historical document of a country in transition. These social changes are evident in the many images and references such as the continual construction work, the comment made by the grandmother (Ethel Griffies) about the new types of foreign workers arriving lately, the comments by Counsellor Duxbury (Finlay Currie) about how everything was different was he was a boy, and of course the iconic image of Liz representing the immediate future of the sexy, free-spirited girl-about-town from swinging London.
Some of the cultural references and depictions, however brief, could be regarded now as offensive but were attitudes belonging to the era.
The fantasy sequences from Billy’s wishful thinking are often effectively and hilariously intercut with his bleak real-life moments. These real/fantasy crossover sequences may be common in films today but were quite innovative back in 1963.
The monochrome photography by Denys Coop is striking, which seems to perfectly depict the humdrum small-town life of Billy. The screenplay by Keith Waterhouse (from his novel) and Willis Hall (from his play) is genuinely funny and often quite moving.
Following the critical successes of The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Runner and A Kind of Loving in 1962, which catapulted director John Schlesinger to fame, Billy Liar simply solidified his reputation.
The introduction of Julie Christie in her breakthrough role helped her to become an icon of the Swinging Sixties, especially with the memorable images of her carefree skipping along the high street.
The film was hugely important for many of the talents involved. Both Christie and Schlesinger became major successes and award winners in Hollywood, whilst Courtenay became a critically successful stage performer.
Billy Liar seems to have been criminally neglected by many young critics today. Some of them criticize the hero’s preferred desire to live in his daydream than to live his life, but others argue that many people do prefer to live in their daydreams.
It is a landmark movie for many reasons but certainly for permissiveness because it contains some of the first swear language in a motion picture.
Billy Liar is not only an influential and important British New Wave movie but has often regarded as one of the greatest British films of all time and therefore, should never be overlooked.
Paul J. Bradley