Billy Liar: The Forgotten Classic of British Cinema

Based on the 1959 novel by Keith Waterhouse, the comedy-drama film Billy Liar is mostly forgotten today. It was a huge hit on release on August 15, 1963, but most importantly, Billy Liar is often cited as one of the most important and influential movies from the British New Wave (Or “Kitchen Sink Drama”) movement of the early sixties.

Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is an undertaker’s clerk who resides with his parents and grandmother in a drab northern England town. Billy finds comfort in his fantasy world of Ambrosia to mask his own miserable existence. His father (Wilfred Pickles) sarcastically refers to him as “his lordship” and both parents continually question his honesty.

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 undertaker’s office so that he can take up his new role as a “scriptwriter” for comedian Danny Boon (Leslie Randall). This new role is another one of Billy’s tall stories.

And Billy’s love life is also in a tangle because he is engaged to two women. He gives both fiancées ridiculous excuses for not taking them home to his parents and for not naming the day. Billy’s lies will soon come back to haunt him but the return of the independent Liz (Julie Christie) forces Billy to address his dilemma: should he remain in his private fantasy world or begin a new 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Billy Liar is a funny and historical document of a country in transition.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 nostalgic comments by the respected Counsellor Duxbury (Finlay Currie) and of course the iconic image of Liz representing the immediate future of the sexy, free-spirited girl-about-town from swinging London.

Billy defends his comforting fantasy world from the threat of uncertainty provided by the arrival of the free-spirited Liz. Liz asks Billy to come to London with her but he makes excuses such as “Oh, it’d be marvelous if we could”, “well, I mean, there are all sorts of arrangements to make”, and “you can’t just go”.

Tom Courtney dominates the film with a touching performance of the innocent and sometimes callous Billy Fisher. Billy’s hesitancy captures the mood of the era and the worry about the liberating times that 1960s Britain was to produce. Julie Christie is memorable in her career breakthrough role as Liz. Christie won the part after the original choice Topsy Jane became ill during filming.

The other performances are magnificent, especially Rodney Bewes (as Arthur Crabtree), Wilfred Bickles (as Geoffrey Fisher), Mona Washbourne (as Alice Fisher), Ethel Griffies (as Florence, Billy’s grandmother), Finlay Currie (as Councillor Duxbury), Helen Fraser (as Barbara) and Gwendolyn Watts (as Rita).

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.

Although some of the brief cultural depictions are dated, Billy Liar is seminal in the use of acting, direction, and permissiveness (Billy Liar is one of the first films in the English language that a swear word is uttered).

The monochrome photography by Denys Coop is striking, which seems to perfectly depict the humdrum small-town life of Billy. The film often has a documentary/cinéma verité look to the picture.

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. Schlesinger was to receive further acclaim directing classics such as Darling (1965), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1970), and Marathon Man (1976).

Billy Liar is a hugely enjoyable film that has been regarded by some film historians as one of the greatest British films in history. Billy Liar is also an important social document of its time and therefore, should never be forgotten.

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