Obituary: Berkely Mather

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The Independent Online
Berkely Mather wrote full-blooded adventure stories. The adventure story writer - ancient (at any rate, early-20th century) as well as modern - has always had to labour under the curse of the Boys' Own Paper. Whatever acute intelligence he (it is rarely she: Clare Francis is an honourable exception) may bring to bear on his theme, whatever descriptive powers he may possess, whatever arcane tit-bits he may unearth, his story will in the end be filed under "ripping yarns" to be sniffily dismissed by all but the most provincial of literary editors.

To be sure, many (verging on countless) adventure-story writers deserve this fate. Quite a few - Ralph Hammond Innes, Ernest K. Gann, Arthur D. Howden Smith, C.S. Forester, Duncan Kyle, one or two others - don't. Berkely Mather certainly didn't. His novels, screen- plays, television plays and radio scripts contained all the ingredients any competent hack can come up with - action, plot, unflagging pace and exotic locations - yet are far from being mere "shooty-bang" juvenilia.

Berkely Mather was the pseudonym of John Evan Weston-Davies, a career soldier who was born in Gloucester in 1909. The family emigrated to Australia before the First World War (in which Mather lost two of his elder brothers), and Mather was educated there, at high school and Sydney University, where he read Medicine, the family profession.

To escape a suffocating fate, Mather took off on a world tour, travelling mainly steerage, before ending up in England in the depths of the post- Wall Street Crash Depression. He had no career and no qualifications. He enlisted in the Royal Horse Artillery, failed to gain a commission, and, in desperation, applied to join the Indian Army. It was the saving of him.

From 1934 through to Independence in 1947, he rose through the ranks, becoming a sergeant at the outbreak of the Second World in 1939, getting sent to Iraq, serving under Slim, and ending the war as an acting lieutenant- colonel (who was, moreover, mentioned in despatches). After Independence he rejoined the British Army, serving in the Royal Artillery until he retired in 1959.

By then, as Berkely Mather, he was already an established writer. His earliest stories had appeared in The Bystander and other glossy society weeklies in London before the Second World War. In the early 1950s, while still in the army, he had tried his hand at a radio play, Southern Channel , as well as one for the new medium of television, The Fast Buck. Both were accepted.

In the mid-Fifties he created his first TV series (an early example of the genre) in Tales From Soho, which was produced by Tony Richardson. It featured as one of its main characters Inspector Charlesworth (played by the lanky and mildly lugubrious John Welsh) whom Mather later resurrect (in the stouter form of the actor Wensley Pithey) in a series which lasted into the 1960s.

Another series, Geth Straker, concerning the exploits of a piratical Canadian master mariner, ran for a while on the wireless, before appearing in book form in 1962. Mather also began selling stories to John Bull and the London evening papers, all three of which (Star, Evening Standard and Evening News) were greedy for well-crafted and exciting short fiction of the kind Mather could supply with comparative ease.

His first novel, The Achilles Affair (1959), was a minor best-seller. His second, the excellent The Pass Beyond Kashmir (1960), was reviewed enthusiastically by Ian Fleming, who suggested that Mather should write the script for the first James Bond film, Dr No. In fact a script was already in existence, and Mather lightened it considerably, judicially injecting a certain amount of camp satire into the Bond character. In later films, and under other writers, this was exaggerated enormously. Although offered a percentage of the take for his work on the script, Mather disastrously opted for a flat fee.

In later years a leaning towards the historical turned him in the direction of the family saga, his final three novels - The Pagoda Tree (1979), Midnight Gun (1981) and Hour of the Dog (1982) - forming a superb trilogy featuring the fortunes, and misfortunes, of a family in the Near and Far East from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. There was absolutely nothing of the Boys' Own Paper about it.

Jack Adrian

John Evan ("Jasper") Weston-Davies (Berkely Mather), writer: born Gloucester 25 February 1909; married 1938 Kay Jones (died 1991; two sons and one daughter deceased) died 7 April 1996.