Page last updated at 16:35 GMT, Friday, 4 September 2009 17:35 UK

Obituary: Keith Waterhouse

Keith Waterhouse
Waterhouse was one of the most acclaimed journalists, novelists and dramatists of the late 20th century

Keith Waterhouse, who has died aged 80, was one of Britain's most prolific authors, with more than 60 books, plays and television scripts to his credit.

He also wrote a long-running, straight-talking newspaper column for more than 50 years, starting at the Mirror before switching to the Daily Mail in 1986.

He was born in a back-to-back house in Hunslet, Leeds, in 1929, the youngest of five children.

His father, who sold fruit and vegetables, died when he was four, leaving the family in the writer's own words, "ridiculously, almost unbelievably, poor".

Waterhouse left school at 15 with no formal qualifications but said: "I wanted to be a writer from before I could write. And all along, I think, I wanted to work in newspapers."

However, his first job was in the office of a combined estate agent and undertaker, which was later to provide the setting for his highly successful novel, play and film, Billy Liar.

It was perhaps his best-known work - the story of a funeral parlour worker with a humdrum life, who spends most of his time dreaming of ways to escape his drab existence in Yorkshire.

'Flaming red hair'

After National Service in the RAF, Waterhouse was encouraged by his mother to pursue his dream of writing for a living.

Soon after, he was appointed the Pennines walking correspondent for the Yorkshire Evening Post, where he is still remembered for his "flaming red unruly hair rising up from his head".

A prodigious journalistic talent quickly saw him move to Leeds, then Fleet Street and the features department at the Daily Mirror.

As a newsman, he was a correspondent in America, the Soviet Union and Cyprus. And through Labour's links with the Mirror, he often drafted articles and speeches for party leaders Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson.

Billy Liar
Tom Courtenay starred in the film adaptation of Billy Liar

The young journalist thrived in Fleet Street, with its clatter of typewriters, endless supply of gossip and long, boozy lunches (his Who's Who entry listed "lunch" as his sole recreational activity).

However, he was not a regular at the Mirror's "office pub", known as The Stab in the Back, but preferred instead to hang out around theatreland - where his partner in crime was legendary bon viveur Jeffrey Bernard.

During these years, he was busy writing novels, plays and scripts, some with his friend Willis Hall.

Billy Liar appeared in 1959, followed by his first screenplay, Whistle Down the Wind, in 1961 - which told the story of three children on a farm mistaking a fugitive hiding in their barn for Jesus.

His work for the theatre was equally successful, notably Mr and Mrs Nobody and Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell - based on his former drinking colleague's weekly columns in the Spectator - which opened in London with Peter O'Toole in 1989.

I remember hearing him laughing at the lines he had written forty years before - at times, he was the only member of the audience laughing
Philip Pickard, London, UK

On television, he helped to create the satirical news programme That Was The Week That Was, as well as writing Budgie and Worzel Gummidge.

All the while, he was churning out sometimes serious, often humorous newspaper columns - working every day on his trusted Adler typewriter.

His targets included politicians, civil servants and shop assistants and the satirical machinations of Clogthorpe council.

Waterhouse's work brought him a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature and three awards for Columnist of the Year in 1970, 1973 and 1978. He was appointed a CBE in 1991.

'Cap'n Bob'

The writer frequently railed against declining standards of English, founding the Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe, which attacked poor punctuation on shopkeepers' signs.

In the 1980s, he was even called in by Margaret Thatcher's government to advise on the teaching of English.

His departure from the Mirror in 1986 shocked many who regarded the journalist as the voice of the working class.

Keith Waterhouse and Tony Blair
Tony Blair posed with the writer as he picked up an award at the Press Club annual lunch in 1997

Waterhouse always said his decision to quit the left-leaning newspaper was down to one man - the imposing owner Robert Maxwell, whom he nicknamed Cap'n Bob and who had tried to insist he wrote an opinionated piece on trades union ballots.

"The Mirror had become Cap'n Bob's paper and he didn't mind what you put in, so long as it was about him," Waterhouse later recalled.

"I am rather in favour of larger-than-life newspaper bosses, but he was a bit too large."

He was soon hired by the Daily Mail where, Waterhouse said, he was allowed to retain his treasured independence. Legend has it that the paper's sub-editors were not allowed to change a single word of his columns.

His acerbic, witty pieces often harked back to the "old England" of his youth.

The children of today, he wrote, were missing out on "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".

When he stepped down from the newspaper in May this year, current editor Paul Dacre paid tribute to the curmudgeonly columnist.

"The phrase Fleet Street legend could have been invented for Keith. But he was much more than that, he was a chronicler and brilliant observer of late 20th Century life, whose characters became part of our national psyche," he wrote.

"It has been a privilege for the last 23 years to have such a legendary writer as part of the Daily Mail story. He will be massively missed."

The journalist leaves behind two children and two ex-wives, Joan Foster (his childhood sweetheart) and Stella Bingham.

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