Nobody seems to remember Eric Maschwitz nowadays but back in the Thirties he was one of the biggest names in British entertainment. He was the first editor of the Radio Times, he was Director of BBC Variety, appointed when he was only 25, he wrote the lyrics for “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “These Foolish Things”, and he was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay of Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939). In later life he even gets some credit for setting up the BBC research project which ultimately led to Doctor Who.
In amongst all that he wrote a few novels under the name Holt Marvell, some of them with his friend and colleague Val Gielgud, brother of Sir John, Maschwitz’s deputy and successor at the Radio Times, and Director of BBC Drama (Radio) from 1929 to 1963. Their most notable success together was probably Death at Broadcasting House (1934), a frankly rubbish story but full of fascinating insider detail on BH, which had opened in 1932. The novel was adapted into a fairly undistinguished British film the same year, starring a very young Jack Hawkins.
In 1929, as Marvell, Maschwitz made an epic radio adaptation of Compton Mackenzie’s slightly risqué novel Carnival, which Gielgud always claimed set the standard for all subsequent radio drama.
“Its production was a landmark in the history radio drama, for in its charming story of a dancer’s life in pre-war England the new medium found a subject that called into play all its new-found resources. It was wholeheartedly a romantic radio play, produced with all the colourful atmosphere and musical embellishment its picturesque subject demanded.”*
Personally, I argue that it set the standard for all radio drama of which Gielgud approved, though I have to concede the trend continues to this day when the BBC’s penchant for adapting novels rather than commissioning new original writing has sadly never been more pronounced.
Little Red Monkey also became a movie, a 1955 Anglo-Amalgamated quota-quickie with Richard Conte grafted on, in theory to broaden transatlantic appeal. The director was Ken Hughes, who went on to direct Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Cromwell and Sextette (1978), the latter starring eighty-five year old Mae West with Timothy Dalton (as her husband), Ringo Starr and Alice Cooper. As with Death at Broadcasting House, and pretty much everything else he ever wrote, Maschwitz had a hand in the script. But it is important to note that what he adapted was not the novel but his own original screenplay for the 1953 BBC TV series. The novel is in fact a cash-in novelisation by British pulp hack Bevis Winter, about whom I can find nothing save that he may have been Australian. Winter wrote Steve Craig thrillers and also used the name Peter Cagney, a somewhat unsubtle cobbling-together of Peter Cheyney and James Cagney. Under another pseudonym, Gordon Shayne, Winter wrote at least two novels which sank so low that they were published not in London, New York or Cape Town, but in Burnley, Lancashire. I should declare an interest here. I come from Burnley. And I am not going back.
The original TV series was in six parts, the first episode airing on January 24 1953. This is astonishingly early; it even predates the Coronation, traditionally regarded as the event which ignited the British television boom. It was clearly meant to be a primetime attraction, airing at 8.30 on Saturday evening. The director was Bill Lyon-Shaw and the stars were Honor Blackman and Donald Houston. The fabulous Billie Whitelaw had a minor part as a receptionist in Episode Four.
The novel was published to coincide with the broadcast, so we can assume it is a fairly faithful mirror of what was seen on TV. The Four Square paperback, which I bought for the fantastic cover art, came out in 1961. Given that 1961 was eight years after the TV serial and five after the film, you have to wonder what provoked reissue. The first chapter explains it. Scientists with secrets crash through the Brandenburg Gate from Soviet East Berlin to the British West. 1961, of course, is when the Wall went up.
Since the paperback is all I have (I can’t access the TV series, in the unlikely event it survives, and I really don’t want the film), that is what I have to consider here. The writing is a little stodgy and, given that Maschwitz came up with the wonderfully witty lyric of “These Foolish Things”, I am inclined to blame Winter for this. The story, however, is brilliant. It is set in the immediate postwar world where the truth of what some people actually did in the war is still coming out. One such is Colin Currie, not the playboy everyone thought he was, but a British spy. He works for Sir Clive, one of those retired army officers who always seem to run Special Ops in the 1950s, in fact, apparently, as well as fiction. One of the escaped scientists is killed early on – he is found with the titular monkey – and now Currie must protect the other until he can be flown to safety in Canada. Meanwhile dodgy agents are active in London. Maschwitz manages to keep the suspense going throughout, funnelling the denouement into one last, fog-bound night in the rural Home Counties. The characters develop, especially Jocelyn “Jockey” Cullum, played on TV by Honor Blackman, who begins despising Colin Currie as a feckless coward and ends up loving him. In the meantime she is pivotal to one vital element of the plot, witnesses a secondary murder, and plays a direct role in the final conclusive events.
Whilst we always know who is responsible for the murders – the monkey is red for a self-explanatory reason – we don’t discover until the very end who actually carried them out. The clues are there from the start but the revelation is a true jaw-dropper. Maschwitz plays fair with us – the monkey is the biggest clue of all.
Returning, finally, to the cover: the artwork is not credited, they never were in those days. But look at the way the complementary green makes the red pop out; the swirly pattern of the background contrasting with the black angularity of the table and the stark simplicity of the figure. Tilt the cover 90 degrees clockwise and check out the truly dead expression on the corpse’s face. Then there’s the white watch, surely above and beyond the epitome of cool in 1961.
* Radio Times no: 526 p. 34 [http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk accessed 2.3.15]
** I have in mind the fiction of William Haggard and the real-life intelligence mandarins involved with Chapman Pincher in the D Notice Affair of 1967.