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Film / Billy Liar

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"Grateful! Grateful! Grateful for this, grateful for that! That's all I've ever heard ever!"

A 1963 British film directed by John Schlesinger, starring Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie. It is based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Keith Waterhouse, and the subsequent play by Waterhouse and Willis Hall. Waterhouse himself based the story on the short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber.

Billy Fisher (Courtenay) is a nineteen-year-old undertaker's clerk living with his dad Geoffrey (Wilfred Pickles), mum Alice (Mona Washbourne) and senile grandma Florence (Ethel Griffies) in a cramped house in a provincial town in the early 1960s. Stifled by his overbearing family and his mind-numbing job, he yearns to escape to London to become a comedy scriptwriter. Meanwhile he retreats into a fantasy world of his own creation where he is the leader of the fictional country of Ambrosia. He also makes up tall stories about himself and his family which he struggles to reconcile with the real world. As a consequence he finds himself engaged to two different girls, Barbara (Helen Fraser) and Rita (Gwendolyn Watts), both eager to meet Billy's parents. His real love however is Liz (Christie), the only person who really understands Billy, and the one person Billy feels able to confide in. Liz offers him a way out, but has Billy got the bottle to seize it?

Although superficially a comedy, Billy Liar is also a serious reflection on the dramatic social and cultural changes that shook up post-World War II Britain; changes whose ripples can still be felt in the second decade of the 21st century.

The success of Billy Liar didn't stop with the film. In 1974 The Musical Billy, with music by John Barry and starring Michael Crawford in the title role, was a major hit in the West End, running over 900 performances. Around the same time, Waterhouse and Hall created a sitcom adaptation that had a successful run of 26 episodes.

This film doesn't exhibit any of these tropes at all and anyway they're at the jeweller's for repair:

  • Abusive Parents: Geoffrey Fisher has a foul temper and is constantly denigrating his son. Alice Fisher is too busy keeping the house neat and tidy and fretting about keeping up appearances to have much time for Billy. Neither makes any effort to understand Billy or his needs. Nor do they have any time for Grandma at least until she has a seizure and dies.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the book Liz is described as "...a scruffy girl, in need of a new skirt.". In the film she's... Julie Christie.
  • Best Friend: Arthur Crabtree. Arthur collaborates with Billy in some of his schemes and fantasies although at heart he is much more conventional.
  • Betty and Veronica: Prim, conventional Barbara (Betty) and brassy peroxide blonde Rita, both engaged to Billy. Subverted in that Billy's real love is Liz.
  • Cat Fight: Barbara and Rita when they finally meet at the dancehall and Rita discovers Barbara wearing the engagement ring.
  • Crapsack World: This is Britain in the early 1960s, still drained and shattered by war. All the urban scenes have a backdrop of buildings being demolished.
  • Elder Abuse: Although Grandma is living with the Fishers she is completely neglected. She sits in a chair in the middle of the living room, being ignored, watching the television and talking to herself oblivious to the action going on around her.
  • Hidden Depths: Billy has real creative talent, despite appearing to be lazy, feckless and irresponsible. He really did co-write (with Arthur) the song Twisterella, sung to acclaim at the dancehall.
  • Mad Dreamer: Billy of course. When Liz gives him the chance to make the leap from dream to reality he can't quite bring himself to go through with it, even as he's sitting on the train ready to leave for London.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Liz, who lives life as the wind blows and generally lands on her feet.
  • Na´ve Everygirl: Barbara, who constantly dreams of settling with Billy in a rural cottage with roses round the door, "Little Billy" and "Little Barbara".
  • Oop North: Set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Stadhoughton and filmed in and around the neighbouring Yorkshire cities of Bradford and Leeds. The Fisher family house is in Baildon, north of Bradford. Other real-life scenes were filmed in Bradford while the Ambrosia scenes were filmed in Leeds.
  • Outfit Decoy: Billy enlists the help of a motorbike gang to get into the dancehall incognito under a helmet.
  • The Muse: Liz, who encourages Billy to build on his natural creative talents and live his own life.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Billy eventually gives his father an earful once he makes up his mind to go to London with Liz. See the picture caption.