Or Do You Get Paid By The Joke?

Billy Liar (Anglo-Amalgamated, 1963).

You would not believe how many times a week I get told that I should not be using Twitter. No, not that I use it too much. That I should not be using it at all.

This isn’t for any reason specifically related to my conduct or my content, more that… well, I can’t quite work it out really. None of the stated reasons ever seem to quite make sense, rambling their way through and including but not limited to: some people said something libellous about someone I can’t remember the name of once so you need to be careful of that; I know you think you’re right-on but one day the ‘woke’ army will come for you too and don’t come crying to me when they do; how do you expect to find a permanent and fulfilling relationship when all of your dirty laundry about, erm, Stingray is out there for any interested woman to see?; I don’t read it but I know you self-promote on there and that is giving me an ear infection for some reason; and most prominent and pervasive of all, I am not personally interested ergo nobody should be using it, see?. The only one that ever seems to carry any weight, and that I will admit I am occasionally given momentary pause for thought by, is that ultimately, Twitter’s capacity for bad outweighs its capacity for good and that by posting baffling old adverts spotted in TV Times and urging everyone to listen to Don’t Point That Horror At Me, I am inadvertently contributing towards the gathering momentum of Nigel Farage, Katie Hopkins, Piers Morgan and their army of dribbling bigots typing with their entire heads. It’s something that sometimes troubles me and that I occasionally find myself agreeing with. But it’s also something I mostly absolutely do not agree with. At all.

There is no denying or shying away from the fact that there is a good deal of nastiness on Twitter, whether from genuine bona fide existing human beings or lines of Russian code adding ‘Rock on Boris!!’ randomly to irrelevant Tweets suggesting that either their attempts to seamlessly integrate with British popular culture have gone very badly awry or that Cannon And Ball have really let themselves go, and it’s not uncommon to see large numbers of accounts I follow throwing up their hands, predicting that today is going to be a horrendous day and they’re bowing out for a while. Much of this is of course derived from politics, whether with a lower or upper case ‘p’; I’ve always said that Twitter was a genuine level playing field idyll before the politicians started joining, and you only have to look at Michael Gove sniggering at how them crazy black people talk literally the day before crying his tedious Wee Stuart Anderson face inside out over the fact that Channel 4 opted to cover for his party leader’s cowardice with a novel twist on the old Have I Got News For You ‘Tub Of Lard’ gambit to see how little he and his like contribute. But there’s so much else that goes on outside of that, and is everything that we should be amplifying over and above whatever hogwash they’re trying to rile us all up with today.

Not so long ago, Jacqueline Rayner (who you can hear on Looks Unfamiliar here) posted an innocent Tweet about Amazon relentlessly recommending toilet seats to her, sparking a wave of hilarity that briefly saw her become the subject of international headlines and which is still refusing to abate today. Comedian Ivan Kirby (who you can see being brilliant here) jubilantly flagged up the fact that his timeline was full of people celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s off-script misfire The Secret Service, noting that “all human life is here”. Only the other day, I fired off an off-the-cuff comment about how I had been banned from eating Parma Violets as a child, which at the time of writing has been seen by a hundred and sixty-three thousand people – no I am not exaggerating – and shows no signs of slowing down. If nothing else, the response has taught me that a lot of people were never allowed to watch ITV, that pretty much everyone asked for a Mr. Frosty and never got one, and that a depressing volume of wags believe it is the height of sophisticated wit to claim that they were never allowed ‘cocaines lol’ or ‘nuclear missile lol’.

All of this is what I like to think of Twitter as being. Along with the ‘Entering Conference Call’ hashtag, Necro Supernaut’s shouts of ‘STAY NOW!’ and lists of new Robot Wars house robots, Maudrey Hepburn shouting about men and injustice in the middle of extremely visibly living the best life, the endlessly mind-hurting Biffo Without Context, Emma Burnell, Andy Lewis, Red Sky At Night, Justin Lewis, Elly-Mae Gadsby, Grace Dent, Stuart Maconie, Jonny Morris, Clayton Hickman, Samira Ahmed, Martin Belam, Richard Herring, Richard Littler, Sir Percival, Mondo Trasho, Hally Golightly, Superblouse, EatMyHalo, Andrew Collins, Rob Chapman, Mr. Roger Quimbly, Emotionalpedant, LipglossJill, Rae Earl, Bob Fischer, John Rain, Ros Ballinger, Mitch Benn, Alan Barnes, Hannah O’Hanrahahanrahan, Una McCormack, Sarah Shaw, Phil Catterall, Paul Putner, Andy Miller, Lucie Toberlone, Gary Bainbridge, Adele Pascale, Mark Whitworth, Mark Thompson, Caitlin Moran, Phil Norman, Kate Thornton, and so many more people I could mention but I’d end up writing this for about a fortnight; basically if I follow you, take it as read that you’re acknowledged in spirit (yes even you, Baker). Most of all I think of Martyn Hett, and how the world would be just that bit more positive if more people followed his example.

What I always use as a counter-argument when people read the doom and gloom Twitter riot act, though, is something else entirely. It’s a spontaneous debate that me, Dave Bryant, Steve Berry and Mike Scott had about our differing interpretations of Billy Liar, which started out of a single Tweet from me saying I was about to watch it. True, it was a debate between four people who’ve known each other in the ‘real’ world for a very long time, but that’s not the point; it was conducted in public with wit, insight, respect and maybe, just maybe, a glimpse into the genuine concerns and emotions of the participants, and it’s everything that Twitter could and should be. On the understanding that you will immediately follow Mike, Steve and Dave, here’s a rough assembly of our various viewpoints on Billy’s ambitions, Liz’s intentions and whether Twisterella is actually a decent song or not…

Tim
About to have a long-overdue rewatch of Billy Liar and stumbled across this poster. Which looks great, but – final scene notwithstanding – Liz would not be part of that chorus.

Tim
Billy, just tell everyone to fuck off.

Dave
I love the fact that when he does actually (more or less) do that, it’s to his Grandma – a sneering and critical woman, but the one target least likely to win him congratulations or sympathy from anyone.

Tim
Despite subsequent plot developments, I’m convinced she fakes the ‘seizure’ in response. It certainly seems to be acted that way.

Mike
His life *is* quite good, though. Even by 1963 standards.

Tim
Everything’s his ‘fault’ though, usually when he’s tried to make everyone else happy. And the *suspicion* of aspiring to anything in life. It breaks my heart he doesn’t go with Liz.

Steve
I think he expects things to happen to him instead of him making them happen (for good or bad). It’s what makes him a tragic hero. His strength is his flaw.

Tim
Well that’s where Liz would have come in.

Steve
Yeah but Liz happens to him. Again, he is waiting for rescue. But Liz says, no, you have to rescue yourself.

Mike
Yeah, but given the backgrounds they probably had, there’s still a reason for his parents being that way. They’re not just ‘parents, eh?’ ogres, which is what I think raises BL above other fare of its kind.

Tim
They’re driven by a fear of not being in control of the traditional family unit, what ‘the neighbours’ might ‘think’ etc, which really does happen in real life. And as understandable as it might be, it’s still using others as pawns to pacify your own insecurities.

Mike
All true, but I think his mother is genuinely scared for Billy. The scene in the hospital at the end is just heartbreaking.

Tim
Scared of losing her son to another woman. Which is the only decent fear in the whole film, but she lets it dominate her.

Steve
I think she skewers him. He lives in a fantasy world of his own making. It’s not without merit but his ambition is unrealistic and liable to bring him to harm. She is trying to protect him from himself.

Mike
There’s the bit where his dad tries to have a vague father/son moment with him, talking about how ‘we had nothing’ when he got married etc. There’s a whole back story there, but Billy just isn’t interested.

Tim
But Liz sees how to make it a reality and I really think she could. That look at the end isn’t just about losing her boyfriend, it’s about not being able to help him find a better life too.

Steve
She is past that, though. She knows him better than he knows himself. She does, after all, take his suitcase off the train.

Tim
He can’t see the encouragement though because everyone else has actively pissed on his ambitions (excepting Arthur and maybe his mother), though yes she probably does see that too. But if only. And what a film. I’m not sure I can think of another you could debate this much.

Steve
Here’s the thing. Do you reckon Billy has the talent to make it in London? Do you think he really believes that? I think the answers change how you read the end of the film. And yes, it’s up there in my top five movies.

Tim
It’s a difficult question. He has the spark of imagination, but even if he works out how to channel that into proper creativity, does he have the dedication or ability to do something with that? I’m not certain. But again Liz might have sparked that. *Might*.

Mike
I can’t shake the suspicion (one that Billy perhaps has) that, had they got to London, Liz would have fucked off the next morning.

Tim
She clearly has her own emotional black hole, but yes it could just be a need for constantly changing attention.

Steve
I think we are encouraged to see Liz as this amazing escape route for Billy. But I think that is as much of a fantasy as Ambrosia (indeed, it’s why she features in Ambrosia). But the clues are all there that, far from being a plot device, she is a real person on her own track.

Tim
Telling the genuine Lizes from the fakes is one of life’s major challenges.

Mike
I once had a theory (hot take alert, wait for it) that Liz doesn’t exist.

Tim
Really? I find the whole idea only too believable. But then I also think THAT chapter in The Rotters’ Club actually ‘happened’.

Mike
It doesn’t really work (not least because Arthur sees her too), but it was an amusing hypothesis I held for a while.

Mike
It’s incredible how little screen time she has in the film. I wonder how we’d view her if the record shop scene had been left in.

Tim
While Googling for that, I’ve just found a Guardian piece scoffing that it’s “the most overrated film ever”. Write about things you *like*, you fuckers.

Mike
Thing is, it almost *always* absent from Top 100 Films type lists. So I think it’s underrated if anything.

Tim
Sixties British Cinema has *really* fallen from favour in recent years, hasn’t it? Similar to how ‘Best Bowie No Arguments’ has shifted from Ziggy to Berlin.

Mike
Things like A Taste of Honey (which aren’t as good) seem to be rated far higher.

Dave
I don’t know that Liz (or anyone else) could have got Billy a comedy writing gig, but she could certainly have shown him how to survive in a big city and possibly find other avenues there. That’s why the ending feels like such a stab to me.

Steve
Liz doesn’t want a project, though. She wants an equal. The end is bittersweet but there are three ways of looking at it. It’s Billy bottling it. Or it’s Billy finally facing up to the mess he’s made. Or it’s Billy retreating back to his fantasy world.

Dave
I do think Billy’s a vain sod, and clearly not as talented as he thinks he is, but it also feels obvious that he’s not going to fit into a very conservative small town. That said, the main character in the novel Absolute Beginners seems like a hack and still aces it…

Mike
I think he’s a big fish in a small pond. Good (good enough to co-write Twisterella), but not that good.

Steve
See how his interest in Liz is suddenly superseded when he realises his song is being performed. What’s the betting Billy wrote the lyrics? He’s Morrissey to Arthur’s Marr. (Includes the split when the latter gets fucked off about the former, too).

Tim
They needed a Craig Gannon.

Steve
“You and your bloody second guitars!”

Mike
‘Never mind yer punctured bicycles’

Steve
I love how we’re all ignoring the sequel.

Tim
Billy Liar + 10.

How To Leave Twitter by Grace Dent (Faber & Faber, 2011).

You can hear me and Steve chatting on Looks Unfamiliar here.

You can find more of my thoughts on the bewildering sitcom incarnation of Billy Liar here.

If you want to read more of this kind of thing but not in serialised limited to two hundred and eighty characters form, then why not have a look at my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.

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