At the weekend, I watched the film Billy Liar and then I went and sat in a pub and scribbled some notes on a piece of paper and then I typed them up and rearranged them a little bit to produce this blog post. It contains spoilers. If you have not seen the film Billy Liar, then do not read this blog post. Watch the film. If you have not seen the film and ignore this warning and read the post anyway, do not complain to me. I am not interested in anything you have to say.
It wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed on that train to London.
I think my brother had mentioned it first. ‘Oh, there’s this film you might like on tomorrow.’ I suspect he’d first discovered it through Saint Etienne:
I forgot about it, but then, sitting on a train to Waterloo, I saw it recommended on the TV and film page of the Melody Maker. Billy Liar. I wasn’t going to London for any particular reason – I certainly wasn’t planning to start a new life as a scriptwriter – it was just something to do. It must have been the school holidays. A Wednesday or Thursday. I often made the twenty-five minute journey into London just to wander around. Growing up in Worcester Park, London didn’t have the same mystique as it did for Billy Fisher. Living twenty-five minutes away meant that the city wasn’t an everyday fact like it would be for a true Londoner, but it was always an option.
I got off the train, went home, set the video, then went back to the station and got the next train. I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched the film in the sixteen or seventeen years since then, but it’s a lot. I bought the film on VHS, and then when I got a DVD player, I bought the film on DVD. If at some point I get a Blu-ray player, I’ll buy it on Blu-ray. And whatever format replaces that, I’ll buy it on that too.
I’m not sure what it is about the film that I love so much. Everything, I suppose. The funny bits are very funny:
‘I hope my singing didn’t put you off’
And the sad bits are heartbreakingly sad:
You think that’s why I’m always going away, don’t you? It’s not that. Sometimes I want to go away. It’s not you, Billy. It’s this town. It’s the people we know. I don’t like knowing everybody. I don’t like becoming a part of things, do you know what I mean? What I’d like to be is invisible. I’d like to be able to move around without having to explain anything.
Liz would never get a free sandwich from Pret.
Originally a novel, then adapted into a play (with the action limited to a single set of the ground floor of the Fisher house), the film manages to be (largely) faithful to the original book, while celebrating the potential of film to the fullest. The use of sound and photography are just spectacular.
Set just before the grim, grey 1950s transformed into the colourful 1960s, the film documents the tearing down of one age and the building of a new one to replace it. The wrecking balls knocking down buildings; the constant sound of construction works in the background; Shadrack installing radio mics in his funeral fleet; the prototype plastic coffin he keeps on his desk (‘You know by the time we’re burying you, you’ll be going off in one of these? Plastic, you know that? Yes, you see people don’t realise, it’s all clean lines nowadays. All these frills and fancies are going out. It’s all old. Same as I tell Councillor Duxbury, you have to move with the times. No use living in one style and dying in another, is it?’)
I saw the film again this weekend at the Science Museum as part of their Only In England exhibition of photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, two photographers whose work documents a sense of Englishness which is being erased (Ray-Jones dedicated one of his notebooks to the ‘Insanity of Modernity’), however, Billy Liar is more ambivalent towards these changes than the more wistful work of Parr and Ray-Jones.
Featuring in the novel, but absent from the film, is a local newspaper columnist who writes sentimental platitudes about Yorkshire under the name ‘Man o’ The Dales’. Although Billy and his friend Arthur mock the journalist and his attitudes (‘I want progress, but a Yorkshire tradition of progress’), there’s the feeling that Waterhouse is not as comfortable with the changes that are about to happen as Schlesinger is and perhaps sympathises more with the columnist than with Fisher himself. Schlesinger was born in London, unlike Yorkshire-born Waterhouse and Billy Liar was his second feature film, having started out making documentaries like Terminus (1961), a day in the life of Waterloo station, made for British Transport Films:
With its jazzy soundtrack, snippets of overheard conversation, station announcements, blasts of steam and train whistles, interspersed with shots showing the wide variety of people passing through the station – different ages, genders and races all mixing together – the film earned Schlesinger his first BAFTA award. Schlesinger already had the life that Billy dreams of.
Or at least partly dreams of. In the book, Billy describes how he has developed two different types of thinking (‘Three, if ordinary thoughts were counted’):
I called them No.1 thinking and No.2 thinking. No.1 thinking was voluntary, but No.2 thinking was not; it concerned itself with obsessional speculations about the scope and nature of disease (such as a persistent yawn that was probably symptomatic of sarcoma of the jaw), the probable consequences of actual misdemeanours, and the solutions to desperate problems, such as what would one do, what would one actually do, in the case of having a firework jammed in one’s ear by mischievous boys. The way out of all this was to lull myself into a No.1 thinking bout, taking the fast excursion to Ambrosia, indulging in hypothetical conversations with Bertrand Russell, fusing and magnifying the ordinary thoughts of the day so that I was a famous comedian at the Ambrosia State Opera, the only stage personality ever to reach the rank of president.
Based on this scale, you could probably call Billy’s dream of working as a scriptwriter for Danny Boon in London a sort of 0.5 thinking. It’s a fantasy, but more realistic than his visions of Ambrosia. He has at least made some efforts to realise this dream by sending some scripts to Boon’s office. Tragically though, he thinks this is enough. This is a fantasy he actually believes he is going to achieve. Having sent his material to Boon, he appears naive enough to think that the form letter he receives in return is a genuine job offer. Or does he? Of course, with a story-teller like Fisher, it’s hard to tell what he really thinks – he’s an unreliable witness. But the way he shows the Boon letter to his mother over breakfast and the fact he offers his resignation at the funeral parlour suggests he does believe it, even if he does pretend to speak to Boon on the phone in order to impress Arthur.
There’s something incredibly schoolboy-ish about Billy’s full-on No.1 thinking Ambrosia fantasies. He sees himself as this beloved (though quasi-fascistic) ruler of a proud, war-torn nation. The single figure who can restore the country to its former glory. But even this is ridiculous. He can barely keep down a job as an undertaker’s clerk. In moments when I indulge in my own variety of No.1 thinking, I imagine myself as extraordinarily wealthy, with an enormous house. But the deeper I go into this fantasy world, the less comfortable I am. If I had a huge house, I’d probably have to get a cleaner. I don’t know if I’d be happy about that. It would be awkward. Not only that, but I’d probably lose touch with most of my friends too as our lifestyles would be so dramatically different and I’d have to become friends with a load of fellow billionaires instead, and I bet they’d all be bell-ends. So then I downgrade my fantasy to just being financially secure and having a nice enough house and a job I enjoy which isn’t too demanding. Having to rebuild an entire nation sounds like a nightmare. You’d probably have to work weekends and there’d be loads of travel involved. This, then, is the limit of my imagination: I am a man too lazy to be a fantasist.
Whether it’s 0.5 thinking or No.1 thinking, the obvious truth is that Billy wouldn’t last five minutes in London. He’s not like Liz. Liz is everything that Billy wishes he was but is too afraid to let himself become. She’s the 1960s in a 1950s world. She’s Julie fucking Christie.
Liz is Billy without any of the baggage; both metaphorically and literally – seemingly unrestricted by family or work commitments, Liz can come and go as she likes (‘She goes where she feels like. She’s crazy – she just enjoys herself. She does all sorts – waitress, typist, she worked at Butlin’s last year.’) and without Billy’s ‘Guilt Chest’, the name used in the novel to describe the suitcase kept under his bed (‘A long while ago, when it contained no more than the scribbled postcards from Liz and a few saccharine notes from the Witch, I had started to call this trunk my Guilt Chest. Any grain of facetiousness there had been in this description had long since disappeared.’ ‘The Witch’ being Billy’s unpleasant nickname for his fiancée Barbara, sensibly dropped from the film).
Julie Christie’s Liz is carefree, independent, intelligent, sexually confident, funny, creative and fearless in her determination to carve out her own path in life. Waterhouse’s novel might be about a deluded, cowardly, dishonest, pathetic, unpleasant, vulnerable man, but the star of the film is Christie. While Tom Courtenay’s performance is astonishing, capturing all of the complexities of Fisher’s character; from the moment she appears on screen, swinging her bag as she walks down the street, the film is about her.
After the screening at the Science Museum, the exhibition’s curator, Greg Hobson, and David Alan Mellor, who had contributed an essay to the exhibition’s catalogue, discussed the film. Mellor made the point that Billy Liar essentially killed off the northern-realist kitchen-sink drama genre (which it was only loosely part of anyway). With the Merseybeat explosion in the early 1960s, the focus of a lot of pop culture suddenly shifted north, but film seemingly moved in the opposite direction. There is probably some truth in this, and it is almost as if the film industry stayed on the train to London with Liz. Certainly Schlesinger and Christie’s next film together would appear to back up this theory:
But Billy didn’t stay on the train to London with Julie Christie and John Schlesinger. He got off the train. Of course he did. We knew he would. Liz knew he would. With just a few minutes left before the train departs, an increasingly panicky Billy decides to get some milk from a vending machine in the station to drink on the journey (I for one would welcome the return of milk vending machines). Resigned to the fact that he won’t be going to London with her, Liz leaves Billy’s suitcase on the platform waiting for him.
For Liz, the idea of going to London is something simple (‘You just get on a train, and four hours later, there you are’). But Billy doesn’t have her confidence. Instead, he hides behind excuses and fudges (‘There are all sorts of arrangements to make’). Both of them hate living in this humdrum town (this town will drag you down), but Liz’s solution is to keep moving, to stay alive, to move on to somewhere new, to start again. You could say she’s always running away, but at least she’s living her life, she’s not hiding from the world.
Billy dreams of starting a new life too (‘I turn over a new leaf every day, but the blots show through’) but his solution is to hide away from reality. Even when he’s telling Liz about Ambrosia; the first time he’s ever told anyone about his secret life; when he’s describing his dream of the future with the one person who actually understands him; when he’s making himself more vulnerable than he ever has before; the closest possible realisation of his only shot at true happiness – he still wants to hide. The very most he allows himself is a little room in their house together where they can dress up and play with toy soldiers, pretending to run a made-up country together (‘I’m supposed to be the Prime Minister and you’re the Foreign Secretary or something’ he tells her, only to have this mocked by that cunt Stamp).
Every other time I’ve watched this film, I’ve prayed that Billy will get back on the train to London. But watching it again, I felt something different. I think it’s the right ending for Billy. Though the circumstances of the train journey are subtly different in the book compared to the film, it’s important that he doesn’t get back on that train. The ambivalence shown towards the modern world and the prices we pay for progress is mirrored by the ambivalence of the ending.
It would have been easy to go for a ‘happy ending’ in which Billy and Liz get the train together and go to London, or a ‘sad ending’ where Billy walks back home alone, devastated after the day’s events. But the film manages something else.
Consider the day that Billy has had: in the single 24-hour period of Billy’s life which is featured in the story, on that single Saturday, Billy has had two women break off their engagements with him; his lies at work have been exposed; his lies at home have been exposed; his bedroom has been torn apart; his grandmother has died; he’s fallen out with his best friend; he has confessed his most intimate secrets to the love of his life, only to have them torn to pieces by his work colleague; he’s had his offer of resignation refused by the boss that he hates; he’s had the one fantasy that he actually believed in, working for Danny Boon, smashed in front of him, only for it to be announced to everyone at the Roxy, and he has messed up his only chance to go to London and start a new life with the one woman he truly loves and who actually understands him.
And yet, despite all this, he isn’t broken by what has happened. As he walks back home, suitcase in hand, he is joined by a troop of Ambrosian soldiers. Despite everything that has happened, he still has his fantasy life to protect him. It’s the ultimate act of defiance. A true celebration of the indefatigable human spirit in spite of everything the world has to throw at it. As he enters the house, we know he’ll be okay. Or at least the closest to okay that we could ever hope for him.
I’m glad I got off the train to London that day, and I’m glad Billy did too.