Issue 206 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

The big picture

Billy Liar

By John Schlesinger

At school, when we read Billy Liar, the novel by long time Daily Mail columnist Keith Waterhouse, our English teacher's aim was to convince us of the perils of lying. John Schlesinger's 1963 film version, however, is less a platform for moral rectitude, and of much greater interest to socialists. It can make you laugh, cheer and cry.

Billy Liar is a film about change and the aspirations of working class youth in Britain in the early 1960s. It is about the shiny new promises of the postwar boom era, and the realities of life which, however much Billy tries, cannot be dreamed or lied away.

The untruthful Billy Fisher, played by Tom Courtenay, belongs to that generation of working class kids who grew up in the 1950s and 60s as the first to benefit from the 'you never had it so good' society. As such, Billy received a scholarship to go to grammar school and subsequently got a 'good' job as a clerk in an office at undertakers Shadrack and Duxbury. And it is precisely this supposedly fortunate background that leads him to question his drab existence, which is the sum of the brave new world offered to people at that time.

'You ought to be bloody grateful you've got a job in an office,' says Billy's dad. 'I've to be grateful to Shadrack and flaming Duxbury for sitting at a stinking desk all day,' replies Billy, echoing millions of similarly ungrateful young workers consigned to an existence every bit as alienating as the factory floor.

Billy Fisher is an angry young man. He aspires to be a novelist, playwright, comedian and songwriter, not to mention guerrilla fighter, prison reformer and champion of the people in his make believe country of Ambrosia. Indeed, like the rest of us, he wants to be anywhere and anything else than wasting his life in a dead end job.

Throughout the film, Ambrosia provides a parallel to the 'grim up north' industrial town where Billy lives. Everywhere slums are demolished to make way for 'streets in the sky' blocks of flats and uniform rows of council houses. Ambrosia too is occupied by broken shells of buildings, but thanks instead to the civil war which Billy has led in the name of democracy. As Presidente Fisher, Billy is adored by the tens of thousands he addresses as he promises liberty, equality, fraternity. Both the real world and Ambrosia are in the throes of change but Ambrosia is Billy's own vision of a different society which offers more than the dreary existence and false promise of reality.

This false promise of change which existed in the early 1960s, recurrent through the whole film, can be seen best of all in Billy's employers. Duxbury ('Councillor Duxbury to you Fisher, now think on') is the representative of dried up traditionalism, being usurped by his partner; Mr Shadrack (Leonard Rossiter) an odious personification of Labour prime minister Harold Wilson's 'white heat of technology'. Not a new society as such, so much as the old one reheated and repackaged into modern, high rise, concrete and plastic streamlinedness. Efficiency is Shadrack's watchword. Everything has to be 'cleared up and implemented' and, 'as I keep telling Councillor Duxbury, it's all clean lines now.' Not surprisingly therefore, Shadrack comes in for the harshest treatment from Billy's imagination. While in moments of exasperation Billy imagines himself in his Ambrosian freedom fighter's uniform, machine gunning those around him, it is only Shadrack that we have the satisfaction of seeing pumped full of bullets gasping with his final words, 'Why, Fisher? Why?'

The film's greatest strength is its identification with ordinary people. Who hasn't dreamed of shooting their manager or turning the tables, as Billy does when he appears as a Labour minister promising to the now toadying Shadrack the nationalisation of the undertaking business? From the opening credits (a parade of boxy flats and terraces that are the crumbs of reward for the postwar generation), Schlesinger's direction echoes the gritty realism of other films of the period. Billy Liar is as fresh as Look Back in Anger but with a constant satirical sniping at the New Britain for which Billy is supposed to grateful.

What's more, it avoids the easy sentimentality of most comedies of the time. Billy's worldly ambition is to move to London and be a scriptwriter for a famous comedian. It is a dream of escape from his soulless existence to somewhere which in the 1960s was a different world of Carnaby Street and espresso bars. And if London is the promise of the 1960s, Liz, Billy's sometime girlfriend (played by Julie Christie), is the living embodiment. Carefree, footloose and oblivious to the greyness of everyday life, it is she who convinces Billy to go to London even if he hasn't got a job. Only as the train is pulling away does Billy step back from this great escape, forsaking a new life. As he trudges home alone from the station we can be thankful that he did. For although we're willing him to make the break, as he lifts his head and glances behind, and finds himself leading the Ambrosian infantry, he reminds us that we can't escape just by jumping on a train, but we can still dream of something else.

Tony Dabb


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page