Author of the 'Magician's House' novels
Tuesday 23 August 2005
A leading children's writer, in his novels for older readers William Corlett constantly pushed at the boundaries still existing between teenage and adult fiction. Original but always readable, many of his stories often reached a wider audience after he had adapted them for television. Unafraid to write about male attraction to other males before this became a more acceptable theme in teenage fiction, in his later life he came out as an openly gay writer with a devoted following in America as well as in Britain.
Growing up in Yorkshire, Corlett was educated at Fettes College, Edinburgh before enrolling at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1956. He was soon writing for the stage as well as appearing on it, with his first play, Another Round, published in 1963. Others were to follow, notably The Gentle Avalanche (1964) and his comedy Return Ticket (1966), both performed in London. This theatrical experience was to come in useful later when it came to adapting stories, his own or those by others, for the stage or screen, winning him numbers of prestigious awards over the years.
Yet it was as a novelist that Corlett was to make his mark with The Gate of Eden (1974). This touching story describes the bitter-sweet relationship between 15-year-old Peter and Mr Faulkner, an initially grumpy bachelor schoolteacher. Gradually learning to enjoy each other's company through a shared fascination with literature, the two talk and then correspond. But the friendship is threatened when Peter's girlfriend Sue disapproves of him spending so much time with an old man. There is also gossip about why Mr Faulkner retired so suddenly following allegations about him from a pupil. Peter finally confronts his mentor about this, only to be met by silence. They never communicate again. When Corlett adapted this novel for television in 1979, the old English teacher was unforgettably played by Maurice Denham.
This fine book was followed by The Land Beyond (1974), where Peter is now having his own relationship problems. Told in a mixture of styles involving notebook entries, diary jottings, extracts from a television screen play and even at one stage a time-slip, this was a demanding novel from a writer never afraid to make things hard both for himself and sometimes his readers too. The last title in the trilogy, Return to the Gate (1975) finds Peter as an old man living at some future time of general economic collapse. Now it is his turn to make friends across the age divide, in this case with a young woman. The political emphasis in the novel is accompanied by a growing interest in its religious dimension.
This new preoccupation was followed up in a series of non-fiction titles, from The Hindu Sound (1978) to The Christ Story (1978) and The Islamic Space (1979). Approachable without ever risking trivialising their contents, these texts were a tribute to Corlett's skill as a writer. The same questioning spirit can also be found in his novel Bloxworth Blue (1984), named after a rare species of butterfly and involving meditations on guilt, love, death, betrayal and the nature of God.
But Corlett's greatest commercial success was still to come. Now living in the Hertfordshire countryside, he and his black Labrador puppy Charlie would go for long walks twice a day in the nearby woods. After discovering secret paths and unexpected places and sometimes meeting badgers and foxes, Corlett was inspired to write a sequence of novels under the overall title The Magician's House. This featured talking animals plus a magician, Stephen Tyler, loosely based on the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee. Composed in a space of only two years, this quartet starts with The Steps up the Chimney (1990) and ends with The Bridge in the Clouds (1992).
Able to travel through time, Tyler enlists the help of three modern children in his efforts to save the rare Golden Badger, whose home in the Golden Valley is now threatened by property developers. The first two books were televised on BBC1 in 1999, starring Ian Richardson as the magician and a supporting cast including Neil Pearson and Siân Phillips. This was followed in 2000 by The Magician's House II, based on book three; during its final stages of post-production, Charlie died in her sleep.
Corlett's then wrote two stories with overtly gay themes. Now and Then (1995) describes 50-year-old Christopher Metcalfe returning to his childhood home after his father's death. While there he remembers the passion he once had at school for another boy, concluding that this great love and the difficulties it led to had a crippling effect upon him during his adult life. Two Gentlemen Sharing (1997) is more in the nature of gay slapstick, when male lovers Rick and Bless move into the big house of a small English village, provoking a predictably suspicious reaction before peace prevails.
Kitty (2004) was an affectionate story about two anthropomorphic dogs making their way across southern Spain in their search for a final, beautiful resting place. But by now Corlett was seriously ill. Supported by his beloved partner Bryn Ellis, he put up a brave fight against the cancer that was slowly consuming him, finally leaving behind many close friends as well as innumerable fans of his work on both page and screen.
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