It was 40 years ago today: Keith Waterhouse's 'Billy Liar' - a novel, a play and a film

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On 5 September 1959, Billy Liar was published. Keith Waterhouse's second novel received immediate acclaim, quickly matched by stage and screen adaptations.

The satirical story concerns one day in the life of Billy Fisher, a 19- year-old undertaker's clerk from small-town Yorkshire. Billy is nagged by his mother, shouted at by his father and pursued by three local girls - he's engaged to two, but is in love with the third. In between, he finds solace and entertainment in a Walter Mitty-style fantasy life: he dreams of being a comedy writer in London, then pretends to be a powerful heroe. The novel ends with Billy waiting for the London train; it leaves without him.

Few critics failed to make comparisons with Lucky Jim: Waterhouse was "an obvious disciple of the Amis style" but Billy Liar was still "a serious portrait of provincial youth" (Times). The New Statesman thought that any affinity between Billy and Jim was superficial, "due to their similar predicaments and attitudes of self-mockery", and Waterhouse had "a remarkable gift for projecting himself under the skin of the modern adolescent". It was a "sad, savage, sick, funny book" (Sunday Times), "sardonic, fiercely comic, in a manner which is old-fashioned 'northern' rather than modern 'angry'" (Guardian).

Billy Liar was published in the same week as Absolute Beginners, Colin MacInnes's powerful tale of a teenager in turbulent Notting Hill, which Waterhouse reviewed in the New Statesman ("there are few novelists writing about the late 1950s"). He now says, "Both books possibly hit the same chord. At the time, youth was very much on the up and up: we were just about to start on the heady 1960s, and things were happening all over. Billy Liar is very much of its time, but it has passed the test of time. It's still very widely read."

Waterhouse wrote the stage play with Willis Hall in 1960. Albert Finney, followed by Tom Courtenay, took the lead. "They were two great performances," says Waterhouse. "Albert's was bravura and extrovert while Tom's was introverted and inward looking. They complemented each other." Courtenay went on to star opposite Julie Christie in John Schlesinger's film.

Waterhouse admits that when he was writing Billy Liar, he "never thought of it being anything except a novel". Even so, he was sure of its success. "That's the arrogance of being young [he was 31]. You take so much for granted."

MAEVE WALSH

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