Crime writer, dramatist and creator of the radio detective Dr Morelle, 'the man you love to hate!'
Saturday 04 February 2006
Vivian Ernest Coltman-Allen (Ernest Dudley), journalist, novelist, playwright, scriptwriter and actor: born Dudley, Worcestershire 23 July 1908; married 1930 Jane Grahame (died 1981; one daughter); died London 1 February 2006.
The writer Ernest Dudley had an extraordinary career. He was largely self-educated ("University of Life, dear boy", he was fond of saying), since his father, a doctor, spy and failed hotelier, was suspicious of formal schooling, but went on to produce scores of books - mainly crime fiction, but non-fiction as well, biographies, flavoursome and quite erotic historical novels, children's books - and create dozens of radio and television series.
He wrote for the stage and the movies, composed songs and produced acres of journalism: at different times he was "society" correspondent for the Daily Mail, boxing reporter for The People, and "crime commentator" for any number of rags. He acted for pennies per week touring the parish halls, cowsheds and "blood-tubs" of rural Ireland, turned out copious amounts of copy on jazz, and invented a new dance-step with Fred Astaire (Dudley enacting the girl's role when they tried it out on the stage of the Palace Theatre, the schema subsequently appearing in the columns of the Daily Mail).
For enthusiasts of classic mystery fiction, his most enduring achievement, however, was the creation of Dr Morelle, psychoanalyst-detective and male chauvinist pig of the first water, whose ratiocinative powers were dazzling, but whose treatment of females, especially his fluttery secretary Miss Frayle, verged on the abominable.
Overbearing, sarcastic, patronising, contemptuous, cruel and unusually vindictive, Morelle was nevertheless doted upon by millions of listeners to his adventures on the radio in the 1940s and 1950s, the majority of whom, bafflingly, were women. Dudley, a dab-hand at self-publicity, quickly came up with the line "The man you love to hate!" Morelle was based originally on the tyrannical movie actor and director Erich von Stroheim (one of whose quirks was striding around film sets in jackboots) whom Dudley had met briefly in Paris in the 1930s.
The first radio Morelle was played by the acerbic and distinctly toffish Dennis Arundell - a Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, who later starred in many West End productions. A second series featured the even darker tones of Heron Carvic, later to write best-selling mysteries of his own, featuring the interfering spinster-sleuth Miss Seaton. In the 1950s, the part was played to pompous, thin-lipped perfection by Cecil Parker, an actor Morelle's creator wasn't, however, terribly keen on ("Was he any good, dear boy?"). Dudley held strong opinions about certain people who had crossed his path over the years, and carried decades-long grudges.
The first Miss Frayle was played by Dudley's wife, Jane Grahame, while a later incarnation was Sheila Sim, whom Dudley always remembered with much affection and who was married to Richard Attenborough ("We won't talk about him, dear boy").
Dudley created Morelle for a popular BBC radio "anthology" programme Monday Night at Eight during the Second World War. He subsequently published three volumes of short stories as well as nearly a dozen novels about Morelle, and co-wrote (with Arthur Watkyn) a play, Dr Morelle, which scored a modest success in the early 1950s.
He had no more than a ghostly presence in the only Dr Morelle film, The Case of the Missing Heiress (1949). It starred the sinister-toned Valentine Dyall, best known as "The Man in Black" and another actor Dudley viewed with some misgivings ("Not much of a stage actor, was he?"). The best thing about the film, he once said, was that he got paid £500 for staying well away.
Ernest Dudley was born Vivian Ernest Coltman-Allen in 1908, and took his celebrated pseudonym from his place of birth, Dudley, near Wolverhampton. He moved as a child to Cookham, Berkshire, where his father was running the King's Arms, a hostelry much favoured by the arty set of the day. Stanley Spencer lived nearby (Dudley's father bought an early painting for a fiver); Ivor Novello brought his louche friends to stay; Somerset Maugham slept there. West End stars such as Jack Buchanan used it as a weekend retreat. (Buchanan later gave Dudley the aspiring actor the priceless advice always to check his flies before going out on stage.) The hotel failed in the end due to Colman-Allen senior's drinking.
Dudley, aged 17, after a grim period boarding at Taplow School, fled to Ireland with a travelling repertory company, living on potatoes and a pittance. Moving onward and upwards he joined the Charles Doran Company, which toured a slightly better class of flea-pit. He always said that he only went on the stage "to meet girls". He met his wife in 1928, on a tour of Margaret Kennedy's famous weepie The Constant Nymph.
Jane Grahame had started her theatrical career as a child actress. Her stepfather was the silent film star Eille Norwood, a celebrated Sherlock Holmes - he played the part in nearly 50 shorts during the 1920s. This gave rise to an oft-used conversational gambit by Dudley: "You don't know it, my dear chap, but you're looking at Sherlock Holmes's stepson-in-law!"
Dudley's finest hour as a touring actor came when he and his wife were chosen to take out the first touring Private Lives after the West End production transferred to Broadway in 1931, although by then he was beginning to tire of the grind of touring rep. Through his theatrical in-laws he had already begun to shift into the West End. He played (though in minor roles) on the same stage as Fay Compton, Charles Laughton and Madeleine Carroll, and was stage manager to a number of West End hits.
During the 1930s Dudley eased himself into full-time writing via his job as society reporter on the Daily Mail. He wrote for the movies, two or three scripts for the "quota" (shoestring melodramas to counter the growing American monopoly), and began to sell ideas to the BBC, gaining a foothold by supplying 10-minute crime and detective sketches for anthology programmes such as Lucky Dip, Monday Night at Seven and its enormously popular successor, Monday Night at Eight.
He turned out many series for the Monday evening programme, for an audience that sometimes reached 14 or 15 million: "Crime Chasers, Ltd", "Calling X2" (a spy series starring Jack Melford), "SOS Sally" (Grahame playing a girl sleuth who solves department-store crimes), and, notably, the long- running series about a rag-and-bone man who solves problems of the heart as well as crimes, "Mr Walker Wants To Know".
The series made a star of Gordon Crier - who used to mutter into the microphone in hoarse Cockney when each dramatic problem had been posed, "What would you do, chums?" - transforming him virtually overnight from a £15-a-week comedian into a £500-a-week comic actor. It gave Dudley his first published book, the now scarce Mr Walker Wants To Know (1939), and also gained him £1,000 for the film rights.
He adapted for the radio Edwy Searles Brooks's 1938 Sexton Blake story "Three Frightened Men" into Enter Sexton Blake (1939), with George Curzon in the lead role ("Not an inspiring actor, dear boy"), and had the ingenious notion of basing a whole series of atmospheric playlets on the composer Geoffrey Toye's ravishing and eerie melody "The Haunted Ballroom".
Dudley's other big radio hit, The Armchair Detective, began in 1942. It was a sort of book programme, with dramatised inserts, in which Dudley himself chatted about real-life as well as fictional crime and crime-writers ("Good evening, fellow sleuth-hounds, here's another juicy bit of mayhem and skulduggery to chill the spine . . .") With over 10 million listeners, the show ran for years, helped by photographs of Dudley "buried alive" under what looked like an avalanche of letters (in fact, a cleverly positioned layers-worth).
A film of the same name was produced in 1951 in which Dudley himself - perhaps unwisely - starred; he even took the show on the road, touring the variety halls as "The Armchair Detective" and solving 10-minute problems between comedy double-acts, jugglers, dog-turns, and speciality sand-box dancers. A number of "novel-length" comic books featuring a fictional Dudley ran in the Amalgamated Press's "Super Detective Library", illustrated by the ex-Rolls-Royce draughtsman Reg Bunn and the brilliant illustrator Bryce Hamilton.
Through the 1950s Dudley wrote for both radio and television. His most popular TV series was Judge For Yourself, one of the earliest viewer-participation shows, in which, after a half-hour "trial", viewers were invited by Dudley to send in their verdicts, "Guilty" or "Not guilty". His catch-phrase, spoken to camera at the end, was always "Remember - you are the judge".
He hosted a series of adapted terror tales on the old Light Programme, Dudley Nightshade; wrote a radio "thriller by gaslight" which featured Edgar Allan Poe's celebrated proto-sleuth C. Auguste Dupin in the chilling and atmospheric The Flies of Isis (1966, with Rolf Lefebvre in the lead role); and then scored a late hit with The House of Unspeakable Secrets, an eight-part radio comedy thriller written for Leslie Phillips in 1967.
An even later hit was a brilliant eight-part adaptation for radio of Proof (1987, with Nigel Havers), the racing-and-whisky thriller by Dick Francis ("But we won't speak of him, my dear chap"). In 1997, on the threshold of his 90th year, he reworked and adapted one of the Sherlock Holmes plays his stepfather-in-law had made famous nearly three-quarters of a century before: the actor Michael Cashman, as Holmes, toured in The Return of Sherlock Holmes to glowing reviews.
Towards the end of his life, Ernest Dudley had a fitness regime which would have floored many 30 years younger. In his seventies and eighties he finished five London marathons and three in New York; he was still active in his nineties. And virtually every day there was always something in the typewriter to read through, correct and push forward.
Ernest Dudley wasn't very good at being old - and I suspect that was the secret of his longevity, writes Matthew Sweet. At the age of 97, he was trotting about London in jeans and a black leather jacket, playing football in Regent's Park with my daughter, and alarming the staff of the Fountain Café in Fortnum and Mason's with his amazingly violent method of opening miniature pots of strawberry jam. And he never stopped working - hours before his death, he was fretting about the fate of a typescript that detailed an unfinished adventure of Dr Morelle.
A couple of years ago we went on a jaunt to the places of his childhood. He charged across the grass under Maidenhead Bridge, throwing out his arms to show me the site once occupied by Murray's - a joint with an illuminated glass dance floor which came in handy, he noted, for clients in search of a smooth surface from which to snort cocaine. After telling a story like this, his face would crack with a great grin - as if he could see the scene played out before him.
"Marvellous," he'd say, riveted by some image from the past of which he was the only living witness. "Marvellous."
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