The fact 1963’s Billy Liar is classed as one of British cinemas kitchen sink dramas’ makes it sound as if it’s going to be a dull, slice of it’s grim up north’ verité, but it’s actually far more charming and funny than that. Indeed, while the way it’s shot and its working class roots are rather British New Wave, it as much hints towards the groovy cinema of the late 60s as it fits with the angry young men’ cinema it’s often grouped with. Either way, it’s a great movie that’s been given a remarkably sharp brush-up for its 50th anniversary.
The movie follows young Billy (Tom Courtney), who dreams of writing a novel and earning his living as a comedy scriptwriter in the big city. However his reality is unsupportive working-class parents and an unfulfilling job at an undertakers, which is under threat due to the fact he’s essentially stolen 200 calendars. In his mind though, he escapes off into a world of fantasy, where he can achieve his dreams and where things live up to the promise of the adverts he’s surrounded with.
He’s also got more than a few problems in his personal life, as he’s managed to get engaged to two women at once (or at least both seem to think their engaged to him), while being more than a little economical with the truth to both of them. As things get more difficult for him to handle and he feels increasing pressure to accept a drab future, Liz (Julie Christie) enters his life and offers him the possibility of a way out.
Billy Liar is a film that shouldn’t work but does. The title character is, after all, an immature fantasist who’s constantly deceitful to those around him, has multiple women on the go and whose problems mainly stem from an increasing inability to keep up with the lies he’s told and things he’s put off until later. Yet it manages to make him charming thanks to the fact you can perfectly understand his daydreams. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody, he just wants the world to live up to what he wishes it was. The audience is always on Billy’s side, even when you’re aware that perhaps you shouldn’t be.
Tom Courtney gives a remarkable performance in the central role, showing an immense amount of depth. He really helps pull you into the film and ensures Billy is more cheeky chappie than double-dealing ass. He also helps to balance the film between the admittedly kitchen sink working class reality of Billy’s life and the wit of his fantasies.
It’s a great film that is understandably classed of one of British cinemas greats, and it’s been given a great bush-up for Blu-ray. The black & white picture is sharp, clear and remarkably grain-free. Although you could possibly say the contrast should have been turned up a little, as the picture is occasionally a bit dark and uniform grey, mostly it looks great.
There’s also a good selection of features, including interesting new interviews with Tom Courtney and his co-star Helen Fraser. There are also chats with fans Richard Ayoade and Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley, which may sound like pointless filler, but are actually pretty insightful. Added to that is a featurette with Zoe Wilcox from the British Library, who talks about the archive of Keith Waterhouse, the man who the novel Billy Liar is based on, as well as the film’s script.
Overall Verdict: A great new release for one of British cinema’s greats. It may be a film that shouldn’t work, but somehow its mix of fantasy, humour and realist working-class drabness come together, to create a truly wonderful anti-hero.
Remembering Billy Liar with Tom Courtenay and Helen Fraser
Interview with Richard Ayoade
A look through the Keith Waterhouse Archive with British Library Curator Zoe Wilcox
Interview with Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley
Reviewer: Tim Isaac