Show Hide image

The godfather of Brit noir: cult crime writer Ted Lewis is due a renaissance

When he died in 1982, he was remembered in the literary world – if at all – solely as the man who “wrote that film with Michael Caine”.

When he died in 1982 at the age of 42, the novelist Ted Lewis had achieved some success in “that London” but now lived with his mother in his north Lincolnshire home town of Barton-upon-Humber. He did the rounds of the town’s pubs each night, occasionally playing piano, then tramping home across muddy fields and ditches, or often deposited on the doorstep. He was remembered in the wider literary world – if he was remembered at all – solely as the man who “wrote that film with Michael Caine”, the Newcastle-set cinematic masterpiece Get Carter. Lewis’s novel was actually called Jack’s Return Home, and was set in Scunthorpe – his involvement in the film was minimal. Though Mike Hodges’s adaptation was entirely faithful to the wonderfully grubby tone of the text, a decade later its creator was reduced to a mere footnote in the film’s journey towards cult-dom.

By the mid-1990s – when the county of Humberside was broken up into four local authorities, and Caine’s Jack Carter had become an icon for the New Labour-contrived notion of Cool Britannia – the contents of the glass cabinet in Barton’s library that held Lewis’s nine novels were unceremoniously dumped on the tip. These terse, out-of-print books about troubled men, violent impulses and social outsiders were deemed worthless by his own community.

Yet to us fans who have discovered him in second-hand paperbacks, Lewis is one of the great postwar writers, whose work combines the kitchen-sink grit of David Storey, Barry Hines et al with the best of hard-boiled American crime. His mid-career Bildungsroman The Rabbit is on a par with anything DH Lawrence wrote about sexual awakenings, while his influence quietly looms over much TV crime drama and the novels of Derek Raymond, Jake Arnott, David Peace and Cathi Unsworth, not to mention Humberside’s thriving noir scene. He is lauded in France and Sylvester Stallone even played Carter in an awful remake, yet Ted Lewis remains the apotheosis of that backhanded compliment, “a writer’s writer”. A ghost awaiting resurrection.

Resurrection is exactly what Barton-based crime writer Nick Triplow achieves in this biography, which repositions Lewis in his rightful place as the don of the contemporary noir scene. Researched with the forensic patience of the kind of fictional detective that Lewis avoided, Triplow finds a life of baby boomer opportunity: grammar school and art school (rather than the quarryman’s job his father pushed for), jazz and boozy carousing. Friends recall Lewis’s looks, charm and contrived cool, his talent as an artist and pianist, but also his fascination with gangsters and his ill-treatment of women. Later came a job in Soho working as an animator on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, where he saw the Sixties swing during that brief time in which criminals, politicians and pop stars rubbed epaulettes.

But it’s the provinces that most inform Lewis’s pared-down novels. His is an occultist reading of an England far removed from urbane, middle-class literary fiction – one of liquid lunches, modernist furnishings, big-fish-in-small ponds and drab seaside towns in winter. It’s a world of permanent twilight.

His unflinching prison-break novel, Billy Rags (1973), closely echoed the story of escapee John McVicar to the point, Triplow notes, that it was inseparable from McVicar’s own unpublished memoirs; while Lewis’s final and best novel, GBH, is a masterwork in plot and tension with a dual narrative and a nihilistic lack of hope. Its shocking conclusion was echoed in David Fincher’s blockbuster film Seven. In it Lewis turns the seaside town of Mablethorpe into a setting as vital as James Ellroy’s LA or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, before either were published. Triplow rightly draws a comparison with Albert Camus’s L’Etranger.

Lewis briefly enjoyed the trappings of success when he married, and bought cottages in villages in Essex and Suffolk. Yet his penchant for hard drinking and destroying relationships, family life and productivity drove him back to Lincolnshire, first with a new family he acquired after an affair and then in Barton with his mother, slowly self-pickling like Jack Kerouac had a decade earlier.

The landscape of Lincolnshire – a county often dismissed as unremarkable and whose towns suggest toil and industry (Scunthorpe, Grimsby) or Little Englander sensibilities (Grantham, birthplace of Margaret Thatcher; Boston, which recently recorded the highest level of Leave voters) – is crucial to his work. The flat arable lands suggest an existential angst that is reflected in Lewis’s strongest characters, whether through Jack Carter’s cynical one-liners or the exploitative men who stalk Plender (1971), adapted for cinema in France in 2006 as Le Serpent. Through Lewis’s eyes Lincolnshire is all edges – of morality, of England, of life itself.

The high-pressure deadlines demanded of a writer erroneously categorised as “pulp” – before crime fiction was afforded the respect it gets today – did not serve Lewis well. His agent, Toby Eady, tells Triplow that Lewis preferred to leave the work until the last month of an allotted writing year, with the other eleven months pissed up the proverbial wall. It shows in his output – the misguided Boldt (1976) is set in an America that Lewis never visited and is essentially Kojak with queasy racial epithets. A third Carter book, Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon (1977), is unremarkable.

Few writers are flawless, and Lewis lived and worked fast and hard. His rapid demise was tragic. Diabetic, bloated with booze and soon to succumb to pneumonia and cirrhosis, he was not recognised by former school friends at a reunion. Triplow is unsentimental in his study of a man whose work offers much to admire. Lewis’s refusal to sugar-coat difficult subjects was ahead of its time, his economical narrative flair the foundation of contemporary British noir. Perhaps this fascinating portrait is the beginning of an overdue revival. 

Ben Myers’s most recent novel is “The Gallows Pole” (Bluemoose Books)

Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir
Nick Triplow
No Exit Press, 320pp, £16.99

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
Show Hide image

Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge