Saturday, November 25, 2017

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Getting Carter: Ted Lewis And The Birth Of Brit Noir

Christopher Owens examines the relationship between the novel and the movie in a review of a book by Nick Triplow.

The cover says it all: a scruffy, backward looking type with bad sideburns and a new leather jacket standing beside the man helping to bring his creation to life. Author Ted Lewis stands with a content look on his face and a self satisfied pose. He knows he's "made it." Michael Caine, on the other hand, looks like he's obliging a drunken local with a photograph on the provision that he leaves him alone.

Inadvertently, this cover sums up the career trajectory of Ted Lewis.

Although responsible for writing the 1970 novel Jack's Return Home (filmed a year later as 'Get Carter'), Lewis fell into obscurity after his death in 1982. While 'Get Carter' became an example of "Cool Britannia" in the mid 90's, this was purely down to Michael Caine's performance as the ruthless gangster. Lewis' role was barely (if at all) mentioned.

Thankfully, a pool of writers (such as Max Allen Collins, Stuart Neville, Derek Raymond and Jake Arnott) have been citing Lewis as an influence on their own works and, in recent years, his novels have come back in print.

So it's the perfect time for an overdue appraisal of the man's life, and Nick Triplow is to be commended for this task. 

The early years of Lewis' life in Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire are covered in surprisingly concise and lucid detail. A humiliating tale involving the headmaster on his first day of secondary school not only serves as a reason for Lewis' hatred of authority figures throughout his life, but also as a time capsule: Britain was a very different place in the 1950's and it's impossible to imagine such a thing happening today.

His time in Hull art school is depicted as a whirlwind of drink, new wave films playing in jazz bands and designing. Going from the early years in Lincolnshire, the school comes across as an alien world, encouraging and nurturing open mindedness creativity and individuality and was clearly crucial in shaping Lewis' fascination with surface and veneer. No wonder British art schools produced people like Gee Vaucher and Pete Townshend around the same time.

When the narrative moves onto the writing (after a spell working on the 'Yellow Submarine' movie), Triplow does a great job deconstructing the works, the inspirations behind certain characters and even controversies (his 1973 novel Billy Rags heavily borrowed from John McVicker's then unpublished memoir).

These chapters show Triplow has a genuine appreciation for Lewis' work, but isn't afraid to point out flaws (his work on 'Z-Cars' and an aborted episode of 'Doctor Who' is discussed sympathetically, but critically) and even openly slate some of his writings, all while providing appropriate context.

However, where the book comes up short in is it's struggles to get to the heart of Lewis and what made him drink heavily and burn bridges. There's no doubt that he was a complex character, coming from a solid working class background (with a Masonry father) who devoured American pulp fiction and comics while befriending English teachers friendly with Dylan Thomas. He was a cocky bastard, but also painfully shy. He hung about with gangsters, but was never a criminal himself.

Understandably, a lot of this is down to lack of resources to draw upon (Triplow claims that most of his personal papers have been destroyed), but more importantly, Lewis seems to have been an aloof type, rarely allowing anyone a look behind the veneer.

As a result of this, he comes across as an increasing boorish, loudmouthed alcoholic, with little reason to pity or understand him. Interviews with his family and acquaintances cast little light on him, only highlighting that his behaviour could jump from one extreme to the other (which we know already).

One segment dealing with a stream of conscience piece of his that muses on death seems to suggest he was all too aware of his flaws and that he'd had sex with a male at some point (a turn-up for the womanizing Lewis), but it's not examined enough for greater clues. This is a shame.

It's even stated that Lewis was bitter that Get Carter became more associated with Caine (apparently he even bemoaned that The Sweeney ripped off  Get Carter), contemporary sources suggest he was happy enough with it at the time. So where and when did this pride turn into animosity? And was this the sole reason he blew all his money and ended up spending the final years of his life living with his parents? We never find out.

In many ways, it can be said that Lewis was the archetypical noir writer: boozy, repellent personality but with a cutting ability to see beyond veneers of respectability. So it's no wonder his writings were full of characters with such traits. And, thinking along such lines, it's no surprise his life ended the way it did.

Will we ever get to find out any more about Ted Lewis? Unlikely, so Getting Carter is to be commended for it's research and insightfulness.

Will it attract newcomers to check out Jack's Return Home or GBH? Here's hoping.

Nick Triplow, 2017, Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir, No Exit Press, ISBN-13: 978-1901033601

Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212