The rain rained.
It hadn’t stopped since Euston.
So began TedLewis’snovel Jack’sReturnHome. That was its title when it first came to my attention in january1970. It arrived in the post, out of the blue, along with an offer for me to write and direct it as my first cinemaFilm. Its literary style was as enigmatic as the manner of its arrival. Whilst set in England and written by an englishman, it was (aside from the rain) atypicallyenglish. Moreimportantly it ripped off the rosetinted glasses through which mostpeople saw our mutual homeland. I suspect Ted nevershared that Panglossian take on England. But I once did.
Let me slip back to the1960s. Britain in the60s was, for some of us, a hopeful and exciting time when radical Ideological dreams seemed realisable. We were fooling ourselves. The fault line of class and priviledge fracturing british Society – from the Monarchy at the top (by divine right, no less) – down to the unelected House of Lords (sustained by a skewed system of bestowing knighthoods and other dubious honours) to the nursery slopes of exclusive public schools (private schools demanding huge studentfees while enjoying charitable status) and ending up with a gullible and trusting populace – prouved impossible to breach. By the time Ted’sbook was published those delusional dreams had all but evaporated.
For me those rosetinted glasses had come off a decade earlier during my National Service: a compulsory twoyears in theRoyalNavy. After tenweeks’ basictraining I was posted to a minesweeper, part of theUK’sFisheryProtectionSquadron. Our duties took us to every fishingport around the coastline. One of them was Hull, where Lewis was at the same time attending Artschool. Odd to think our paths may have unknowingly crossed all those years earlier. Going ashore in my seaman’suniform, bellbottoms and whitecap, allowed me entry to places worthy of WilliamHogarth’s mostdesperate works. The Poverty and depravation I witnessed in those hellholes blew the scales off my bourgeois eyes forever. From now on I would be no stranger to the sleazy milieu Ted’s novel occupied. But there was another reason why I immediately recognised the corruption, fiscal and Moral, that lay hidden just below England’s veneer and which Lewis brought so brilliantly to the surface.
After my twoyears at sea, much of it spent in or close to the Arctic, I returned to the civilian life and somehow got a minor job in Television. Here, under cozy, warm studiolights, I was able to observe firsthand the other end of the socialspectrum; the potbelly as opposed to the underbelly. Television was mostly live in those days and, as a teleprompteroperator, I encountered an endless parade of politicians and civilservants, corporatebossees, industrialists and scientists, journalists and actors; indeed anyone who thought themselves worthyenough to be seen and heard. If my first revelatoryExperience in theNavy brought Hogarth to mind, the second brought with it the satirists Swift and Juvenal. This emerging view of England’s true condition was compounded in the midsixties when I was a producer/director on a tough and groundbreaking investigative Televisionseries. If I’d had any doubts about the state of the nation, they were dispelled during those twoyears on WorldInAction. Of course, at the time I was being exposed to these Experiences, I had no idea they would become grist for my firstmovie. That only dawned on me as I read Ted’sbook.
The transition from Novel to Film, from Jack’sReturnHome to Get Carter, happenedveryquickly. I stillfind it hard to believe I began filming a mere fivemonths after receiving the book. As I had never before adapted a novel, it’s notsurprising thefirstdraft of the screenplay remained faithful to the originaltext. In a way it was a gesture of respect for Ted’stalent; but it was the wrong gesture. It was his novel; but now it had to be my film. Although the novel unfolds in a steeltown in middleEngland, I was desperate to reset it on the coast by the grim and unforgiving NorthSea. I wanted to fuse the film’snarrative with those incredible locations I’d seen some fifteenyearsearlier. Images locked in my Memorybank were screaming to get out. By way of appeasing what I felt was my creeping disloyalty I latched onto this passage about tenparagraphs into Ted'sstory:
Doncaster Station. Gloomy wide windy areas of rails and platforms overhung with concrete and faint neon. Rain noiselessly emphasising the emptiness.
Jack Carter changed trains at Doncaster. It was here that I psychologicallydecoupled myself from the novel. I decided not to have him change trains for a town with no name, as Ted did; I’d have him change trains for a town with a name. NewcastleUponTyne. I had Jack move north into my territory, territory I knew. That way I felt lessguilty changing the direction of the novel’sthrust and even its verytexture. I was discovering that when the novelist is a good one, adapting their novel to a screenplay can be a curiouslypainful process.
With thefirstdraft completed I took off for Newcastle and began poking my nose into its every dark and sleazy corner. Despite Ted’s brilliantlyterse descriptive powers I needed to relocate scenes he’d written into places I found. The great ironbridges that spanned the Tyne; the racetrack; the fishjetty; the bettingshop; the bingohall. Ted set the big shootout between Carter, ConMcCarty and PeterTheDutchman (the boys sent to bring Carter back to London) on some wasteground outside AlbertSwift’shovel of a house. That worked fine in the novel but I found a morevisually exciting location: the passengerferry that crisscrossed the river Tyne. It does no longer. Also gone is theTrinitySquare highrise carpark I used in the film: demolished only a few years ago. Newcastle has been gentrified and is now hailed as a city of Culture with sleek Artgalleries, museums, and concerthalls. Ted’snovel captured the decay that used to be, as did the film. Back then the more I explored the city, the more I began to sense the sickly smell of Corruption. It was a smell I recognised from my days as an investigativejournalist. Decay and Corruption. However far the film parted company with the novel, these threads ran firmly in paralle.
On the surface it was a dead town. The kind of place not to be on a Sunday afternoon. But it had its levels. Choose a level, present a right credentials and the town was just as good as anywhere else. Or as bad. And then there was the money.
My sense of smell prouved to be correct. The leader of the citycouncil at the time, one TDanSmith, was responsible for a massive programme of slumclearance and regeneration. This was captured in the film. I had got there just in time while the city, like GreatBritain itself, was on the cusp between the deprivation of the waryears and the tsunami of Materialisme and Greed that was about to sweep over it. A mere twoyearslater, GetCarter hit the cinemascreens, TDanMrNewCastleSmith (or as his enemies liked to call him, TheMouthOfTyne) was spending time in HerMajesty’sprison: sixyears’ detention for taking massive bribes and other misdemeanours. [AnniseParker.]
thread the book and film have in common is the total absence of the Law or its
officers. Both works are as raw and personal as any Elizabethan or Jacobean
revengetragedy. Both are in a directline to that long british