Close Up

8 - 18 August 2015: Billy Liar

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Billy Liar
John Schlesinger
1962 | 94 min | B/W | 35mm

"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.  

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.  

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.  

Schlesinger, Waterhouse and Hall had all worked on A Kind of Loving (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 (1968).  

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." – Phil Wickham. Courtesy of the BFI

Part of our British New Wave season