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Keith Waterhouse Dies at 80

Keith Waterhouse, the celebrated novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and newspaper columnist, dubbed the King of Fleet Street by his peers, died on September 4 at the age of 80. Waterhouse, who achieved fame with his 1959 novel, Billy Liar, had a special connection to Buffalo, as his son Robert, is the artistic director of the New Phoenix Theatre here, and his 1989 play, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, was a successful vehicle for David Lamb, who played the role, created in London by Peter O’Toole, twice at the Kavinoky Theatre, under the younger Waterhouse’s direction.

Keith Waterhouse

The elder Waterhouse also wrote a stage version of Billy Liar (with Willis Hall), based on his breakthrough novel, as well as the books for the musicals The Card, starring Jim Dale and Millicent Martin, and Budge, and many other works. For the screen, he wrote Whistle Down the Wind and A Kind of Loving.

Based on Waterhouse’s own experiences working for a funeral director, Billy Liar is a British Walter Mitty, an English teenager who lives an uncommonly rich fantasy life. The story captured the public imagination and is considered a seminal work in English culture, for the original novel, for the 1960 stage version starring Albert Finney, and for the 1963 film version, which was directed by John Schlesinger, starring Tom Courtenay and a young Julie Christie. The musical version, 1974’s Billy, had a notable visual style borrowed for another Northern English story, Billy Elliott, several years later.

Waterhouse’s greatest success for the theater, however, was Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, a work inspired by his alcoholic colleague, newspaper columnist Jeffrey Bernard. The title was borrowed from the notice that The New Statesman newspaper ran on the frequent occasions when Bernard was too drunk or too hung over to write his column.

In the play, Bernard finds himself locked in a pub after closing, and uses the circumstance as an opportunity to regale the audience with his wit and insight. The set for the production was a recreation of the Coach and Horses pub in the Soho area of London; Robert Waterhouse reports that the establishment held a minute’s silence in memory of his father. A triumph, both for Waterhouse and O’Toole, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell won the Evening Standard Award as Comedy of the Year in 1990. David Lamb won an Artie Award for his performance of the role at the Kavinoky in 1994, and Robert Waterhouse was nominated for his direction. Keith Waterhouse traveled to Buffalo to see the production, was lavish in his praise and charmed everyone he met.

Waterhouse wrote his final biweekly column for The Daily Mail in May, after 23 years.

Robert Waterhouse, who directed Freud and the Sandman for the opening of the current New Phoenix Theatre season, has felt notably private since the death of his father, and will return to England for the funeral. Keith is also survived by Bob’s sister, Sarah, and his companion and former wife, Stella.