Director: John Schlesinger
Starring: Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, Wilfred Pickles
Release Date: June 1963 (UK)
The English comedian Frank Skinner, a native of the West Midlands town of West Bromwich, once asked his father what the Sixties were really like. “Son,” came the reply, “in West Bromwich it was the 1950s until the 1970s.” The unnamed town in northern England that provides the setting for John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar, an adaptation of Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel, is also a place where the popular emblems of the 1960s – Carnaby Street, mini-skirts, and ‘happenings’ – only concerned London. England’s capital might swing like a pendulum do, but out in the provinces, the beat was that of a Victorian grandfather clock, patriarchal and ponderous. This isn’t to say the UK didn’t experience great change in the 1960s, it did, and Billy Liar reflects this, but to believe common portrayals of the decade, everyone in Britain woke up the day after National Service ended and found they lived in Technicolor rather than black-and-white. Billy Liar is a black-and-white film, colored by the imagination of the film’s hero Billy Fisher, a young man caught between two ages, as the New York Times’ A O Scott put it: “Billy Liar…is in part an exuberant satire of a society caught between its old ways and the urge to modernize.”
Part of that modernization would take the form of a distinct British youth culture. In the early 1960s, the musical heroes of British teens were not homegrown, but mostly American acts who received limited airplay on British radio up until the BBC’s reorganization of its national radio stations in late 1967. The sounds of the suburbs in 1963, as Billy Liar‘s energetic opening credits sequence shows, were not The Beatles but Kenneth McKellar, whose ‘Song of the Clyde’ we hear as part of the BBC Light Programme’s Housewives’ Choice, a radio show for Mrs Heseltine of Derby, Mrs Ritchie of West Bromwich, Mrs Tucker of Nottingham, Mrs Elliott of Slough and so on, rather than a bored 19-year-old laying in bed of a Saturday morning, desperate for change and yet also fearful of what that change may bring.
The titles sequence ends with BBC radio presenter Godfrey Winn announcing a happy birthday to a Mrs Betty Bullock (address unknown), and hoping “you and your neighbors” enjoy the requested song – only for the camera to pull out, revealing Mrs Bullock has no neighbors, with the rest of the street in the process of demolition. The 1960s saw a revolution in housing in the UK, with long-established communities uprooted by brutal tower blocks and housing estates, a process alluded to several times during Billy Liar and noted by another pivotal British novel of the time, Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (1963).
As youngsters, we all imagine ourselves as the hero of our own stories, but Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) takes this to extremes, ignoring his parents’ demands to get up as he retreats to his dreamland world of Ambrosia, a battle-torn nation in which Billy is not only a returning war hero, but also the King who looks down with pride as his troops march below the royal balcony, troops which include Billy as both the head of a marching band and part of a platoon of black colonial soldiers. A long-established routine, Billy’s thoughts nonetheless tell us “today is a day of big decisions…I’m going to start writing my novel, two thousand words a day…[and I’ll] start getting up in the mornings…” As it is, the only positive action Billy takes is to cut his overgrown thumbnail. Freud, writing in 1908, posited daydreams were “a correction of an unsatisfying reality,” yet Billy’s fantasies seem to show the whole world needs his correcting.
Billy counts on his imagination to get through his dreary life, and to help deal with the hectoring belligerence of his parents Geoffrey (Wilfred Pickles) and Alice (Mona Washbourne) who are at a loss to understand their only child’s idleness; along with Billy’s prattling maternal grandmother Florence (Ethel Griffies), Mr & Mrs Fisher make home life uncomfortable for Billy, causing him to retreat behind comic upper-class characters and silly voices to counter their predictable diatribes regarding his late nights out and reluctance to go to work. Billy’s father is especially bitter, grumbling “what did time you get in last night?” and “he goes out with too many lasses, he’s like a bloody lass himself,” in a way familiar to many Brits of a certain age. Grandma keeps the flag flying by complaining of “blackie postmen, blackie nurses, blackie bus conductors,” for if British tradition stands for anything, it’s for welcoming people from other countries to fill the jobs needed to keep the economy going, then making them feel as unwelcome as possible until the next bunch of unsuspecting saps sail across the Channel.
The three older members of the Fisher clan lack any sort of self-awareness, and fail to see the contradictions in how they treat their son, treating him as a child one moment, and an adult the next. Billy picks up on their linguistic inequities (counting his father’s use of the expletive “bloody,” after being scolded for use of the word milder “flaming”) but can only reply by bemoaning Billy’s ‘backchat’ or ‘cheek.’
Billy wants to be a writer, and has received a reply from TV comedian Danny Boon in response to submitted material. Billy has taken this as a job offer writing for Boon in London, and tries to describe this to his baffled family using a sauce bottle and a salt shaker, but the message doesn’t really get through. “He’s not going to London,” growls Mr Fisher, “it’s another one of his stories, he can’t say two words without telling a lie.” This seems the case; unlike what Billy told “the woman down the fish shop,” Mr Fisher has not had his leg amputated. Mrs Fisher is more concerned with Billy’s wardrobe, which he keeps locked for reasons known only to himself.
We soon learn what inside Billy’s wardrobe: a pile of calendars for Shadrack & Duxbury, the undertakers where Billy works as a clerk. Billy imagines the police arresting him for this theft, sending him to prison, but even here Billy envisages triumph, writing a best-selling expose on penal life which earns him remission and public acclaim.
Leaving for work thirty minutes late (Saturday morning was a normal part of the working week at this time in the UK), Billy hesitates, nervously telling – asking, almost – his mother he intends to resign, in order to write for Danny Boon. For all his cocksure quipping, Billy Fisher is not the most confident of young men, and his bravery in daydreams runs counter to his indecisiveness in real life. Instead of approval, the worried Mrs Fisher tells Billy “you can’t switch and change and swap about when you feel like it, you’ve got your living to earn now.” There’s a chance Billy Fisher is cinema’s first ‘kidult,’ unable to accept adult responsibility and retreating into the internal world of the mind; one expects Billy was the sort of child who’d get into trouble and then blame his imaginary friend, or pretend to be someone else altogether. Mrs Fisher is wrong regarding the chance to swap jobs however, as we’ll see later.
Billy’s late arrival at the office is noticed by undertaker Mr Shadrack, played by Leonard Rossiter (Dr Smyslov in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)). Rossiter was to become one of the UK’s most loved comedy actors, famed for his lead role in the BBC’s The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Rising Damp, perhaps the finest sitcom ever made by the ITV network. Here, Rossiter is superb, playing Shadrack with snide, well-greased cynicism, and along with Julie Christie, threatens to steal the show from the brilliant Tom Courtenay.
Once in the office, Billy launches into a hackneyed ‘I say I say I say’ comedy routine with his colleague and cohort Arthur Crabtree (the boyish Rodney Bewes, also a familiar face to British TV viewers). Stamp, a colleague but very much not Billy’s friend, sneers his disapproval. Arthur tells Billy of Shadrack’s bad temper having gone through the books that morning, and this means bad news for Billy.
Shadrack has achieved the dream of office managers worldwide, maintaining control over his employees by two-way radio, advising a cortege on its way to a funeral of the correct route to take. In one of a number of apparently throwaway lines pertinent to Billy Liar‘s themes, Shadrack advises the cortege to take the new bypass, rather than the established route. It’s not that Billy Liar considers the new ways as always the best, rather it challenges viewers to decide which new way is best to take, siding towards one (Christie) rather than the other (represented by Shadrack).
With Danny Boon in town to open a new supermarket, Billy phones his hotel, but Boon isn’t accepting calls. While he does this, Stamp (an appropriate name) rummages through Billy’s desk and finds a letter Mrs Fisher has written to Housewives’ Choice which Billy has neglected to post; the letter requests a song “my husband used to sing when we were younger than we are now. We are just ordinary folk.” “I’m not, even if she is,” affirms Billy, neatly summing up the different between the two generations, with those of Billy’s age feeling entitled to a bigger part in the world than that expected by their parents, not to mention a claim to a talented uniqueness, unlike ‘ordinary folk.’
Talking of parents, Arthur’s mother (Anna Wing) pops by, and asks Billy about his father’s illness (“they’re waiting for the x-rays”) and his ‘sister’, who has the more serious illness of non-existence. Evading the questions, Billy heads downstairs to flush calendar pages down the lavatory. Shadrack soon wishes to use the facilities for their traditional purpose, and a clever overhead shot shows Billy trapped inside the small cubicle with an authority figure the other side of the door, as he flushes months of life down the tubes.
Later, during the office tea break, Mr Duxbury (Finlay Currie, Magwitch in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946)) arrives – Councilor Duxbury that is, “so think on,” – just as Billy and Arthur head into town. The two young men mimic Duxbury’s thick Yorkshire accent as they walk, only to bump into Barbara (Helen Fraser), Billy’s drippy fiance. “Darling, are you avoiding me?” she asks. “Have you told your parents we’re engaged yet?” Billy tells her they can announce the engagement when Barbara calls round for tea tomorrow afternoon (Sunday afternoon tea is traditionally the grandest meal of the week in British households, and a ritual set in stone, much like the food). Billy asks casually whether Barbara’s engagement rings needs altering.
We find out why during the next scene, in a rough cafe where Billy’s other fiance, Rita (Gwendolyn Watts), works as a waitress. Rita demands to know what’s become of her engagement ring, and Billy explains it’s still at the jeweller’s for altering. Of course, as Billy confirms to Arthur, this is the ring currently sported by Barbara, first bought for Rita. It’s implied Billy was with Rita the previous night, and the pair have “had relations,” as Barbara later puts it. Comparing the two women gives an idea of Billy’s divided psychology; Barbara is soppy and priggish, and possesses a fairy-tale view of romance, while Rita is brash, aggressive, but sexually available. Barbara reminded me of a more buttoned-up Gerty McDowell from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1921), with her ‘marmalady’ language pieced together from countless pulp magazine romances; she also consumes enough oranges to make her blood turn to marmalade. That said, Barbara is one of the few characters who supports Billy in his dream of scriptwriting. Rita is more like a character from the aforementioned Up the Junction, such as Sylvia or Rube, vivacious, streetwise, and unsentimental.
Rita has little time for Billy’s stories, and informs him she’ll go to the shop this afternoon to check if Billy is telling the truth, “and I’m meeting your rotten parents tomorrow whether you like it or not!”
Billy and Arthur continue to amuse each other as they walk around town and go through a routine similar to the ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch from the much later Monty Python’s Flying Circus, putting on Duxbury accents as they complain of “college kids” demanding higher wages. Billy stops on spotting a girl, Liz (Julie Christie), a passenger in a passing truck. “Isn’t it that bird who asked you to go to France?” asks Arthur. Billy looks on dreamily as she talks of Liz’s wanderings: “She goes where she likes. She’s crazy… She works as a waitress, a typist, last year she was at Butlins – she works until she gets fed up and goes somewhere else.” This kind of lifestyle is common enough these days, but back then it marked someone, especially a woman, as very different. John Walsh, writing in The Independent on Billy Liar‘s fiftieth anniversary, explains Liz’s appeal to Billy: “It’s not her (vivid, glowing) beauty or her (natural, un-beehived, Bardot-ish) blonde hair that attracts him; it’s her freewheeling restlessness. She’s a girl who can’t be pinned down and won’t get stuck and, in 1963, this was a crazily unconventional position.”
To Billy, Liz is living the dream, instead of just dreaming it, a woman who finds escape easy and travels wherever her heart takes her. Schlesinger demonstrates Liz’s carefree approach to life in a critically celebrated sequence as she gallivants around town, handbag swinging by her side, all lightness and smiles, in a way imitated by perfume and cosmetics adverts ever since. “We watch her as an objectified consciousness,” comments Walsh, “an emblem of independence.” A cynic might add it’s easy being a free spirit if you look like Julie Christie, but the actor brings such joy to the role as to sweep aside any bitterness.
Liz arrives at the new supermarket, where Danny Boon (Leslie Randall) performs the opening ceremony. It says something of Boon’s comedic talents that he’s easily the least funniest character in the film, with his affected mannerisms and quips for the easily pleased, including his catchphrase “it’s all happening!” Posing for newspaper photographs, Boon picks Liz from the crowd, where she stands out like a dove among a flock of starlings, the other women Dandy Nichols lookalikes in thick coats, layers of pearls and box-like hats. Boon kisses Liz on the cheek for the press photographers.
A pleasing cut-shot sees Billy, back at the office, reading the newspaper article with Liz’s photo. With Shadrack out and Duxbury asleep, Arthur seizes the chance to give Billy a promised tub of aphrodisiac pills “from Singapore.” Duxbury leaves, telling the two boys to “give the floor a wipe” if they’ve nothing better to do (Duxbury is of the ‘it if moves, salute it, if it doesn’t, paint it’ generation). Once Arthur has left, Billy begins his novel, but inspiration runs dry after a couple of sentences. Billy puts so much effort into being imaginative, there’s nothing left once he finally gets round to a creative activity; instead, Billy ponders over the exact name under which his novel will be published. Unlike most, Billy seems to feel his imagination is a special gift which will provide his freedom both in fantasy and reality. As it is, most of Billy’s mental energy goes into picturing himself as a soldier, gunning down anyone who annoys him (such as his family) or in a hero worship of himself, a self-centered romanticism where Billy wins adoration without really doing anything to earn such praise. The novel Billy tries to begin sounds like a thousand other cliched sub-D H Lawrence ‘life were tough back then’ works. Billy Fisher is all inclination and no talent.
Billy enters Shadrack’s office, placing a letter of resignation on his desk, and begins talking through an imaginary conversation with the manager, in which he turns down the offer of a partnership to pursue his dream of writing. Several reiterations of “a man could lose himself in London” develops into a bizarre impression of Winston Churchill (“Never in the field of human conflict…”) until Billy picks up the radio microphone and enunciates “Shadrack” over and over, stringing out the syllables like beads on a string. This again demonstrates Billy’s fundamental lack of creativity, going through a self-glorifying eulogy (the partnership ‘offer’), a famous speech given by someone else, and then simply saying Shadrack’s name several times for the sake of hearing his own voice.
Shadrack arrives, having caught the latter stages of Billy’s ‘performance.’ Putting the letter aside, the funeral director shows off a model of a plastic coffin, the future of death: “it’s all clean lines now. Frills and fancy stuff, that’s all old.” Shadrack represents a point in British history where modernity was welcomed, no matter in what form; we see it in the rising tower blocks, the housewives queuing at the new supermarket (stores in Britain at the time were still much of the butcher, baker, candlestick maker variety), Liz’s wandering spirit, and Shadrack’s interest in plastic, just one of the synthetic materials coming to prominence at the time. Billy himself is a product of the postwar grammar school system, reaching its apogee in the UK in the mid-1960s. Not all of these developments are looked back on fondly; the modernist tower block revolution as ‘machines for living’ fell out of favor with the Ronan Point tragedy of 1968, and plastic coffins didn’t exactly catch on either.
Billy isn’t so confident now, and Shadrack isn’t impressed with his employee. “We were hoping one or two things would be cleared up – those calendars for one thing.” We learn Billy was tasked sometime before Christmas to post over 200 Shadrack & Duxbury calendars to potential customers (people unlikely to live long enough to turn the last page), but Billy bagged the postage money for himself and hid the calendars in his wardrobe. Billy offers to pay the money back, only to be informed “it’s not a matter of payment, it’s the goodwill,” although the postage costs come a close second. As Shadrack pipes in a cassette recording of ‘Abide With Me’ into the waiting room, where two customers are seated, he tells Billy he can’t possibly accept his resignation and will discuss the matter further, with a threat of legal action, on Monday morning.
Billy joins Barbara in an old-fashioned tea room, complete with orchestral trio, and ladies who lunch, dinner, supper and breakfast. Barbara drones on about her shopping expedition (“Ooh, they’ve got some lovely materials there…”), anticipating the curtains and carpets of the new nuptial home. Pestering his fiance to give up the engagement ring, Billy apologizes for his rough behavior, telling Barbara if it wasn’t for his “energy tablets” (the Singapore pills), he wouldn’t know what he’d do. Billy persuades Barbara to take a couple of tablets with her tea and to “go for a walk, where it’s quiet.”
“Oh Billy, it’s beautiful,” cries Barbara, as the pair stroll through a cemetery, shot by Schlesinger in all its gothic grandeur. Barbara reads aloud the epitaphs while eating an orange. Passing a tomb, she coos “there’s a whole family in there, isn’t it sweet?” The “contented” Barbara fends off Billy’s kiss and implores him to tell her once more about the cottage in Devon they’ll live in once they’re married, where everything is “lovely,” including children “little Billy and little Barbara.” The mantra of the Devon cottage reminds one of George and Lennie’s dream of finding a place of their own in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), with Billy just as likely to blow someone’s brains out before it has a chance to come true.
As Barbara continues her lovely dream of the lovely cottage, Billy fantasizes of seducing his fiance in a four-poster bed, and he unconsciously places his hand on Barbara’s leg, much to her discomfort. “It seems indecent somehow,” she complains, leading Billy to gripe he’s ill through repression. “We must be patient,” Barbara insists, refusing further ‘energy pills’ for another orange, causing Billy to throw the fruit to the ground in frustration. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I’ve had a terrible morning.”
Terrible, and about to get terribler. Rita has visited the jewellery store, and found no trace of her engagement ring.
Billy tells Barbara his “exaggerations” are necessary for his future career as a scriptwriter. This means Mr Fisher senior didn’t command a petrol tanker during the war and as for his “sister,” well, his parents don’t like to discuss the issue. It’s OK though because Billy promises “never to lie again,” though this is proved a lie the very next moment when Mrs Crabtree walks by, and Billy introduces Barbara as “my sister Sheila.” This stupendously dumb lie is instantly found out, as Mrs Crabtree knows Barbara well. Billy responds in the only reasonable way possible and legs it.
Back at home, Billy endures another interrogation from his parents, and gets a further tongue-lashing when Rita appears on the doorstep. Billy extricates himself, telling Rita the ring is being altered privately at the store by a friend of his father. Rita demands Billy meets her at the local dance hall that evening no matter what. Indoors, Mr Fisher advises his son he can’t keep carrying on with more than one woman. “I haven’t made my mind up yet,” Billy tells him, twice over, summing up his chronic indecision. Grandma witters on about a new housing estate, hampering Billy’s attempts to explain himself, eventually causing his temper to snap: “for God’s sake, belt up will you?!”
Yet this isn’t the first time a family member has told Grandma to keep quiet; a more discreet instance happens before breakfast, when Mrs Fisher mutters “shut up mother” at the old woman’s suggestion to clean the living room net curtains (a stereotypical concern for a generation of British grandmothers). Of course, the one time Billy does so, disaster follows, and his outburst causes Grandma a funny turn. Mr Fisher argues with his wife over Billy’s behavior, blaming her for spoiling Billy as a child (“you had to buy him special cornflakes so he could have the model submarine in the bottom of the packet!”) and claiming he’ll be glad to see the back of his son once he leaves for London. “Oh, but he’s not…he’s not old enough,” states Mrs Fisher, presumably content her teenage son is old enough to get married.
For a few moments, Billy sits in his bedroom, and Tom Courtenay gives a mini-masterclass in acting, displaying Billy’s shame, guilt and frustration at what has happened. Grabbing the rest of the purloined calendars, Billy leaves, first checking if Grandma has recovered from her bad spell. “She’s as all right as she’ll ever be,” murmurs Mother.
The cheering crowds attending a soccer match blend into Billy’s latest dream, where as supreme ruler of Ambrosia, Billy proclaims “we shall build towers! Towers!” Schlesinger points towards the awful reality of Billy’s dreams with the assembled throng crying “seig heil!” as the dreams segues into newsreel footage of ‘The Rape of Ambrosia,’ with General Fisher inspecting the devastation.
Limping in sympathy with himself as he walks up towards the moors, Billy meets Councilor Duxbury out for a stroll. Duxbury laments the changes besetting the town (“they’re all coming down now, all the old buildings”) in what John Walsh calls “an eloquent elegy for the old ways.” Duxbury also knows about Billy’s calendar scam and wonders why he’s keen to leave town. “I’m thraiped off with it,” explains Billy. “It’s neither mickling nor muckling, is it?” Any non-British readers wondering what this means needn’t worry, as it’s nonsense in any language, exemplifying Billy’s habits of mimicking the speech patterns of those around him – and of underestimating their intelligence (Courtenay does this so subtly it’s easy to miss, such as his imitating Shadrack’s habit of say “vair” instead of “very”).
Duxbury cottons on: “are yer taking tha rise out of me, young man? Ah’ve had no education, I had to educate meself, but tha’s no reason to mock me.” The old man is kind enough to offer advice: “You’ve a long way to go. Yer can’t do it own thee own. So think on.” Duxbury ambles back towards town, and Billy heads for a gorge, where he gleefully hurls the rest of the calendars, and we see a fine shot of him in the distance, running along the crest of the cliff. A calendar is easily disposed of, but Billy will soon find out the past is far more difficult to shake off.
We next see Billy at the reception of the Imperial Hotel, where Danny Boon and his entourage are preparing to leave. Billy explains his writing ambitions and shows Boon the letter ‘offering’ a job, a letter we now suspect is merely a boilerplate acknowledgement of unsolicited material. Boon, clearly unaware of any such submission, fobs Billy off with a suggestion to visit his manager’s office, explaining he pays per joke, rather than for whole scripts. “Good luck, and keep writing,” says the comedian, as Billy slumps with disappointment.
Evening finds Billy hiding across the street from the dance hall, where both Rita and Barbara await. Rita eventually enters the hall with Stamp, and Billy sneaks past Barbara in disguise. Inside, he finds Liz, who sees through Billy’s lies about writing a book, but enthuses over his plans for London. “When are you going?” she asks, and when Billy’s replies are vague, tells him to “just go, get on a train.” Billy continues to prevaricate: “it’s easy for you, you’ve got practice.”
The dance hall band strikes up a new song entitled ‘Twisterella,’ much to Billy’s delight, as it’s a song he co-wrote with Arthur. Billy’s joy is short-lived as Shadrack is nearby, drinking with his wife, and Billy excuses himself, only to bump into Barbara on the dancefloor. The uptight Barbara refuses to dance, preferring an orange cordial instead. Rita sees the pair walk past: “Just look who crawled out of the corned beef…is Madam Fancyknickers your sister in an iron lung?” Billy lies that Barbara has broken off the engagement, only encouraging Rita’s claim on the engagement ring: “you don’t handle the goods without buying.” The two girls fight over the ring as Billy sneaks away. “You’re finished!” Stamp tells him.
The club compere announces the song as written by two local lads, and also announces Billy’s plan to leave for London to write for Danny Boon. This brings applause, and a cry of “Billy Liar!” from Stamp, but leads to an argument between Billy and Arthur, who doesn’t understand why Billy is angry if the news about Boon is true. Arthur, in turn, is unhappy that Billy lied to his mother over Barbara. This sequence merges two scenes from the novel, where Arthur sings their song in a pub with a band, feigning an American accent to the annoyance of Billy, who performs a stand-up comedy routine. The two friends fall out more comprehensively than depicted here, with the dance hall scenes focusing solely on Billy’s women.
Billy and Liz leave and walk the streets. Billy tells Liz he wishes he could start life again, “like turning a page in an exercise book…but the blots always show through.” Liz wants to get married. “We will, one day,” muses Billy. The pair arrive at a park, where they kiss. “You know there’s been others,” warns Liz. “You think that’s why I go away?” Liz provides Billy with her motivation for her jackdaw lifestyle, to avoid becoming “part of this town and its people. I want to move around and not have to explain myself.” Billy tells Liz of Ambrosia, where he is Prime Minister and she is Foreign Secretary, and how they’ll recreate Ambrosia for real in a house of their own, designing maps, newspapers, uniforms, for their make-believe world no-one else can enter. Liz is pleased by the idea, and accepts Billy’s proposal of marriage.
As they kiss again, Billy hears laughter from the bushes. It’s Stamp, with a couple of friends, who deride Billy’s Ambrosia, and lark around on the swings, mocking Billy. Every British office has a Stamp, if not several, happy to mock the passions of others, and caring for nothing other than drink and sex; the ultimate example is Chris Finch, the raucous and antagonistic salesman played by Ralph Innes in the original BBC version of The Office.
“Leave them,” advises Liz, “they’re not worth it and this place isn’t worth it. Let’s go to London.” “You can’t just go,” says Billy in disbelief. Liz tells Billy of her own idyll, of Piccadilly and Hyde Park, not “one day,” but tomorrow. Billy agrees to catch the last train to London with Liz.
Billy returns home to pack. Mr Fisher confronts his son with the news that Grandma was taken to the infirmary during the afternoon, having suffered a relapse. In addition, Billy’s father knows his son didn’t send his mother’s letter to Housewives’ Choice and, having met Duxbury during the day, also knows of the calendar theft. “You’re not right in the head!” cries Mr Fisher (Billy agrees), “you should be grateful you’ve got a job in the office.” “Grateful?” replies Billy with fury. “Grateful? That’s all I’ve ever heard!” Billy reminds his father of when Billy won a scholarship to the local grammar school: “I ran all the way home, and what did you say when I told you? ‘I suppose I’ll have to pay for the bloody uniform.'”
This seems a defining moment to Billy, when he knew nothing would ever be good enough for his father and so gave up trying. Mr Fisher is rattled for a moment, but recovers to claim he is “finished” with his son. On entering his bedroom, Billy finds his wardrobe has been ransacked in his absence.
Arriving at the infirmary, Billy finds his mother waiting for news of Grandma. “You’ve got yourself into a fine mess,” she tells him. “Tomorrow, we’ll go through everything you’ve taken and set things straight.” Billy insists he’s off to London. Soon, the news comes that Grandma has died. Billy gets up to leave, and Mrs Fisher comes close to some degree of self-awareness when she appeals to her son: “I know we don’t say much, but we need you at home, lad.” Mrs FIsher knows that with Billy gone, the house will become quiet and dull, given most of the conversation is based around Billy’s antics, for good or bad. The Fishers do not discuss feelings or hopes, only what’s in front of them at any given moment, and are uninterested in the greater world (a point hinted at in the film, but made explicit in the novel, is that Mr & Mrs Fisher don’t even bother to read the local newspaper delivered each day, which we see Billy consult over breakfast). Billy leaves, and Mrs Fisher sobs to herself as she faces life alone.
Billy meets Liz at the train station, a haunted place of echoes and muttering. He also meets a drunken Stamp with Rita, who denounces Billy: “you think you’re someone, but you’re not. You’re no-one. You’re muck!” As a victim of Billy’s compulsive lying, Rita has a point; what seems to Billy as a given right to exercise the imagination on which he relies so much, has hurt and alienated others; what he sees as dull-witted deficiency in those around him may only be civilized restraint.
Liz and Billy board the London train and in contrast to Liz’s relaxed state of mind, Billy tries to find excuses to leave. Nervous and uncertain, Billy gets off the train to buy milk from a vending machine, waiting until he hears the train pull away until he runs to the platform, where he finds his suitcase waiting for him. Liz knew Billy could not make the leap of faith, and she shakes her head in disappointment as the train departs.
As Billy walks towards home, he’s followed by the Ambrosia marching band. Schlesinger pulls us back down the street, with Billy entering the house and, as the Ambrosian national anthem reaches its climax, he switches on the bedroom light, with the rest of the street in darkness (this differs from the novel’s ending, where Liz intends to head for the south Yorkshire town of Doncaster, agreeing to go to London only if Billy will marry her. Billy cannot bring himself to make the decision, a free spirit who, unlike Liz, cannot find freedom from himself, remaining trapped by his own defenses).
We are do Billy Liar a disservice to judge the ending in terms of progress or retreat for Billy. If he has returned home in fear of what his longed-for escape might bring, then at least he will face up to his responsibilities at work and home. Mrs Fisher will have her son back, and Billy has the chance to make amends with those he has hurt. Life is bound to be uncomfortable, but it’s a case of short term pain for long term gain, with Billy becoming less dismissive of others and maturing in the way Duxbury hinted. Billy knows any escape can never match the imaginary utopia of Ambrosia, which will live within Billy until it’s time for the plastic coffin. Having signed a truce with life, Billy will carry on fighting the only way he knows how. Liz is on her way to London and a different kind of future; as Bruce Goldstein of Criterion states, “Julie Christie’s character is the personification of the swinging London movies to come, and Billy Liar can be seen as the bridge between two distinct styles of British movies of the 60s.”
The musician Morrissey is a huge fan of both the novel and film of Billy Liar, quoting it in two songs written for The Smiths, ‘William, It Really Was Nothing,’ and ‘The Queen Is Dead,’ but it’s another Smiths single which comes to mind at the conclusion of Billy Liar; for Billy, thanks to the regard he holds for the power of imagination, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.’ The light may lead nowhere in particular, but will always make Billy feel he can shine.