Invisible Ink: No 175 - Bill Naughton

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The Independent Culture

It's surprising how many writers who were born around the time of the First World War really hit their stride after the end of the Second. Bill Naughton was born into relative poverty in County Mayo, Ireland, in 1910, and moved to Bolton, Lancashire, where he worked as a lorry driver and a weaver. After the Second World War, the arts in Britain were pushing away from cut-crystal portrayals of upper-middle class life, and starting to take inspiration from the lives of ordinary working-class men and women. Naughton used his background to explore issues of family, religion, and community in novels such as A Roof Over Your Head and One Small Boy.

His radio play, June Evening, adapted and televised in 1960, was probably the one with the most lasting effect. At the time it caused a sensation as an early "kitchen sink" TV play, nine months before Coronation Street began. Naughton had reason to be convinced that Granada stole his idea of setting a story around a single fictitious Lancashire street with a corner shop.

With the "swinging Sixties" approaching, Naughton found himself belatedly capturing the national zeitgeist and chronicling the changing times, especially in relation to sex. Spring and Port Wine revealed the stress-cracks in the traditional family, then there was Alfie, the adventures of a Cockney Casanova who couldn't take his life or his women seriously. It began as a radio play and cemented Michael Caine's reputation in its film incarnation. Naughton's play All in Good Time was also filmed as The Family Way with Hywel Bennett (with a Paul McCartney score). The latter concerned a young couple's inability to consummate their marriage because of family pressures. Both were unnecessarily remade in recent years, while Alfie spawned a negligible sequel, Alfie Darling, in 1970.

While he was producing plays, novels and memorable short stories such as "The Goalkeeper's Revenge", Naughton also kept a diary that he said would one day provide the key to all of his writing, to be entitled The Dream Mind. To date, this has never been published. If we place him beside Beckett, Pinter, Orton, and Osborne as one of the key literary figures of post-war years, it's surprising how little of his work has remained in print. Certainly, many now consider Alfie's attitude toward women repellent by today's standards, but perhaps the answer lies within Coronation Street, which evolved from neo-realist roots to become a ludicrously camp parody of Northern life.