Network on air (studio)
650min approx (length)
07 May 2018 (released)
21 May 2018
This side-splittingly funny TV-series was first aired in 1973 and is an adaptation of the massively successful novel by Keith Waterhouse (also turned into a play and 1963 movie starring Tom Courtenay in the title role). In the sitcom it is Jeff Rawle who plays the likeable Northern lad prone to fabricating yarns at the expense of his family, his fiancée and his employer.
Billy Fisher is a young lad who lives in Leeds with his family and works as a clerk at ‘Shadrack & Duxbury’ – a funeral parlour led by the mortifying and somewhat camp Mr. Shadrack (Colin Jeavons). Billy’s family consist of his soft-hearted mum Alice (Pamela Vezey), his constantly bad-tempered dad Geoffrey (George A. Cooper) and his dotty grandma (May Warden). Billy also has a fiancée, the hopelessly naïve and prudish Barbara (Sally Watts) who thinks of nothing else than getting married and starting a family. What she (initially) doesn’t know is that Billy is a serial engager who has many fiancées and often faces the dilemma of how to juggle double- and triple dates.
Each episode depicts Billy as the likable but ultimately spineless jellyfish his father makes him out to be, a lad whose overactive imagination gets the better of him round the clock – much to the despair of his long-suffering family and his boss, Mr. Shadrack. In the opening scene we see Billy busy as a radio DJ until we realise that he actually is in the toilet – dreaming again while nature takes its course. He’s also busy trying to sabotage his looming engagement to Barbara… and not just by fancying himself as a Mafia boss who shoots his entire family down with a machine gun at the engagement party. Oh no, he’s sabotaging for real as well when he arranges three separate engagement parties for his three girlfriends (as the series goes on there are ever more girlfriends) and their families all at the same hotel and at the same time, albeit in three different function rooms! How he manages to wriggle himself out of that one has to be seen – rest assured it’s utterly hilarious. More often than not, Billy finds himself confronted with the dilemma of getting out of certain hairy situations – situations he brought upon himself to begin with. With his fantasy constantly running amok there is plenty of opportunity for endless pastiches; be it Billy as a French resistance fighter overpowering the Nazis (his family members) or as a member of the French Revolution who sends his parents to the guillotine. Other scenarios depict Billy as Julius Caesar (complete with Roman setting), as a 1930’s gigolo, as artist Toulouse-Lautrec (film trickery even ‘shrank’ actor Jeff Rawle), as Sherlock Holmes, as the David Carradine character Kwai Chang Caine from the series KUNG FU, as Captain Kirk from STAR TREK (with his dad as a Vulcan), as Tiny Tim from A CHRISTMAS CAROL (with his dad as mean Ebenizer Scrooge), as an 18th century nobleman, and on and on… usually his family but also Barbara and Mr. Shadrack are part of Billy’s imaginary scenarios – no expenses spared on costumes and props! There’s even a sequence in which Billy sees himself as a winning contestant on MASTERMIND hosted by Magnus Magnusson (in a guest appearance).
Recurring themes throughout the episodes depict Billy at constant loggerheads with his dad who likes nothing better than to beat some sense into his good-for-nothing son (but usually fails), his battles with employer Mr. Shadrack whose patience is stretched to the limit thanks to Billy’s inability of doing things right at his dull job (a result of him fantasizing of becoming a successful writer), and his cowardice when it comes to telling Barbara that he doesn’t love her enough to get married.
Another recurring theme is that Mr. Shadrack’s funeral parlour stands in competition with the Co-op Funeral Service down the road and due to his absentmindedness Billy accidentally sends potential customers direction Co-op. Equally, Billy’s grandma – who forever goes on trips down memory lane and often recalls bawdy memories from her youth – makes it clear that when her time comes she will go to the Co-op and not to Mr. Shadrack! Each and every episode is an absolute hoot but two episodes are particularly funny: in ‘Billy’s Night In’ his parents need to attend a relatives’ funeral outside London and are thus forced to stay over night. They entrust Billy with looking after Grandma… and it’s not before long when Billy and his gran are painting the town red and embark on a pub-crawl that lands them in court for ‘disorderly behaviour’. As a first-time offender Billy gets away with a mere warning but as it turns out, Grandma has, over the decades, accumulated countless arrests for disorderly and drunken behaviour!
In another episode called ‘Billy and a temporary job’ he finally manages to get fired by Mr. Shadrack after mixing up one too many funeral bookings. Poor Mr. Shadrack is understandably angry and fed up with Billy’s constant blunders, nonetheless his Dad manages to convince Shadrack that even a useless employee such as Billy needs a good reference in order to get another job. Reluctantly, Shadrack goes out of his way and writes a glowing reference which Billy promptly takes along to the employment agency. They are very impressed indeed and reveal there is an open position available: as a temporary senior clerk at a certain funeral parlour called ‘Shadrack & Duxbury’! When the agency call Shadrack to inform him of this ‘highly recommended’ replacement he is only too delighted but his delight soon turns to horror when he realises that the ‘replacement’ is none other than Billy… and – to make matters worse – he is now contractually bound by the agency to pay Billy three times the wages from what he got before!
Unlike in the earlier movie version with Tom Courtenay, there is no particular ending in the series that suggests any kind of pathos. In the final episode, Billy gets caught out triple-dating again while his parents – busy re-decorating the living room – realise that Billy accidentally took a tin of paint to Shadrack’s funeral parlour and an urn back to his parents. It is simply suggested that it will go on like this forever and our guess that Billy will most likely still live with his parents way into adulthood might not be that far off. Barbara of course will forever hope in vain for her dream house with Billy, and as for the lad himself: he will never be a successful writer but probably stuck in his dead-end (no pun intended) position for years to come.
It‘s interesting to note that one of writer Keith Waterhouse’s earlier jobs (in his hometown Leeds) was that of a funeral parlour assistant… which served as his inspiration for BILLY LIAR. The writer who gave as BUDGIE and WORZEL GUMMIDGE (among other gems) has created a wonderfully entertaining tale with his Billy Liar - so memorably performed by Jeff Rawle (DROP THE DEAD DONKEY) who also fitted the part physically. As for the fabulous May Warden aka Grandma Fisher: let’s hope that her funeral arrangements were with the Co-op when she passed away in 1978.
This box set contains 4 DVD with all 26 episodes plus a South Bank Show episode on Keith Waterhouse and a 1973 episode of OUR KID – the comedy series written by Waterhouse and Willis Hall.