Cherry cake at the Ritz
Fleet Street lives again in Keith Waterhouse's affectionate memoir. By Jeremy Lewis; Streets Ahead by Keith Waterhouse Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 16.99
Saturday 21 October 1995
Despite the long lunches, Waterhouse quickly made his mark - consorting with "Cassandra'' and the London editor of Beano, writing provocative readers' letters, tactfully adjusting the astrologer's predictions so as not to inflame a susceptible Mirror director, and chasing stories to fit headlines concocted in advance by the features editor ("CAN WOMEN BE TRUSTED WITH MONEY?"). Before long he was making trips abroad and, in his spare time, writing his first novel. After its publication, he decided to go freelance, and Hugh Cudlipp offered him a retainer to write a twice weekly column. It's still running in the Daily Mail to which he transferred during the Maxwell years.
Waterhouse's second novel, Billy Liar, was not only a success in its own right, but made its author a rich man after he and Willis Hall - whom he had known in Leeds - had adapted it for stage and screen; and from now on the two men, who referred to themselves as the Word Factory, were to produce a stream of scripts, from films (A Kind of Loving, Whistle Down the Wind) to Worzel Gummidge and That Was the Week that Was. As is so often the case, alas, worldly success, and the rather breathless world of showbiz, prove a good deal less amenable to autobiography than the early years of struggle and obscurity. We're treated to evocations of New York and San Francisco which add little to what one has read already; long forgotten shows are dusted down, and accompanying quotes exhumed ("It was back to mixed reviews again"); compared with the colourful Fleet Street pages, the second half of the book seems blander and more perfunctory. Waterhouse comes across as a likeable and congenial cove, all too easily lured into buying another round, but his private life receives as short shrift in print as in real life, and the years between the Sixties and Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell spin by in a couple of pages. That said, it's good to report an encounter with Walt Disney in Los Angeles. The meeting got off to a sticky start when Waterhouse slipped in a compliment to Mickey Mouse, provoking a diatribe about that "blanketty'' mouse; nor were matters improved by there being only one bottle of wine among five. Eventually, Disney took the hint from his thirsty visitors, slapped the desk and shouted "Hell, it's the weekend - why don't we kill another bottle!" That's the kind of stuff one wants to hear.
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