Tag Archives: suspense

Harry’s Game – The Television Series

A few weeks ago I wrote about Gerald Seymour’s classic thriller Harry’s Game.Product Details

Recently we watched the television series of the book, made by Yorkshire Television in 1982 – at a time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were still continuing.

For more about the story itself please see my previous blog.

It’s always interesting to see how a thriller is adapted for television, and Harry’s Game is more faithful to the book than most. Although some scenes were filmed around Belfast, notably in the City Centre and the Falls Road, much of the location filming was carried out near the Yorkshire TV studios in Leeds, on a housing estate scheduled for demolition.

The filming has a gritty reality. For those of us who lived through the times of the Troubles, it was uneasy seeing Saracen armoured cars on the streets again, the reconstructed riots and soldiers dashing from street corner to street corner on foot patrol.

Seymour’s book relies very much on tenseness rather than violence to make its point. The superb direction of the film series, by the admirable Lawrence Gordon Clark, provides tension by the spadeful. Even if you know the book well, the film keeps you on edge.

One reason is that it’s thankfully free of incidental music, though there is the haunting end theme by Clannad. I wish that more directors of film and television would realise the importance of silence. If you’re showing tense scenes you don’t need an intrusive studio orchestra.

Lawrence Gordon Clark made his reputation in film documentaries and this shows in the realism here.

Not having seen the series since it first aired, I was interested to see how the acting stood up over thirty years later. The film is very well cast. The late Ray Lonnen – is quite superb as Harry, giving very much a portrayal of the character in the novel. The IRA gunman Billy Downes is played by Derek Thompson, best known now for his long-running role as Charlie Fairhead in the British hospital series Casualty.

Both characters in the book are two sides of the same coin – family men as well as combatants in an miserable kind of warfare. To give this premise reality, you need two strong leads, and both Ray Lonnen and Derek Thompson are very believable.

The film series has a very strong supporting cast: Maggie Shevlin as Mrs Downes, a mother trapped in a tragic time; Gil Brailey as the woman who comes to know and understand Harry; and Tony Rohr as the IRA commander – a chilling and subtle portrait that lives in your thoughts long after the film has ended. There isn’t a poor performance in the whole series.

I seem to recall that the programme was shown over three consecutive nights on its first airing. It was later repeated as an edited down film, so if you’re buying this make sure you’re getting the original three-parter. The box set we have has a great interview with Ray Lonnen, who came across as a lovely chap.

Thirty-five years later this is British television at its best – a drama that makes you hold your breath.

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Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

Out of the 1970s came a series of what I call journalist thrillers, written with a considerable realism and usually by writers who’d been reporters. Perhaps the most famous example is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the JackalProduct Details

One of the very best is Gerald Seymour’s Harry’s Game, set mostly in Belfast during the Troubles of the mid 1970s, at a time when the warfare between the British Army,  the security services  and the IRA  was at its height.

Gerald Seymour was a reporter on the streets of Belfast at the time and it shows.

To pull off this sort of gritty realism you really need to have walked those troubled streets and estates of Belfast – the Falls Road, the Shankill, the Ardoyne, the Ballymurphy… Seymour did and you can feel the gripping fear that beset these places at the time in every page of  Harry’s Game – these aren’t experiences that can be faked. You need to have been there.

Interestingly, the violence level in Harry’s Game is not over-excessive. Characters are beaten and shot but it never goes beyond that. Harry’s Game is not as graphically violent as many a more modern thriller.

Gerald Seymour achieves menace by the tenseness of the writing, the dangers of men having to live double lives in hostile environments. Undercover work is rarely as well presented as here.

Harry’s Game begins with the assassination of a British cabinet minister by an IRA gunman, Billy Downes, who after the shooting returns to his home in Belfast. On the direct orders of the Prime Minister, and without telling the army or most of the security services, a section of British Intelligence decides to place an agent in Belfast to discover the identity of the assassin.

They use Harry Brown, an army captain of Irish ancestry, who’s previously lived undercover in the Middle East and had a subsequent breakdown. Harry moves into a boarding house off the Falls Road, posing as a merchant seaman with republican sympathies.

Meanwhile Billy Downes tries to sink back into his former life with his wife and children, though brought out at one point to kill a soldier.

There is a kind of parallel between Harry Brown and Billy Downes. Both work undercover for their respective armies. Both are fearful of discovery. Both are under enormous pressure as the people hunting them down get ever closer. Both are victims of a tragic conflict and are neither good nor bad in themselves.

This very well-crafted book was Gerald Seymour’s first novel, though it doesn’t come over as anything but skilled. For sheer suspense it’s hard to beat. I think it captures Belfast very well at that moment in time. Reading it again, now, and remembering those days, it’s all the more remarkable that, politically, Northern Ireland has moved on so much.

The book’s tragic ending still has the power to shock.

 

 

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The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney

If any one book inspired me to write my William Quest Victorian thrillers it’s this one, Kellow Chesney’s very readable and scholarly book on the Victorian underworld. It was first published in 1970 and – for me – is the standard work on this fascinating subject.Victorian Underworld: Chesney, Kellow

I first encountered it when I was an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Although I majored in literature, I did a minor in nineteenth-century social history. The underworld was only a small part of my studies, but discovering Kellow Chesney’s book sent me of on a wider reading programme, both in secondary reading and the primary sources.

When I’m asked to recommend a book on the Victorian underworld this is the one I suggest as a first read. There are several other titles I like – and I hope to give these a mention on the blog in the coming months – but Kellow Chesney’s book is the most comprehensive and the best introduction.

It’s all here, starting with a walk through the mid-century streets of London – and how vividly the author portrays the place. This is no dull work of scholarship, it’s a page-turner as exciting as all the best mystery thrillers.

Then from the main streets frequented by the richest members of society, Kellow Chesney takes the reader to the borders of the underworld, the places where the dispossessed and those forced into crime to survive are obliged to lurk – and the boundaries between the rookeries and the smart streets of society are often back to back.

We are then taken on a journey into the rookeries themselves. Kellow Chesney conjures them up in all their awfulness. It is impossible to understand the Victorian criminal underworld unless you can understand the causes of crime.

Here are the beggars, the pick-pockets, the footpads and the swell mob. The skilled cracksmen who break the safes and steal the jewellery of the richest members of society. Here are the magsmen, gonophs, macers and shofulmen. The screevers and the Newgate mob. (I’ll talk more about these in a blog early next week.)

There were perhaps 80000 prostitutes in Victorian London alone. Kellow Chesney deals sympathetically with their plight, whether they were working the poorest streets in the East End for pennies or selling themselves for much more in the night houses in the West End.

The book is wonderfully illustrated, mostly with the sketches of the great Gustave Dore, adding to the feeling of being there so brilliantly evoked in Mr Chesney’s words. If you can, seek out one of the original hardback editions – the pictures are not so well reproduced in the paperback editions.

When I came to write William Quest, Kellow Chesney’s book was the first I re-read. If you want a good understanding of the Victorian underworld, I commend it to you.

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‘Magpie Murders’ by Anthony Horowitz

This is the first novel I’ve read by Anthony Horowitz though I loved his television drama ‘Foyle’s War’ and enjoyed his scriptwriting for ‘Midsomer Murders’. So I came to ‘Magpie Murders’, knowing only that there’d been masses of glowing reviews when it came out last year (in 2016). Well, the short version is – here’s another one. Magpie Murders by [Horowitz, Anthony]

I loved ‘Magpie Murders’ and think it’s one of the best new crime novels I’ve found in the last couple of years. (I re-read a lot of old favourites). For anyone who loves Agatha Christie and Golden Age detection, this is an outstanding treat – full of ingenuity and flair – and much more besides.

It isn’t easy to review this novel without giving away too much but these details are on the jacket copy. The story begins in the first person. Susan Ryeland, an editor at a small publishing house is settling down to read the manuscript of ‘Magpie Murders,’ their most famous author’s new detective novel. She’s a likeable, very human narrator, getting comfy with wine, snacks and cigarettes. Horowitz is very good at channelling believable female characters.

Within a couple of pages – and after a few cryptic remarks from Susan – we begin to read the detective novel, clearly delineated with a typewriter-style font. And there we stay until near its end. ‘Magpie Murders’, the manuscript, is a classic vintage murder mystery, set in the mid-fifties in that well-known fictional English village of ‘Mayhem Parva’. Where the sleepy streets are picturesque, the inhabitants seething with secrets and the gossip full of red herrings

Anthony Horowitz presents us with three mysteries; his contemporary ‘Magpie Murders,’ the fictional ‘Magpie Murders’ within his novel and the hidden narrative within the manuscript. You certainly get value for money and this is not one to read in bed as you’re nodding off. Not that you’d want to, as it’s too engrossing. Some reviewers have likened this device to a Russian doll. It reminded me of one of those intricate Oriental puzzle boxes where pieces shift and slide to unlock the key. (We had one long ago, brought home by a Victorian sailor forebear).

The manuscript novel features a celebrated foreign private detective who works closely with Scotland Yard and bears more than a passing resemblance to Poirot. It’s fun to spot the many nods to Christie along the way. The sidekick is named Fraser, referencing Hugh Fraser of Captain Hastings fame. (Now an acclaimed crime novelist himself). Market Basing gets a mention, a town near St Mary Mead and so on.

I think the ‘acid test’ of the dual narrative format is that both parts have to be equally interesting. One of the best examples that comes to mind is John Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. In this, ‘Magpie Murders’ succeeds admirably.

The manuscript is very enjoyable and captures a real feeling of a 1950s detective novel of the best sort. Despite this, there are anachronisms and this is an example of Horowitz’s skill. I thought I spotted one early on when Downs Syndrome was mentioned. (I’m old enough to remember adults talking about ‘Mongol’ children, which was the usual expression in the 1960s). Then the penny dropped that the anachronisms were written by Alan Conway, the fictional author.

I don’t believe that any writer could pass off a perfect Christie imitation. But I suspect if Anthony Horowitz had been commissioned to write the Poirot continuation series, he would have done a good job. (Possibly something there  hidden in my text?).

We return to the present with Susan Ryeland when she realises that the last couple of chapters are missing from the manuscript. A great cliff-hanger, the rug is pulled just as you’re desperate to know whodunit. The remainder of the novel is as intriguing as the novel-within, as Susan turns detective to track down the missing pages and find out who murdered Alan Conway.

Well-paced to the end, the climax and the reveals are convincing and very satisfying. This is a triumph of intricate plotting, that’s written with great clarity. Important in such a complex structure. I’d be fascinated to know how long Anthony Horowitz took to plot this and how he went about it – it’s hard to believe he’s a ‘pantser’.

The writing is full of clever word-play that reminds me of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s work. There’s a witty, sparkling air about ‘Magpie Murders’ that reads as though Horowitz was having fun and really enjoyed writing it. He clearly loves the Golden Age sub-genre, paying homage, while inverting and up-dating it at the same time.

Clear some blissful free time for this with a drink, possibly a snack, definitely your thinking cap. (Let’s ditch the cigarettes). A superb detective novel, not to be missed.

 

 

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The Return of Novels and Novelettes

‘Why did he only write a novella?’ was a comment on an otherwise favourable review we had a couple of years ago. A fair question and one we took as a back-handed compliment. We’ve been debating novellas and short novels recently, when as indie writers and avid readers, we note trends in the publishing world.

In the last few years we’ve noticed that novellas are becoming increasingly popular among indie authors. It’s interesting to think about why fashions change in publishing. A cynic might say novellas are quicker to get on sale – that’s true and an important factor – but far from the only reason.

Demand is driven partly by readers and most authors try to write books that will sell in the current market. Unfortunately, demand is also manipulated by the big publishers. For instance, in the 1960s and 70s, historical fiction was very popular. Later, it almost disappeared from the shelves with publishers not wanting to take that genre. It’s hard to believe there were some years when readers went off historical novels when you look at their resurgence today, led by authors such as Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory.

Novellas and short novels are an old literary form which is making a welcome come-back for various reasons. It’s worth taking a closer look at what is generally meant by the terms. There are no hard and fast rules. From the writing guides I’ve read, leading indie author commentators mostly suggest that 20,000 words is the starting point for a novella.

I’ve no quarrel with this, though we feel that a 30-35,000 word-count is right for us. In the two novellas we’ve published, that space was a natural length to produce a well-rounded story, neither padded nor truncated. We felt it was a length to give good value to our readers, which is important to us.

A short novel is hard to define, though it’s currently suggested that 80,000 words is the minimum length for a novel. I guess a short novel is what used in Britain to be called a ‘novelette,’ anything upwards of around 40,000 words. This is an atmospheric old word that is reappearing in indie author’s book descriptions and we’re pleased to see it back. ‘Novelette’ conjures up nostalgic thoughts of garish covers and  exciting yarns like Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar – The Saint – and hard-boiled Chandler and Hammett. Fast-moving adventure stories used to lend themselves to shorter fiction – perhaps until modern publisher-pressure.

Some authors do use the terms novella and novelette for as little as 25-30 pages.  This seems an unwise strategy. Though their work looks longer on the sales page, I’ve noticed angry reviews where readers’ expectations are misled. To pre-empt complaints of being short-changed by a short story, it’s worth making the length eye-catchingly clear in the blurb.

So, why write a novella? The main reason surely is because a writer wants to explore an idea that doesn’t lend itself to an average-length novel but is beyond the limitations of a short story. A story has its own natural length and far better to offer that to your readership than pad a plot in order to charge a higher price.

It’s natural to perceive larger goods as being better value but some of our most iconic fiction has a surprisingly short word count. Think of Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (135 pages) and The Sign of Four (154), John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps (138) and The Power-House (108), Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (180) or Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only 65 pages.

This doesn’t apply only to detective novels and thrillers. One of my favourite novels, J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country has  85 memorable pages. Ghost stories too, often work better at medium-length. Incidentally, few speak of these superb stories as novellas or even short novels. We’re simply glad we have them – and many writers intersperse shorter works between longer novels.

In the world of classic crime fiction, the majority of Agatha Christie’s novels are around 190-220 pages. Several written during or shortly after the Second World War are 160, perhaps due to paper shortage. Their quality is certainly no less, they include the much-loved The Body in the Library. Simenon’s Maigret novels are known for their slim volumes. Both writers had a high output.

A quick look along the shelf at many  crime novelists writing from about the 60s will show that their early novels were shorter. You can see this in the canon of Ruth Rendell. Fellow Rendell fans will know that she decided to incorporate themes of social ills in her later Wexford novels, doubling the length of her early titles. I loved them all and it’s a joy to know you’re getting a thick novel from a favourite writer. Yet I’ve come to think that Rendell’s early  mysteries are stronger. The plot of a murder and its detection has a natural progression which is often better for not being expanded. Another of my all-time favourite detective novelists is Emma Page. Her titles are often 180-200 pages .

Don’t get me wrong – I love to curl up with a fat novel. Two of my favourite writers are Trollope and Wilkie Collins, who average 500-700 pages. Trouble is, I rarely get time to re-read them these days and I’m not alone in that. I’ve also seen  – again in the last few years – that many new crime novels look satisfyingly thick until you open them to find an unusually large font and wide line spacing. Do the big publishers think readers won’t notice? I imagine this trend is to justify the staggeringly high price of new hardbacks – and possibly to recoup going on a table display in Waterstones’?

Readers’ expectations seem to be changing in  ways, especially relevant to indie authors who deal mainly in ebooks. We’re living in an over-worked, stressed, time-poor society. Reading – thankfully for our mental health – is as popular as ever. Maybe even more so with people who weren’t drawn to books, finding they enjoy reading on devices. Many people now want a medium-length read they can enjoy on their phone while commuting. Others want to relax with a novella over an evening or two. Sadly, fewer have the time to commit to a lengthy novel.

Another factor in the rise of novellas/novelettes is satisfying the readers who expect frequent titles. Again, this phenomenon only applies to indie authors. Traditionally, readers have expected to wait for a yearly treat from favourite authors, or even a couple or more years. Especially if they’re longing to follow a series and the author has more than one on the go or fancies writing a stand-alone.

These days in our frantic-paced culture, the received wisdom is that readers expect more than a single ebook a year from authors they like. Industry trends strongly suggest that ebook readers’ expectations have gone haywire. We’re told that standalones won’t sell well and we need to get a series on sale fast or our name will be forgotten by readers who enjoyed our first title. And we all know, some readers expect our carefully-crafted months of work to be handed over for 99p! Publishing shorts does go some way towards retaining readers’ interest.

We will always love writing novels but have really enjoyed working on two novellas so far – one for each of our main detective characters. It feels refreshing and fun between the long-haul – maybe like running a half-marathon. Many indie authors are interspersing their fiction with novellas and short stories. It can be a great way of trying out an idea for a spin-off series or exploring a secondary character in greater depth. This is something we’re considering with our historical adventures and Victorian thrillers.

And we’re not alone. In traditionally published crime fiction, famous names such as Alison Joseph and Lesley Cookman have started novella series between their novels. I’m looking forward to Lesley Cookman’s second novella in her The Alexandrians Series which is out on 31st Jan (now on pre-order). She’s had the inspired idea of taking the Nethergate seaside theatre featured in her wonderful Libby Sarjeant series and using that as an Edwardian setting.

Between all these factors, I think we’ve only seen the start of authors producing novellas and short novels. Thanks to technology, writers now have a freedom to write as they choose. An opportunity unseen since the nineteenth century when small presses abounded and individuals sold topical chap-books in the street. It’s exciting to think that indie authors are leading the way.

What do you think? Don’t be shy – we’d love to hear thoughts from other authors.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time and trouble to comment. One of the great things about the indie authors’ community is the spirit of openness – sharing experience,  helpful tips and support.

 

 

 

 

 

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Colin Dexter’s “The Wench is Dead”

The television version of the Inspector Morse mysteries, with the forceful central performance by John Thaw, had overshadowed the original novels in my mind. I hadn’t read any of the books for quite a time. We watched the TV version of The Wench is Dead the other night, so I thought this was an appropriate time to revisit the novel. The Wench is Dead (Inspector Morse Series Book 8) by [Dexter, Colin]

It’s an unusual book, for the crime is the murder of a woman on the Oxford Canal in 1859. Inspector Morse, hospitalised with a stomach ulcer, is given a book about this old crime, is intrigued, and begins to believe that the crime didn’t actually happen as described. With the help of the faithful Sergeant Lewis, a nurse, and a librarian, Morse investigates the crime.

Now, the idea of a present-day detective investigating an ancient crime isn’t exactly new. Josephine Tey used a hospitalised detective, Alan Grant, to investigate the guilt or innocence of Richard III in The Daughter of Time.

I have a great interest in the history of the British canals. I’ve ancestors who worked on them, and they were a staple of my childhood. Now, the surviving canals are mostly used by leisure craft, but in my childhood there were still working narrow boats, many towing butty boats full of coal. The people who worked the canals were quite wonderful. I used to cadge lifts on their boats.

Their world was not so different from that depicted so lovingly and accurately by Colin Dexter. The Victorian boatmen lived a rough life and were viewed with considerable suspicion by the land-bound.

I also have a great interest in Victorian crime, and it’s fascinating to re-examine the evidence on which men and women were convicted. There’s no doubt that the Victorian legal system was flawed against the defendant. At the period of Dexter’s novel, they were not even allowed to appear in court in their own defence. There’s no doubt that a great many innocent men and women were unjustly hanged.

These legal points form an important part of the way the story of The Wench is Dead is resolved, and it’s fascinating stuff. Dexter has a great skill in re-creating the extremely unfair world of Victorian jurisprudence.

It’s a terrific book which well-deserved winning the CWA Golden Dagger as Crime Novel of the Year. Well worth a read.

The television version scripted by the novelist Malcolm Bradbury, ( a professor at the University of East Anglia when I was doing my degree there) takes considerable liberties with Dexter’s original. Sergeant Lewis is missing, his place taken by a rookie cop. There’s a couple of love interests for Morse. Interesting departures from the original, and the film is very entertaining. The 1859 sequences are superbly presented. But a lot of the intimacy of Dexter’s novel is lost. John Thaw was on great form as Inspector Morse.

Do watch the film, it’s very worthwhile, but enjoy the beautifully written novel as well.

 

 

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John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps

Last year marked the centenary of the first book publication of John Buchan’s classic thriller. I blogged on the book itself on March 19th 2015 in celebration. But I want to recommend to you a quite excellent book about the background and genesis of The Thirty Nine Steps, which I’ve really enjoyed reading.

The title is John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps – An Exploration by John Burnett and Kate Mackay, published by National Museums Scotland.

If you enjoy reading Buchan as much as I do, you’ll love this book. The authors begin with a brief biography of Buchan himself, before examining the thriller in considerable detail, looking at the book’s origins, describing the events within chapter by chapter – there are spoilers here, so I would recommend that you read the thriller first if it’s new to you.

If you’ve ever thought of writing your own thriller you’ll find this book quite inspirational; it takes you on a journey across the Galloway and Borders landscape through which Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay escapes his enemies, look at the characters of the various Scots he meets on the way, takes an in-depth look at the way disguise is used in the novel, and investigates pre-Great War espionage and its links with the chase thriller.

There are a number of nods in the direction of other Buchan thrillers as well, so the devotee of his work will find much of value here.

John Buchan is only now getting the reputation he deserves as an important writer of Scottish fiction. It is good to see the appearance of books like this which examine his work with such readable scholarship.

To order a copy please click on the link below:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1905267878/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1905267878&linkCode=as2&tag=johnbainbridg-21

 

 

 

 

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Seven Days To Noon

“Seven Days to Noon” is a tense thriller produced and directed by the Boulting Brothers in 1950, which won an Academy Award for best story at the Oscars.

It remains one of the best films made about London in the post-war years – before the developers got a chance to ruin the place with skyscrapers and inappropriate and out-of-scale development. Just watching this film to see how London used to be is a treat.

But back to the plot.

Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) is a nuclear scientist working at a research centre – somewhere like Aldermaston, though called Wallingford in the film – on developing atomic bombs. The destructive power of weapons he’s worked on has been playing on his mind for a while. He cracks when a nuclear bomb that’s portable is produced.

Deciding that the world needs a sharp lesson, he steals one of the devices and sends a note to the Prime Minister (Ronald Adam – clearly suggested by Clement Attlee) stating that unless the British government publicly abandons its stockpiling of nuclear weapons, he will detonate the stolen weapon and destroy the centre of London in seven days’ time.

It soon becomes apparent that Willingdon has the weapon and Detective Superintendent Folland (Andre Morell) of Special Branch is tasked with capturing the errant scientist and recovering the device before the rapidly approaching deadline.

The film tells the story of the chase from both points of view. We see Folland aided by Willingdon’s deputy Steve Lane (Hugh Cross) and the scientist’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) in pursuit.

But more tellingly we see the story from the point of view of Willingdon himself as he disappears into the mass of people who live in London, blending in with the crowds, seeking accommodation in still gaslit boarding houses. The accuracy of the portrayal of working people is superbly done.

Here we see not the patronising caricatures of working folk as portrayed by some film-makers of the period, but real folk, terrifically acted by the players concerned, who seem to have come in from the streets of a very real London – then as now going through a sustained period of austerity.

One of the many joys of the piece is a faded music-hall star Goldie Phillips (played beautifully by Olive Sloane, an actress fascinating in herself – she’d played small parts in films from the silent days of the 1920s. This was her one big lead and she is terrific!)

Goldie takes in Professor Willingdon, unaware until too late of who he is. As London is evacuated he decides to hide out in her bedsit until the fateful Noon comes nearer.

As he hides out, London is evacuated. There are near documentary scenes of thousands of people being loaded on to trains, lorries and buses. Traffic jams block the roads as cars flee the capital. Then the silent streets of an empty London.

The viewer can only admire the skill of the director and producers in making a film on the real streets of London that portray so dramatically such matters. I doubt you could stop the traffic long enough to do it today. The People of London get a credit as the titles roll for their part in making the film.

Gradually the dragnet closes in on Willingdon as soldiers and the police search the streets from the suburbs to the heart of the city. And…

But I’ll stop there, for this is a film that you’ll certainly enjoy watching all the way through. Gripping stuff!

Few films of the 1950s capture the atmosphere of post-war London quite so well. Made at a time when many producers were looking backwards in time with war stories and even further back, “Seven Days to Noon” captures aspects of British society too often overlooked.

And it has at its heart the question of the morality of producing weapons of mass destruction. Is Willingdon actually mad, or is he sane and ahead of his time? The authorities who are trying to thwart his plans seem to hold the moral high ground, but do they?

“Seven Days to Noon” is a neglected masterpiece of film-making, with good strong characterisation and tense and vivid direction.

It deserves to be better known.

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Frank Marker – Public Eye

I have happy memories of the television series “Public Eye”, starring Alfred Burke as inquiry agent (note that, inquiry agent, not private eye) Frank Marker. Recently we bought the surviving episodes – some of the earliest have been lost – on DVD and we’ve spent many enjoyable evenings watching the programme all over again.

The series originally aired in 1965 with a London setting, being a ratings winner until 1975. In the course of the series, Marker relocates to Birmingham, Brighton, Windsor and Chertsey, and spends some time in prison after being set up.

“Public Eye” is the complete antithesis to British TV series such as “The Saint” or “The Avengers”.

It’s rooted very firmly in reality. Each episode is usually self-contained, though there are several story arcs over the years. Frank Marker deals with the kind of problems that a real-life inquiry agent might have; minor fraud, divorces, petty crime and so on. There is very little violence, and really nothing in the way of car chases etc. This is gritty reality, character driven and all the better for that.

The great joy of the piece is Alfred Burke’s portrayal of Frank Marker. Completely realistic, understated, a loner with few friends and no love life. A masterclass in acting technique which some modern students of drama would do well to observe. You get no feeling here of an actor “acting”. Alfred Burke was a fine performer and he simply seems to become Marker. It’s hard to believe the character isn’t real.

The cases too are rooted at ground-level. They are interesting not because they are high drama but because they deal with so many aspects of the human condition. The people who seek Marker’s help are in exactly the sort of messes real people get in to. It’s very easy to identify with Marker’s clients. Most of us have been there – or nearly there.

There are a few recurring characters. In the Brighton episodes, soon after Marker is released from Ford Open Prison – and they used its exterior for some scenes – Marker stays as a boarder with Mrs Mortimer (Pauline Delaney). She becomes a friend during that series and briefly reappears when Marker relocates to Windsor. The suggestion in the scripts is that they might become more than friends. Fortunately, it never happens. The lonely character of Marker would be diminished by any romantic development. Can you imagine any scriptwriter today being so restrained?

Marker has an ambivalent relationship with the police. At first they tend to be suspicious of him, but this melds into friendship and co-operation. He works well with Detective Inspector Percy Fairbank (Ray Smith) during the Windsor episodes. Marker briefly has a job in a detection agency with former copper Ron Gash (Peter Childs), though, happily, he soon departs to walk the familiar and – to the viewer welcoming – lonely road.

What is great about Marker is his sense of morality. He may occasionally make his way through the dark alleys of a grubby world, but he is never contaminated by what happens. The character has a sense of decency which is rare these days. He may walk the borderline of legality but he knows the difference between right and wrong – and all for his fee of “six pounds a day plus expenses”.

Having loved a series years ago, you do wonder how it will stand up to examination years later? In the case of “Public Eye” the answer is very well indeed. The series is as gripping as I remember. And now there is the extra layer of revisiting an England of decades ago – seeing so many reminders of my own past. “Public Eye” is not only a masterclass of good acting, but a valuable instruction in how to write television scripts.

England has changed a great deal in four decades – not much for the better. But a great many things have remained the same. A television company could air “Public Eye” at peak time now and I believe it would find a very appreciative audience. You can still relate to Marker, his associates and clients.

What is really grand is that the scenes can be presented long, allowing for real acting and character development, rather than the brief snapshots we tend to get in modern dramas. And there is a refreshing absence of annoying music when the actors are acting. Perhaps modern directors might learn from this series the dramatic tensions induced by silence. There is, however, very atmospheric jazz-inclined, theme music.

“Public Eye” is British classic television at its very best. The box set we bought online has all the surviving episodes plus an excellent paperback about the series with a very detailed episode guide by Andrew Pixley – a fascinating account of how a television series is made.

If you fancy something different to watch during the forthcoming dark evenings, give “Public Eye” a try. A wonderful reminder of just how good British television used to be.

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Night and the City by Gerald Kersh

Until recently, Night and the City was only known to me as a classic film noir set in London and starring Richard Widmark – one of the very best of that genre. I’ll return to the film version in a future blog. There is a later film version starring Robert De Niro, where the story is relocated to New York. I haven’t seen it so can’t comment, though I know a lot of people feel it to be inferior to the Widmark version.

I had never read the novel by Gerald Kersh, though it’s well known that the screenwriter of the Widmark film abandoned most of the plot, lots of the characters, and that the film company more or less paid Kersh for the evocative title.

There is a splendid edition of the book now published by London Books with an excellent, atmospheric and very informative introduction by John King. I really recommend that this is the edition that you seek out – not least because it is beautifully produced.

It is one of the finest novels about London, and in particularly the Soho district in the 1930s I have ever read. It is not a crime novel per se, though many of the characters operate on the fringes of the underworld. It is a lowlife novel, with characters whose lives are hopeless and tragic. The anti-hero Harry Fabian is one of life’s losers. A cockney who wants to get on, who pretends very often to be an American, with a bad imitation of the accent, on the grounds that it might impress others. Harry is a ponce (a pimp in modern parlance), a blackmailer, an entrepreneur of the crooked Soho world, who simply cannot compete with real existence in that great depression of the 1930s – the book is set in the period immediately before the coronation of King George VI.

Harry tries to get on, but every enterprise seems doomed to failure. He takes up one thing after another, but fails because he gets bored too easily and can’t persist with anything. He seems destined for a tragic end and, in a way, gets one. But not the end you might expect.
Every aspect of lowlife Soho is covered. Characters run dubious night-clubs, women are lured into working as hostesses and worse just in order to survive. There is a wonderful demonstration of the growth of fixed all-in wrestling matches at the time, and one of the best fight scenes in literature.

But this is almost, as we would say today, a docudrama. Kersh is clearly writing from his own great personal knowledge of this world, with the same vividness for social observation that you get in the writings of George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton.

Night and the City is not an easy read. It shows aspects of London life that we all know are there, but try not to think about, with an array of characters that make Kersh a kind of twentieth-century Dickens – Nosseros, the night-club owner, Helen the hostess, Zoe and Vi, working girls with a doubtful future, Bert the Costermonger, who is an object lesson on how to survive on the right side of the law, the Black Strangler, a wrestler with an uncertain temper.

If you ever want to know what lowlife London was really like in the 1930s then Night and the City is the book to read. I know Soho quite well. There are aspects of Kersh’s depiction that are still valid today.

I hadn’t discovered Gerald Kersh until I read Night and the City. Now I shall seek out more of his work. His own life was fascinating, as you’ll see if you look him up online. The characters and settings of this novel could never have been “mugged up” – only someone with first-hand knowledge could have produced a literary work of such distinction.

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, with an introduction by John King. Published by London Books.

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