Oscar winning director John Schlesinger, best known for Midnight Cowboy (1969) had an early triumph in 1963 with Billy Liar, a challenger for the following year’s Dr. Strangelove as the funniest film ever made. Tom Courtenay stars as the eponymous hero, a compulsive liar with two fiancées on the go and a vivid imagination in which he is ruler of his own country, ‘Ambrosia’.
Alive with humour and charm, the film feels decades ahead of it’s time in terms of cinematic inventiveness, with Schlesinger announcing himself as a powerful and innovative filmmaker. The script by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, adapted from Waterhouse’s novel, warmly presents what is now a slice of history: the inner workings of a post-war English town. The story is of the awkward but inevitable rise of a new generation, born from the freedom of a country victorious after the Second World War and kicking against the creativity-stifling recovery period that followed.
Billy holds a job as a file clerk at the local undertakers but his ambitions lie elsewhere. He believes he has what it takes to catch the attention of his favourite comic actor, London based Danny Boon. The scene in which Billy prepares to tell his boss what he really wants to do in life is genuinely side-splitting and one of the most memorable in the film.
Courtenay makes palpable Billy’s frustration at being trapped in such a closed community, with a family who’s aspirations reach no further than his mother’s hopes of having her favourite song played on the radio (something unlikely to happen since Billy forgot to post her request letter). It’s impossible not to root for him to escape to London and take on the world.
The only person who truly knows Billy is not one of his duo of brides to be, but the alluring free spirit Liz (a young Julie Christie). She alone is wise to Billy’s playful but alienating penchant to fib and she disarms him into revealing his vulnerabilities and even inviting her to help govern his beloved Ambrosia. “I turn over a new leaf everyday” Billy confides in her, “but the blotches soak through.” She is the perfect foil for Billy’s character, and challenges him to take action and strike out. Billy’s fantasies however are as much fuelled by guilt at not doing right by his family as they are by his ego, and his loyalties become divided.
Fifty years on Billy Liar remains as irresistible as its titular rogue, and for anyone who can relate to the tension he feels between going his own way and supporting his bewildered but loving family, it’s a film destined to hold a special place in their heart.