The play, with Peter O’Toole in the title role, was a smash hit; it was revived a decade later at the Old Vic with Mr. O’Toole again as the star.
Keith Spencer Waterhouse was born in Leeds, where his father sold fruits and vegetables from a cart. He left school at 14 and worked as an undertaker’s assistant, a newsboy, a rent collector and a clerk before doing compulsory service with the Royal Air Force.
After leaving the military, he was hired as a roving reporter for The Yorkshire Evening Post, where his dispatches from the Pennines won him a feature-writing job with The Daily Mirror in 1951. During a newspaper strike he wrote his first novel, “There Is a Happy Land” (1957), about life in a Leeds housing project, and in 1958 he quit journalism — temporarily, as it turned out — to write fiction full time, joining an emerging new breed of working-class writers like John Braine and Alan Sillitoe.
Failures and dreamers were his fictional stock in trade in a series of comic novels. “Jubb” (1963) depicted a rent collector so unappealing that even the local Fascist Party won’t have him as a member, and the hero of “The Bucket Shop” (published in the United States in 1969 as “Everything Must Go”) was not much of an improvement: a London antiques dealer with a thieving daughter, a wife named Poodle and a mistress who cons him out of his money without delivering much in the way of sex.
Mr. Waterhouse’s other novels included “Office Life” (1978), “Bimbo” (1990) and “Palace Pier” (2003). He also published two volumes of memoirs, “City Lights: A Street Life” (1994) and “Streets Ahead: Life After City Lights” (1995).
In addition to more than 20 plays, most of them written with Mr. Hall, Mr. Waterhouse wrote for the television program “That Was the Week That Was” and for nearly 40 years turned out widely admired columns twice a week for The Daily Mirror and The Daily Mail.
“I’ve always wanted to be what I have become, a journeyman writer,” he told The Guardian of London in 1994. “I was very influenced by Bennett and Priestley, who could turn their hands to anything. I never had any sort of program at all.”
His two marriages ended in divorce. A son and a daughter from his first marriage survive him.
Fastidious about the English language, Mr. Waterhouse wrote a style book for The Daily Mirror that became “Waterhouse on Newspaper Style” (1989), regarded as an indispensable textbook for journalists, and he developed this theme for a general audience in “English, Our English (And How to Sing It)” (1991).
His last column for The Daily Mail, “It’s English as She Is Spoke Innit?,” written in May, dealt with language education. He was the founder and life president of the Association for the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe, a fictional organization dedicated to combating false plurals like tomato’s and road signs like the one he spotted near Sevenoaks, with letters three feet high that read BUSE’S ONLY.Continue reading the main story
It was 50 years ago that Keith Waterhouse first set foot in Fleet Street. He had travelled from his home in Leeds to be interviewed for a job as a reporter on the now defunct News Chronicle. It simply hadn't occurred to the 21-year-old that he might be rejected, but he realised something had gone wrong when the interview ended and he was told not to forget to send an invoice for his travel expenses. Before beginning the long journey back home, he walked down to Ludgate Circus to pay his respects at the plaque there commemorating Edgar Wallace, his hero. Wallace had sold newspapers on that spot as a boy before going on to be a journalist, Boer war correspondent, novelist, playwright and Hollywood script writer. This was the future the dejected Waterhouse thought he had just been excluded from. However, as he noted in his memoirs, in reality it was all just around the corner.
"How was I to know then that within months I should be established on Fleet Street," he wrote, "that within three years I should be more familiar with New York, Washington, Moscow and Leningrad than I now was with London, that within four I should be turning down the post of the New Chronicle's chief reporter, that within five I should be publishing my first novel, and within 10 I should see my name in lights on Shaftesbury Avenue and on the cinema posters of Leicester Square?"
That catalogue of achievement takes him up to 1961, and since then there has been a great deal more of the same. He says the only thing Wallace did that he hasn't, is to own racehorses. Late last year Waterhouse was given a What the Papers Say lifetime achievement award. "A bit unnerving," he recalls, before asking: "Where to from there?" But this is a rhetorical question. He has no intention of going anywhere. As far back as 1994, just before his 65th birthday, one observer noted that he had already passed through the stages of being a survivor, an anachronism, a dinosaur and a monument. Whatever his status, he just keeps chugging on and the novels, plays and journalism continue to pile up.
His twice-weekly column in the Daily Mail, with its occasional cast of Dickensian-named bureaucrats, politicians, illiterates and the rest, is not to everyone's taste. Julie Burchill recently launched into him. "There are many irritating things about the Daily Mail, but surely a contender for most irritating item is Keith Waterhouse's recurrent Sharon and Tracy column, in which two monumentally thick working-class shopgirls demonstrate that they have the IQ of a sock. From time to time, highly qualified young Sharons and Tracys write in to the paper and request that Waterhouse desists. But the tired old routine drags on and on. Can we imagine Waterhouse being allowed regularly to spoof two stupid, idle West Indians or Irishmen in his column, even in the Daily Mail? Of course not."
Another attack came after he called William Hague a wimp for consulting Ffion. But none of this has stopped Waterhouse's lucid combination of fierce topicality and an encyclopaedic memory ensuring that he is still one of the best-read and best-paid columnists around. A good example was provided earlier this week when the travails of Sophie Wessex and Marks & Spencer were thrown into the pot, along with flashbacks of 30s Leeds.
Leading humorist and columnist Craig Brown shares many reservations about Waterhouse's approach, but notes that while, "the Mail can swamp even the best writer because its own voice is so strong, nevertheless, at least once a month, Waterhouse does have an original idea which is more than most columnists can manage. I think the main thing is that he is quite a hero really. No one else has done a humorous column for such a long time, and so skilfully and with such an ease of style."
Waterhouse's work in other mediums is similarly respected. As a novelist from the late 50s, his fiction, of which Billy Liar is still the best known, was seen as part of the revolt of the angry young men. He has now written 14 novels and academic and critic Richard Hoggart says: "I very much admire his work. He's very talented and witty, quirky and outspoken."
Ned Sherrin has directed five of Waterhouse's 20 plays, including the hugely successful Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. He says that, "there'll always be a place in the theatre for Billy Liar, and Celebration [his 1961 play written, like Billy Liar, with Willis Hall] will always be worth reviving. He has an instinctive stage craft. God knows where he picked it up."
The best guess is somewhere in a working-class Leeds childhood that, Waterhouse perceptively notes, although packed with escapism, was in fact an escape into realism. He was transfixed by the nitty gritty of Leeds life, and his recollection of his adventures around the city invest the place with the same lyrical nostalgia that Woody Allen does to his childhood New York. Fellow Leeds boy Gerald Kaufman said Waterhouse's 1994 memoir, City Lights, gave back to him, "the Leeds that I loved, the Leeds that time and change had taken away". (Waterhouse had already complimented Kaufman with the sublimely backhanded observation that his book, My Life in the Silver Screen, was, "the best volume of film-going memoirs ever written by a politician".)
Waterhouse was born in 1929 in a back-to-back house in the Hunslet area of the city. He was the youngest of four boys and a girl. His father, Ernest, was a heavy-drinking costermonger who sold vegetables from a cart in South Leeds and died when Waterhouse was aged three. His total estate was a brown suit and a ha'penny left in the pocket, which was given to the young Keith. These were the hungry 30s and the family was visited by bailiffs who took all the furniture except the mattresses and a stool for his mother, Elsie, to sit on. "But we were richer than the poorest because my mother had a thing about shoes," he recalls. "She thought shoes were respectable and boots were not - and clogs positively not. She got the shoes from the public benefit shoe company, so we were a shoe-wearing family, which was quite important."
He says his mother was ambitious for her children, "within her knowledge and limitations". She once bought a book in French for his sister - "I suppose she thought she would assimilate this language somehow" - and when she found Keith wanted to write, she bought him notebooks. "But with the greatest respect to my mother," he says, "she had no idea who I was or what I was about. I was a bit of a cuckoo in the nest, and she was like the mother bird bringing worms home and not really knowing if cuckoos ate worms. She knew I was different, and she encouraged this difference without quite knowing what it was. For instance, she got me into school a year early, aged four, because I wouldn't stop reading."
Despite this early academic promise, Waterhouse failed the 11- plus but, perversely, this put him in some pretty good company. The Leeds-born critic Richard Hoggart had failed the same exam, and so did Waterhouse's eventual writing partner, Willis Hall. However, at 13, Waterhouse won a scholarship to the local college of commerce where he came under the influence of a science teacher who had to teach English because of the wartime shortage of teachers. "He would just chuck a book like Huckleberry Finn at me and say 'you might like this'." Although Waterhouse's mother had expected him to leave school at 14 to bring some money into the house, she allowed him to stay an extra 18 months. "She wanted me 'to get on', as the phrase was," he says, but he was already contributing financially at home. "I had at least five paper rounds, I sold firewood and I had a window-cleaning round, ground floor only because I didn't have a ladder. As a schoolboy, I was in fact earning at my height more than I earned in my first job."
When he left school, he became a clerk in an undertakers-cum-surveyors, auctioneers and estate agents, who also hired out limousines. Years later it provided the setting for Billy Liar, but at this stage he says he was writing "sub Wodehouse stories set in Mayfair. The idea of using a Leeds undertakers' parlour didn't cross my mind."
Waterhouse's career as a writer was sealed when at 15 he sent a humorous piece about a conversation in a music shop to Punch. The editor wrote back saying "not quite" - "which was as good as an acceptance from any other magazine". So Waterhouse pressed his only copy of the typed manuscript under a damp towel with a flat iron, as he had been taught by the Writer magazine, and sent it off to a magazine called London Opinion. They paid him two guineas for it.
His career as a journalist was put on hold when was called up for National Service in the RAF, but as soon as he was demobbed he fulfilled his ambition to be a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post. He says, looking back, his ambition was "crazily optimistic", but when he told his mother, "she just accepted that I would be and I believed it totally as well. It was more arrogance than confidence, but I was the driven one of the family, although at the time I didn't know I was driving."
A colleague on the paper was Barbara Taylor, now better known as the bestselling novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford. She remembers Waterhouse with, "flaming red unruly hair rising up from his head", kicking against the paper's owners, the Leeds Conservative Newspaper Company, by going round the corridors singing the Red Flag. He helped her with her copy and taught her how to manufacture an expense account.
"He'd say, 'Barbara, you're going to shame us with your two-and-six expenses and we've all put in for five quid'," she recalls. "He also used to borrow 10 shillings off me - which he always paid back - and take me to lunch in the Kardomah, where he'd regale me about how he was going to go to Fleet Street and going to write plays." In a neat illustration of how far they have both since travelled, the last time Waterhouse and Taylor met was at the Dorchester where they were chatting to the then prime minister, John Major.
While all of his career ambitions were fulfilled long ago, Waterhouse still continues the routine he's had for the past 40 years: churning out the pages on an ancient Adler portable typewriter from the cluttered study he calls "the word factory" in his Earl's Court mansion flat home. He is not exactly taciturn, but there is a stillness and quietness, although friends insist that he is not in the least melancholy or lonely. He invariably answers questions in a single, neat sentence and says that writing is not something he likes doing, it is something he likes having done. "It's what I do, it's what I am for. Whether I like it or not doesn't really come into it."
Ned Sherrin says Waterhouse, "gets up when the cock crows and does his work and so he is free for lunch. He doesn't eat a great deal but it is very celebratory. There's always that salad left untouched which he reckons he imbibes by osmosis." He likes to have a drink on the go most of the afternoon and evening, but says he never gets a hangover, nor missed a morning's work because of it. His first Fleet Street job was on the Daily Mirror in 1951. He joined within a few weeks of the legendary editor, Hugh Cudlipp, who "kind of adopted me", says Waterhouse. "I learned a hell of a lot from him. It was a bit in the manner of my old English teacher throwing Huckleberry Finn at me, but he would throw assignments. He'd say 'go to the south of France and write about having a good time'. He was a great believer in bread and circuses. He would do the heavy politics and then say, 'that's enough of politics, let's have some fun in the paper', and I was involved in both sides."
As a newsman, Waterhouse was a correspondent in America, Russia and Cyprus. With the close links between the Labour party high command and the Mirror, Waterhouse found himself drafting articles and speeches for Hugh Gaitskill and Harold Wilson. "I never belonged to the Labour Party but I did dabble," he says. "But I really go with my friend Richard Littlejohn on this. He says it's the task of the columnist to sit at the back throwing bottles, and I rather believe that."
This approach seems calculated to bait a certain sort of politician. When Harriet Harman, as secretary of state for social security, was promoting after-school clubs for children, the example she gave of opposition to her ideas was a Waterhouse column. His view was that children should be, "falling into ponds, eating poisonous berries, contracting stomach-ache from under-ripe stolen apples, getting lost, being bitten by dogs, fighting and starting fires, sitting in cowpats and acquiring bumps the size of a duck-egg on their heads". Despite this flippancy, he has contributed to government education policy as a member of the Kingman Committee on teaching English in the mid 80s.
Friends say that, while he can deliver the occasional stunning one-liners, he is more prone to a sort of surreal schoolboy humour. There are lots of stories of him behaving badly at party conferences. At one Blackpool Labour conference in the mid 70s, via a series of complicated bets, he won the trousers of a fellow reporter and then went round the bars introducing the trousers to various members of the Callaghan cabinet. Once in Venice he bought the entire stock of clockwork soldiers from a stall and marched them into the Grand Canal because he had seen a similar thing in a New Yorker cartoon.
The distinguished former industrial editor of the Mirror, Geoffrey Goodman, says that while Waterhouse was often great fun to be with, he wasn't a regular in the Mirror pub, known as the Stab in the Back. "He sought out his own territory and was much more inclined to hang around theatreland. He's only really at home with journalists if they are his mates."
Wherever he hung around, it was for long enough to precipitate the end of his first marriage. He had met Joan Foster in Leeds when they were both 16, and they married at 21. Almost the first thing they did was move to London for the Mirror job and their three children were all born there. He says the marriage was not untypical of Fleet Street marriages of the time in that he didn't see his family for days on end.
When the marriage finished in the mid 60s, he actually began to see more of his children with regular weekend and midweek dates, which continued well after they became adults. His son, Bob, is now the artistic director of a theatre in Buffalo, New York, and has staged a successful production of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. His daughter Sarah runs a picture-framing business in Barnes. His other daughter, Penny, died of heart disease two years ago at 43, after a prolonged illness. It is a measure of how private a man Waterhouse is that even when he told close friends about it, they didn't feel able to ask him about what had happened.
Friends reinforce his aversion to the personal. "The worst thing you can do to Keith," says one, "is to either tell him a joke - he doesn't mind listening to an anecdote, but a look of fear and pain comes over him when someone starts to tell a joke - or tell him you have a personal problem that you'd like to talk about." Jaci Stephen, the journalist, has been a friend of Waterhouse since she gave one of his many sitcoms a terrible review about 10 years ago. She says that while, "he absolutely understands how people work, you never talk about things like that with him. He's terrific company but he's an extremely private person who is much happier talking about people in the business and what's going on in Fleet Street."
Waterhouse married for a second time in 1984, to the journalist Stella Bingham. They divorced in 1989, but still see each other regularly. "Marriage didn't suit either of us," he explains. "We got on well enough before, and we get on well now." In 1994, his former secretary and mistress, Jean Leyland, referred to in his columns as his "flame-haired factotum", threatened to take him to an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal. Leyland gave an interview in which she claimed, "at 1pm he would expect smoked salmon sandwiches and a bottle of champagne, and I had to put on my black basque, suspenders and stripogram gear". The case was settled out of court, and when asked about it he just waves his hand and mutters, "an interlude time. I've forgotten about that."
Although he was a star of Cudlipp's Mirror, and said he enjoyed work as a news and features reporter, he also wanted to do, "something less ephemeral. I wanted to expand." He always thought he had lived between two stools as far as writing was concerned. "Down in Nottingham there was DH Lawrence writing out of muck heaps and pits, and in London there was PG Wodehouse and the Drones club. But I was stuck in a council estate in Leeds: who would want to read about that? Then I read Dylan Thomas's stories about his adolescence, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog, which was a real eye-opener. It came as a blaze that you could write about anything, and it was up to you to bring the society you were writing about alive."
A newspaper strike in 1956 gave him the time, and he wrote his first novel, There Is a Happy Land, which was set on a Leeds housing estate. Four years later he left the Mirror staff but was given £1,000 a year by Hugh Cudlipp not to write for any other paper. He maintained contact with the paper as a freelance and started his twice-weekly column there in 1970. He eventually left after the paper was bought by Robert Maxwell. "I am rather in favour of larger than life newspaper bosses," he says, "but he was a bit too large." Former Mirror editor, Mike Molloy, says Waterhouse's presence in its pages gave the paper a lift. "He mostly worked at home, but when he did come in to the office it was good for the paper because people were genuinely proud to have someone of his stature knocking around."
Waterhouse's first act after leaving the staff was to write Billy Liar, the story of the daydreaming Billy Fisher planning his escape from his job in the Leeds undertakers. He left 10,000 words of it in a taxi and had to start again. "The best thing that happened to me; it was pretentious twaddle." He says it was a life changing event, but by then it wasn't really rags to riches. "It was more suede shoes to Gucci shoes, not that I ever wore Gucci shoes, but I could if I wanted to."
The phrase Billy Liar has entered the culture, and he has in his study framed front pages of it as headlines. Two recent examples are from the New York Post about Bill Clinton in relation to Monica Lewinsky, and in the Sun about William Hague's claims to have drunk 14 pints of beers a day. The novel has never been out of print, the stage version was chosen as one of the 100 best plays of the last century by the National Theatre, and the classic 1963 film starring Tom Courtney and Julie Christie was recently revived to critical acclaim in New York.
Of his other fiction, he says his favourite is the 1981 novel, Maggie Muggins, a first person account of the life of a young alcoholic woman living in Earl's Court, which received widespread acclaim. His 14th and latest novel, Soho, is published next week. It tells the contemporary story of a young Leeds boy searching for his girlfriend. Waterhouse says he's always had a fixation on the place. "It is a conurbation of truants, which is what I like about it. Jeffrey Bernard was the Huckleberry Finn of Soho. The rest of us were going home and paying mortgages and educating children, but Jeff was paddling his raft up and down Old Compton Street."
The novel is, of course, funny and picaresque, with some wonderful lines and observations. It also has a slightly melancholy air, with several deaths of characters as well as the death of the old Soho. "But part of Soho is always dying as another part is renewing itself," he explains.
It was Willis Hall, who first wrote with Waterhouse on a youth club magazine when they were both 14, who encouraged Waterhouse's move in to the theatre, suggesting that Billy Liar would make a good play. "And this was the 60s," recalls Waterhouse, "when you couldn't move on the slag heaps of the north for film and television crews. We were caught up in all that."
The pair scripted two more key British films, Whistle Down the Wind and A Kind of Loving, and in Hollywood they worked, un-credited, on Hitchcock's Torn Curtain. Back in London they took an office in Bond Street above Vidal Sassoon's salon. Willis Hall describes their routine. "We'd start work at about nine in the morning and work until lunchtime. Then we seemed to go off and piss it up for God knows how many hours, but we'd always be back in the office at nine."
As well as films they also worked in television. Starting with sketches for the likes of TW3 and the Frost Report, they went on to write scripts for a huge variety of programmes, including Budgie, Queenie's Castle and Worzel Gummidge. Who now remembers The Upchat Line, in which John Alderton played a freeloading newspaper hack who lived out of a locker in Marylebone station?
But it was the theatre and theatrical life that was Waterhouse's greatest love. As a boy in Leeds, he would take girls to the cinema but not to the theatre, even though it was cheaper, because he would prefer to watch the play. Ned Sher rin feels it might be the instant family of the theatre that attracts him. "There is a wonderful ephemeral family feeling of being in rehearsal and then playing out of town for a couple of weeks. Keith is a very gregarious person and I think he loves to have a lot of close mates, who he doesn't have any responsibility for, around him."
Perhaps the greatest critical acclaim he has received in the theatre was for his and Willis Hall's National Theatre adaptation of the Italian dramatist de Filippo's Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Filumena, which won the 1978 Olivier award for best comedy. Ned Sherrin says the recent translation of de Filippo's work, put on by Peter Hall, "didn't compare to the one Keith and Willis did". In 1986, Sherrin directed Waterhouse's Mr and Mrs Pooter, starring Judi Dench and Michael Williams, and went on to direct another four Waterhouse plays, including his hugely successful 1989 adaptation of Jeffrey Bernard's Spectator columns, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Waterhouse says that he expected the play to last for the few weeks that Peter O'Toole was able to star in it. But Sherrin says: "I think Keith always felt it would work. It is a universal poem about self-destruction, old friends, nostalgia and all this sort of thing. It read like Shaw with a heart, and I knew it was very good." The play has been performed all over the world, and is on in Paris at the moment.
Waterhouse's next play was Bookends in 1990, which was adapted from Craig Brown's book, The Marsh-Marlowe Letters. It was a difficult process, with Brown asking for a couple of Waterhouse jokes to be taken out and turning up on the opening night to find that they were still there. "The book was a kind of satire on two crusty old men," explains Brown, "but somehow on stage the crusty old men were kind of being applauded. I think he was over sympathetic to these characters that I was sending up."
A similar complaint is made about Waterhouse's treatment of Jeffrey Bernard. Brown says: "I thought Bernard was a pretty unpleasant man. I didn't find his alcoholism and misogyny amusing, but somehow, for people who liked the play, he was made to seem a bit cuddly. I think if Waterhouse has a failing, it's that sort of slight misanthropy."
However, a propensity to the crusty and the reactionary is something of an occupational hazard for a popular newspaper columnist. But that said, Waterhouse has never been an entirely predictable creature of the Mail's world view. Although he recently supported the grocer charged after insisting on selling his bananas in pounds, not kilos, and is an enthusiastic Brussels basher, there are still traces of the Red Flag-singing radical of his youth, and in his recent column on the Wessex debacle, a few bottles were thrown at the house of Windsor in general.
It is widely assumed that because he is so productive, Waterhouse can churn out copy on demand. Even his former editor, Mike Molloy, who had never actually seen him write, thought so until they were once in a New York hotel. "We were due to meet for dinner so I knocked on his door and there was a voice as if from 10 fathoms deep saying 'come in'. I went in and his column was lying on the bed looking like a map of the Ypres Salient. It was covered with all these lines and crosses and stabs marks from his fountain pen. 'It's coming a bit slowly,' he grunted, and we agreed to meet a bit later. After an hour or so, Keith turned up at the restaurant whistling, and had I not seen him earlier, I'd never have known what he had gone through."
Whatever the pains of the process, Waterhouse continues to do what he has always done and has another novel and a new play in progress. Despite a persistent wheezy cough, which he has had since he gave up smoking 30 years ago, he says he is in good health and has never missed a day's work. He doesn't intend to start now. While he says he does look back fondly on the old Fleet Street, in what he calls its anecdotage, to his credit he doesn't overdo the reminiscences about the good old days of hot metal and drinking in El Vino's.
"The only time anyone is in El Vino's now is after a memorial service, with people bellowing 'it's what he would have wanted'." Waterhouse genuinely prefers to look to the future where, for him, there is always the next book, play or column. "I'll always have something else to do. If I write everything that's in my head, I've got five years' work and during the course of that five years other things will crop up and I'll die and that will be about it. I suppose I must actually like sitting here in this room, with some silly detective play on the radio, banging away on that machine." Life at a glance: Keith Spencer Waterhouse
Born: 6 February 1929, Leeds
Family: Married Joan Foster 1950, divorced, one son, two daughters; married Stella Bingham 1984, divorced.
Career: journalist 1950-present; columnist with Daily Mirror 70-86; Daily Mail 86-present.
Some films with Willis Hall: Billy Liar 60; Whistle Down the Wind 61; A Kind of Loving 62
Some plays with Willis Hall: Billy Liar 60; Celebration 61; The Card (musical) 73
Some solo plays: Mr and Mrs Nobody 86; Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell 89; Bookends 90
Some TV series: Budgie 71-72; Billy Liar 73; Andy Capp 88
Some books: There is a Happy Land 57; Billy Liar 59; Jubb 63; Maggie Muggins 81; Our Song 88; Bimbo 1990; Daily Mirror Style 80; Mrs Pooter's Diary 83; City Lights (memoir) 94
Awards: CBE 1991
Soho is published by Sceptre, price £16.99