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The Guardian (04/Sep/2009) - Obituary: Keith Waterhouse

 

(c) The Guardian (04/Sep/2009)


Obituary: Keith Waterhouse

Stalwart of Fleet Street, novelist and playwright renowned for Billy Liar and Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell

Keith Waterhouse, who has died aged 80, always described himself as a lazy man, even though he produced a body of work that reduced his Fleet Street rivals to envious dismay. Apart from the novels, plays, film scripts, sitcoms and magazine articles that flowed unceasingly from his vintage Adler typewriter (he hated new technology), he also wrote a twice-weekly newspaper column, beginning in the Daily Mirror in 1970, and from 1988 for the Daily Mail, until the paper announced his retirement last May.

Waterhouse would roam through the news stories of the day for material to comment upon, but he would often return to the prehistoric Ug family to demonstrate the unchanging folly of human beings. He campaigned mightily to preserve the correct usage of the apostrophe, and the good councillors of Clogthorpe would be lampooned regularly as they ponderously set about desecrating their Victorian town in the cause of modernity. He was parsimonious with his real anger, preferring to "grow the tolerant, ironic eye", but when he was moved to rage, he could use words like artillery.

His background was unauspicious. Born in Hunslet, Leeds, the youngest child of a costermonger who died while Waterhouse was an infant, he grew up in poverty on a council estate on the outskirts of the city. But he loved books, and fiddled extra tickets at various public libraries so he could exceed the weekly borrowing quota. He left Osmondthorpe secondary modern at 14 and worked as a cobbler's assistant and then as a clerk for an undertaker before, in 1950, getting a job as a junior reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post.

In his youth, Leeds was a city of picture palaces, dance halls, sooty factories, grand Victorian offices, markets, elegant shops, side-street enterprises and rock-solid, Yorkshire confidence. All that has gone with the wind now, but the old Leeds continued to live in Waterhouse's memory, and he returned to it again and again, writing with aching, bittersweet nostalgia.

After two years as a rookie reporter, he was interviewed in London by the news editor of the Daily Mirror, who turned him down for a job, but while in the building, he wangled a further audience with the features editor, who offered him freelance shifts. Almost immediately, he was sent out with instructions to find a talking dog.

Waterhouse called the office a few days later, announcing airily that he had fulfilled his brief. "Where's the dog?" snarled the features editor. "Cardiff," answered Waterhouse. "That's no bloody good," came the reply. "The circulation drive is in the north-west. Find me a talking dog in Liverpool!"

Within months, Waterhouse came to the attention of Hugh Cudlipp, who, as editorial director, was at the zenith of his powers and about to take the Mirror's circulation to more than 5m. Cudlipp recognised his new recruit's potential instantly, and gleefully sent him ricochetting about the world. America, Europe, the Soviet Union: this was heady stuff for a lad who had once been banned from playing with the children of his more respectable neighbours because he was the dirtiest boy in the street.

Waterhouse would always stay with newspapers, but now an additional career kicked in. During his spare time he had written his first novel, There Is a Happy Land (1957). With the publication in 1959 of his second, Billy Liar, he enjoyed that most elusive of literary achievements – a bestseller that is also a critical and artistic triumph. Quickly, the book was turned into a play, with Albert Finney as the eponymous hero.

Then he got a call from an old friend from Leeds, Willis Hall, now a successful playwright. Together they wrote the screenplay of Billy Liar, filmed in 1963 with Tom Courtenay as Billy and making a star of Julie Christie. The story takes place in the course of a single Saturday in a northern city and is about a young clerk, Billy Fisher, whose daydreaming and hilarious lies have brought his work and love life to a point of crisis.

The collaboration with Hall marked the beginning of a lifelong partnership that touched just about every category of show business: television scripts, including Worzel Gummidge (1979-81), West End plays, highly acclaimed translations of the farces of Eduardo de Filippo, screenplays, including Whistle Down the Wind (1961), A Kind of Loving (1962) and Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966). The diversity of their output was astonishing, their means of communication verging on the telepathic.

As well as the scripts there was a growing list of novels, along with every conceivable award for his newspaper columns and his regular contributions to Punch. Although much of his work was comedy, like many professional humorists, Waterhouse hated people telling him jokes. He loved pubs and Soho drinking clubs, Gerry's in particular, but he dreaded bores, whom he savaged with a grumpy impatience.

His chosen companions were newspaper hacks, theatrical folk of the less self-obsessed variety, barkeepers and fellow writers – as long as they bought their round. It was in such company that Waterhouse and Jeffrey Bernard first became friends. The relationship led to Waterhouse immortalising Bernard in the wildly successful play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (1989), starring Peter O'Toole and based on Bernard's Spectator column.

In it he introduced the audience to the "egg trick", a piece of business Waterhouse had been performing for years in clubs, bars and the residents' lounge of many hotels. It involved borrowing from the management a biscuit tin lid, a pint pot of water, the sleeve from a box of matches and a raw egg. When he had the full attention of the right gathering of like-minded drinkers, the tin lid would be placed on top of the glass of water, the matchbox sleeve on top of the lid and the egg in the open end of the matchbox. The trick was to strike the edge of the tin lid with a shoe. The lid would then fly away, having caught the matchbox on its edge, the matchbox would topple over and deposit the intact egg in the pint of water – sometimes. Other times, the premises would be coated with raw egg.

Waterhouse and I were once in the lounge of a Birmingham hotel, having earlier been in a Greek restaurant, where we had been co-opted onto the judging panel of a belly dancing contest. Waterhouse liked the belly dancers. He bought them a great deal of champagne, insisting that he pour it into their slippers. The ladies did not mind, even though their shoes were all open-toed.

Later, at the hotel, we encountered a group of senior police officers and the junior snooker champion of Wales and his manager. Waterhouse announced he would perforn the egg trick. It worked perfectly. Dazzled, the junior snooker champion leaped forward, his eyes blazing with competition. "Give me a go," he demanded.

The trick was set up again and the youth slammed his shoe onto the biscuit tin lid. Raw egg covered the policemen. "How do you do the trick?" demanded the frustrated youth. "You have to be over 50," Waterhouse replied airily.

His personal humour often whirled into the surreal, as his fellow journalist Peter Tory learned to his cost. One night, in a Blackpool restaurant during a Conservative party conference, Waterhouse inveigled Tory into a bet which resulted in Tory losing his trousers. Waterhouse made off into the night with the item of clothing and Tory had to borrow a pair of the chef's pants.

Back at the bar of the Imperial hotel, he made himself busy introducing Tory's trousers to various Conservative party grandees, insisting they shake a proffered leg by way of greeting. In later weeks, Tory would receive sinister, late-night calls, claiming to be from his trousers, relating, in a falsetto, northern accent, the various risque adventures he was enjoying with his new master.

All his life, Waterhouse was a heavy drinker (which is not the same as being an alcoholic). No matter how riotous the night before had been, each morning he was at the typewriter. He often claimed that God had blessed him with the gift of the delayed hangover, one that kicked in only when he had done his day's work. Once a heavy smoker, he quit, but loathed non-smoking fanatics.

Waterhouse never talked about his private life and rarely gave interviews. Despite his considerable income, he lived in modest circumstances, shunning a Mayfair address for Earls Court. His homes were always elegantly furnished, but on the small side, and he bought his clothes at Marks & Spencer.

In the 1960s, after the appearance of Billy Liar, he was often classified as an "angry young man". This was not so. He had more in common with JB Priestley than John Braine. Like George Orwell, he had a deep love of England and the English, believing that our green and pleasant land was being traduced by a petty-minded army of bureaucrats. Politically, he was a romantic liberal. He was appointed CBE in 1991.

Waterhouse married Joan Foster, the daughter of the undertaker he had worked for, in 1950, but they divorced in the mid-1960s. His son and one of his daughters survive him. His daughter Jo died in 2001 of a rare heart condition. His second wife was the journalist Stella Bingham, whom he married in 1984 and divorced in 1989, although she continued to look after him.

Had he been asked to choose his own epitaph, I believe that he would have used the words of a writer he revered, Arnold Bennett. At the end of The Card, a character asks of the hero: "What great cause is he identified with? The reply was: "He's identified with the great cause of cheering us all up."

And that's exactly what Waterhouse did – he cheered us up.