Reader, I married him

The Deborah Ross Interview: Keith Waterhouse is a man of parts - a writer, wit, bon viveur and guardian of the English language. So what to do when he decides you were meant for each other? Why, sort out the wedding list, naturally
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The Independent Culture
It's late afternoon in Gerry's Bar, one of those basement Soho drinking-clubs which are crammed with framed theatrical posters that are either clever at swimming up and down the walls, or are trying to say: Deborah Ross is Unwell and Should Get Home Promptly. (Soon to be seen in the West End, starring that remarkable Ms Ross lookalike, Olive from On the Buses.) I am determined to make my excuses and leave while dignity is still an option but then something happens which, journalistically, I feel I must stay for. "More champagne?" asks my escort, the writer Keith Waterhouse. "Oh, go on then!" I cry, in my strong-willed, self-disciplined way.

The talk at the bar has meandered from the most beautiful woman ever ("I'd lay my life down for Lauren Bacall," sighs Keith) through to his great play, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, and who it was who gave the best performance as Jeff.

"O'Toole was definitive," insists Keith.

"Jeff thought Dennis Waterman very good," says a bloke who, later, proudly introduces himself as "the man who executively produced the film If..."

"Jeff hated Tom Conti," says Mike, the bar owner, who sports a Bee Gee hairdo.

"That's because he didn't keep vodka in his dressing-room and wouldn't give Jeff a drink," says Keith.

"I always fancied Tuesday Weld," says Mike.

"I've always had a thing for Princess Margaret," says Keith.

"So have I!" exclaims If...

"Is there still an Odeon in Muswell Hill?" asks a little man in a camel- hair coat, somewhat surreally.

"I always wanted Tuesday Weld to marry Frederick March III," says Mike. "Because then she'd be Tuesday March III."

We all laugh our tanked-up laughs. Well, I say "we", but what I really mean is "I". I don't think booze really affects these blokes any more, because they are so used to it. Do you ever get properly drunk, Keith? "No. Nor do I get hangovers." The wonder, I suppose, is that they don't get bored. They probably spent yesterday afternoon like this, and will do it again tomorrow. Perhaps it's their hobby. Perhaps it's like asking a stamp collector why he doesn't get fed up collecting stamps. Still, you can see why none of their marriages ever succeeds. Marriage is not something they need, or have time for. Would you agree with this, Keith? "Yes. Although I have only come to realise it quite belatedly. More champagne?" "I've had quite enough, thank you", is what I try to say but, peculiarly, the words seem to come out as: "Oh, go on then."

I meet Keith, initially, at the Groucho Club at 1pm. As I'm coming down the street, I spot him coming from the opposite direction. He looks like a magnificently sad old clown - he's now 70 - with mad hair billowing. He keeps it long, he says, because "I can't stand barbers. I hate being trapped by them, having to respond to their talk, so I just don't go." He strives, in fact, to be quite stingy on the conversational front. He likes to save his best lines for his work, he says. "I'm never instantaneously witty. It's like strewing pounds 5 notes in the street." I say that's a good remark in itself. What do I owe you? A tenner? "At least," he replies, in his still sober, serious, rather mournful way.

He orders a glass of champagne. Then another. Then another. I tell him I'd heard that going to lunch with him was known as "doing a Captain Oates" because people say "I may be some time", then don't reappear until a week on Thursday. "That's greatly exaggerated," he replies, crossly. "Although it is true that when I was at the Mirror, if someone was having lunch with me they were told not to bother coming back in the afternoon." He lists "lunch" as his only recreation in Who's Who. What's the perfect lunch, Keith? "One with a beautiful woman you get to sleep with afterwards." Well, that's me off the hook, at least. Although, that said, people have found that the more they drink, the less I look like Olive. I have even been known, over the years, to score quite successfully in this way.

We go through to eat. More champagne. A bottle of white wine. He doesn't stint on this front, and doesn't like people who do. He says he once had lunch with Walt Disney in Hollywood. He was magnificently tight. "He ordered one bottle of wine between five of us. Then, afterwards, he said: `As we haven't got to do any work this afternoon, let's have another half bottle!'"

Keith says he is in rude health, though. He hasn't, he says, ever once had to have a morning off from writing owing to illness - he works for four hours every morning, including Christmas Day. He thinks he's going to be the drop-dead sort. He'll be going along happily, then, ker-plunk!, and that's it. He is keen to go this way. "I don't want to expire with a load of tubes up my nose."

I note, though, that he has quite a bad cough. Hack, hack, it goes. "I've had it ever since I gave up smoking 20 years ago," he explains. Are you rich, Keith? "Yes." You know, I've always found myself inexplicably drawn to rich old men with bad coughs. Shall we get married? "OK. But, I should warn you, I do not do the school run. More champagne?" Oh, go on then.

I do think that, as a writer, he is horribly underrated. Although originally a journalist, who still writes a twice-weekly column for the Daily Mail, he has also written some fine books (including that great classic, Billy Liar), film scripts (Billy Liar, Whistle Down the Wind, A Kind of Loving, Torn Curtain for Alfred Hitchcock, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) and plays - Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell and, now, Bing-Bong!, a comedy about the nature of comedy which has taken him two years to get off the ground because "there are jokes about breast cancer in it".

What makes you laugh, Keith? "I laugh at what's funny. The absurdity of life. Jack Straw taking on an 11-year-old spitter while being accompanied by his armed detectives. That's funny."

I wonder if he isn't taken as seriously as he might be because, aside from being able to do so many things, he is essentially a comic writer. Possibly, he says, although it's odd because "comedy is just a funny way of being serious". Still, he insists that he has no wish to be part of the literary establishment. So you wouldn't like to win the Booker, say? "Who is Booker anyway?" I think he has something to do with sugar. "Well, I don't want a prize from someone who has something to do with sugar," he says.

He was born and brought up in Leeds. His father, Ernest, was a hard-drinking costermonger who dreamed of one day "having a stall in the market and being cucumber king of Leeds". I say it's a great word, "costermonger". It's a shame it's not widely used any more. Keith agrees. Keith is something of an expert when it comes to word usage, having written a definitive book on the subject. I ask whether it annoys him when people, say, misuse the word "aggravate"? "Does it aggravate me, you mean?" Yes. "No. I'm more annoyed by people who are pedantically annoyed. What concerns me more are people like Glenn Hoddle." Why? "He can't express himself." Why? "Too stupid, I imagine." And you're offended by stupidity? "Yes. Because it's a condition that can be worked on. You can at least try to think."

His father died when he was three, maybe four. Keith is quite vague about dates. He has only one memory of the man. "He was standing in front of the fireplace in a brown suit, and my sister asked him for a ha'penny. He dug into his pocket and threw all his coins across the floor. He was pissed, of course, although I didn't know it at the time. We all scrambled for the money which, upsettingly, mother made us give to her." When Ernest died, his estate was worth one ha'penny, which went to Keith. "I spent it on a sherbet dab, I think."

Keith was precociously literate. He could read fluently at three - "my favourite book was Pankydoodle Pie Face, which was about cats" - and was dispatched to school a year early. Still, he ended up failing his 11-plus. How come? "Arrogance. I assumed I'd get in and that they would want someone like me." He went, instead, to the College of Commerce where he did shorthand and typing. The college was a good thing, he says, because it had girls in it and "it prompted my discovery of them". He first had sex on Ilkley Moor when he was 17. It was OK. "It's just, really, a hurdle one has to get over, this going from fantasy to actuality."

He has been married twice, first at 21 - "ridiculously early" - just before he came to London to work for the Daily Mirror. He has three children from this marriage, whom he says he is close to. The second, to a journalist, lasted just a few years. More recently, he lived with a woman who was also his personal assistant, and who attempted to take him to an industrial tribunal once the affair was over. "He was a monster to live with," she said. He also, she said, made her serve champagne wearing a basque. Not knowing much about these things, I ask Keith what a basque is exactly, and whether it has anything to do with terrorism. He says: "It was settled out of court. And one of the conditions was that neither of us talk about it." I ask if he ever gets lonely. "No." He adds that he goes out every night, and if he doesn't have a date as such, he'll go to the Garrick. "There's always someone worth talking to there, and several who aren't." It occurs to me now that this clubby stuff may, in fact, be less a hobby, more an addiction for those who can't seem to have proper relationships. I'm not saying I feel sad for these people. Just that there is a gap somewhere.

We stroll down Dean Street to Gerry's Bar, which opens at 3pm. Unfortunately we're a few minutes early, and the door is locked. "Fuck!" exclaims Keith, whose command of English seems to evaporate in extreme situations. He kicks the door. Thankfully, Mike, who's been at the hairdresser having a blow-dry, turns up with the key. Keith introduces me as his "bride to be". "Oh good," says Mike. "Can I be worst man?" We tumble tipsily down the steps, though when I say "we", I of course mean "I".

"Keith `weak bladder' Waterhouse needs a pee," Keith announces loudly, once he's settled at the bar. He then whispers to me: "Don't worry, I won't wake you when I get up in the night. Only when I get back!" At some point I get home, though at what point and how remains somewhat mysterious. I think we agreed to have our wedding list at Oddbins.

`Bing-Bong!' opens at The Gateway Theatre, Chester, on Friday 5 March. Box Office: 01244 340392