Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar (1963) (Photo: Warner-Pathe via IMDB)

Billy Liar was fiction’s first OCD hero, yet nobody noticed

Rev Steve Morris revisits Keith Waterhouse’s forgotten classic

Artillery Row Books

It’s funny the things we read and re-read in lockdown, I started with a half-remembered favourite, Billy Liar, and within hours found myself scrambling to track down anyone who could help me with what I was reading. It didn’t take long to track down Keith Waterhouse’s son, Robert, in the USA to help begin unpicking the mystery of his dad’s great book. Why have we never noticed it’s a story about the devastating impact of poor mental health, and not a slight comedy about a boy who doesn’t think much of truth-telling?

Billy Liar,
by Keith Waterhouse, Penguin, £8.99

“My dad always said of Billy that “there is a bit of Billy in all of us,” but by this he meant that we are given to fantasy. There is of course a connection between fantasy and creative work and Billy is of course a would-be writer.”  

If there is a bit of all of us in Billy, what is it that we have in common? We will see.

In some ways Billy Liar is the epitome of 1950s fiction. It’s the story of class and the impossibility of escaping our backgrounds. It is humorous but angry, and rather bleak. And, like more and more of the classics of the period, it is out of print. It seems a long time since 80s Manchester cult hero Stephen Morrissey of The Smiths wrote, William, it was really nothing about Waterhouse’s hero. 

Keith Waterhouse’s hero, William Fisher, is truly lost. He works at an undertakers and is busy fiddling the stamp money. His love life is a mess and about to unravel still further. But tantalisingly, there might be light at the end of the tunnel. He has a ‘job offer’ to go to London become a comedy writer. The book straddles the day of decision – stay or go.

Billy Liar, Waterhouse’s second novel, catapulted him to fame and success. It became a BAFTA nominated film, directed by John Schlesinger and starring Tom Courtenay and Judy Christie. There was also a play with Albert Finney in the title role and, of course, a television series both here and in the US. When the musical opened in the West End, it starred Michael Crawford and Elaine Paige in her West End debut. But now, it is almost forgotten.

Reading Billy Liar again during lock-down, it troubled me. Not because of the content but because I became convinced that I’d misread it first time round and that we’ve missed something about it and its complicated, easy to underestimate hero. And it’s all there in plain sight, right from the off. In may ways it was a revelation because it also described the illness I’ve wrestled with since I was teenager. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) never seemed very heroic to me as I was growing up. I still battle it and reading Billy Liar made me all the more desperate to rehabilitate this strange hero of English fiction.

The novel begins with Billy lying in bed immersed in an alternative reality he’s constructed for himself – the Kingdom of Ambrosia. In this bold and persistent fantasy-land, he is a returning hero, celebrity and a star. It’s the place he retreats to when the realities of his grim life up North get too much. Billy is all too aware of the mental games he is playing with himself. He calls this heroic fantasy realm Number 1 Thinking. Of course, there’s also Number 2 thinking which is his other psychological backstop. Here, he hears only the voices of gloom and condemnation. He lives between these two worlds – fantasy and neurosis.

Intriguingly there’s more to it than this, because William Fisher is also the greatest OCD hero in English fiction and maybe he needs resurrecting. He exhibits a range of classic tics. He tells us that he has to repeat the phrase da da da da da da over and again to get unwelcome thoughts out of his head. He tries to feel normal by counting, and that he can get as far as the number 3000 without even stopping. His tactic to get out of the counting loop is to insert strange numbers and odd phrases like the Lord is my Shepherd.

There are other classic OCD tics. He has grown his thumbnail to 1/4 of an inch long as a way of trying to protect himself from some imagined peril. In bed, he lies crinkling his toes 50 times for each foot, he holds his breath, he blinks his eyes to keep the terror at bay. He tells us that ‘I sometimes got an overpowering feeling that my fingers were webbed like a duck. And I had to spread them out to prevent it spreading to my feet.’ 

We need to rediscover Billy as a landmark – not in social politics – but in our understanding of mental health

He isn’t Billy Liar at all, he is a young man living with a mental illness. In the 50s it was an illness with no cure, and the primitive treatment there was tended to make matters worse. If you were poor, you had to sink or swim.

Robert Waterhouse seems to agree on the issue of OCD: 

“I had forgotten, until you remind me, about Billy’s rituals and so on, which now that you point it out are consistent with what we’d now call OCD traits. I would have hazarded until you mentioned OCD that these were signs of Billy’s enduring childishness — children of course count railings and so forth. But I suppose you could analyze the character and link OCD to his general neurosis. My dad never demonstrated what we’d now call OCD other than in his determination to work. Occasionally, in the evening, we’d see his lips moving. This is when he was writing things in his head.”

But what does it matter? On the one hand, the book’s out of print and no-one seems to be reading it anymore. But it does mean something: we need to rediscover Billy as a landmark – not in social politics – but in our understanding of mental health. The comedy of Billy Liar is the odd comedy of OCD.

Robert and his dad used to discuss the book together and he remembers these moments as precious and a time of togetherness, ‘talking about book and plays and writers is what we enjoyed most.’  Although he tells me that his dad did get a bit bored by the book in the end. ‘He turned his attention to other work, rather wearying of Billy and his legacy.’

I am sad that much of the late 50’s and early 60s literature has slipped from sight, as unfashionable as brown furniture in the antiques trade. I ask Robert what he thinks about his dad’s great book being the preserve of second-hand book shops? He thinks it’s that the sexual politics have moved on.

“As to the 50s, and the way its literary culture has declined…..I think the sexual morality of men at the time is perhaps what is most at odds with today’s culture, which is perhaps why the male writers of that day are not read so much now…..That and the need to kick against things, in that Jimmy Porter way.” 

Perhaps I’m drawn to that period because I felt like an angry young man too. Maybe there’s more than a little bit of William Fisher in me

And then he asks me a telling question, turning the tables on the interviewer. ‘Why are you are so drawn to that period?’ It is a good question; one I hadn’t thought about. I am drawn to the bleak, attritional books of the period. Maybe it is because I can nearly remember an England that was a bit like that. And maybe it’s because I felt myself to be an angry young man too. Maybe that there’s more than a little bit of William Fisher in me. 

I ask Robert, what his dad might say to us now, in these times.

“He would remind us, I think, that we are living through history, but he would find among the grim statistics and in the stories of lonely deaths some opportunities to cheer us up.”

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