John Schlesinger’s big screen version of Billy Liar marks a turning point in British film making.
The kitchensink style of movie making was coming to an end, under financial pressure from the big studios, who were struggling to sell movies with regional dialects to the US market. Adding to the pressure was the worldwide success of the glossy Bond movies – and demands from studio bosses for more of the same. What Billy Liar did was take the genre out on a high. That’s if you class the movie as kitchensink – I’d prefer to view it as a sixties comedy – and a very good one at that.
Billy Liar is Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay), a clerk in a funeral parlour, who escapes his dull existence by retreating into his own little dream world of Ambrosia, as well as weaving a web of lies in both his work and personal life. Billy’s real dream to escape his dull existence by leaving for London, working as a script writer for a well-known comedian.
That’s the plan, but Billy’s past lies hinder his escape to the big city – in particular, his two girlfriends, his continual theft from his employer (Shadrack, played by Leonard Rossiter) and the pressure of his family to straighten things out before he leaves town.
It seems like he’s destined to spend his life in Bradford – but then Billy meets Liz (Julie Christie), a free spirit who convinces Billy that he should follow his dream and head to London for a new start. The question is whether Billy’s dream of a new start in London is real – or more of Billy’s wishful thinking.
The success of the movie at the time – and now 40 years later – is very much down to the script. Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall produce a tale that’s at time funny, sometimes serious, occasionally cringeworthy – but always very watchable. Add to that a top notch cast (both lead and supporting) and a director on top of his game and you’ve got a bona fide classic.