No Trains to Ambrosia: Close-Up on John Schlesinger’s "Billy Liar"

A blend of "Madame Bovary" and picaresque novel, John Schlesinger's second film is a vivid character study of an escapist daydreamer.
Andrei Kartashov
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. John Schlesinger's Billy Liar (1963) is playing July 16 - August 15, 2017 in the United States as part of the series John Schlesinger's First Masterpieces.
Billy Fisher, a cheerful twenty-something lad from Yorkshire, is going to have a great future. For now, he only has a small office position in his dull small city, but Billy has already landed a job in London writing for a popular TV comedian. He is also working on a novel that soon enough will bring him fame and fortune. He is also engaged to a girl. Actually, two girls. And he doesn’t really want to marry any of them. Also, the TV star doesn’t really know that Billy exists. And he hasn’t started on the novel. Billy just has a vivid imagination and speaks before he thinks—some people prefer to call it compulsive lying. 
British cinema of the early 1960s is often described under the broader “new wave” umbrella, but in fact that generation’s provenance and aspirations were much different from their counterparts from the other side of the Channel. Young U.K. filmmakers of the time, on whom the “angry young men” nickname is sometimes extended from the earlier theater movement, were politically engaged well before Godard’s venture into Maoism, less interested in formalist games or sophisticated intellectualism, and, especially in the early years, were decidedly grim. John Schlesinger’s own debut, A Kind of Loving (1962), was also in the same spirit—but with Billy Liar (1963), a blend of Madame Bovary and picaresque novel, he went in a slightly different direction.
Adapted by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall from their own stage play and Hall’s novel, Billy Liar features many traits of the British Bleak Wave: North English urban setting (and, consequentially, the movement’s trademark Yorkshire accent), lower class—although white collar in this case—milieu, and a young, disempowered protagonist. Billy is portrayed by Tom Courtenay, now knighted and venerable but then a fresh talent recently famous from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: perhaps the key film of the generation, directed by Tony Richardson in 1962. Thanks in large part to Courtenay, Loneliness and Billy Liar seem like two variations of the same story—what happened in the former as tragedy, in the latter repeats itself as farce. The actor’s angular face that remained sullen and restrained for the entirety of Richardson’s film now displays an incredible mobility: Billy’s expression is never straight, he bubbles over with eccentric antics, mops and gestures. John Schlesinger’s take on the anxiety of provincial youth is a comedy, in a way even a parody of the kitchen sink genre—as if to reflect on its depressive outlook, Billy is made a clerk at an undertaker’s office, which gives ample opportunity for several morbid gags. Billy’s boss, for one, looks forward to the time when people will be buried in cost-efficient plastic coffins. Funeral business, it seems, is an industry with good prospects, because its business is lack of future. (A few years later, Tony Richardson will further explore the subject in his Evelyn Waugh adaptation The Loved One.) 
Billy is a little worried about his own future: his favorite leisure activity is making grand plans and fantasizing, but that other, better life remains for him a horizon, an imaginary line that you can never reach, no matter how long you walk. Not that Billy really tries to get there, because if there is no chance, why even try? The made-up world of success and happiness exists in an altogether different realm: Billy’s escapist daydreams that now and then intercut the main narrative. In those reveries, he is a genius author, or the British Prime Minister, or a military hero president of Ambrosia, his own personal la-la land. This obsession with power belies his actual position in the social hierarchy, which is permeated by all kinds of authority—his father, for one, whom, in a brief oedipal outburst, Billy pretends to shoot. That violent fantasy is later repeated with a work supervisor, who caught him in another lie, as the victim. Signs of masculine power have a strong presence in Billy’s pipe dreams where he is endued with shoulder loops, peaked caps and guns: a phallic symbol, of course, because it is hinted that, on top of it all, Billy is still a virgin. Hence one of the film’s more risqué dark jokes that happens when Billy is trying to seduce his girlfriend at a cemetery, and the setting, so familiar to him, not only anticipates the hopelessness of his endeavor but also provides a backdrop of obscenely erect tombstones.
But ultimately, Schlesinger’s film is more of a character study than a social realist work. We are given evidence that Billy is sometimes able to put his creativity to work—the local dancing hall band plays a frothy twist number that he wrote—and the city’s dull atmosphere is only one reason why he doesn’t. Another is that he just can’t bring himself to it. If for Courtenay’s Colin in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner prison and unemployment office were the two only prospects in life, for Billy Fisher more roads are open. The possibility of change and liberation is there—beautifully embodied by the protagonist’s old flame Liz, played by Julie Christie in her breakthrough role. Liz appears as if out of thin air—back from London for a few days, she is introduced in of the most memorable scenes of the film just wandering the streets. Schlesinger here adopts an almost cinema verité style, editing together Liz’s seemingly aimless going about town. The heroine, charming and sincere, seems foreign to the city that she escaped, and so does the sequence itself to the film: with almost no dialogue, liberated camera movement and loose montage, it presages Richard Lester’s portrayals of Swinging London. Indeed, London is where Liz came from and where she wants Billy to go. 
Even Billy’s city shows hopeful signs—from opening credits and on, Denys Coop’s camera catches sights of urban redevelopment (a metaphor of change that was also used by Schlesinger’s compatriot and contemporary Basil Dearden in A Place to Go and later in Victim). But only London—never seen but always talked about—is a place where dreams come true. In that, it might also be the ultimate Ambrosia, located just a train ride away. Schlesinger’s follow-up to Billy Liar, Darling (1965), while not being a sequel stars the same Julie Christie, as if telling the story of her future life in the capital. A Dolce Vita-inspired development of Schlesinger’s career, Darling is a break even further away from social realism’s conventions—but not from its despair, because, it seems, some things one cannot escape from.


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