Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, abridged by Elizabeth Bradley

Contact Us

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, abridged by Elizabeth Bradley (2008). Prod. Fiona McLean. Perf. Stephen Tompkinson. BBC Radio 4 Extra, 16-20 Mar. 2015. BBCiPlayer

Listening afresh to familiar texts can always prove a rewarding experience. Keith Waterhouse's novel Billy Liar is perhaps best-known in John Schlesinger's 1962 film adaptation with Tom Courtenay giving a memorable performance in the title-role supported by Helen Fraser and Julie Christie as two of his long-suffering girlfriends. ITV produced a sitcom based on the text in the Seventies with Jeff Rawle and George A. Cooper as his father uttering the word "bloody" at every tick and turn (and causing quite a stir in the media as a result). Michael Crawford starred in a West End stage musical that played the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for 900 performances beginning in early 1974.

Keith Waterhouse's novel is very much a product of mid- to late Fifties Britain, a time when communities were far more insular than they are today, and family influences often played an integral part in determining people's lives. Billy Fisher is dominated by his parents, who have secured him a job at Shadrack and Duxbury's funeral parlor, and expect him to use the experience as a foundation for a respectable career. He has a respectable girlfriend Barbara who conceived marriage and children as her ideal future career. His sole mode of entertainment is the weekly visit to the dance-hall, where he associates with his buddies and finds occasional other girlfriends to preoccupy himself.

In such a stultifying environment it's hardly surprising that he should retreat into the fantasy-world of Ambrosia, where he conceives himself as the hero vanquishing all enemies and presiding over a benevolent republic where everyone adores him. In Waterhouse's first person narrative Billy's daydreams become tangibly realistic; we share his triumphs and failures, as grimy reality keeps puncturing his dreams.

Although we find Billy a basically sympathetic person, in Stephen Tompkinson's reading he also came across as basically thoughtless, constructing tissues of lies with little thought for the emotional damage they might inflict on those closest to him. Barbara might be limited in her world-view, but she hardly deserves the soubriquet of a "witch." Billy's other girlfriend Rita is a little more streetwise, but she is likewise the victim of shoddy treatment. It is left to Liz, the high-flown dreamer, to point out Billy's shortcomings, as she leaves without taking him, despite his protestations that he will go to the ends of the earth for her.

On the other hand, despite his faults, Billy does not really hurt anyone. He is just looking for a way out of his humdrum existence, like many young men of that time. The fact that he opts to create a fantasy-world for himself is something that many of us have done in the past, especially while growing up.

Tompkinson read the novel with a genuine empathy for the central character and his struggles, both mental and amatory.