Keith Waterhouse: The writer is alive and well

At 77, 'Daily Mail' columnist Keith Waterhouse is still bursting with opinions - and bashing out his copy on a typewriter. Ian Burrell enjoys an audience with a legend

Keith Waterhouse sits before his trusted Adler typewriter, with a folio of foolscap rolled into place and the tiers of "nice and chunky" keys awaiting their daily contact with the 77-year-old but unflagging fingertips that will shortly be punching out what could fairly be described as an obituary.

Waterhouse is one of the greats: a writer of West End plays (including Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell), best-selling books (Billy Liar), Bafta-nominated films (Whistle Down the Wind) and landmark television programmes (Worzel Gummidge), but above all a newspaper columnist with a following that runs into millions. His work has been enjoyed by generations of readers, not only as a source of entertainment but also as a tool of education for the young and as a bar of excellence for aspirant colleagues.

The ode to a fallen friend that he has before him may not be easy to write. It is not a death notice as such, but a theatre production in which Waterhouse will be bidding farewell to one of his great loves, the spiritual home of British print journalism. "I'm writing a play called The Last Page," he explains. "It's about the death of Fleet Street. I won't tell you any more about it because I know very little about it myself at the moment."

The title is a reference to possibly the greatest dramatic representation of the culture of news journalism, The Front Page, the comic play that has been adapted for feature films no fewer than four times. .

"I was going to call it The Back Page, but I thought that sounded too much like the sports page, a subject I know nothing about," Waterhouse says. The Front Page was written by the Chicago journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in 1928, the year before Waterhouse was born into an upbringing of extreme hardship in Leeds. Three years later, the play was a smash on Broadway and Waterhouse's father, a hard-drinking costermonger, was dead at 50, leaving the family, in the words of the writer himself, "ridiculously, almost unbelievably, poor".

Somehow the young Waterhouse, driven by an unwavering sense of vocation, managed to navigate his way via a newspaper round and clerical jobs to a position on the Yorkshire Evening Post and thence to Fleet Street, where he made his name on the Daily Mirror.

In those early days, Waterhouse wore spectacles, sucked on a pipe and sported a spiral coil of red hair. Now, in the era of digital media, his locks are wisps of grey that reach to his shoulders, and his contact with his newspaper, the Daily Mail, is via "that infernal machine", a laptop computer that sits on his desk alongside the Adler and is operated for him by his ex-wife Stella Bingham. "Whatever that thing does, e-mail yes, that's it," he adds, in a reluctant acknowledgement of the worldwide web.

Still filing two Mail columns a week, Waterhouse rises in time to be in his office ("the word factory") by 8am, sits at his desk ("the work bench", "the lathe") and begins the process of composing 1,000 words in sufficient time to allow himself to do justice to the one hobby he lists in Who's Who ("lunch").

The prospect of a hearty repast does not prevent him from having a good bottle of white wine on the go by 11am and he shares this with the same generosity that earned him the lasting respect not only of notorious Soho bon viveur Jeffrey Bernard but also of Peter O'Toole, others at the raffish end of the theatrical set, and innumerable fellow scribes whom he drank with in famous Fleet Street hostelries such as Ye Old Bell, the Punch Tavern and the Daily Mirror haunt, the White Hart (aka The Stab in the Back).

Not that he wants his new play to be a mere celebration of the good old days of British print media, "Oh, no." Waterhouse is a master at nostalgia, using his powers of recollection to pepper his copy with the sights and sounds of bygone eras. Some say he does it to excess. "I'm often accused of 'over-nostalgicising' the pudding. Some talk as if I wrote about nothing but tram tickets, but it's not really column by column that I write about ye olde days, and if I do it's to make a point about the present."

Though he monitors changing social trends through the press, the former television scriptwriter has little time for the small screen, except to watch the BBC News 24 channel and Coronation Street. "It's going down the nick," he says of the soap.

He is kinder about The West Wing, which he has acquired as a video box set and is finding "compulsive". As long ago as 1963, Waterhouse wrote a satire called Office Life, and he says he has watched the success of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant with a tinge of regret. "I remember thinking, I should have done that."

A month off his 78th birthday, Waterhouse is still a key member of that elite group of opinion-formers known as "the commentariat". He cites Simon Jenkins of The Guardian as a first port of call when he is looking for analysis of a major news story. He is less complimentary towards one of Jenkins's colleagues. "Polly Toynbee goes around sounding like she knows something but she doesn't know anything at all. You always have the impression when you read her stuff that she's just hopped off a bicycle with a report under her arm which she's got from the press office. The old question of 'Why are these lying bastards lying to me?' never seems to occur to her at all."

Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail is a pal of Waterhouse's but the old-timer's praise carries a hint of the "could do better" about it: "He's a bit of a one-note man, Littlejohn, but he's very good at doing what he's doing."

Waterhouse has not caught the blogging bug. Having compared the blogerati ("nerds, anoraks and braces-wearers of the worst sort") to office jokers of a previous era, he returned to the fray in his Mail column recently, extending his attack to citizen journalists. "Most so-called citizen journalists are a disgrace to the profession they would belong to if only they were allowed in it," he wrote.

Waterhouse had to earn his shining spurs and he does not give praise cheaply. One Daily Mirror veteran said that the two words "very good" - uttered by Waterhouse in a terse compliment - amounted to his most cherished moment in a 14-year stint on the paper.

Although the What the Papers Say judges recently named Richard Wallace's Mirror as Newspaper of the Year, Waterhouse has little time for the title that was his home for 35 years. "I class it with the other red-tops. There used to be some calculation that it took seven minutes to read a tabloid. Now it takes about two. But [readers] used to like a longer read. When John Pilger was on the paper he was doing pieces of 10,000 words, and readers read them."

Asked if he's a fan of Pilger, Waterhouse stalls, perhaps uncomfortable with the notion of being a fan of another journalist, or at least a living one. "He's an old friend. I wouldn't say I was a fan. He's very professional and I admire professionalism."

He doubts that the Mirror or any red-top will ever again find an audience for the serious journalism with which it was once associated. "I think that's gone. I don't think [the readers] know what it is any more. Piers Morgan wanted to do [serious journalism] but Piers is not, essentially, a serious person anyway. He came up through showbiz journalism and he was a very good showbiz journalist. But that's where all his instincts lie, in that direction."

One former colleague for whom he clearly has a lot of respect is the legendary Daily Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp, whose contribution to journalism is recognised in a memorial lecture delivered today by Waterhouse's current editor, Paul Dacre. Almost as soon as he arrived in Fleet Street, Waterhouse was "adopted" by Cudlipp, after writing a front-page story on the domestic murder of a girl in Brighton. "I put myself down to her height, which was 3ft 10in, and found that standing at that height on tip toe you could barely see the sea right across the hill. It was the intro. 'Standing on tiptoe, Maria could just about see the sea.' Hugh Cudlipp took to this sentence and adopted me as a result of it. He became a great friend and mentor."

When in 1986, Waterhouse left the Mirror for the Mail, it shocked Fleet Street. Though by now a famous novelist and playwright he was still seen as a voice for and of the working classes. The reason for his departure was the single, though not inconsiderable, figure of Robert Maxwell.

When the infamous Cap'n Bob (a nickname Waterhouse fashioned for the former army man) pitched up at the Mirror, the star columnist insisted on meeting him on neutral ground. Maxwell turned up with files containing allegations of trades union corruption that he hoped would inspire a Waterhouse column, but was told: "No, Mr Maxwell - you work for me. You produce the paper in which I write. I am like a music hall act - I am top of the bill at the Palladium ... but there is always the Coliseum."

Waterhouse was soon looking for new billing. "The Mirror had become Cap'n Bob's paper and he didn't mind what you put in, so long as it was about him."

Sure enough, the Coliseum (ie the Daily Mail) came calling in the shape of editor David English, who took Waterhouse out to lunch at the Savoy. English had changed a page of that day's Mail to replicate the style of Waterhouse's Mirror column, a gesture that was duly noted by Waterhouse but mentioned by neither man.

Since then Waterhouse has been at the Mail, where he says he has retained his independence. "I've always said I don 't work for the Mail, the Mail works for me. The reply I gave to Cap'n Bob."

The primary purpose of a Keith Waterhouse column, he says, is to hold the reader's attention. "I would say it was to entertain. Not in the juggling sense but in the way that you would entertain a friend when you receive him at home; you tell him what's on your mind, or what you heard on the news or what gossip you've heard. I think the object is to keep the reader occupied."

And so on he goes, changing the ribbon, inserting the foolscap and pounding the keys. He works every day - if he has no column deadline then he develops a novel or a play. He is anything but slapdash. When at the Mirror he was so apprehensive about each piece that he had to retch before starting to write. Even now he will do draft and redraft, scratching at the copy with a pen. He won't allow the sub-editors to change a single comma. And if his old Adler gives up before he does, he has a Remington in reserve.

Like the blogerati, Keith Waterhouse - courtesy of the Mail website - is now being read in cyberspace, though he is determined it won't alter his working methods. "Yes, everything is online these days," he observes. "www, waterhouse ... or something."

Keith Waterhouse can be read at Paul Dacre gives the Hugh Cudlipp Lecture tonight at the London College of Communication, London SE1, at 7.30

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