SIMON MATTHEWS revisits Keith Waterhouse’s second novel, Jubb, published in 1963
How do you follow up Billy Liar? Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel was not merely a best-seller, it produced a stage adaptation (1960, with Albert Finney), a film (1963, Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie) a TV series (1973, Jeff Rawle, fresh out of drama school), a musical (1974, Michael Crawford, adapted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) and finally a sequel, Billy Liar on the Moon (1975).
Artistically and commercially, it was pure gold, and if he’d wanted to, Waterhouse could have retired on it. Instead, in the first half of the 1960s he produced another five plays, five film scripts and thirty-seven episodes of That Was the Week That Was, much of this co-written with Willis Hall. Finally, in 1963, a follow-up novel appeared, Jubb. How could it fail?
Well, to start with, it probably didn’t, in a narrow commercial sense. With expectations so high, advance orders would have been healthy, and no doubt Waterhouse bagged a big advance for knocking it out. But reprints have been scarce, and no film or stage adaptation followed. Finding an original – or even one of the 1960s Penguin editions – would take some time today.
Which is not to say it is badly written. The plot centres on Cyril Jubb, a rent collector, originally from Leicester but now living in a characterless new town in Hertfordshire. There are similarities with Billy Fisher: both in dead-end jobs, both in unexciting and drab environments, both daydreaming and both, as we find out, unable to establish appropriate relationships with the opposite sex.
But… Billy Fisher is 19- maybe 20-years-old. His life is in front of him, and whatever daydreaming he gets up to is excusable in that context. We indulge him, having – almost all us, when teenagers – had similar moments. Jubb, though, is thirty-six. Born in 1926, and reaching adulthood during conscription, rationing and austerity. We soon find out that he is a complete failure. His wife has left him. He has no friends. He isn’t an adolescent daydreamer, with the connotations of innocence that that carries; he is an unpleasant middle-aged fantasist who corresponds with political extremists and peculiar religious evangelicals, and puts notices in shop windows asking for potential ‘models’ to contact him.
Worse, he lurks in local woods and in the evening walks the streets, looking in bedroom windows, hoping to observe women undressing. When collecting his rent, he agrees to write off a woman’s rent arrears in exchange for being allowed to grope her body. He helps run a youth club, but much of his time is expended on trying to persuade teenagers to get involved in his photography project.
In tone, Jubb is very different to Billy Liar, so much so, that classing it as a comic novel raises real questions about why one might consider it funny, or, indeed, what is ‘funny’ in the first place. Another crucial difference with Billy Liar is that although Billy Fisher imagines being a great success, he lacks the courage to do anything about it. Memorably, he doesn’t go to London. Jubb acts on his fantasies and the book ends with him abandoning the new town, burning down the youth club, cashing in his savings and travelling by ferry to Hamburg to hang around the brothels and sex cinemas on the Reeperbahn.
Reading it today, one is reminded that when written, the 1960s were about to ‘swing’ and a mood of impending change was abroad. In one sense, Jubb, as a character, is compatible with Philip Larkin’s mournful observations in Annus Mirabilis ‘…Sexual intercourse began, In nineteen sixty-three, (which was rather late for me)…’ Like Larkin, Jubb knows he is too old and that a new generation are now in control. Waterhouse’s narrative thus has an undertow of resentment, a feeling that an older, prematurely aged group in society are unfairly missing out on the emerging freedoms that they are now too old to exploit.
The setting, in an ultra-suburban new town, is portrayed very effectively. As in Billy Liar, a substantial local bureaucracy is described, in this case the network of petty committees that wrangle over management of the youth club, with the council and the omnipotent Development Corporation lurking somewhere above that. Waterhouse writes well (he invariably did) and has a good ear for dialogue.
Parts of this, coupled with the undertow of sex, and the vulgarity of many of Jubb’s colleagues and neighbours, are not unlike the milieu portrayed in Hunter Davies’s Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1965, later filmed in Stevenage, 1967). Another scene, where Jubb organizes an excruciating social event at his house, is resonant of Abigail’s Party.
J.G. Ballard, too, had views about the suburbs as a location for deviant sex and unusual, or even extreme, social arrangements, but Jubb precedes all these, though it did appear around the same time as the David Turner play Semi-Detached (1962). Like this, it pushed the idea that something unpleasant was emerging behind the façade of England’s green and pleasant land.
In Turner’s play it is a ruthless, no-holds-barred aspirational mentality, recognizable as one of the building blocks of Thatcherism. In Semi-Detached the main role was played by Leonard Rossiter on stage (Laurence Olivier took over for an extended West End run, and Warren Mitchell in the 1970 film adaptation, All the Way Up). In fact, Rossiter, with his expert mix of seedy and menacing, would have been perfect fit for a TV or film adaptation of Jubb. But it was not to be.
Waterhouse’s novel had a muted reception, though actively bad reviews seem to have been avoided, and it came nowhere near repeating the success of Billy Liar. With a plot that veers between comic, creepy, and lurching about in what would now be regarded as Operation Yewtree territory, there were no film, stage, TV or musical versions.
In 1970 Waterhouse got the balance right with his third stab at a hapless daydreamer: Budgie, an unsuccessful petty crook and Jack-the-Lad, none of whose ventures work out. Co-written with Willis Hall, and starring Adam Faith, it was a popular TV series 1971–72. Audiences liked the character. Despite all his escapades (and there was plenty of sex about in the plot too, with strippers, porn magazines and so on) none of it seemed threatening, unpleasant or deviant in the way that Jubb managed to suggest. Budgie even got staged as a musical in the 1980s with Faith joined by Anita Dobson, but to date, Jubb has eluded all but the most curious completists.