Seen on August 14th 2007
Directed by John Schleisinger
‘Sex began in 1963’ Phillip Larkin famously once said. Billy Liar is set in that very year and depicts a society on the verge of great change, trembling between the old and the new. The Britain in which Billy lives is still very much a traditional, restrictive society. The husbands go out to work as their dutiful wives stay at home, listening to ‘Housewife’s Choice’ on the radio, embroiled in endless domestic chores.
Yet, there are clear signs things are changing, much to the fear of the older people in the film. This is a society poised on the brink of sweeping social changes. The town centre is being torn down; each time the demolition ball swings, it is destroying much more than old buildings. It is tearing down history as well, heralding in a new age of change. As a new supermarket opens in town, a long queue of excited housewives can be seen snaking down the side of the shop, waiting impatiently with their gleaming new silver trolleys. The corner shops’ days are numbered, the age of impersonal shopping is about to start.
Despite the new supermarkets and the new buildings, this is a still suffocating existence, one only made bearable by uncomplainingly accepting your lot in life. Billy’s way of coping with the restrictive monotony of his daily routine is to brick it out and escape into the glorious world of his imagination. As his father grumbles, his grandmother mutters and his mother shouts yet again for him to get up, get dressed and go to work, Billy lies in bed, a smile playing around his lips. The people are cheering him. It’s a great day for liberty in Ambrosia, Billy’s imaginary country. He is the courageous leader of the revolutionaries, the beloved war hero, the grand president of the people.
Back in real life, Billy has three girlfriends on the go: one brassy (Rita) , one cosy (Barbara) and the other a free spirit (Liz) and is working for an undertakers’ firm.
The old way of life is disappearing just like the old buildings which are being replaced by 1960s tower blocks. Tensions are growing between the older generation that suffered the hardships of the War (or, in the case of Councillor Duxberry, two world wars) and the younger generation.'Are you mocking me?' Duxberry asks Billy after he tells him yet another one of his lies. 'What little education I had, I had to teach it myself.'
The younger generation, in the eyes of their elders at least have 'never had it so good'. Billy’s father gave Billy the opportunities he never had, and cannot stand to watch the way his son is wasting them. Billy has never known the hardships the older generation have – being bored is a luxury they did not know in the struggle to stay alive.
'You should be grateful!' he shouts at his lazy son.
'And don’t I know it!' shouts back Billy. 'When I passed the exam for the grammar school the first thing you said was how are you going to pay for the uniform! I should be grateful, that's all I've ever heard!'
Billy was the first of his generation to go to grammar school. His vivid imagination reveals him to be bright boy – but one who is wasting his talents in a world of make-believe. But, what more is there to do but get married and settle down? As Barbara links her arm through Billy’s and cosily talks about curtains and carpets that she found in the department store, Billy’s need to escape becomes ever more apparent. Was it for crushing domesticity that Billy went to Grammar school?
So, when Liz offers him the chance of another life, of acting out his dreams, will Billy take it?
The third of Billy’s girlfriends, Liz, is the only one who understands Billy. She is played by Julie Christie who lights up the screen with a luminous beauty. It is clear straight away that she is different to the other women, from the way she enters the film in a van and is shown walking jauntily through the town, swinging her handbag from side to side with a carefree smile on her face. All the other women have their hair backcombed and sprayed back. Their hair remains rigid and helmet like around their faces, reflecting their inhibited and immobile lives. LIz’s hair, however, blows freely about her face – she is a liberated woman.
Watching Billy Liar forty-five years later, what is remarkable is although some things have changed, others have remained the same. The older generation bemoaning the lot of the younger. ‘Things weren’t like that in our day’ The familiar refrain, echoing down the years and into the future. And in the scenes between Billy and Liz - both dreamers, yet only one having the courage to act on them in real life.