Billy Liar

UK 1963, 98 mins
Director: John Schlesinger

A contemporary review
With Billy Liar, John Schlesinger shows us that it is possible to make a film in this country that has movement, energy, grace and charm, that it is possible to make immense comic use of the remarkable Mr Courtenay and to exploit an industrial suburban setting for its absurdly local yet characteristic happenings, for its sense of the light-hearted as well as the drab. Like its central character, Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay), Billy Liar is a film of many moods, a film of an essential ambiguity of feeling. As Billy’s mind shifts from reality to Ambrosia – his imaginary country where he always has success – the film shifts with him, changing dreariness to farce. Yet, since Billy does not really know how he feels at any particular moment, we are not too sure how we feel about Billy.

While the film is pre-eminently successful in making us laugh, in constantly inventing new comic situations, we cannot help but recognise that Billy’s is essentially a tragic situation. In what is intrinsically a more moving way than Thurber’s Walter Mitty, Billy’s tragedy is the result of his inability to take himself seriously. He can’t manage either to come to grips with his family and his job in the undertaker’s office, or to find the strength to leave them. His Ambrosial fantasies are much too attractive; and it is part of the charm at the centre of his character that his decision never to desert them, in its rejection of harsh reality, is a decision always to remain young. Yet, because the film is so close to its central character, so much a part of his many moods, we recognise his plight without ever feeling its impact. Like Billy, we find it more agreeable just to sit back and laugh.

There is another problem too, that makes our response more superficial than it might have been. Like Billy, the film rarely takes itself seriously: even in his daily life, there are constant shifts into fantastication and farce. By making Mr Shadrack (Leonard Rossiter) such an obvious figure of fun, by playing the roles of the grandmother (Ethel Griffies) and of Billy’s ‘bloody’ father (Wilfred Pickles) almost entirely for laughs, the film sacrifices much of its emotional potential. And, at the same time that this element of comic caricature heightens the ambiguity of feeling, it leaves certain scenes dangling, oddly out of place in their context. For instance, the talk with Councillor Duxbury (Finlay Currie) on the moors, silhouetted and strangely symbolic, seems only tenuously related to the rest of the film; as indeed the funeral fantasy, by sharply interrupting the more sombre rhythm of the final sequences and so dispersing our feeling about the old woman’s actual death, certainly detaches us from the potential poignancy of the close. Even the opening shots behind the credits, travelling along rows of suburban dwellings, keeping pace with the Housewife’s Choice which at the moment is playing, although a marvellously lively beginning for a very funny film, seem only obscurely related to Billy’s vanquished march through the streets which closes the picture.

If by the end, then, we feel that we have been more amused than moved by the film, that opportunities have been missed, we certainly carry away some of the joy and excitement that appear to have gone into the making of it. After Terminus and A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar represents a more confident achievement for John Schlesinger, who looks very much at home with the challenges of ‘Scope. Although the lack of unity seems a failure in conception, perhaps chiefly in Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s script, within individual sequences Schlesinger’s pace scarcely falters and his judgment rarely errs. Most remarkable and most un-British is the zoom-tracking episode when Liz first comes to town. As she swings gaily through the streets, hopping across obstructions and skipping between cars, the camera follows her easily, observing her mugging response to everything she sees. If both Helen Fraser as Barbara and Gwendolyn Watts as Rita are more than adequate to their parts – are indeed perhaps more suited to the caricatured context in which they have been set – Julie Christie as Liz gives, to my mind, the most stunningly attractive female performance that we’ve seen on the British screen. That the strength of her performance, and indeed of her female self, heightens the central implausibility of her attraction to Billy and so further undermines the film’s unity, is perhaps to be regretted. Yet the joyful manner of her presentation is so right for the general spirit of the film, and such a relief from the stodginess of so many British pictures, that I find it difficult to complain.

Finally, of course, the film is Tom Courtenay’s. In this, his finest part so far, no praise could be too much and yet all seems impossible. It’s not just that his body is so limber and his face so minutely expressive: it’s more that just by a hint of an expression, a particular glance of the eyes, we can see that a change of mood is about to begin. Whether engaged in imaginary machine-gun slaughter of the people he feels are thwarting him, or made conscious of his real limitations when face to face with the magnificent Liz, Courtenay’s playing has an intimacy and particularity about it which makes him perpetually fascinating to watch. It is with the help of such performances, plus some enterprising camerawork (Denys Coop), that John Schlesinger has been able to make Billy Liar the most enjoyable film to have come out of the new British cinema.
Peter Harcourt, Sight & Sound, Autumn 1963

Directed by: John Schlesinger
©: Anglo Amalgamated Film Distributors
Production Company: Vic Films (London)
In association with: Waterhall Productions
Produced by: Joseph Janni
Associate Producer: Jack Rix
Production Manager: Charles Blair
Assistant Director: Frank Ernst
Continuity: Pamela Mann
Casting Director: Miriam Brickman
Screenplay by: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall
Based on the novel and play by: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall
Director of Photography: Denys Coop
Camera Operator: Jack Atchelor
Editor: Roger Cherrill
Art Director: Ray Simm
Set Dresser: Ken Bridgeman
Wardrobe Master: Ron Beck
Wardrobe Supervisor: Laura Nightingale
Make-up: Robert Lawrence
Hair Stylist: Joyce James
Music Composed by: Richard Rodney Bennett
Dance Music Played by: Harry Gray and his Band
Conducted by: John Hollingsworth
Sound Recordists: Peter Handford, John Cox
Sound Editor: Malcolm Cooke
Adviser on Fantasy Sequences: Don Higgins
Studio: Shepperton Studios

uncredited crew
Producer’s Secretary: Diana Harding
Personal Assistant to the Producers: John Goldstone
Production Secretary: Ann Skinner
2nd Assistant Director: Jim Brennan
Focus Pullers: Neil Binney, Michael Rutter
Clapper Loader: John Campbell
Grip: Bert Lott
Chief Electrician: Frank Robertson
Electricians: Ralph Weighell, Frank Willis, Wilfred Campbell, John Illisley, Archie Eyers, Fred Burrows, Kesra Singh, Percy Fisher
Stills: Harry Gillard
1st Assistant Editor: Jack Gardner
2nd Assistant Editor: Jean Short
Draughtsman: Martin Atkinson
Property Buyer: Dennis Maddison
Props: Johnny Feehan, Phil Meighan, Tom Brooker
Stand-by Carpenter: Clifford Cross
Rigger: Michael Kilgannon
Painter: Bill Read
Plasterer: Daniel Culinane
Plasterer’s Labourer: John Nethersole
Stagehand: Arthur Adaway
Sound Camera Operator: Douglas Barnett
Boom Operator: Tom Buchanan
Sound Maintenance: George Widdows
Camera Car Driver: Jack Laxton
Publicity: Edna Tromans
Secretary to Publicist: Mary Franks

Tom Courtenay (William ‘Billy’ Terrence Fisher)
Wilfred Pickles (Geoffrey Fisher)
Mona Washbourne (Alice Fisher)
Ethel Griffies (Grandma Florence Fisher)
Finlay Currie (Councillor Duxbury)
Gwendolyn Watts (Rita Corrigan)
Helen Fraser (Barbara)
Julie Christie (Liz)
Leonard Rossiter (Emmanuel Shadrack)
Rodney Bewes (Arthur Crabtree)
George Innes (Eric Stamp)
Leslie Randall (Danny Boone)
Patrick Barr (Detective Inspector MacDonald)
Ernest Clark (prison governor)
Godfrey Winn (disc jockey)

uncredited cast
Anna Wing (Mrs Crabtree)
Elaine Stevens (Danny’s secretary)
George Ghent (Danny’s P.R.O.)
Graham Rigby (supermarket manager)
Ted Morris (funeral driver)
Neville Smith, Leslie Lawton (youths)
John Tordoff (youth in Wimpy bar)
Reginald Greene (Mr Mathieson)
Douglas Clarke, Alan Clayton, James Byron (servicemen)
Flo Fallows (prostitute)
Bill Wymar (army man)
Sheila Fearn (telephonist)
Robin Parkinson (jeweller’s assistant)
Margaret Lacey (Mrs Mathieson)
Alice Woods (prostitute)
Jack Cunningham (ticket examiner)
Lester Leigh (band leader)
John Schlesinger (officer in dream)
Bryan Mosley
Elizabeth Murray
Jessie Robins
Natalie Kent
Alexander Browne

UK 1963©
98 mins

In Celebration
Mon 27 Mar 20:30; Sun 23 Apr 18:10
Northern Soul
Thu 30 Mar 18:15; Sat 15 Apr 20:40
The Wednesday Play: No Trams to Lime Street + Armchair Theatre: The Hard Knock
Fri 31 Mar 18:20
Of Time and the City
Sat 1 Apr 20:40; Tue 18 Apr 18:20
Saturday Night Theatre: Roll On Four O’Clock + Play for Today: Kisses at 50
Tue 4 Apr 18:10
Billy Liar
Thu 6 Apr 20:30; Fri 14 Apr 18:15; Thu 27 Apr 20:50
Letter to Brezhnev
Fri 7 Apr 18:20; Thu 20 Apr 20:50
Sat 8 Apr 20:40
The Arbor
Tue 11 Apr 20:40; Sun 30 Apr 14:30
Play for Today: Comedians
Sat 15 Apr 15:15
Play for Today: The Land of Green Ginger + Armchair Theatre: The Pity of it All
Sun 16 Apr 15:20
Rita, Sue and Bob Too
Sun 16 Apr 18:30; Sun 30 Apr 12:10
Northern Voices Forum
Sun 23 Apr 15:00
Laughter from Liverpool + intro
Sat 29 Apr 14:50

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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