When I quoted from Billy Liar in my journal recently, it was suddenly another of those books I had to read again, immediately. Coincidentally, it’s an anniversary. The book was first published in 1959, cybersofa inscribed this copy ‘1969’, Keith Waterhouse was born in 1929. So Keith Waterhouse was eighty earlier this year, Billy Liar is fifty, cybersofa would have been sixty. Good job I’m not Iain Sinclair, or I’d be making something of it.
This book was a success from its first publication, suiting the Angry Young Man fashion of the period: Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and so on. What sets it apart in my opinion is how funny it is. Billy Fisher lives in the Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton with his parents, who are proud to describe themselves as ‘ordinary folk’. Teenage Billy is literate and knowledgeable, having been to the Technical School but has still ended up as a clerk in an undertakers’ office. He's screamingly bored with his family, work and Stradhoughton in general, and ambitious to be a writer. Unfortunately he lacks the will and gumption to do anything about it but resorts to fantasy in the imaginary world of Ambrosia. He’s unable to face reality at all, spinning ludicrous tales and at one time getting himself engaged to three girls at the same time.
The whole action of the book takes place in twenty four horrible hours. We see Billy at home, at odds with his family; at work at Shadrack & Duxbury’s with ambitious Arthur and slimy Stamp, of the illiterate posters (‘Have you paid your “subs”?’). As he meets Rita at the failed coffee bar The Kit-Kat, Barbara ‘the witch’ in the graveyard, Councillor Duxbury (‘tha wun’t call Lord Harewood mister, would tha?’) on the moor, Liz at Maurie’s record shop and finally just about everybody he knows in a climactic evening at The Roxy, a whole world is brilliantly described.
It’s funny, it’s sad. You have to feel sorry for Billy while at the same time sympathizing with his baffled parents and wanting to give him a kick up the backside. The 1963 film, starring Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie
is a joy, with many wonderful cameos, including Leonard Rossiter as Mr Shadrack. A TV series was made in 1973 and in 1974 a musical, Billy, still popular with amateur dramatic companies. This starred Michael Crawford and I went to see it. Below, the trailer for the film, which rather misleadingly makes it out to be just an hilarious comedy. I’d love to see it again.