“Billy Liar” was originally a novel written by Keith Waterhouse. In the late fifties/early sixties, Waterhouse collaborated with Willis Hall to turn the novel into a play. It is about a boy called Billy Fisher, his life, relationships, attitudes and lies. The story takes place on one Saturday in the Fisher household.
During the late 1950’s, teenagers were gaining more responsibility. For the first time, it was them who had to support the family as many adults were killed during the war. As they had jobs, teenagers had their own money to spend. This created businesses aimed at teenagers.
Teenagers were starting to like different music and wear different clothes rather than follow their parents like in previous times. This was seen as rebellious by elders and highly disrespectful. At this time, teenagers were also beginning to have their own opinions and no longer went by the saying “children should be seen and not heard”.
A great role model of the time was Elvis Presley. Teenagers saw him as ‘cool’ and good-looking – and he gave them a style/image to follow. What made him even greater was that adults hated him – because he was, in their opinion, disgusting. Elvis became a symbol of individuality for teenagers.
Fashion wasn’t the only factor that changed. Teenagers were given more freedom and started to own their own houses. Before, there could be two or three generations of a family living in the same house. With all the money teenagers were making, it was no longer necessary to stay in their parents homes. In some ways, this made families drift apart and have less contact with each other, proving that freedom may not always be a good thing.
Also, for the first time, the younger generation could speak their mind. They no longer had to keep quiet at the fear of being punished. This created more arguments within families. When children were told off before, they would keep quiet and accept their punishment, but now, they were arguing back. This made the parents jobs more difficult – and was seen as rude, disrespectful and unacceptable.
All of this is incorporated into ‘Billy Liar’ in a way that is understandable, especially to teenagers of the time. It was one of the first plays that young people could relate to and feel part of. This play is known as a ‘kitchen sink drama’ as it is set in one family home and reflects what was happening in families and societies at the time it was written.
The two main characters are Billy and Geoffrey. Billy is a nineteen-year-old boy, son of Geoffrey and Alice Fisher, who wants freedom. He is sarcastic, rude and unappreciative: “I gather that he who should burn the raincoat is father and he who should get dressed of a morning is my good self. Why do you always address all your remarks to the sideboard, Grandmother?” (Act1, lines 117-120) He has no respect for anything and he doesn’t seem to care about anything. Billy uses lies to make himself sound interesting and to get out of trouble. He is dirty and ‘slightly built’.
Geoffrey Sax is Billy’s dad. He is in his early fifties and is quite tall. He is hard working (he owns a garage) and does the best he can with his poor education to provide for his family: “He is carrying a few invoices” (Act 1, line 43). “Well it’s a chance we never had” (Act 1, line 766) (after Billy rants about being grateful for going to grammar school). Geoffrey is caring but has a hard image and expects respect.
Billy and Geoffrey argue about many topics. The first subject is women, sex and marriage.
Billy has no respect for women. He is engaged to two girls – Barbara and Rita – and is seeing another girl (Liz). It is implied that Billy has had sex with Rita and he is trying to get Barbara to have sex with him, but she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage. He even goes as far as getting passion pills to slip into her drink: “Are you sure them passion pills’ work on Barbara? She’s dead from the neck down” (Act1, lines 576-577). Sex is the main reason why Billy gets engaged as he seems to have no intention of settling down with any of the girls. He tells them lies – like when he tells Rita the ring is at the jewellers when, really, he has given it to Barbara: “Only I got it from her to give to Barbara. Now she wants it back. I told her it was at the jewellers’ getting the stone fixed” (Act1, lines 570-572).
Geoffrey doesn’t agree with any of this. He thinks Billy is seeing too many girls and should pick one: “He knocks about with too many lasses” (Act1, line142). “Well, you want to get your bloody mind made up, lad. Right sharp” (Act1, lines 147-148). Geoffrey respects women and doesn’t believe it right or fair to be seeing more than one woman at a time.
When Geoffrey finds out that Billy is engaged he is appalled and wants Billy to wait until he is twenty one to get married: “And he can get engaged when he’s twenty one and not before” (Act3, line 187). He also doesn’t believe in sex before marriage. This is part of the reason why he doesn’t want Billy to get married yet. He thinks that Billy has made a promise to get married and he will have to live with it and sort out the situation himself. Geoffrey believes in being honest and respecting women.
Another topic Billy and Geoffrey argue about is work and education as Billy is very lazy about work. He has a job but each week, claims it is his day off: “It’s my Saturday off this week”
“You said that last bloody week. That’s three bloody weeks in a row” (Act1, lines 241-243). He says he has been offered a script-writing job in London: “I’ve been offered a job in London. Script-writing” (Act1, line 198). This is the only job he claims to want to do.
Billy works at a funeral parlour called ‘Shadrack and Duxbury’, but he doesn’t enjoy it. He steals from work. The things he has stolen are – stamp money, petty cash money and calendars (which he was supposed to post out to people with the stamp money): “There’s nearly three rotten quid short” (Act 1, line 399). It is thought that he spends the money on the engagement ring he gives to Rita and Barbara.
Billy went to grammar school but didn’t enjoy it. He is very ungrateful for what his parents gave up for him to go to the school: “Grateful! Grateful! Grateful for this, grateful for that! That’s all I’ve heard ever! Grateful you let me go to the grammar school! We’ve been hearing that one since the first day I went there. What am I supposed to do? Say ‘thank you very much’ three times a day for my marvellous education?” (Act 3, lines 761-765) Billy doesn’t want to grow up and learn how to be responsible – he expects his parents to give him money etc. when he needs it and wants it.
Geoffrey is very hard working. He owns a garage, which he tries hard to keep running smoothly. Geoffrey didn’t have a good education, “well it’s a chance we never had!” (Act3, line 766) so, he wants to give Billy the best chance in life he can. That is why he sacrificed so much to enable Billy to go to grammar school. He believes Billy has wasted his education and could do much more. He would like Billy to go into the family business but knows this won’t happen: “Who do you thinks going to run this bloody business when I’m gone?” (Act3, line 720) He wants Billy to work harder and have more responsibility.
Through his hard work, Geoffrey has managed to raise his family from working class to middle class. He is more committed to his job than Billy and wants him to be less idle. Geoffrey again believes in honesty and hard work.
The next principle Billy and Geoffrey disagree on is elders and traditions, as Billy has no respect for his elders. He is very sarcastic and rude: “I suppose that she who’s coming for her tea is Barbara and she who wants to tell her is Mother and…” (Act1, line 150) He thinks he is better than them and doesn’t see them as much as a threat. Any punishment he is given, he ignores, which his parents think is very disrespectful.
Billy doesn’t want to be like the elders. Before 1950, children were very similar to their parents but Billy is the typical teenager of the late 1950’s. He is trying to rebel and have his own opinions. He has lots of arguments with Geoffrey because of his attitude: “By, if I don’t knock some sense into you! Stand up straight and get your hands out of your pockets!” (Act2, line 61)
Billy doesn’t follow traditions either, such as no sex before marriage. Billy does what he wants and listens to no one. He doesn’t want to hold down a job or settle down and have a family like elders do.
Geoffrey, on the other hand, has a lot of respect for his elders and he doesn’t like the way Billy treats people – as he himself has never spoken to his elders in a sarcastic/rude way. Geoffrey is very traditional (and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage).
Geoffrey thinks Billy should show more respect to him, Alice, Florence and other elders because they know more than him – about society, life etc. He also wants Billy to be hard working like himself and hold down a decent job.
In general, Billy and Geoffrey are very different characters. Billy is lazy, unappreciative, non-committed and selfish. Geoffrey, on the other hand, is hard working, respectful and truthful. Billy sees no problem in lying to get what he wants in life and expects everything to be handed to him without having to do anything. He just wants to stay out late and have fun, whereas Geoffrey puts work first. He doesn’t approve of Billy staying out so late and doesn’t trust him because of all the lies he has told. Geoffrey believes hard work is the way to get what you want out of life.
The writers have made an exciting, entertaining play by using the difference between Billy and Geoffrey and by using various techniques to highlight these differences. The first device is through Billy’s lies. This makes the play interesting as the audience is waiting for Billy’s lies to be discovered by other characters – and we want to see how they will react and how much trouble it will get Billy into. An example is when Barbara believes that Geoffrey is in the Merchant Navy: “She thinks he’s in the Merchant Navy” (Act1, line 538). So, Billy has to admit that he lied so that Barbara doesn’t mention this at tea.
The lies influence the audiences judgement of Billy; he is untrustworthy and pathetic because he has to lie to make himself and others sound interesting – and to get himself out of trouble; some of which he wouldn’t be in if he hadn’t lied in the first place. The audience also can’t wait for his next lie to be revealed to see what new extremes he will go to.
Another reason the audience may see Billy as pathetic is because of his attitude towards elders. At the time, Billy would have been seen as highly disrespectful. However, the way he treats his mum, dad, nan etc. does make the play more exciting. The older members of the audience want Billy to be punished for the way he treats people, but he never is. This creates suspense and leaves the audience feeling unsatisfied. However, we are always waiting – just in case Billy does get punished in some way and is made to stick to it.
Billy and Arthur are being sarcastic about the elders: “There’s trouble up at the mill
“What’s afoot, Ned Leather? Is Willy Arkwright smashing up my looms again?” (Act1, lines 340-343) The audience (at the time it was written) would have been disgusted and outraged. However, teenagers would probably have been able to relate to it, as would the audience today.
Although Billy’s attitude is controversial, it does show the difference between adults and teenagers in the late 1950s. It also adds drama to the play.
Also, this play highlights the arguments between parents and their children. Before the war children rarely spoken out against their elders but this changed in the 1950s. Billy and Geoffrey argue throughout the play about almost anything. The only time they are not arguing is in Act2 when they are talking about Billy and Barbara’s engagement: “Billy looks across at his father and we feel, for a moment, that they are about to make some point of contact” (Act2, line 125).
During the rest of the play, Billy and Geoffrey seem incapable of being civil to each other. This would be a typical situation in many families at the time and still today. This technique adds excitement as the audience wants to see what Billy and Geoffrey will argue about next. It could also create some tension because, as soon as the two characters are on set together, the audience knows there will be conflict. This will keep the viewers alert and interested because many of them (and us) were in similar situations. The writers have captured the mood in a way which people can relate to; therefore, making the play more enjoyable.
The writers have used swearing as a dramatic and linguistic technique: “Get bloody dressed. And keep your bloody hands off my razor else you’ll know about it” (Act1, lines 157-159). This is an example of this. This creates an energetic atmosphere, which makes the play more lively. The other device which makes the play livelier is the pace as everything happens on one day in one household. This makes staging easier as furniture doesn’t have to be moved around.
This device also gets the audience better acquainted with the Fisher home and what goes on inside it. Keeping the events in the same place, keeps the atmosphere constant and the audience will feel more involved (because it is as if we are actually sat in the house watching everything happen.) Because everything happens on one Saturday, a lot of the irrelevant conversation is left out. This stops the audience from becoming too bored and so will be more entertained by the dialogue and action in ‘Billy Liar’.
The writers have tried to make the play interesting using the ending, which is a great let down. We are led to believe that Billy will go to London and start a new life but, in the end, he returns home to continue with his lazy, untruthful ways. Therefore, implying that Billy will probably never grow up. The audience feels unsatisfied with the ending but the play does maintain its high level of entertainment as it has an anti-climax ending. This ending cleverly reflects Billy’s personality.
The ending shows the battle Billy faces about independence and the security of his family. This proves that, although Billy thinks he has grown up, he is still actually too immature to make it alone; a feeling which many of the viewers may relate to.
Billy is a typical teenager in the 1950s and Geoffrey is a typical parent. Both characters are opposites and this is what children wanted; to be as different from their parents as possible. This is still the same today and so, the play is still enjoyable now as it is still relevant. The lies are so far fetched that it is still entertaining and, although we no longer use some of the swear words, we still understand what the characters mean by them.
This play sums up the change from children being exactly the same as their parents (before the 1950s) to children wanting freedom and independence (after the 1950s). It is put in a fun, light hearted play which deals with serious issues in society at the time – issues which have been highlighted by the writers’ use of structural, linguistic and dramatic techniques. This is an enjoyable play to read and watch as it is very lively and entertaining – even today, some half a century after it was written.