Saturday, August 2, 2014

Billy Liar: Kitchen Sink Surrealism

It was in 1959 that Keith Waterhouse's novel Billy Liar was published. The novel was a seriocomic look at the life of Billy Fisher, a young clerk for an undertaker who was living in his parents in the fictional Stradhoughton, Yorkshire. Billy spices up his rather dull life with often preposterous fantasies, fantasies that he sometimes tries to pass off as reality. The novel Billy Liar proved to be extremely successful. A play based on the novel and written by Keith Waterhouse made its debut on the West End in 1960. The play also proved to be a success. It was quite natural, then, that the novel Billy Liar would be adapted as a feature film. The film Billy Liar premiered in the United Kingdom in June 1963 and proved to be a hit like the novel and the play before it.

Billy Liar has generally been considered part of two interrelated movements that overtook British cinema in the late Fifties and early Sixties. The older of the two movements was kitchen sink realism, a particularly British form of social realism. The term "kitchen sink" originated in an article by David Sylvester in the December 1954 of Encounter, who coined it after seeing a piece of art by painterJohn Bratby that included a kitchen sink. Mr. Sylvester applied the term "kitchen sink" to a trend among young British painters towards portraying domestic banality. It would not be long before the term was applied to literature, the stage, and film as well. With regards to the stage and film the term refers to works that deal realistically with the lives of the working class in Britain. A good number of the kitchen sink dramas were set in the North of England, although examples can be found in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. While the late Fifties and early Sixties would prove to be the height of kitchen sink realism, the genre can be traced back even before David Sylvester coined the term "kitchen sink". It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) is an early example of kitchen sink drama.

The younger of the two movements was the British New Wave. The British New Wave was a trend among filmmakers that took its name from La Nouvelle Vague (literally "the New Wave") that took place in France in the Fifties and consisted of such directors as François Truffaut,  Éric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, and so on. Not surprisingly, the British New Wave has a good deal in common with La Nouvelle Vague. The films of the British New Wave were often shot in black and white and often in the style of documentaries. The films of the British New Wave generally dealt with everyday people in realistic situations and were generally shot on location. The British New Wave also had a good deal in common with the Angry Young Men of the era, a group of young playwrights and novelists who had become disillusioned with British society. In fact, the beginning of the British New Wave is considered to be the release of Look Back in Anger in 1959. Look Back in Anger was an adaptation of the 1956 play of the same name by John Osborne. Of course, John Osborne was one of the Angry Young Men.

Kitchen sink realism and the British New Wave are often treated as synonymous, although there is good reason to consider them separate, but very closely related phenomena. Quite simply, not all British New Wave films are kitchen sink dramas and vice versa. Shot in black and white in a style similar to documentaries, The Entertainer (1960) identifiably belongs to the British New Wave. That having been said, given that it centres around a British music hall performer whose career is in decline, it is debatable whether it can be considered a kitchen sink drama. Shot in vivid colour (although still possessing the look of a documentary), Kes (1969) probably should not be considered part of the British New Wave, although it is most certainly a kitchen sink drama. While many British New Wave films are also kitchen sink dramas, then, this is not always the case.

In the case of Billy Liar, it is perhaps questionable whether it can be considered either a British New Wave film or a kitchen sink drama. Certainly Billy Liar has much in common with the kitchen sink dramas that preceded it. Like many kitchen sink dramas it is set in Yorkshire and like many kitchen sink dramas it centres on a working class family. Billy Liar was even largely shot on location in Yorkshire. Like the British New Wave films that came before it, Billy Liar is shot in black and white and in a cinema vérité style. Adding yet more realism to the film is the fact that at times the Yorkshire dialect is used in the film. All of this would seem to place Billy Liar firmly in the genre of kitchen sink realism and as part of the British New Wave. That having been said, Billy Liar differs in many ways from many of its contemporaries that were part of the kitchen sink movement and the British New Wave.

Indeed, perhaps the most notable difference between Billy Liar and the films of both the British New Wave and the kitchen sink movement is that it is not nearly as sombre or serious as those films. Billy is not so much an "angry young man" as he is a very frustrated one, trying to cope with his dreary life through daydreaming and many times glossing over the truth. The end result of Billy lying to everyone (most of all himself) is generally not drama, but instead humour of a very tragic sort. Quite simply, in defiance of the oft said phrase, "It's grim up north," Billy Liar is at its heart a comedy and at times a very funny one at that.

Given the fact that Billy Liar centres on a young man with a very active imagination, it should come as no surprise that the film is punctuated by fantasy sequences illustrating Billy's daydreams. Many of these are set in a fantasy kingdom of which he is its ruler. In reality Billy might only be a lowly clerk at a funeral home. In his fantasies he is an all conquering hero. As might be expected the contrast between Billy's glorious fantasies and his rather drab reality is a source of much of the film's humour. The fantasy sequences of Billy Liar add a dose of surrealism to the film that further sets it apart from its compatriots in the British New Wave and the kitchen sink movement. Despite being set in Yorkshire, at times the film it seems to have more in common with the surreal British comedies of the Sixties that would follow it, including A Hard Day's Night (1964), The Knack ...and How to Get It (1965), Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), and Smashing Time (1967).

Of course, while Billy Liar is most definitely a comedy with surrealistic tendencies, it is still very much grounded in reality. Much of this is due to John Schlesinger's direction. Mr. Schlesinger deftly blends realism of the sort seen in the kitchen sink dramas with the fantasy often found in later "Swinging London" films so that the end result is a very consistent and cogent whole. Aiding  John Schlesinger's direction are the performances of the cast, all of whom are very convincing in their roles.  A Northerner himself, Sir Tom Courtenay brings Billy so much to life that it hardly feels as if he was playing a role--he is Billy Fisher (here it must be pointed out that he earlier played the role on stage). In her film debut Julie Christie gives an impressive performance as Billy's dream girl, Liz. Like Billy, she too wishes to escape the dullness of Northern England for the bright lights of London.

Ultimately the question of whether Billy Liar can be considered a part of the British New Wave and a kitchen sink drama can perhaps only be answered by asking whether a comedy can be considered a part of either movement. Regardless, Billy Liar would certainly seem to be representative of the transition from the British New Wave and kitchen sink dramas of the early Sixties to the more light hearted British films of the mid to late Sixties, with characteristics of all of them. Ultimately Billy Liar would also have a lasting impact, inspiring a song of the same title by The Decemberists, a West End musical (simply titled Billy), and much more. For a young clerk at a funeral home with trouble telling the truth, Billy Fisher would seem to have found lasting success.

3 comments: said...

What an informative post! I will have to check this film out. I usually enjoy movies that straddle genres like this one...And thank you for the blogathon:)

Spiritually Cramped said...

This sounds like a must watch! Thank you for organising such a great blogathon, I've loved reading all the posts. As a Brit, it's nice to see British film getting some of the love it deserves, sometimes I do feel like it's overlooked in favour of thr glamour of Hollywood.

Vicki - GirlsDoFilm

Unknown said...

I've heard of this movie but haven't ever watched it yet. I enjoyed your review and explanation of Kitchen Sink Dramas and British New Wave. Now I'll go and find a way to rent Billy Liar!