Leslie Thomas was a former Barnardo’s boy who became a Fleet Street journalist. But he is best known for his riotous autobiographical 1966 novel The Virgin Soldiers, which was made into a successful 1969 film starring Hywel Bennett. The book’s title was, he said, “the best three words I ever wrote.”
It was inspired by his National Service experiences in Singapore – in Who’s Who he records that he “rose to Lance-Corporal” – which included a spell fighting Malayan insurgents. “The jungle was pretty terrifying,” he said. “I remember we were sent up country on trains. This was particularly dangerous as the terrorists had a habit of jumping on to the roofs of the moving trains and firing down on to the squaddies below.”
The bawdy plot concerned a romantic triangle comprising Private Brigg (closely based on Thomas himself), a career-soldier sergeant and the daughter of the regimental sergeant-major – and featured Brigg’s obsession with losing his virginity. If not a roman a clef, it mirrored real life closely. Thomas recalled, “I remember one of the lads in my barracks saying, ‘I hope we’re not shot before I’ve known what it’s like to have a woman,’ and I thought ‘hear, hear’.”
He eventually lost his virginity with a prostitute, “Juicy Lucy” (so-called both in the book and real life) for 30 shillings: “She gave me 10 bob back in the morning because I was inept.” He saw more of her, and recalled: “She had a Chinese name, but if Doris Day was on at the cinema she’d be called Doris, or if Rita Hayworth was on it would be Rita or even Hayworth.” He said that one of his biggest regrets was that he never said goodbye properly to her: “You should always say goodbye.”
Written in the evenings while Thomas was working as a reporter, the book was, he admitted, “not even a novel when you break it down – just a series of incidents”. It was, though, a huge, if controversial, hit: he recalled receiving a letter which read: “Dear Sir, You have got to die, you bastard, you and DH Lawrence”.
Leslie John Thomas was born in Newport into a seafaring family. His father he described as “a wandering Welsh sailor”, a stoker on merchant ships who would come home, get drunk and beat his mother up. During the war Thomas recalled praying, “Make dad’s ship sink.” It duly did, killing his father, when a torpedo struck, and when his mother died not long after of cancer, he and his brother were sent to a Barnardo’s Home in Kingston-upon-Thames. One of his uncles – his mother and father had 23 siblings between them – did try to retrieve the boys, but was unable to convince the home that he was fit to be in loco parentis: “Any chances of us being allowed to live with him were dashed when he offered the Barnardo’s representative a gin and tonic.”
He trained to be a bricklayer at Kingston Technical School, and then took a course in journalism at South-West Essex Technical College in Walthamstow. His first job was reporting for a local newspaper in Woodford, Essex, and then came National Service in the Royal Army Pay Corps – Thomas would tell girls the “P” in “RAPC” stood for “Parachute”.
“I wanted to go into an infantry regiment and see the world,” he recalled. “They sent me to Singapore, but put me in the Pay Corps as a clerk in an accounts office, the worst possible place for me. Even now I am not good at the administration of money matters... I was basically a desk-bound soldier, and Singapore was an exciting place to be, particularly for an 18-year-old like me. In my off-duty moments I was even a singer at the famous Raffles Hotel.”
He came back to Britain and worked in local newspapers in London, and then in 1955 was taken on by the Evening News, with whom he stayed until he retired in 1965 to write fiction full-time. Among the stories he covered were the trial of Adolf Eichmann – “I even went back for his hanging”– and the death of Sir Winston Churchill.
The film adaptation of Virgin Soldiers was written by John Hopkins, and directed by John Dexter, would go on to win two Tony awards, one for his production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. While Hywel Bennett played the Thomas role, Lynn Redgrave was the regimental sergeant major’s daughter as determined as he to lose her virginity. It also featured a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance by a pre-Ziggy Stardust David Bowie.
Thomas was a quick writer, generally starting a book in the autumn and wrapping it up in the spring, and after Virgin Soldiers there were 29 more novels, including a sequel, Onward Virgin Soldiers. Thomas admitted that was there was a pressure to make them all racy. “Unfortunately I am stuck with it,” he said. “I’ve started on the road and there is no turning back. Sales figures tell me that.”
Indeed, over his career he sold around 14 million copies. Probably the best known of his later books was Tropic of Ruislip, whose title evoked Henry Miller for an account of steamy goings-on in suburbia. He said he had a letter from a residents’ association when it was published saying how upset they were about it; they suggested he make reparations with a donation towards new trees in the area.
Dangerous Davies (1976), regarding the exploits of a mild-mannered CID officer in Willesden, became a well-regarded TV series, The Last Detective. In 1964 Thomas had written a memoir of his Barnardo years, This Time Next Week, and 20 years later came an autobiography, In My Wildest Dreams.
In later years he lived in the large Georgian canonry in Salisbury Cathedral Close. He became friends with his neighbour, Sir Edward Heath, who was the first of his new neighbours to invite him to lunch. Thomas found him “quirkish but often very kind.” Thomas was, he admitted, addicted to beautiful homes, and over the years had owned 26. He wrote: “I treasure memories of one particular lady who was heard to exclaim in horror when she was told of my arrival: ‘A pornographer has come among us!’ We later became great friends.”
Leslie John Thomas, writer: born 22 March 1931; OBE 2005; married 1956 Maureen Crane (marriage dissolved; one daughter, two sons), 1970 Diana Miles (one son); died 6 May 2014.Reuse content