“They’re not worth it. The whole place isn’t worth it.”
“Billy Liar” first made its appearance as a novel published in 1959. Its author, Keith Waterhouse, was a young newspaperman from the northern English city of Leeds. The novel was favourably received and soon after, Waterhouse adapted it for the stage with the aid of Willis Hall, an old school friend. A young Albert Finney was persuaded to accept the lead in the play, turning down the title role in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia to do so. After a slow start, the play became a hit in London’s West End, with Finney eventually leaving, to be replaced by Tom Courtenay.
This story of a young man who lives much of his life in his imagination where he sees himself as a star seemed a natural for British film of the time. A New Wave had swept through British Cinema in the early 1960s, focusing on northern working-class stories and led by young directors like Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson and John Schlesinger. The latter was the choice for Billy Liar and Schlesinger then settled on Courtenay as his choice for the film lead. The film was released in 1963 and was widely hailed in Britain, but basically sank without a trace in the United States. Its reputation there gradually grew during the succeeding three decades, however, and a limited U.S. theatrical reissue in the late 1990s was very successful.
Criterion has now released Billy Liar on DVD, making it available to all of us, and fortunate we are.
Billy Fisher is a young man living in a northern British city. He stays at home with his parents and works as an assistant at a funeral parlour run by the efficient Mr. Shadrack and his doddering partner Councillor Duxbury. Billy counters the drabness of everyday life with his imagination. He sees himself as the ruler of an imaginary country called Ambrosia; he exaggerates the facts of his life to make all seem more interesting and shocking (for example, he tells stories to others about a non-existent sister or about his father being in hospital and likely to lose his leg when in fact he quite healthy); he steals calendars from work and pockets the money that should have been used to mail them; he juggles two fiancées; and he fancies himself as a television gag writer. His oft-stated intention, never actually acted upon, is to leave for London where dreams will become reality. One girlfriend (not one of the two fiancées) — a free-spirited young woman named Liz — encourages his London dream, and on a day when all begins to crumble around Billy (he almost causes his grandmother’s death and his two fiancées find out about each other), he makes the decision to pack up and go. But will the London train actually see Billy on it, or will his dream continue to be just that — a dream?
Billy Liar would probably be called “Billy Fisher’s Bad Day” were it being released these days. The film depicts a day in the life of a young man whose situation is so mundane that he has compensated for it by living in a world of dreams and lies. The day in question certainly starts off as usual, yet as it progresses, it becomes clear that it may represent a watershed in Billy Fisher’s life. It’s a rather bittersweet tale that causes one to alternate between amazement and amusement at Billy’s antics, and sorrow at how pathetic an individual Billy sometimes is. At times you find yourself really rooting for him to make the break from the life he’s leading; at others, you feel that he deserves his lot in life.
In addition to the portrait of personal indecision that the film presents, it also acts to some extent as a satire on British society of the time. Britain of the late 1950s and early 1960s was in the throes of modernization. Old buildings were being demolished and old values were being questioned. New structures were quickly rising and a new morality was beginning to surface. The allusions to this are scattered clearly throughout Billy Liar from the demolition and construction scenes to the two owners of the funeral company for which Billy works (old timer Duxbury and modernist Shadrack) even to the contrasting love interests in Billy’s life (straight-laced Barbara versus the liberated Liz).
Director John Schlesinger chose to shoot Billy Liar in widescreen black and white, and the result is stunning. The stultifying ugliness of a northern British industrial city is somehow transformed into a kind of wild beauty by the way the 2.35:1 ratio opens up the image. Perhaps it’s a personal reaction to seeing so many British films depicting similar locations in the older Academy ratio at the theatre or on television that causes this. Whatever, it’s one of the distinct pleasures of the film. Schlesinger also adroitly handles the fantasy and reality of Billy’s life. His daydreams are cut expertly into the narrative, and only in one instance is it at first unclear which is which.
Tom Courtenay plays Billy Fisher and his performance is expertly and engagingly delivered. As Courtenay makes clear during some of his comments during the commentary that accompanies the film, his relationship with his own father, at least in terms of his career aspirations, had much in common with that of Billy’s. The expressions on Courtenay’s face when Billy goes off into his dream worlds make up an amazing array — quizzicalness, blissfulness, defiance, sorrow. It’s easy to imagine how effective he must have been doing the role on stage where all had to be conveyed facially.
Then there’s Julie Christie (and about time, too). At the time of the film’s original release, her appearance playing Liz electrified reviewers. Liz seemed like a magical creature — a breath of fresh air and a free spirit who went where she wanted and enjoyed life on her own terms. She offered Billy a clear route of escape from his drab existence, even if was hard to understand how she could really be interested in him. (But then, that’s often the case with such things in real life, so maybe it’s not so unbelievable.) Her expression of sympathy mixed with frustration in the train at the end is one of the memorable moments from the film.
I must also mention the supporting cast that provides a truly entertaining set of portraits — from Wilfred Pickles and Mona Washbourne as Billy’s exasperated and long-suffering parents to Ethel Griffies as his grandma with her cutting comments to Finlay Currie as Councillor Duxbury (“when I were a lad…”) to Rodney Bewes as his friend Arthur. But my greatest pleasure is reserved for Leonard Rossiter who plays Shadrack. Those of you who know him from the British television series “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin” and “Rising Damp” will be aware of why I admire his work so much. Those who don’t are in for an enjoyable experience. I could have gone for much more of him in this film, but he might have started to overshadow Billy’s character so it’s probably just as well.
Criterion has delivered the goods once again. For a long time only available to home video in mutilated pan and scan versions, we now have a beautiful-looking widescreen version on DVD (2.35:1 anamorphic, utilizing 16 scene selections) created using the original 35mm fine-grain master. This is a very fine transfer. Other than an occasional instance of softness and a couple of occurrences of scratching or what could have been negative deterioration, the image is clean and well-defined with good shadow detail. The grittiness and shabby nature of much of the film’s locale comes through very clearly. Edge enhancement is non-existent. The disc’s audio is in mono as mastered from a digitally restored 35mm magnetic track and is in very good shape. Dialogue is clear, and free of distortion or hiss. Some may have difficulty in understanding some of the dialogue, but that is a reflection of the northern English accents and usage rather than any deficiency of the disc. Repeated viewings, which this film certainly demands, will soon accustom one’s ear to it all. English subtitles are included.
As usual, Criterion provides us with some fine supplements. The main one is a very informative audio commentary featuring John Schlesinger, Tom Courtenay, and Julie Christie. Schlesinger does most of the talking with the others chiming in from time to time. Courtenay and Christie are quite forthcoming in their comments on their own work as well as that of some of their co-performers. Then there’s an excerpt from “Northern Lights,” an episode of the BBC series “Hollywood U.K.: British Cinema in the ’60s.” It focuses on Schlesinger’s work on both Billy Liar and his preceding film A Kind of Loving with comments by Schlesinger as he walks around some of the films’ locations 30 years later. Producer Joseph Janni and actors Courtenay and Christie also are interviewed as are writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. The original theatrical trailer (which is long and gives away far too much of the story) rounds out the package.
As with virtually any Criterion disc, I’ve little to say here. The only thing I missed was some perspective on the later careers of Schlesinger, Courtenay, and Christie. After all, the film was originally released nearly 40 years ago. A little of that perspective comes across in the audio commentary, but not comprehensively so. Some biographical and filmographical notes would have been nice.
I recommend Billy Liar highly. It’s an intelligent, entertaining film of many moods that bears repeated viewings. Realistic yet affectionate writing, fine performances all across the board, and assured direction are its key attributes. Criterion’s usual top-notch DVD treatment more than measures up to the film’s excellence. Get this one; it’s a keeper!