How we met: 50. Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse

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The Independent Culture
Writers Willis Hall (63) and Keith Waterhouse (63) were both born in Leeds. They first worked together 32 years ago when they turned Waterhouse's novel Billy Liar into a play, which they followed with screenplay adaptations of Whistle Down the Wind and A Kind of Loving. Now on the GCSE curriculum, Billy Liar is the National Theatre's travelling production this autumn. Waterhouse, who also wrote the hit play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, has two ex-wives and now lives in Brighton with his girlfriend. Hall has been married to his fourth wife since 1973. They live in Yorkshire.

WILLIS HALL: We met at the Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel Youth Club and were immediately linked in our quest for girls. Keith will insist on calling it a church, but it isn't and it's still there, bang in the middle of Leeds. The club was run by a very democratic, pipe-smoking parson who didn't often mention religion - we were all different denominations, and Keith and I persuaded him to start a magazine, which we edited.

The place was seething with girls - I seem to recall the Methodist ones being the best. You could be of National Service age and still find new girls to meet; it was a cornucopia. Keith and I both lived in Hunslet, on the outskirts of Leeds, so the first question we always asked was 'Where do you live?' - mindful of the last tram. Then you'd take the girl home - ever hopeful - and not have too far to walk back to your own place.

Things were pretty moral in those days and you didn't get lucky very often: on the whole, the girls were both virtuous and foul-mouthed. The posh ones worked at C & A and the less so at Woolworth's, in factories or at Montague Burton's. My favourite place to lure them was a spinney called Morley Bottoms, which became Foley Bottoms in Billy Liar.

After that, Keith and I lost touch while I joined the regular army for a few years in the Far East and wrote fairy stories for Chinese children on Radio Malaya while my comrades were shooting Communists. When I returned to England, I had some success with my play The Long and the Short and the Tall. Then I rang Keith to say why not turn his novel Billy Liar into a play; he'd never thought of it. I'd set up a small office in Mayfair - nothing smart, but I thought I should have a secretary and there was no room for one in my flat. The day Keith came over, we went out and bought two new Adler typewriters - huge metallic things like buses, one of which Keith still uses. I've now graduated to an electric, but we don't touch word processors, ugh, no.

Collaborating came easily to us. We have the same temperament, which I think comes from having the same poverty-stricken Hunslet roots. Peter O'Toole's another Hunslet boy. Our parents drank in the same pub, though my family was considered quite well off because our house had a scullery and his didn't. Mind you, we all had outside lavatories until Keith got really posh and moved to a house on the local council estate which had a bath to keep the coal in.

Peter went to the Roman Catholic School; I went to Cockburn High and then Keith went on to Leeds College of Commerce, where he learnt typing and shorthand. We didn't do a stroke of work because we were totally distracted by girls and our desire to become writers and escape from Hunslet. In those days you spent your teens waiting to grow up - to be big enough to borrow your dad's clothes. All you ever really did was ape your elders from about the age of 14, and then aim to get married and wear a trilby.

We were earning a bit of money from local papers by the time we were 13, writing lists of mourners at funerals - particularly Keith, who later worked for a funeral parlour. We'd be paid threepence an inch. Our pinnacle of ambition was to be published in a local magazine called A Basinful of Fun, which published jokes and little stories, but we always got our stories sent back again.

I remember that magazine, as well as a book of horror tales and the family medical book, which was kept hidden because it was rude. Otherwise, we had no books in the house. My dad, who was an engineering fitter, didn't see the need for them, and they'd have had to be kept in a cupboard because there wasn't room anywhere else. Questions were asked if you came home with two library books, and they reckoned reading sent you blind anyway.

I was never conscious of being poor, just of never having any money. I don't think it makes you more careful if you come from a poor family - in fact, I think you're more inclined to waste money and throw it into life's fruit machine.

KEITH WATERHOUSE: Willis and I seem to be fated to bump into each other. The first time was at Mill Hill Youth Club - a sort of juvenile Groucho Club, but a lot cheaper. Then, when I was in the RAF for National Service and Willis was in the Army by choice, we'd meet at York station, with Willis en route to Catterick or somewhere. Since then, it's been the Garrick Club, often with near-fatal consequences: Willis once hit his head on a taxi and ended up in University College Hospital with 12 stitches. He rang me at seven the next morning and sounded quite cross.

Though we now live at opposite ends of the country, scarcely a day goes by when we don't talk. I had to ring Willis last week for technical advice on laundry in the Army, and of course he knew the answer. Our friendship has been one of recreation and work-avoidance, really. When we had our office in Mayfair we'd work from nine until 12.30 in the morning, and then go out to places like the Treetrunk Club, Tommy's or the George and Pussy, and get blind roaring drunk until 2am. I'm sure that's why we don't drive.

I've got a licence, but am really only safe in the mornings. The Army attempted to teach Willis to drive and then gave up. By far the most dangerous car journey we've ever had was a day out in Disneyland with Gladys Cooper, when we were in Los Angeles writing the screenplay of Torn Curtain for Alfred Hitchcock. She was about 92 at the time and went on every Disneyland ride. But we scented danger on the way home, when Gladys asked if we were on the freeway while she was still driving across the parking lot. She was too vain to wear her spectacles at the wheel, so she first drove us into a farmer's field and then on to the railroad tracks that run adjacent to Santa Monica Boulevard, where we were pursued by a train. We ended up swimming in Hitchcock's pool with her stark naked - it was a great day out. I think that was the trip when Willis and I were included as an attraction on the Universal Studios tour. The tourist bus would stop outside our trailer and a guide would announce: 'Here are two writers at work,' and we would wave.

Hitchcock treated his writers much better than his actors and we had a bigger trailer than Paul Newman. We had a secretary who arrived early every morning and sharpened two mugfuls of pencils that we'd feel obliged to use, and she'd stand by waiting for armfuls of revised scripts.

The Hollywood outings were fun. We'd just go out there and be met by limousine at the airport. We'd know our contracts had expired when the limo disappeared and the hotel asked ominously if the bar bill was on our personal account.

Our other halves didn't come with us. We've tended to keep work and wives separate, so we've never gone on family holidays together - perish the thought. As for attending one another's weddings - well, we've never wanted to intrude on another's grief.

Though we didn't often visit the set when our projects were being made into films, we did hang around when Billy Liar was being filmed. That's because of Julie Christie, whom everybody fell in love with. She wrote to me a few years ago about a cause she was supporting and began the letter, 'You probably won't remember me but . . .' As if I could ever forget her]

Willis and I once had a memorable lunch with Walt Disney at the Connaught. He ordered a bottle of wine between five of us, so Willis and I were holding our empty glasses up to the light after a pretty short time. As it was Walt's birthday, he ordered another half-bottle. Fortified by this extra glass, we decided to suck up to him, and started to sing the praises of Mickey Mouse. Facing us with a terrible look, Walt Disney snarled, 'I've had that fucking mouse on my back all my life]' It's a great surprise to me that Willis still wears a Mickey Mouse watch.-

(Photograph omitted)

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