Billy Liar (1963)

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Released 15-Aug-2003

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Comedy Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1963
Running Time 94:02
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (55:38) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By John Schlesinger

Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Tom Courtenay
Wilfred Pickles
Mona Washbourne
Ethel Griffies
Finlay Currie
Gwendolyn Watts
Helen Fraser
Julie Christie
Leonard Rossiter
Rodney Bewes
George Innes
Leslie Randall
Patrick Barr
Case ?
RPI $19.95 Music Richard Rodney Bennett

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

     Working class North East England in the early 1960s. Class distinction is a way of life, and "getting above one's station" is tantamount to the original sin. Now meet one Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay); young, bright, energetic and ambitious but, unfortunately, bone idle and hamstrung by his working class origins. His wit and imagination earned him a scholarship at a local grammar school, but brains are not enough to effect his escape from his caste, and so he retreats into an imaginary world, Ambrosia, where he is lord, master and general of all he surveys.

     While enduring the stultifying boredom of his clerk's job at a local funeral directorship, he whiles away his time, dreaming horrid revenges on those who ail him, and idly devising schemes to help himself escape, move to London, and begin a new life as a comedic scriptwriter.

     His romantic life is equally complicated by his elaborate fantasies. He has managed to ensnare himself in a double engagement, simultaneously betrothed to the prim, wannabe homemaker, Barbara (Helen Fraser) and the brassy and forthright Rita (Gwendolyn Watts). These two girls may represent the extremes of his feminine ideal, but the lass who really has his heart is the winsome Liz (Julie Christie.) She has his measure in every way, knows him well, and loves him unconditionally. She sees his potential and is wise to his tricks. Her capacity to move about England freely, capturing opportunities and adventures completely captivates and fascinates Billy. Both of them are imaginative, clever and seeking something better for themselves. The distinction is that while Liz seizes the day, Billy prevaricates and withdraws ever deeper into his own web of fantasies.

     Directed by John Schlesinger and adapted from a stage production, Billy Liar was an extremely popular film on its release in 1963, and has managed the journey through time relatively unscathed. Its wry humour and ironic tone are still fresh, and its themes remain relevant. I'm reminded of George Costanza (Jason Alexander) in an episode of Seinfeld where he confidently avers "It's not a lie if you believe." Billy would have agreed in full. Tom Courtenay's performance is an absolute revelation. He moves seamlessly from fantasy to reality, demonstrating a rapier sharp intelligence, and manages to maintain our sympathy. His efforts are comedic-tragic, and we see a little of ourselves in his anti-hero - that part of us that says, "I could have been..." or "Next year, I'm going to...."

     The truth is, we're all to a lesser or greater extent guilty of Billy's crimes of denial or fantasy. On one hand we see our potential, by the other, we sabotage ourselves to avoid the discomfort of the unknown. Billy's final act of self-denial, and the way he covers it up is a moving exhortation to all of us to buckle up and seize the day.

     A clever, well-written and very well performed film.

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Transfer Quality


     The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, 16x9 enhanced.

     With black and white films, luminance, contrast and detail are of paramount importance. This translates a little on the soft side, although there is good shadow detail. The luminance is patchy, with occasional pulsing that is somewhat disconcerting. There is little low level noise which is a mercy, but there is aliasing throughout.

     This is not a particularly clean print, with strong grain evident at times and a myriad of dust spots, hairs and scratch marks. There is one particularly noticeable crimp line which appears between 75:50 and 76:09. There is evident motion blur on pan shots and a couple of splice jumps that mar the presentation. This is not a clean print, although it is not the most offensive disc I've had to endure.

     There are no subtitles available on this disc, and this may be a major negative for some viewers. The audio is not great, and the accents are quite thick North Eastern. If you have Geordie or Yorkshire friends (my husband's from Teeside, so it's not too bad for me), then you may get by without problems. For those of you unaccustomed to those accents, I'm sure subtitles would have been a welcome addition.

     This disc is an RSDL disc, with the layer change placed at 55:38. I doubt I would have found it without the assistance of IfoEdit, so it's a pretty good change.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


     I'm sorry to say that the audio's pretty awful on this disc. It is a mono track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, so the sound is very flat and nondirectional.

     I have a sneaking suspicion that dialogue quality is going to be the biggest complaint about this disc. It is very shrill, yet muffled, if that makes any sense, and has to muscle its way through any ambient sound that's laid on the same track. This, coupled with the broad accents, may make for a fair bit of rewinding for some viewers. The audio sync was also slightly out, which is something of an irritant.

     To be frank, with the exception of the dance hall numbers and the radio excerpts at the beginning, I wasn't really conscious of the musical score by Richard Rodney Bennett. It could well be argued that this is a positive, and that the score did its job seamlessly and unobtrusively. Certainly, one becomes more aware of it during the Ambrosia fantasy sequences, but by and large it is a subtle and supportive piece.

     The surround channels and the subwoofer all had a complete holiday for the duration of this film, and indeed, sent me a lovely postcard from Bali.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use



     The menu is silent and static with a montage of photographs from the feature. It is simplicity itself to navigate.

Theatrical Trailer (4:07)

     A long and repetitive trailer with the cheesiest blurbs at the end that I've ever seen. Good for a bit of a giggle.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    There is a Criterion release of this film available in R1 and you know what that means - best quality audio/vision they can produce and a stack of features on a well presented disc.

     The Region 4 version of this disc misses out on:

     The Region 1 Criterion version of this disc misses out on:

     It's a hands-down, grand-slam winner for R1 I'm afraid. The only consideration in mitigation of R4 is the high cost and slow delivery of Criterion discs to Australia.


     The remarkable Tom Courtenay and the divine Julie Christie display a lovely chemistry and evoke a beautiful sympathy in this film. This little fable about grasping life and running with it has withstood the ravages of time better than many 60s film and remains a fresh and entertaining story. The transfer is a disappointment, but it's a budget buy and possibly still worthwhile as a sentimental exercise.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Mirella Roche-Parker (read my bio)
Tuesday, February 10, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDSinger SGD-001, using S-Video output
DisplayTeac 76cm Widescreen. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationTeac 5.1 integrated system
SpeakersTeac 5.1 integrated system

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