Writer and journalist Keith Waterhouse dies aged 80
- Keith Waterhouse, who created Billy Liar, died peacefully in his sleep, four months after final Daily Mail column
Keith Waterhouse, with his faithful Adler typewriter. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe
Keith Waterhouse, the creator of Billy Liar, who had a remarkable 60-year career as a journalist, author and playwright, died at home early today, aged 80.
Waterhouse, who only retired from his twice-weekly Daily Mail column in May and penned a two-page spread marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of Billy Liar for the paper just last month, died quietly in his sleep at his home in London, a spokeswoman for his family said today.
Married twice, Waterhouse had recently suffered ill health and had been cared for by his second ex-wife, Stella Bingham.
His last Daily Mail column, “It’s English as she is spoke innit?”, about a taskforce looking into education reform for seven- to 11-year-olds, appeared on Monday 4 May.
He had been a regular columnist for the Daily Mail for nearly a quarter of a century, writing more than 2,000 columns.
Before joining the Daily Mail he worked at the Daily Mirror for 35 years, after beginning his journalism career on the Yorkshire Evening Post in Leeds.
Waterhouse’s stellar career also saw him write about 60 books, including 16 novels, plays, film scripts and TV series.
He is perhaps best known as the author of Billy Liar, the story of a funeral-parlour worker, Billy Fisher, who indulges in Walter Mitty-like fantasies to escape his drab existence in a fictional Yorkshire town. The novel was later filmed in 1963 by John Schlesinger, starring Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie.
Waterhouse, who turned 80 in February, was born in Leeds in 1929 into a modest home. Leaving school at 14 with no qualifications, he took his first journalism job on the Yorkshire Evening Post as the paper’s Pennines walking reporter.
An earlier job as an assistant in an undertaker proved useful inspiration for the novel Billy Liar, which was published in 1959. His first screenplay, Whistle Down the Wind, came in 1961, telling the story of three children on a farm mistaking a fugitive hiding in their barn for Jesus.
Waterhouse also scored a notable West End success in 1989 with his play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, about the antics of the eponymous drunken journalist.
As Waterhouse’s fame grew he was hired by the Daily Mirror, where he stayed for 35 years as a columnist known for his straight talking.
He fell out with the new Daily Mirror proprietor Robert Maxwell in 1986 and joined the Mail, from where he introduced the world to a series of comic creations, including shop assistants Sharon and Tracey, and the workings of Clogthorpe District Council, all written on his old Adler typewriter.
In February, Waterhouse told the Independent on Sunday that he had finished writing a play about the dying days of Fleet Street, The Last Page, which he hoped to see produced later in the year.
If so, it could sit alongside his book Waterhouse on Newspaper Style – which originated as a stylebook for the Daily Mirror – as an indispensable text about the newspaper trade.
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