John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar, starring Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie, shows on TCM as part of its “British New Wave” progam. I wrote an overview of the film for TCM.com.
The comic story of an imaginative young man who escapes his dull home life , numbing job and dreary industrial town through wild fantasies and fabrications, John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963) is often described as a British version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). You can trace the roots back to James Thurber’s original story, but it’s nothing like the Danny Kaye movie of the meek dreamer turned courageous hero. Set in “the provinces” of the industrial north of England in the early sixties, it explores the same fears and frustrations that roil through Look Back in Anger , The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner , This Sporting Life  and other films of the early British New Wave of “angry young man” films. The difference is perspective: this portrait of ambition aching to break out of suffocating conformity and social expectation is viewed through the prism of fantasy and puckish humor and accomplished with a sprightly style and a succession of zany asides that, like Billy’s fantasies, pinballs through the conventional world around it.
Billy Liar was Schlesinger’s second feature, and it reunited the creative team of his directorial debut, the well-received drama A Kind of Loving (1962): producer Joseph Janni and screenwriters Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, who adapted their own hit play (based on the novel by Waterhouse). For all the fantasy and comedy, however, it shares the working class milieu and the smothering social atmosphere of his first film. “When I first read the novel, I realized that it was about…this boy’s need for a healthy fantasy life to get him through the difficulties he found with his family and his surroundings in the life he was leading.” Schlesinger shot Billy Liar largely on location in the Northern England town of Yorkshire and establishes an atmosphere of staid conformity in a provincial city that is, quite literally, being demolished around him.
Read the complete essay here.
The film plays on TMC on Friday, April 3 and is available on Criterion DVD.