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Billy & Bernard Author Keith Waterhouse Dies at 80

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Keith Waterhouse, who died on Friday (4 September 2009) aged 80, was a genuine all-round man of letters, equally at home at a party political conference, or a literary festival, or in the West End, where many of his plays were co-authored with his fellow Yorkshireman, Willis Hall, who died four years ago.

Their most famous collaboration was Billy Liar, adapted from Waterhouse’s novel, one of the major comic fictions of the last century in its portrayal of an undertaker’s assistant who engages in a Walter Mitty-style fantasy life: the 1960 play starred Albert Finney, succeeded by Tom Courtenay, who also appeared in the film directed by John Schlesinger. Michael Crawford starred in the 1974 Drury Lane musical Billy, with (then) unknowns Elaine Paige and Diana Quick as two of his girlfriends.

The lyrics and music for Billy were by Don Black and John Barry, and it’s one of the best modern British musicals, Billy’s dream translated into a show-stopping “Some of Us Belong to the Stars” as the hero descended a light-up staircase. The other great Waterhouse theatre project was his brilliant cabaret play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (1989) in which Peter O'Toole, directed by the late Ned Sherrin (See News, 2 Oct 2007), gave a towering comic performance as the journalist and drunken denizen of the Coach and Horses (and was followed, in several revivals by Tom Conti).

Waterhouse was a famously industrious writer who produced two acidly satirical and no-nonsense newspaper columns a week (in the Daily Mirror and latterly, until just four months ago, the Daily Mail), many novels, and several film scripts with Hall – including Bryan Forbes’ Whistle Down the Wind (1961) starring Alan Bates and Hayley Mills.

He never worked on a computer, bashing out his copy on an old typewriter before adjourning for lunch, usually in Soho, or in Earl’s Court where he lived in later years, washed down with copious amounts of his favourite tipple, champagne. He was the most wonderful company, apple-cheeked and white-haired, with a permanent mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Born on 6 February 1929 in Leeds, he left school aged 14, did two years National Service with the RAF and joined the Yorkshire Post, where his vivid writing led to the stage work with Hall.

First, they wrote a series of Northern family dramas, followed by a sophisticated adultery farce Say Who You Are (1965); a musical of Arnold Bennett’s The Card (1973) starring Jim Dale, with a score by Jackie Trent and Tony Hatch; Saturday, Sunday, Monday (1974) a marvelous re-working of an Eduardo de Filippo farce for the National Theatre starring Joan Plowright and Laurence Olivier; and a beautiful version of the Grossmiths’ Diary of a Nobody called Mr and Mrs Nobody(1986) starring Judi Dench and her late husband Michael Williams.

Comparisons have rightly been drawn with JB Priestley, Waterhouse’s great literary hero, and another Yorkshireman who straddled the whole of literary and theatrical life in a populist vein, though Waterhouse was more raffish and less of a public figure. He was twice married and twice divorced, made a CBE in 1991 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


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