Previously at the Wellington Film Society: a short deconstruction of John Schlesinger’s British classic.
by Philip Larkin
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Other than perhaps the rapturous spectacle that sees John, Paul, Ringo, and George hurtling around Marylebone Station in the opening scene of Richard Lester’s A Hard Days Night, it is tough to position an earlier filmed sequence that better embodies and coolly predicts the free spirit of change soon ubiquitous to the Western World than the sight of Julie Christie’s Liz swinging her handbag and skipping down the high-street of the grim grey Northern town, ambivalent to the disapproving looks of the uptight townsfolk. The Beatles’ first film, however, didn’t arrive on British screens until a whole year after John Schlesinger’s second feature, Billy Liar. This was 1963. Is this the moment that the sixties, as we now know them, began? Coinciding, as Larkin tells us, with the start of sexual intercourse?
Whether this is the case or not, when one views Billy Liar from the safe distance of 52 years of retrospect it soon becomes clear that this film is about much more than a young man’s overactive imagination manifest on screen. There must be a reason that it signalled the culmination of the much lauded but perhaps over analysed British New Wave movement, and the beginning of what we now know as social-realism.
The story unfolds over the course of one day and follows the chaotic exploits of twenty-something William Terrence ‘Billy’ Fisher, who lives with his disapproving parents and grandmother in an unnamed industrialised town in Northern England. Billy spends much of his time daydreaming of a fictionalised republic called Ambrosia—not unlike in appearance how late fifties Havana might have looked were it to be transposed onto war damaged Northern England—in which he is the president, the head of the army, the navy, and the air-force. The reasons for his escapism begin to emerge once he is forced to interact with the real world and we see what a mess he is managing to make of life. He has two fiancés on the go, whom he is juggling one engagement ring between, and both of whom have invited themselves round for their tea the following evening. Also, he has pilfered the postage money from the funeral home in which he works, leaving him with 274 calendars to get rid of; and he has told all and sundry that a successful comedian from London has offered him a job scriptwriting, only for said comic to give him the brush-off once they do meet by chance. Into all of this milieu steps the world experienced traveller and free spirit Liz, who for some reason has taken something of a shine to the naive Billy and offers him a means of escape. All he has to do is turn up for the midnight train to London and endless possibilities await them.
It would be easy to pigeon-hole Billy as one of the angry young men—like his 1956 New Wave contemporaries Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and Joe Lampton in Room at the Top—but the truth is perhaps more complicated than that. For one thing, he doesn’t seem that angry. Rather there’s something else at play going on in Billy’s head, because by 1963 times had moved on from the pivotal white-walling of 1956.
Billy manages to be both a product of his environment and the times in which he lives, whilst systematically exerting his own individual sense of identity on his surroundings. These two conflicting stand-points clash and culminate in a complex level of frustration within his own head, and he deals with it by imagining another world, far removed from his own. He’s not angry at society for ignoring him, rather he fails to understand his place within in it and so reacts by lashing out in a way that even he doesn’t understand. He refuses to post the undertakers’ calendars so that he can steal the postage money, but doesn’t seem to have anything to spend it on, or anything to show for it. Every decision that he makes and action that ensues seems to make life that bit harder for him, and as the old fable tells us, when he does eventually tell the truth, no-one believes him. Whilst trying to get rid of the calendars on the moors he confides in Councillor Duxbury that his grandmother his unwell, a very real worry, only to find himself ignored because he had just a few moments before made fun of the councillor by mocking his pronounced Yorkshire dialect by inventing colloquial phrases (“it’s neither muckling nor mickling”). And later he fails to post his mother’s letter to Women’s Choice asking for a song request, we believe because he has again pocketed the postage money, only for him to admit to her it was due to her poor spelling, again, a very real possibility that were it true goes part of the way toward explaining the displacement that he must feel as a product of the grammar school system that his parents were not.
It would have been indoctrinated into Billy’s generation and class through repetition and guilt not to question their lot, and after school to take the first steady consistent work offered their way. They were supposed to accept that their parents knew better, despite the fact that their time at grammar school would have meant their intellect would have been developed enough to question the environment around them, and to perhaps want something else, something different. Emotionally too, many of them would have been withdrawn, their fathers returned from the war and refused to talk about the horrors they had experienced, meaning they would have appeared distant, but the next generation—Billy’s generation—never had the war as an excuse, so never had the dignified air of martyred silence to keep them company for their remaining years. Except Billy’s father didn’t fight in the war. In one scene, Billy is trying to explain to Barbara that some of the things he has told her are not entirely true, his father was no war hero, neither was he a conscientious objector, he couldn’t fight because of his bad knee. Just like the letter his mother has misspelt, Billy is ashamed of his family, and by proxy and association, himself.
The script, by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (from their hugely successful stage play also staring Courtenay in one of his first roles), offers us clues that Billy is in fact a talented young man, but one who constantly sabotages his own chances of success through his continued contrary actions. In this sits the film’s real tragedy. His one moment of real accomplishment comes during the key dancehall scene, when the band play a song that Billy and his friend Arthur have written. It should be an exhilarating moment of victory pointing toward future possibility for Billy, but quickly becomes one ruined when Barbara and Rita finally come face to face, and the compère then announces that Billy is soon off to London to begin his scriptwriting career, something that he has moments before admitted to Liz, is in fact, fiction.
It is only Liz that sees through his lies and doesn’t seem to care. And only her that he can seem to speak the truth to. Neither does she seem to placate him, but rather actually seems to understand him. Perhaps what she sees in Billy is the possibility of something different. He’s not like the others. He can’t accept his lot, because like her he wants something else, but whether he can act on it is another matter entirely. What she doesn’t know—or perhaps does, but hopes isn’t true—is how trapped Billy really is. Trapped, and doomed.
The dancehall sequence leads rather poignantly to the heart-breaking sequence at the railway station and climax of the film. Things have finally all come to a head for Billy, and much of the world he has known has fallen apart around him: he has lost his job and faces criminal prosecution for stealing the postage money; he is no longer engaged to either Rita or Barbara (something of a blessing in reality); and he has moments before, abandoned his mother at the infirmary after the sudden death of his grandmother. This is a key moment for him, if he leaves for London—a constant looming Mecca-like presence in the background, calling all artistic creatives toward it—he has the possibility of a new life, with a like-minded soul, and something encroaching on a happiness in the real world, which is something we know that he won’t ever get if he remains where he is. If he remains where they don’t understand him. But he chooses not to go. And it is a clear choice.
In a final moment of deception he leaves the train under the pretence of buying milk only to linger a moment too long at the dispenser, cartons clasped to his chest, unable to turn and look, until he hears the final whistle blow that signifies the train is leaving. Liz, as previously seen, isn’t surprised and predicting he wouldn’t come back has thoughtfully left his suitcase on the platform for him. The film tells us that this was Billy’s one chance to escape and that because he didn’t leave he would now be trapped forever, doomed to the continued existence so many find themselves prone to and trapped by. The final sequence, poetically but tragically, sees him marching down the road toward his parent’s semi-detached house, an imagined marching band in time behind him, lost forever in his dreams. Perhaps like Larkin, 1963 was a just too late for him.
Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unloseable game.
So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.