Set against the backdrop of a bleak, northern, industrial town in the early 1960’s, John Schlesinger’s thoughtful and imaginatively directed 1963 film centres around young Funeral Director’s clerk Billy Fisher’s (Tom Courtenay) world of depressing reality and unrealisable dreams.
Scripted by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse from their successful and critically acclaimed play, the character of Billy Fisher is being suffocated by the grim surroundings of the ‘hum drum’ town he lives in. Stuck in a dead end job working at Mr Shadrack’s (Leonard Rossiter) funeral parlour, still living at home and being engaged simultaneously to numerous banal and overbearing girls desperately hunting for a husband, Billy longs to escape. He does so with his imagination (his dreams of being dictator of a fictional country called Ambrosia) and his compulsive lying.
His main aim in life appears to be the notion that he will become a scriptwriter working for a comedian, Danny Boon, and moving away from the north and settling in London. This dream becomes more of a reality when Billy meets Boon and his entourage in a hotel. However, Billy, due to his imagination and a misunderstanding believes that he will go to London to be a scriptwriter. This is further fuelled by the reappearance in town of Liz (Julie Christie), an on/off girlfriend of Billy’s.
The well-travelled, whimsical Liz represents hope, excitement, spirit and an escape to Billy’s monotonous existence and her character appears to give him confidence, although her presence fails to halt his imagination or compulsive lying.
This low budget, comedy drama culminates in Billy and Liz boarding the train to Euston, only for Billy to lose his nerve and to miss the train’s departure on purpose. He eventually returns home to supposedly face up to his responsibilities and the reality of finding new employment (having resigned from his clerical post)…. and to continue his dictatorship of Ambrosia.
Throughout this film Billy longed to leave his hometown, but in the end he couldn’t face up to the daunting journey to London to find new employment and to find himself and to realise his dreams. However, he accepted that he couldn’t take the step up to the higher level of Liz’s carefree existence and that he was content to remain at home with his family, his dead end job, his responsibilities and his escapist, vivid imagination.
Billy Liar as a whole displays heartbreak, sadness, societal apathy and depressing reality, yet at the same time there is an intuitive script that delivers biting wit, social satire and clever characterisation coupled with immense acting and the use of innovative cinematic imagery.