Willis Hall

Playwright collaborator of Keith Waterhouse
Click to follow

For a writer with a lifelong absorption in magic - he was a proud member of the Magic Circle and his awareness of the potency of magic undoubtedly contributed to his success as a writer for children and to his genius for portraying the landscape of childhood and adolescence - it was pleasingly apposite that one of Willis Hall's finest jobs was a new musical (with the Mary Poppins team of George Stiles and Anthony Drew) of Peter Pan (2000).

Willis Hall, writer: born Leeds 6 April 1929; married (four sons); died Ilkley, West Yorkshire 7 March 2005.

For a writer with a lifelong absorption in magic - he was a proud member of the Magic Circle and his awareness of the potency of magic undoubtedly contributed to his success as a writer for children and to his genius for portraying the landscape of childhood and adolescence - it was pleasingly apposite that one of Willis Hall's finest jobs was a new musical (with the Mary Poppins team of George Stiles and Anthony Drew) of Peter Pan (2000).

Keith Waterhouse, his almost exact contemporary, friend from teenage years and regular collaborator over nearly half a century, recalled his own Leeds childhood and adolescence with magical detail in City Lights (1994). Sadly Hall never wrote his autobiography; it would surely have been an equally rich, densely Proustian, recall of a city gradually emerging from the slightly decaying Edwardian grandeur of an industrial metropolis, to become, shortly before he left it, a modern city of new buildings and 1950s wonders like the Moo Cow Milk Bar.

Hall, like Waterhouse, was a Hunslet boy, from that vanished townscape of back-to-backs with outside lavatories. Hall's family, he liked to boast, had one up on Waterhouse's - they had a scullery - until the Waterhouses got really posh and moved to the local council estate "which had a bath to keep the coal in".

Educated at Leeds Cockburn High School, Hall was a voracious reader from the earliest years even although there were no books at home except the family medical book ("kept hidden because it was rude. Questions were asked if you came home with two library books"). He met Waterhouse at Mill Hill Youth Club (according to the latter, "a sort of juvenile Groucho Club but a lot cheaper") and they were immediately linked by their quest for girls and a shared passion for writing. Even in their early teens they were competing to contribute to local magazines and papers (paying 3d an inch for such glamorous prose as lists of funeral mourners).

The adolescent Hall also had a passion for the theatre, and Leeds City Varieties, with its seductively smoky bar, all plush divans and walls plastered with photographs of music-hall greats, was his special haunt, not least because on occasion such exotica as the stripper Phyllis Dixey or reviews with titles like "We Never Clothed" would play the venue. But it was there also that he caught acts such as Max Wall (both he and Waterhouse loved his darker, self-depreciating comedy), Robb Wilton, Max Miller and his idol of the time, the port-voiced master of Grand Guignol, Todd Slaughter.

Writing began in earnest for Hall when he joined the Army in the Far East. Here he found escape from the routine of rooting out Communism in writing fairy stories for Chinese children on local radio, and he also began work on a play with an army background set in Malaya. On his return to the UK in 1957 it was produced, under the title Disciplines of War, at the Edinburgh Festival by an amateur group, leading to a professional mounting at Nottingham Playhouse under the scarcely more alluring title Boys, It's All Hell.

The play struck a chord with the young English Stage Company at the Royal Court in London, where its director Lindsay Anderson briskly changed the title to The Long and the Short and the Tall (1959). Anderson's Diaries have an unintentionally comic description of his visit ("for research") to Hall's father in Hunslet with Hall and Albert Finney, with the outsider figure of Anderson sitting in the local pub reading The Optimistic Tragedy - "in French" - while the northern trio played pontoon till last orders.

However, Anderson's production was true to the play's tough, acerbic humour and the jagged authenticity of its language; it was also superbly cast, with Robert Shaw and another Hunslet boy, Peter O'Toole, in a strong company. Its Sloane Square success - it struck a chord with younger audiences similar to that of Look Back in Anger at the same address - saw its commercial transfer (New, 1959) and a later film version. (The movie's producers unaccountably dumped Anderson and reduced the role of Bamforth - a part equal to Jimmy Porter or any of the New Wave "anti-heroes" - to the smug neutrality of Laurence Harvey.)

It was Hall who resumed contact with Waterhouse - in Fleet Street after National Service and The Yorkshire Post and fresh from the success of his novel Billy Liar - to suggest ("There's a play in there screaming to be let out") collaboration on its dramatisation.

It was an ideal collaborative symbiosis and not just because of their shared background. They had a similar attitude to the world (scepticism) and a similar distrust of technology (typewriter they could cope with, but both would remain strangers to the world of IT) and, perhaps wisely in view of their enthusiasm for protracted and far from alcohol-free lunches, neither drove. (In Hollywood once, working for Alfred Hitchcock on the Torn Curtain screenplay, they narrowly escaped death when being driven by the redoubtable actress Gladys Cooper, aged 82, too vain to wear her glasses.)

Billy Liar (Cambridge, 1960) with Anderson directing and with Albert Finney as the engaging young "hero" with one foot in his drab northern life and the other in the fantasy world of his mythical kingdom of Ambrosia (the notion had its origins in a spoof newspaper dreamt up in adolescence by the pair - Billy's Weekly Liar) was another long-running hit. With the age of austerity still lingering, audiences could readily plug into the play's strong atmosphere of constriction.

The play was the team's biggest success, later spiralling off into television series in the UK and America, and a Drury Lane musical, Billy (1975), starring Michael Crawford. This time the film version was in the safer hands of the producer Joe Janni and the director John Schlesinger. Film could exploit the reality/fantasy alternation even better than the stage, and the performance from Tom Courtenay was spot-on. The cast also included the wonderful Ethel Griffies as Billy's dour gran, and, striding down a bleak northern street like a blonde Venus, Julie Christie making one of the great iconic entrances of 1960s cinema as Billy's girlfriend.

Like Hall, Waterhouse also admired J.M. Barrie - as a journalist he appreciated his When A Man's Single line of "write about the small everyday events of your own existence" - and the team provided its best work when written out of their own landscape. For most of the 1960s Hall and Waterhouse were in non-stop demand, as the brief "New Cinema" movement developed and as the British stage moved into a different era, as "northern writers". They were ensconced then in a swanky Mayfair office with a secretary and two Adler typewriters but they wrote best when focused on personal lives or families.

For the screen they created a most skilful version of Stan Barstow's novel A Kind of Loving (1962), directed by Schlesinger, subtly writing it from the point of view of Vic, the young man (Alan Bates) trapped into marriage, exploring the human relationships in the story with an evenly judged sympathy.

In the theatre Hall had one further Sloane Square production, the double-bill (none too successful) of Squat Betty and The Sponge Room (Royal Court, 1962) with his then wife Jill Bennett unhelpfully cast, whilst with Waterhouse he wrote two northern-set comedies, Celebration (1961) and All Things Bright and Beautiful (1962), but neither came close to Billy Liar's success. Their England, Our England (1962) had some sharp, sardonic sketches (they found the ideal outlet for this work on television and That Was The Week That Was) but it was unlucky at the box office in a changing era for the art of revue.

Proving their versatility, their inventive comedy Say Who You Are (Her Majesty's, 1965) involved an adulterous quartet in an accelerating plot, featuring various telephones on a split-location set to hilarious effect. A later comedy, Who's Who (Fortune, 1972) by comparison seemed more mechanical.

Later work with Waterhouse saw especially first adaptations from Eduardo de Filippo with a version of Saturday, Sunday, Monday (National Theatre 1973, Queen's 1974), unerringly keeping in focus the various family dramas in a volatile Neapolitan household alongside de Filippo's mix of comedy and pathos. Its director, Franco Zeffirelli, also praised their version of Filumena (Lyric, 1977), the story of crisis in an ex-prostitute's marriage, which provided mesmerising opportunities for Joan Plowright (and, in a later revival, Judi Dench) and Colin Blakely.

Hall also wrote extensively for television, either collaboratively or alone. His greatest solo success was undoubtedly the enormously popular and long-running Worzel Gummidge series, later adapted as a stage musical (1981).

Musicals were another passion, although he never quite achieved a major hit. The composer Denis King proved a sympathetic collaborator; together they wrote delightful versions of The Wind in the Willows and Treasure Island (both 1985). With Waterhouse, Hall wrote the book for a Cameron Mackintosh-produced version of Arnold Bennett's The Card (Globe, 1973), gleefully tracing the upwardly mobile career of chancer Denry Machin (Jim Dalt) which managed a decent run. A version of the television series Budgie (Cambridge, 1989) with Adam Faith reprising his lovable rogue, was similarly hamstrung by a routine score.

A whole alternative career lay in his fiction for children, his many books including a highly popular series of "Vampire" stories, beginning in 1982. Never remotely sentimental, Hall also understood the importance of never writing down to children.

He and Waterhouse talked virtually every day on the telephone (Hall did not follow his friend to move permanently south) although it was a friendship which kept other areas of life apart ("As for attending one another's weddings - well, we've never wanted to intrude on another's grief," said Waterhouse, whose matrimonial and amatory careers were as complex as Hall's at times). In his Daily Mail column this week, Waterhouse remembered their days of Garrick Club lunches, Rolex watches and cabs everywhere, returning to the office in mid-afternoon with Hall settling at his Adler with the familiar line: "It beats work, does this."

Alan Strachan