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Sunday, 12 April 2009

Billy Liar (1963)

Director: John Schlesinger
Stars: Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie

Apparently one of the lighter films that came out of the era of the kitchen sink drama, it still rated an A for Adult from the BBFC. A lighter kitchen sink drama is a refreshing thing, because as powerful as many of those films were, they were often draining things. It's an Anglo Amalgamated production, written by Keith Waterhouse and directed by John Schlesinger, with a couple of key names. The lead went to Tom Courtenay, a year after The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and the film introduced the world to Julie Christie. English audiences knew her already from the Fred Hoyle TV series A for Andromeda and its sequel but the world paid attention to her after this. Two years later she was starring in Doctor Zhivago.

The Billy of the title is William Fisher, an accounting clerk at a funeral home called Shadrack & Duxbury, but who spends most his time in his own fantasy world, like Walter Mitty. The day we meet him he won't get out of bed because he's busy celebrating the return of democracy to Ambrosia, which naturally was entirely due to him. He won't leave for work because he's being locked up for stealing the postage money for the Shadrack & Duxbury calendars he should have posted last Christmas but which instead are filling up his wardrobe.

Yes, this fantasy world is causing more than a little chaos in the real one given that he piles lies upon lies to prop up the lies he tells to begin the trouble in the first place. He's leaving his job because he's apparently got a job as a scriptwriter writing comedy skits for Danny Boon, who doesn't actually need a scriptwriter. He's engaged to two different girls at once and only has one ring that he has to juggle between the pair of them. He even has people asking about his father, who's had his leg amputated (but hasn't), and his sister, who's in an iron lung and/or dead (but who doesn't even exist). Somehow he's managed to keep all these stories juggled thus far but we know even better than him that that can't last.

I had a lot of reasons to watch this one and I'm many years overdue, given that it came out eight years before I was born. I know many of the locations here, having worked in most of them: Halifax, Bradford, Leeds and Manchester, all places we see in this film. I grew up in Halifax, the birthplace of one of the key actors here, Wilfred Pickles, who plays Billy's father. I was also a friend and colleague for many years of someone who also got lumbered with the name of Billy Liar, for obvious reasons. He landed a girlfriend on the basis of being a member of the Halifax rugby league team, which he wasn't.

In his case, she became his wife, something that inevitably didn't last. In a similar way there's no way that the Billy Liar in our film would have lasted with either of the two girls he was engaged to. Luckily for him there's a third lady in his life, this one called Liz, and she actually understands who he is and how his brain works. In some ways she's the same thing, though she escapes from reality by travelling rather than through lies. She wants him to go back to London with her to start afresh and get married, and it's obvious that she's his only way out of the tangled web he's woven, but given his track record and talent for causing chaos, would he actually go for it? Watch the film to find out.

Tom Courtenay is excellent in the lead, much less flamboyant than Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and, pardon the expression, but much more realistic. Where Kaye's film was a fantasy that interconnected with reality, this is the opposite: reality that interconnects with fantasy. It's a great part and Courtenay, known for being something of a chameleon actor, makes it live. Julie Christie is as magnetic as you might expect. She has a smaller role here compared to most but makes it seem like a lead. Wilfred Pickles was also excellent though he acted far more with his voice than his body. Others, whether important names like Rodney Bewes, Leonard Rossiter or Mona Washbourne or lesser known actors like Gwendolyn Watts, Finlay Currie or George Innes amply fill out the cast.

Mostly though this belongs to Courtenay (and Christie); to writer Keith Waterhouse who was a lesser but still important name in the kitchen sink era; and to John Schlesinger, who was still in England at this point but showing the promise that led to the huge films he had to come in the States. And while he was undeniably a very important name Stateside, I can say that I preferred this to Midnight Cowboy, the film that won him his Oscar. And that's me talking, not Billy Liar.

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