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Summary Article: Waterhouse, Keith [Spencer]
From Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

Waterhouse is one of Britain’s most prolific and versatile writers in the second half of the 20th c. Probably best known as a novelist, though his many plays have given him an important status as man of the theater, he has also written television dramas, children’s books, two volumes of engaging AUTOBIOGRAPHY, books on style, and a medley of classic HUMOR. His work is, seen as a whole, that of a comic writer, though he is capable of vivid social realism and stark psychological insight.

Born into a working-class family, Waterhouse left school at fifteen and studied at Leeds College of Commerce, then, after National Service in the Royal Air Force, became a journalist—first in Yorkshire, then in London—which he has been ever since. He has lived in London since 1951 and has been married and divorced twice.

Waterhouse’s novelistic career began with There Is a Happy Land (1957), a study of childhood in Yorkshire; his next book, Billy Liar (1959), established his success, leading to a play, a film, and a sequel, Billy Liar on the Moon (1975). Among his fourteen additional novels, among the most notable are Jubb (1963), Office Life (1978), and Maggie Muggins (1981), all of them focusing on the displacements and derangements of urban life. Jubb is a splendid study of increasing mania, Maggie Muggins (Waterhouse’s favorite among his novels) of the life lived by a female transient in Earl’s Court. Thinks (1984) chooses an unusual technique to render the interior life of a man whose life, the reader comes to realize, is collapsing. Our Song (1988) is a vivid portrayal of a desperate advertising executive’s desperate love for an undeserving woman.

Among his more lighthearted fictions, several strike a nostalgic note. In the Mood (1983), for instance, is about three Yorkshire boys who scheme to get to London for the Festival of Britain in 1951: the mood they are in is one of sexual readiness. Soho (2001) is a tribute to Soho as it was when Waterhouse first came to London; its protagonist is a northern naif, from Leeds, come south to find his girl and discovering instead, or in addition, a rich feast of London experiences and characters.

Another strain is of SATIRE, usually fairly good-humored, as in Unsweet Charity (1992), an exaggerated look at the English middle-class propensity for fundraising, Good Grief (1997), about the whole array of services surrounding death and its aftermath, and Bimbo (1990), the pretended autobiography of Debra Chase, a famous topless model for tabloid newspapers. Debra is reminiscent of Sharon and Tracy, two frequent topics for his newspaper columns, collected in Sharon & Tracy & the Rest (1992), the best of his columns.

Waterhouse was taken by George and Weedon GROSSMITH’s classic comic novel, The Diary of a Nobody; around it he has built Mr. and Mrs. Nobody (a play, 1992), Mrs. Pooter’s Diary (comic diary, 1983), and The Collected Letters of a Nobody (1986). Another of his plays built on an adaptation is Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (1989), an extremely popular work based on Bernard’s weekly column about his difficult life.

Waterhouse has had a long successful career as a playwright, which began with the adaptation of Billy Liar for the stage, in 1961, in partnership with his childhood friend and, from that time forward, longtime collaborator Willis Hall. So prolific that for a time they were called “The Writing Factory,” Waterhouse and Hall followed the first play with Celebration (1961), All Things Bright and Beautiful (1963), Come Laughing Home (1966)—all on working-class Leeds themes—and a great many more successful plays. They include some very adept and funny farces, such as Say Who You Are (perf. 1965; pub. 1966), Who’s Who (perf. 1968; pub. 1974), Whoops-a-Daisy (perf. 1968; pub. 1978), and Children’s Day (perf. 1969; pub. 1975), as well as England, Our England (1964), a revue obviously inspired in part by the success of Beyond the Fringe.

Waterhouse’s continuous newspaper work has produced Waterhouse at Large (1985), another collection of his work, and two books on writing style, one of which began as an attempt to update the stylebook for the Daily Mail. Recently, he has written two volumes of memoirs:

City Lights: A Street Life (1994) and Streets Ahead: Life after City Lights (1995), both finely evocative and informative accounts of his career.

Waterhouse is clearly a sort of virtuoso. His critical reception has been mixed. The very fecundity of his output; the fact that he usually writes humor; and a quality that seems to make him a man’s writer whom women sometimes find irritating: all have qualified his critical esteem. Thus, Julie Burchill sums him up as a “grumbling old geezer” with stodgy and misogynist attitudes. Critic Auberon WAUGH, on the other hand, regularly named him the best living English writer.

Bibliography Gray, N., The Silent Majority: A Study of the Working Class in Post-War British Fiction (1973); Schlueter P., “K. W.,” in Oldsey, B., ed., British Novelists, 1930–1959, part 2, DLB 15 (1983): 559–69

Merritt Moseley

© 2006 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd

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