Desperate to offload a cache of complementary calendars he failed to deliver to clients on behalf of his employers, undertakers Shadrack & Duxbury, Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) heads to a desolate moor on the outskirts of his anonymous industrial Yorkshire hometown. The landscape, as depicted around the hour mark of John Schlesinger’s 1963 feature Billy Liar, is a grim evocation of British working class life in the early 1960s. The bleak greyscale celluloid imagery is effective enough, though Keith Waterhouse’s description of the scene in his original 1959 novel, which he helped to adapt, takes it further:
“The centre of the Moor was paved with cinders, where generations had tipped their slag and ashes, and where the annual fairs were held. There was a circumference of sparse yellow grass where the old men walked in summer, and I took the path they had worn towards a pocket of stone cottages, mostly condemned, that huddled miserably together in a corner of the Moor. Behind the cottages, the Moor rose steeply again, out of an ash pit, to meet the scraggy allotments.”
Such a sight is at odds with the line pushed by the Harold Macmillan’s 1957-63 Conservative administration, proclaiming amid a period of uneven economic growth that “most of our people have never had it so good”. For the working classes, whose daily lives did not reflect this purported postwar prosperity, this rhetoric only generated anxiety and frustration. From the ground, it was clear that what John Hill would call the “embourgeoisifying” of old values – an effort to erode class barriers in favour of an egalitarian social order – was empty rhetoric.
Waterhouse was part of a collective of ‘angry young men’ borne out of the frustration of the period – playwrights and authors including Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, whose works concerned the instability, deprivation and mundanity experienced by youths growing up in the shadow of the so-called ‘greatest generation’. Schlesinger, in the company of directors including Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, would carry this movement onto the screen. Billy Liar is the final entry in this ten-film cycle referred to as the ‘British New Wave’ (1959-63), characterised by a vérité filmmaking style and a roster of working class, young, male protagonists railing against but ultimately yielding to the drudgery, duty and misery requisite to their social circumstance. In step with preceding entries in the brief canon, Schlesinger depicts moments of futile misery – such as a middle-aged couple fretting over a deceased relative’s overdue library books – or desolate landscapes like the aforementioned moor to reinforce for cinemagoers the circumstances of Britain’s forgotten underclass. What sets Billy Liar apart from the dour realism of its predecessors, though, is Schlesinger’s use of surrealism and subjectivity to inject an illusion of tantalising, yet ultimately ephemeral opportunity into the film’s apocalyptic locale.
Tom Courtenay’s titular protagonist is a fantasist, first introduced in bed daydreaming about a victory parade in Ambrosia, a fictitious oligarchy of his own invention. Billy inserts himself as several characters in the absurd pageantry, including the country’s benevolent military dictator, a one-armed veteran and even a black infantryman (depicted using dubious blackface). The scene is an entertaining send-up of wartime jingoism. What makes it especially effective, though, is that Schlesinger shoots this and other scenes of imaginative escapism on the same streets of bleak, Bradford suburbia that Billy must navigate in reality, imbuing them with a romance and wonder entirely absent in the depiction of similar locations throughout the rest of the New Wave cycle.
It’s a romanticism elicited purely through escapism, though. Whether through his excursions to his invented fantasia or his boastful overinflation of an empty job offer to write jokes for his idol, comedian Danny Boon (Leslie Randall), Billy’s means of coping with the daily drudgery of his clerical work and his dual engagements to the virginal Barbara (Helen Fraser) and gregarious Rita (Gwendolyn Watts) are to imagine himself removed from them entirely. In this sense, he not only evokes those ‘embourgieousified’ sensibilities of Macmillan’s rhetoric, but also exposes its emptiness in his practical inability to climb the egalitarian ladder to a new social strata. Billy, like his fellow angry young men, is bound to his lot in life both by his multitudinous obligations and his own tendency to escape into fantasy rather than act upon or resist those obligations in any meaningful way.
The single day depicted across the span of Billy Liar is teed up as a significant one. Billy’s voiceover proclaims it a “day for big decisions” in the individualistic, One Nation conservative tradition. He will begin writing 2,000 words a day for his novel and start getting up on time in the mornings. Over the course of the film, his resolve is worn away on two fronts – the disbelief and cynicism of his family, friends and colleagues, and his own persistent inability to turn his fantasies into reality. Vocal scepticism from his mother (Mona Washbourne), who insists he cannot “switch and change and swap about” as he likes, rubs up against Billy’s own insistence that he is not “ordinary folk”. He deliberately tries to transcend the physical reality that surrounds him, reflected in Courtenay’s alternation between the character’s native Yorkshire dialect and a parody of Received Pronunciation English, as well as the freneticism of his physical movements that makes it difficult for Schlesinger’s camera to keep up with Billy. His shirking of professional and interpersonal obligations, such as stealing petty cash from work or refusing to stop playing his two fiancés off against each other, are insignificant rebellions that only serve to reinforce the circumstantial trap closing in around him.
Spiritual death stalks Billy at every turn, whether in the funereal nature of his work or the graveyard through which he walks while resignedly discussing plans with Barbara for their conventional suburban married life. He is awe-stricken by those who exude life and vitality for themselves and elicit it in others. When Danny Boon arrives in town to open the local supermarket, he brings with him a Scottish marching band to parade through the aisles of the pristine new store – the sort of surreal image Schlesinger allows Billy to conjure only in his imagination. Billy is deflated by a later run-in with Boon in which the comedian lays out the commitment and drive required to succeed as a comedy writer in London, traits which the young man cannot find it in himself to muster. However, it is the true object of Billy’s affections, Liz (portrayed by an ebullient Julie Christie in her first major role), who most challenges his shortcomings. A wayward soul, Liz’s adventures travelling to far-flung destinations such as Doncaster or working summers at Butlin’s are discussed by her numerous admirers with the same romance and wonder Billy only reserves for his invented stories. Escape is tangible and perfectly possible for Liz – as easy as hopping on a train. Christie moves through scenes with irreverent ease and meets Courtenay’s restlessness with a cutting, straightforward confidence. To Billy’s protestations that “it’s difficult” for him to leave home, Liz’s reply is a blunt “no, it isn’t”. She is the sort of free spirit Billy imagines himself as, but cannot bring himself to truly be.
In response to Liz’s insistence that they leave for London on the midnight train, Courtenay calibrates his performance so Billy’s enthusiasm is muted as quickly as it flares up. Ultimately, the death of Billy’s grandmother (Ethel Griffies) is the deciding factor that stops him, especially as he is made to feel complicit by his father (Wilfred Pickles) when Billy’s own raging tirade instigates the fit that puts her in hospital. Billy resolves at the final moment not to take the train with Liz, slipping away under the pretence of buying milk for their trip. In a climactic, devastating pull-in shot on Billy at the vending machine, he finally puts the dream to bed. Escape and renewal are possible for an active personality such as Liz. For Billy, both through his circumstances and his hubris, they remain out of reach.
Billy’s last walk home along the empty, darkened streets of his hometown rings true of the endings that typify the films of the British New Wave. In a pyrrhic victory for the era’s pervasive cultural conservatism, inflected with bittersweet resignation, the working class dreamer remains at his station, discouraged from his outrageous aspirations. The Ambrosian national anthem plays in Billy’s head in these final moments, as he again turns inward for fulfilment and escape, rather than enacting it outward. The sadness and resignation at play in this image embody the growing discontent that would lead to the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the year following the film’s release. For the privately-schooled, Oxford-educated brigadier’s son Schlesinger, salvation would follow soon after too – he would soon graduate from the social realist school into lush productions such as Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and American notoriety with Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Marathon Man (1976). Nevertheless, Billy’s story and the futility of his efforts to escape his desolate environment persist as a damning and exuberant reckoning with the hypocrisy and limitations of Macmillan’s vision for an egalitarian, classless society.