“Count to five and tell the truth”

Laura Morgan watches the 50th-anniversary reissue of John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar

‘Genius – Or Madman?’ Billy Fisher as Hero of Ambrosia

There are lots of good things about going to the cinema alone. You can go and see anything you like without justifying your choice to someone else, and you don’t have to tell anyone what you thought of the film afterwards. You don’t have to share your snacks, or miss parts of a trailer – or, worse, the movie itself – because someone wants to have a conversation with you. Going to the cinema alone is a selfish and glorious way to spend a couple of hours. The only downside to it is that when a film makes you laugh until you weep – not the silent shoulder-shaking kind of laughter that you could just about get away with, but the hooting, spluttering kind that marks you out as a genuine lunatic – when that happens, being by yourself only makes matters worse. Fortunately for me I have only done this once: the first time I saw Billy Liar.

Billy Fisher isn’t just a liar: he’s also selfish and a philanderer and a thief, and we see him at his wheedling worst over the course of the single day we spend with him. But he’s also so beguiling, so funny and charming and hopeless and innocent (and Tom Courtenay’s performance so dazzling), that we forgive him everything and share his irritation with his boring parents and staid girlfriend number one and carping girlfriend number two and his tedious job. When he takes out a machine gun and shoots his family as they sit placidly eating breakfast we are startled but also delighted. And when Julie Christie’s Liz, the fantasy made flesh, the symbol of freedom, appears, we silently urge Billy on towards her and all she represents.

“You just buy a ticket and get on a train. That’s all you have to do.” Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in Billy Liar

Billy Liar feels bracingly modern, so it’s a shock to discover that it’s about to celebrate its fiftieth birthday. Its geographical and temporal location – Bradford, or somewhere very like it, in the early 1960s – is clear; but it doesn’t ever feel like a period piece, perhaps because whereas other films of the same era evoke what the sixties were like, Billy Liar is more interested in what people are like, and people haven’t changed much in fifty years. Billy’s frustrations are universal; his fantastic attempts to escape them a version of what we all do when faced with life’s dissatisfactions. Where the film is bold is in the dramatic and detailed realisations of Billy’s fantasies, which feel more important and more immediate than his reality.  Seconds-long slices of his idle daydreams are filmed on grand sets with hundreds of extras and immediately forgotten as soon as Billy is called back to whatever menial task has prompted his escapist reverie.

Billy’s is a Britain we know but its surface is skated, the film spending most of its time soaring dreamily through the air, with just a toe left behind in the real world. It’s a lighthearted dance, and we want to fly with Billy, not come tamely back to earth alongside the people who are dragging him down. “We are just ordinary folk”, says Billy’s mother, and we sigh and think what a cheerless thing that is to be.

“I see the cabinet change is imminent.” Life chez Fisher

And then, just when we think we understand, everything changes. Half a dozen viewings later I still find the last half-hour of the film difficult to watch, and every time I see it I feel differently about Billy’s reaction to a challenge that nudges him beyond the run-of-the-mill. (Though only barely – whereas his triumphs are grand enough to fill a football stadium, Billy’s tragedies are small and mean, but no less devastating for that.) His is a life in which not enough happens, but when something does finally happen Billy, who has spent the whole day pretending to run away, really does run away – not once, but over and over again. By the end no decision he can make is right, and all his choices feel damning and irrevocable.

Billy Liar is a big, ballsy film about small things. It’s a meticulously realistic film about fantasy. It’s a supremely British film set in the small country of Ambrosia, and it is still the film that delights me more than any other, so I am glad as can be that it is being reissued on DVD and Blu-ray with a new set of extras, and even gladder that it is getting two public screenings this month, on Sunday 14 April as part of the Bradford International Film Festival and on Friday 26  April at the British Library.

If you haven’t seen Billy Liar I absolutely insist that you rectify that before you allow yourself to watch the scene that had me sidling out of the Brixton Ritzy in shame all those years ago, but if you are one of the lucky portion of the population who have seen it before, I absolutely insist that you watch that scene again right now.

Billy Liar is now available on DVD and blu-ray from Studio Canal.

6 thoughts on ““Count to five and tell the truth”

  1. Ah, what a lovely piece. It’s been a very long time since I watched Billy Liar, despite it having been fixedas my favourite film for, ooh, 20 years. The final scene, youtube has just confirmed, is as devastating as it always was.

  2. The scene linked to at the end is the moment I remember realising how sharp and true the film felt to me (which was what made it feel so contemporary). In my head, before I saw it, I was expecting something softer and more twee (mixed up with memories of Walter Mitty and Ernie and His Incredible Illucinations). I’ve had jobs when I’ve done stuff like what he does with those letters.

    (I didn’t know this existed until today: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=jxzN9Hq_7k0&NR=1)

  3. If you were a regular Elaine Paige listener you’d have heard that song about one week in three, along with Defying Gravity and Part of Your World. The accent is Dick Van Dyke bad.

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