Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) is the leader of the country of Ambrosia, and the streets are lined with the celebrating crowds now that he has brought democracy to the land. As we waves to the assembled throngs, he laps up the adulation, fully knowing he deserves it as the population sing his name - no wait, that's his mother (Mona Washbourne) calling him for his breakfast because he's already late for work at the undertakers. Billy is a fantasist who prefers to live in his dream world rather than face the humdrum realities of everyday life, and this is bringing him into more and more conflict; already his latest claim that he is going to be a scriptwriter has left everyone around him sorely unconvinced...
Is Billy Liar a character to be amused by, or pitied, or despised? It's a question that troubles everyone who has seen it since its hit release back at the time when the sixties were just starting to swing, and in truth any of those reactions would be a fair one as he is a divisive character to audiences, never mind the characters who have to put up with his runaway imagination. After the kitchen sink dramas of the past few years, and before A Hard Day's Night whipped up a storm in British cinema, not to mention music, there was Keith Waterhouse's creation Billy Liar in the middle of it all, the representation, if one were needed, of a new tide in British society where the youth was not going to live the lives their parents had.
Not if they could help it, anyway, and Billy summed up that feeling that they were stuck in the middle of needing to express themselves as the next generation with their own entertainments and views, and the fact that they still had to contend with finding a job, settling down, and keeping the right side of their elders if they didn't want any trouble. In this respect Billy could be seen as a rebel, renouncing the real world that gave him so many problems and preferring to live out his potential in his head, mainly because there wasn't much chance of him living it out anywhere else. And yet, all the way through his farcical efforts to get by, there is always the tantalising possibility that he could actually break free of this drudgery.
Personifying that possibility was Liz, played by Julie Christie in the role that made her a superstar across the globe, and undoubtedly one of the faces of the sixties. Although if you stop and think about it, she is hardly in this for ten minutes or so, the impression she makes as the ultimate fantasy woman for the times, showing that life doesn't have to be as dull as those Billy meets every day insists, was so strong that it's little wonder that movie audiences wanted to see more of her. The scenes she shares with Courtenay where she makes it clear that she understands Billy and his unrealistic ways are among the best in the film, and make that finale one of the most painful in British cinema.
Before we reach that point, it's worth recalling this is meant to be a comedy, but for many this will either be too frustrating or too uncomfortable to truly provoke any laughter. It is amusing to see Billy imagine himself getting the better of a situation that he has actually allowed to get away from him for the umpteenth time, usually as envisioning grabbing a machine gun and letting fly with the bullets on the person who is causing him grief - his parents, his boss, the two girls he has claimed that he is engaged to. But for the most part it's like watching a car crash in slow motion, as we can perceive that Billy is headed for a fall as his lies catch up with him. It's not as if he doesn't have talent, as we see when his song is played at the nightclub, it's simply that he doesn't have the gumption to make good on it, and if that encapsulated his generation or not, there's the suspicion that whenever you let someone down there's an element of Billy there that renders this classic so emotionally troubling and even hard to take, not the fluffy comedy with a sad ending of popular memory. Music by Richard Rodney Bennett.