billy liar britain dreamer richard keeble seasoned writing salt iron

Caught Between Two Worlds: Billy Liar and 1960s Britain

Order and optimism remained linked in the fifties, in the sixties they fell far apart. The world of youth, pop, of irreverence, of unprepared happenings, was all, in sociological terms, a classic case of communitas: a brief but intense experience of ecstasy, of unstructured almost incoherent fellowship, a world in which norms are temporarily derided and seem unnecessary.

Adrian Hastings, A History of English Christianity

Made in 1963, Billy Liar explores this ecstasy. Little known outside the UK, this film conveys messages both timeless and very much rooted in a particular phenomenon. In the 1960s, Britain was irrevocably changing, socially and morally. This film comments on these changes, with a theological dimension not intended by the film-makers but pertinent for the Christian viewer.

On the surface, Billy Liar is a quirky little British movie portraying a day in the life of William (Billy) Fisher: an irresponsible day-dreamer whose frequent forays into his imaginary world, “Ambrosia,” often supersede his real-life duties and commitments. Billy is a young man who lives with his parents and elderly grandmother in 1960s Yorkshire. He has returned from a selective grammar school to dreary suburbia and his decidedly working-class parents. The resulting educational gap between the generations is obvious. Billy’s day-dreaming and compulsive lying lead to various predicaments, some hilarious and others more tragic. Our protagonist fumbles his way through life without much direction, much to the consternation of those around him.

In terms of genre, the film is a product of its time. A rare example of “British New Wave,” (equivalent to the French Nouvelle Vague), it shares in the “kitchen sink realism” of productions that placed domestic life center stage: Grim-looking Brits spending their off-hours in grimy pubs became increasingly prominent, as did regional accents. The popular soap Coronation Street is an enduring example of this genre.

The Old vs the New

From the beginning, with tone-setting shots of buildings being demolished—see also The Likely Lads (1964-1966) and Withnail and I (1987)—Billy Liar portrays 1960s Britain as the meeting place of two conflicting worlds: the Old and the New. The Old is that of Billy’s upbringing, represented by the previous generation. Its old buildings are being knocked down and replaced by new, functional tower blocks. New music and shows bombard the airways. There is even talk of plastic coffins from Billy’s boss Mr. Shadrack, an undertaker. The film’s older characters are obviously baffled by all the changes around them, ranging from technology to immigration. For the new generation, not least Billy, the elderly are little more than antiquated figures of mockery and irritation – relics from a bygone and unmissed era.

In contrast, the New World is exciting, fresh, and uninhibited by the past. Returning to Adrian Hastings:

Motor cars, television sets, refrigerators, washing machines multiplied. For the young the conditions that so many of their parents had suffered before the Second World War were fading into unreality.

Education is key to understanding the social tensions at work in the film. Britain’s post-war educational system operated on a meritocratic basis. Grammar schools catered to the most intellectually able, regardless of economic background. These selective, state-funded institutions meant that, for the first time, working-class children could obtain a top-level education based on academic merit. There is, consequently, a wide educational gap between Billy and his parents. He is obviously very well read and loves to tease his family, with his dabbling in Latin and Received Pronunciation. Billy’s exposure to a world other than that of his family background has given him a very different attitude towards life.

The New World’s main representative in the film is Julie Christie’s character, Liz. She is carefree, spontaneous, and unrestricted by social or familial ties. Billy is easily intoxicated with her approach to life, her association with frequent travel, and especially with London. Liz represents the new spirit of 1960s Britain at its most dazzling – she has cut ties with her Northern roots, goes where she wants, and is polyamorous. She represents the elusive promises of the New World, in which one’s dreams and the freedom to pursue them are unfettered by such dreary notions as responsibility, duty, or monogamy.

“Ambrosia,” the Battleground

A major battleground for these tensions is Billy’s imagination, much of it centered on his fantastical country of “Ambrosia.” This word means the food or drink of the gods, which in Greek mythology confers immortality upon whomever consumes it. In the film, “Ambrosia” is effectively where Billy’s heart is, where his dreams run wild, and his ambitions are unfettered. He frequently escapes his dreary home, strict parents, and boring job to an imagined land where he is king, soldier, dictator, celebrated author, and spectacular lover all in one.

More fundamentally, however, Billy’s “Ambrosia” is linked to the very real New World he has been exposed to through his education and the surrounding societal change. Historical details and figures litter his fantasies, and he re-imagines his family as sophisticated and refined. One vision involves delivering a Hitlerite speech to a roaring crowd about the need to rebuild “our drab and shoddy streets,” promising to build “Towers! Towers! No less!” while the masses cry “Up! Up!” Appropriately, the national symbol of Billy’s “Ambrosia” is a zooming rocket: the perfect image for humanity’s progress, the impending Space Race, and the pretensions of an apparently innovative age. This is a reality unearned, however, with no responsibilities, rules, or duties. Billy selfishly yearns for a world of his own where he can get whatever he wants, whenever he wants it, regardless of whom he hurts along the way. He has been seduced by the promises of the New World.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that Liz is the only person with whom Billy shares “Ambrosia.” She encourages his fantasies, even appearing in several of them as his wife or official aide. These are expressions of his rebellion against the world of his parents and grandparents, bolstered and informed by his grammar school education. The film portrays the New World, for better or worse, as fundamentally disruptive. It will inevitably fall to Billy, therefore, to make a choice between its promises and his responsibilities at home.

Duty vs Freedom

As a result of this central tension, a key theme of Billy Liar is generational divide. This theme is clearest in the relationship between Billy and his parents. His irresponsible attitude grates against their conscientious, dutiful, and hard-working outlook. The film doesn’t let the previous generation off the hook, however. Not unlike Monty Python’s classic “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch, in which said Yorkshiremen compete to demonstrate who had the poorest upbringing, or the righteously self-admonishing prisoner in The Life of Brian, Billy’s father is an unsympathetic man, keen to point out whenever possible his humble origins. He is hard-working, but cold; dutiful, but narrow and emotionally neglectful. The film subtly hints at his own frustrations and resentment towards Billy, whom he makes no effort to understand. His attitude hinders any chance for personal warmth or appreciation for his son’s very real academic achievements.

Things are different with Billy’s mother. Perhaps the wisest character in the film, she uniquely recognizes her son’s quandary and the necessity of his choice about the future. When life inevitably takes a tragic turn, it is she who reaches across the generational divide in the film’s most significant scene; “We don’t say much but… we need you at home, lad.” She provides the vital reminder that:

If you’re in any more trouble, Billy, it’s not something you can leave behind you, you know. You put it in your suitcase, and you take it with you.

This simple statement strikes at Billy’s conscience, and summarizes one of the film’s timeless messages. Truth, responsibility and social bonds are not easily abandoned or forgotten – nor should they be. Promises, such as a marriage engagement (of which Billy has several), are meant to be kept, not played at and discarded; if one neglects them in pursuit of an illusory notion of “freedom,” the only result is pain and anguish for all concerned.

Universal Themes

Theologically, the Christian viewer may recognize various types and principles throughout the film. Billy Liar’s struggle is with truth, not just telling it to others but being honest with himself about his direction and purpose. For much of the film, Billy could be seen as an Anti-Christian figure: He indulges the conflict of his two worlds, and neglects what is best in the Old (its dutiful acceptance of necessity), while hearkening to what is worst in the New (its lack of responsibility and delusions of grandeur). The result is his compulsive denial of the truth, to himself and virtually everyone around him. The Christian travels the righteous road towards the Heavenly City of Jerusalem, whereas Billy’s heart seems set the other way, towards London, which serves throughout as Billy’s own, illusive Heavenly City; his distant Promised Land of excitement and fulfilled dreams.

One of the film’s deliberate themes is frustration (inextricably linked with its setting). While the primary manifestations of this are obvious, the director subtly invites us to speculate further; e.g. on the unspoken effect of the death of Billy’s sister, or his father’s thwarted attempt to join the army. This is not, therefore, the story of a boy pursuing his dreams. Approaching Billy Liar with this expectation will lead to disappointment and a failure to appreciate the dilemma it explores (see Peter Bradshaw’s dismissive review in The Guardian).

A product of its own time, Billy Liar also provides more universal themes. It reminds us of the daily renewal of responsibility, that we cannot “turn over a new leaf” each day, as Billy does, without consequences. It warns against the dangers of self-deception, and invites us to consider what our own hopes are founded upon. As Christians, we can watch this film and ask ourselves what we are oriented towards. For Billy, it is only by reconciling his two worlds, taking a definite stance on them, and bringing them into a positive union, that he can benefit himself, his family, and society. He must recognize where his real “Ambrosia” is, where his home and destiny really lie.

Richard Keeble

Author: Richard Keeble

Richard Keeble is a graduate of King's College London and the University of Oxford. He currently works as the Sacristan at Pusey House, an Anglo-Catholic chaplaincy and library in Oxford. Having studied Theology, Richard enjoys thinking and writing about the history of the Church of England, in which he is also discerning a call to ordained ministry.

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