Friday, June 12, 2020

Bill Naughton’s closed trunks

Today marks the one hundred and tenth anniversary of the birth of the playwright Bill Naughton, best known for writing Alfie, later turned into an archetypal 60s film with Michael Caine. He was one of the first post-war writers to bring to the page and stage an authenticity in describing working-class life in the north of England. Although he was a committed diarist and left behind five trunkfuls of diaries (now in the archive of the Bolton Library and Museum Service), they have remained closed to public scrutiny and - unfortunately - seem likely to remain so for another decade.

Naughton was born into a poor Irish Catholic family in County Mayo on 12 June 1910, but moved with his family to Bolton, England, in 1914. He attended a local school until the age of 14, and then worked as a weaver and coal-bagger. In 1930, he married Anne Wilcock, a cotton mill worker, with whom he had three children (one of whom died in infancy). During the war, in London, he was a conscientious objector and worked as a civil defence lorry-driver. Having long struggled to get into print, he had his first short story published in the London Evening News in 1943. Two years later, his semi-autobiographical A Roof Over Your Head was successful enough to give him confidence to write full-time. Throughout the 1950s, he produced a steady stream of short stories for magazines and published collections, such as Late Night on Watling Street (1959), and plays for BBC Radio.

In the 1960s, Naughton made a name for himself as a playwright - often developing his radio plays for the stage - with his trilogy about working class life in the the North of England: All in Good Time (1963), Alfie (1963) and Spring and Port Wine (1964). In 1968, he moved to the Isle of Man with his second wife, the Austrian Ernestine (Erna) Pirolt. There he continued to write plays and fiction, as well as an autobiographical trilogy of books: On the Pig’s Back (1987), Saintly Billy (1988) and Neither Use Nor Ornament (1995). Several of his plays were turned into successful films, not least Alfie (1966) with Michael Caine playing the lead part. He was a recipient of the Screenwriters award 1967 and 1968 and the Prix Italia for Radio Play 1974. He died in 1992.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says this: ‘[Naughton’s] overall contribution to the cultural ferment of the 1950s and 1960s has still to be properly assessed. Undoubtedly he was one of the first post-war writers to recreate, for the world, the authenticity of working-class life in the north of England. But his range was wider, as his London work, his contributions to popular television series (such as Nathaniel Titlark, Starr and Company, Yorky), his children's stories, and his more experimental, Pinteresque drama The Mystery show.’ Further (rather scant) information is available online from Wikipedia, Bolton Library and Museum Service, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Naughton was, from the age of 28, a committed diarist. However, none of his diary material has ever surfaced, not as published works or even as source material for biographies - there have been no biographies. (Naughton’s Voices from a Journal published by Lilliput Press in 2000 is described as ‘a writer’s journal, documenting friendships, encounters and observations during the ‘60s and ‘70s’, but it does not contain dated diary extracts and is more accurately described as a memoir.)

Naughton’s ‘huge collection of diaries’ is held by Bolton Library and Museum Services. On its website, it says he wrote the diaries ‘in secret’ and described the ‘labour’ of it as his ‘real work . . . which would one day show itself to be the key to all his other writing.’ It also notes that the diaries are closed to public inspection until 2015. However, Dave Burnham, on his fan site, says Naughton’s ‘hundreds of little black books, literally millions of words’ are closed until 2030.

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