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Billy Liar - 50 Years On

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BBC Radio 4, 6 August 2009
 
Presented by poet and critic Blake Morrison, this documentary returned to the city of Leeds to focus on the origins of Keith Waterhouse's memorable comic creation. The world had changed significantly since the book originally appeared in 1959:  Leeds was no longer a working-class community of terraced houses, but an active provincial metropolis with smart shopping malls and covered walkways. Morrison talked to local people who had witnessed these changes: many of them recalled with nostalgia how Billy Liar summed up many of their own aspirations in the late 1950s, when London seemed a far-off city and even a visit to Doncaster was considered something bold. Waterhouse's book captured much of the down-to-earth Yorkshire humour of the time, with characters who could see the funny side of any situation, however bleak it might be.
 
The programme emphasized how Billy Liar was very much an autobiographical work: Waterhouse grew up in Leeds and desired to escape from provincial conformity and start a new life in London. The only difference between the author and his character was that Waterhouse achieved his dream, as he became a best-selling novelist and newspaper columnist, retiring from the Daily Mail in early 2009. His book became a seminal text of the period; since its first publication it has been adapted into a film, stage show and television series. Nonetheless in spite of its success, it still contains a kind of yearning for the security and comfort associated with Waterhouse's early life.
 
Morrison skated over some of the book's shortcomings; its stereotypical female characters, who seek lives of happy domesticity or pursue some half-baked dreams of freedom. Instead he showed that, rather like Larkin's Whitsun Weddings (the subject of a recent Radıo 3 documentary), Billy Liar evoked an important period in British history when the country was beginning to emerge from its insular shell and looked outwards to the world at large. The producer was Kate Taylor