British Library receives Keith Waterhouse archive and offers first glimpse with Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

Keith Waterhouse speaking as the M25 which will be on display in Writing Britain, The Department of Transport, The M25 Orbital Motorway, 1986. BS.43/740 © British Library Board/Crown Copyright

The British Library has acquired the archive of Billy Liar author Keith Waterhouse, CBE, who died in 2009. The award-winning journalist turned novelist, playwright and screenwriter left a large collection of manuscripts which has been donated to the British Library by his family. The first chance to glimpse an item from the archive will be during the Library’s next major exhibition Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands (11 May - 25 September). http://www.bl.uk/writingbritain

The exhibition, which will showcase classic and iconic literature inspired by Britain’s unique surroundings and character, will display a notebook for his third novel Jubb. Set in a fictional New Town based on Harlow, this novel is indicative of Waterhouse’s lifelong obsession with urban communities. Whether writing about the Leeds suburbs where he grew up or the streets of London, Waterhouse’s papers reveal an unusual fascination with the way built environments shape people’s lives.

The Waterhouse Archive contains drafts of virtually all his literary and dramatic works including the 1959 novel Billy Liar, whose protagonist so successfully captured the zeitgeist for working-class anti-heroes that it was later turned into a play, musical, TV series and film in collaboration with his friend Willis Hall. The surviving manuscripts of thirty four other books encompass novels, humorous fiction, journalism, memoirs and non-fiction titles like Waterhouse on Newspaper Style, which betrays what a stickler he was for correct use of grammar. Also represented is Waterhouse’s prolific output for stage and screen including scripts for the notable successes Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy 1990) and, with Willis Hall, Whistle Down the Wind, A Kind of Loving, Budgie and Worzel Gummidge.

Zoe Wilcox, Curator of Theatrical Manuscripts, says: “Keith Waterhouse’s archive is an important addition to our national collection in so many ways – as literature, drama and as journalism. The exhibits in the forthcoming Writing Britain exhibition show how Waterhouse’s lifelong habit of going places to give them ‘a good long stare’ resulted in the acute social commentary of urban communities that became his trademark. On a lighter note, it’s also a jolly good laugh to catalogue on a rainy afternoon.”

Some of the earliest pieces of writing in the archive were written in his native Leeds, including his humorous contributions to the magazine of the Mill Hill Youth Club and a short story ‘Nat’, which became the starting point for his successful first novel There Is a Happy Land, set on a northern council estate.

Despite being a famous procrastinator, Waterhouse was a prolific jobbing writer, producing hundreds of short stories, revue sketches, treatments, pilots and synopses, of which a significant number remain unpublished or unproduced. Full-length unpublished works in the archive include a novel entitled Brock Counted and the precocious autobiography, How To Live To Be 22 (written at that tender age). Also to be found amongst the papers are letters and notes from Alfred Hitchcock relating to the screenplay Torn Curtain, for which Waterhouse and Hall provided extensive rewrites but were not credited on the film’s release.

The archive is a comprehensive record of Waterhouse’s career from the late 1940s to his death in 2009 – comprising adaptations of his work by other writers, press cuttings, publicity material, appointment diaries and accounts. Amongst his correspondence are letters from contemporaries Arnold Wesker, Stan Barstow and John Braine and theatrical luminaries Albert Finney, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Tynan.

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands is part of the London 2012 Festival, a spectacular 12-week nationwide celebration from 21 June and running until 9 September 2012 bringing together leading artists from across the world with the very best from the UK.


Notes to Editors:

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands runs from 11 May until 25 September.

Featuring a range of stunning items, some of which have never been seen before, Writing Britain will draw on the breadth of the Library’s collections to explore how writers from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf and Hanif Kureishi have been inspired by, and helped to shape, the nation’s understanding of landscape and place. www.bl.uk/writingbritain

Exhibition opening hours

Monday 10.00 – 18.00, Tuesday 09.30 – 20.00, Wednesday – Friday 10.00 – 18.00, Saturday 10.00 – 17.00, Sunday and English public holidays 11.00 – 17.00

All galleries are accessible by wheelchair. Information can be requested from Visitor Services staff on: T +44 (0)20 7412 7332.


An exciting programme of talks, discussions, film and performances will accompany the exhibition – taking a deeper and sometimes surprising look at the themes of place and space. Speakers will include language expert David Crystal, landscape writer Robert MacFarlane, author Iain Sinclair and many others to be announced soon.

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.

About the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival

The London 2012 Cultural Olympiad is the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements. Spread over four years, it is designed to give everyone in the UK a chance to be part of London 2012 and inspire creativity across all forms of culture, especially among young people.

The culmination of the Cultural Olympiad will be the London 2012 Festival, a spectacular 12-week nationwide celebration bringing together leading artists from across the world with the very best from the UK, from Midsummers Day on 21 June and running until the final day of the Paralympic Games on 9 September 2012.The London 2012 Festival will celebrate the huge range, quality and accessibility of the UK’s world-class culture including dance, music, theatre, the visual arts, fashion, film and digital innovation, giving the opportunity for people across the UK to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Principal funders of the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival are Arts Council England, Legacy Trust UK and the Olympic Lottery Distributor. BP and BT are Premier Partners of the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival.

For more details on the programme and to sign up for information visit www.london2012.com/festival

For more information contact:




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