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  Keith Spencer Waterhouse (1929–2009), by Fay Godwin, 1975 Keith Spencer Waterhouse (1929–2009), by Fay Godwin, 1975
Waterhouse, Keith Spencer (1929–2009), novelist, playwright, and newspaper columnist, was born on 6 February 1929 at 17 Low Road, Hunslet, Leeds, the fourth and youngest child of Ernest Waterhouse (1884–1933) and his wife, Edith Elsie, née Spencer (1890/91–1961). His father was an alcoholic door-to-door vegetable salesman—Waterhouse, precise in his use of words, described him as a costermonger—who died when Waterhouse was three. His mother was a cleaner. He grew up in extreme poverty on a council estate, where he was once banned by the parents of other boys from playing with them because he was the dirtiest boy in the street. Having failed to enter grammar school, he was educated at Osmondthorpe council school, where one of the masters interested him in P. G. Wodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome, and Mark Twain. He developed a fascination with books, especially with those by comic writers. He haunted public libraries, obtaining extra tickets so he could borrow more than his quota each week.

Waterhouse left school at fourteen to work as an assistant to a cobbler. He then became a clerk for J. T. Buckton and Sons, an undertaker—which provided background for his most celebrated novel, Billy Liar. From 1947 to 1949 he did national service in the RAF. He had taken a course in shorthand and typing at the Leeds College of Commerce before joining the undertaker, and used the typewriter in the office to write short stories or essays in his lunch hour: he sent them off to newspapers but almost all were rejected. None the less he managed, in 1950, to get a job as a junior reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post, which he had bombarded with unsolicited articles. On 21 October the same year he also married Joan Foster, a 21-year-old photographic developer, and daughter of John Thomas Foster, the undertaker's driver. They had a son and two daughters.

In 1952 Waterhouse applied for a job on the Daily Mirror. The news editor rejected him. He managed, however, to secure an interview with the features editor, who offered him shift work. His first assignment was to find a talking dog. Several days later he found one, in Cardiff. However, the story was required to help a circulation drive in the north-west. He was told to find another in Liverpool. He soon came to the attention of Hugh Cudlipp, the paper's editorial director and one of the most powerful men in Fleet Street. Cudlipp sent Waterhouse all round the world—including America, Europe, and the Soviet Union—and he made a name for himself as a formidable reporter. In his spare time he started to write fiction, and published his first novel, There is a Happy Land, in 1957. He was propelled to fame, though, by the second, Billy Liar (1959).

The book is about a young man, Billy Fisher, who compensates for his dreary existence as a clerk in a funeral parlour by indulging in fantasies, and causing hideous embarrassment to his family. Waterhouse left the first 10,000 words of the book in a taxi, which he took as an opportunity: the draft was, he said, ‘pretentious twaddle’, and the loss ‘the best thing that has happened to me’ (Daily Telegraph, 5 Sept 2009). The novel became a bestseller but was also acclaimed as a literary triumph. Waterhouse had, at thirty, become a cultural force: and so he would remain. The final triumph of the book was its transformation into a play in 1960, starring Albert Finney and, later, Tom Courtenay, which ran for 582 performances; then into a film, released in 1963 and starring Courtenay and Julie Christie; and finally into a musical, Billy (1974). Waterhouse wrote the script and then the screenplay with , a Leeds friend whom Waterhouse had met at a youth club. Hall had made a name with the success in 1958 of The Long and the Short and the Tall, and had seen the theatrical potential of Waterhouse's creation. The success of Billy Liar made Waterhouse wealthy. ‘For a while’, he wrote,
I dabbled at being seriously rich. Hand-made boots from Lobb's, gold Omega watch, Colibri lighter, expensive casuals, mink in the adjoining wardrobes, hire cars everywhere, outrageously priced dinners at the White Elephant. Except for a daily bottle of champagne, for which I have retained the taste, such excesses soon palled. (Daily Mail, 7 Aug 2009)
Waterhouse and Hall collaborated on numerous projects, not least two other renowned British films of the 1960s, Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and A Kind of Loving (1962). They wrote a script for Alfred Hitchcock, Torn Curtain, in 1966. They wrote many television scripts, including for That Was The Week That Was, the drama series Budgie (1971), which starred Adam Faith, and Worzel Gummidge, which ran from 1979 to 1981. There were also various West End plays, mostly on working-class themes, and translations of the farces of Eduardo de Filippo. Waterhouse continued to publish novels, though none close to the success of Billy Liar. He wrote around sixty books, both fiction and non-fiction. He also wrote for Punch, and served as a director of the Theatre Royal in Bath, where he lived for several years.

Waterhouse had progressed to writing leaders for the Daily Mirror, but left the paper's staff to concentrate on novels and screenplays. He returned with a twice-weekly column in 1970. Two successive Labour leaders, Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson, recognized Waterhouse's talent and invited him to write speeches for them. He became disillusioned with Labour as it became less socialist and more middle-class.

Waterhouse found column writing difficult at first: he would often have to be sick before he could start. He then developed a happy routine. He would read the newspapers before sitting at his typewriter to the accompaniment of Radio 3, finishing by lunchtime. He would then have a champagne lunch. This led to difficulties with a secretary, whom he had referred to as ‘the flame-haired factotum’. She said in 1994 that ‘at 1 pm 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 Guardian, 17 Jan 1994). She made a claim for unfair dismissal, which he settled out of court. Waterhouse told friends: ‘If you're going to be turned over, that's the way to do it’ (private information).

Waterhouse was a heavy drinker but a disciplined writer, never missing a deadline. He protected his privacy and gave few interviews. In a move he later regarded as insane, he had taken his family to live on the outskirts of Harlow New Town when he left the Daily Mirror. Cudlipp gave him a £1000 a year retainer to stop him writing for competitors, and Waterhouse ended up spending most of his time in London, away from his family. The marriage ended in divorce in 1968. He married the journalist Stella Bingham in 1984, but that marriage was dissolved in 1989. However, she looked after him until his death.

Waterhouse's columns were about everyday life and feelings: as well as his dislike of political correctness, he would write about his Betjemanesque affection for suburbia, his loathing of new technology, and his scepticism about statistics. He dramatized some issues through two mythical shop assistants, Sharon and Tracey. Officialdom, one of his great hatreds, was embodied in the equally fictional Clogthorpe district council. He revelled in his public life as a writer of light comedy, but he remained a dedicated newspaper man. His columns won many awards: he was the columnist of the year in 1970, 1973, and 1978. He enjoyed the company of his fellow hacks, haunting Soho drinking clubs once Fleet Street broke up into a diaspora—a development he deeply regretted, because he fed off the companionship of other journalists. In one such club he met , author of the ‘Low Life’ column in The Spectator, which caused Waterhouse to write (on his own) Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (1989), which starred Peter O'Toole.

Waterhouse left The Mirror in 1986 when it was bought by Robert Maxwell. He said: ‘I am rather in favour of larger-than-life newspaper bosses, but he was a bit too large’ (Daily Telegraph, 5 Sept 2009). He found a happy home on the Daily Mail, where he wrote twice weekly until he retired shortly before his death in 2009. When, in 2004, his fellow journalists voted him the country's leading columnist, he disclosed some of the secrets of his craft: ‘Nothing is useless to the columnist … an elephantine memory helps. The columnist should not only be a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, he should remember where he put them’ (The Independent, 8 Sept 2009).

Waterhouse was a zealot for correct English. He wrote the Daily Mirror style book, subsequently published as Waterhouse on Newspaper Style (1989). He served on the Kingman inquiry into the teaching of English in 1987–8. This experience inspired a character in his novel Bimbo (1990), a trendy school mistress who would tell her pupils that grammar was élitist crap: she was based on teachers Waterhouse met during the inquiry. One of his most celebrated Mail columns was about the Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe, a grammatical error he claimed was contained in a virus ‘spread initially by greengrocers, or greengrocer's, as they usually style themselves’ (republished in the Daily Mail, 5 Sept 2009).

Waterhouse had an artistic temperament. He and his friends had a strong bond of loyalty: but he could be embarrassingly rude to people he regarded as boring, especially those who tried to tell him a joke. He could be stand-offish, which could come over as shyness: some interpreted it as arrogance. He kept his innermost feelings to himself. He was always more outgoing after a bottle of wine, but not necessarily less rude. He thought charm an ‘absurd’ quality (The Times, 20 Oct 1990). He lived modestly in Earl's Court and bought his clothes at Marks and Spencer. He always worried about money. He was, despite his humble origins, something of a snob. His quietness was interpreted as modesty, but that was illusory. Framed on the wall of his flat were two front pages of newspapers with the headline ‘Billy Liar’: one was about President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, the other about William Hague's claim that he used to drink fourteen pints of beer a day. He had an acute sense of his own worth.

He enjoyed the social life of Soho, and of the Garrick Club, well into his seventies. Lunch, listed in Who's Who as his sole recreation, was a great ritual, a relaxation to inspire and stimulate his creativity. One of his books was called The Theory and Practice of Lunch (1986). He rarely ate much, and would often be silent until after several glasses of wine, which could make his companions uncomfortable. Then he would liven up, and tell stories, enjoying an audience. However, in his mid-seventies he was mugged in the West End while withdrawing money from a cash machine, and it shook him physically and psychologically. He became something of a recluse. He moved to a ground floor flat in Kensington because he recalled Kingsley Amis, a friend from the Garrick, had fallen down some stairs and hurt himself. Having moved in, he fell out of bed one day and broke his arm.

Waterhouse was appointed CBE in 1991. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Asked how he would like to be remembered, he replied: ‘There's Arnold Bennett and J. B. Priestley. I hope to be considered to be just behind Priestley’ (The Times, 5 Sept 2009). While his newspaper work was by its nature ephemeral, and many of his novels unremarkable—in his later years it was not always easy for him to get them published—he did, in Billy Liar, create one of the cultural landmarks of the twentieth century. He died, of ischaemic heart disease, in his sleep in the early hours of 4 September 2009 at his home, 84 Coleherne Court, Old Brompton Road, Kensington, London. He was survived by two of his children, one daughter having died in 2001.

Simon Heffer


The Times (5 Sept 2009); (8 Sept 2009); (18 Sept 2009) · Daily Telegraph (5 Sept 2009) · The Guardian (5 Sept 2009); (12 Sept 2009) · New York Times (5 Sept 2009) · The Observer (6 Sept 2009) · The Independent (8 Sept 2009); (9 Sept 2009) · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. [1950] · d. cert.





BL NSA, interview recordings · BL NSA, light entertainment recordings · BL NSA, performance recordings


L. Morley, group portrait, bromide print, 1960 (with Willis Hall), NPG · group portrait, photograph, 1960 (with co-writer Willis Hall), Mary Evans Picture Library, London · Duffy, group portrait, photograph, 1961 (with Willis Hall), Getty Images, London · M. Grieve, photographs, 1964–2000, Camera Press, London · F. Godwin, bromide print, 1975, NPG [see illus.] · Snowdon, photograph, 1976, Camera Press, London · photographs, 1981–2003, Photoshot, London · T. D. Donovan, bromide print, 1983, NPG · photographs, 1983–2003, Rex Features, London · S. Soames, resin print, 1989, NPG · W. Fawkes, cartoon, black ink, 1992, repro. in G. Ashton, Pictures in the Garrick Club: a catalogue of paintins, drawings, watercolours and sculpture, ed. K. A. Burnim and A. Wilton (1997), 500 · J. Stillwell, group portrait, photograph, 1999 (with Peter O'Toole), PA Images, London · E. McCabe, photographs, 2002, Camera Press, London · Aura, photograph, 2003, Getty Images, London · M. Jung Kim, photographs, 2003, PA Images, London · S. Dempsey, group portrait, photograph, 2009 (with Tony Blair), PA Images, London

Wealth at death  

£2,205,507: probate, 16 March 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales