Winston Graham

Versatile writer whose books ranged from the Poldark novels to 'Marnie'
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The Independent Online

Winston Mawdsley Graham, novelist: born Manchester 30 June 1910; Chairman, Society of Authors 1967-69; FRSL 1968; OBE 1983; married 1939 Jean Williamson (died 1992; one son, one daughter); died Buxted, East Sussex 10 July 2003.

Winston Graham was fond of referring to himself as "the most successful unknown novelist in England", knowing it was at once an urbane self-putdown (something at which he was particularly adept), yet largely the truth.

Female viewers of a certain age still surely tremble at the memory of Robin Ellis in tight breeches (the Colin Firth de son jour) as Ross Poldark, the tough, passionate, conspiring 18th-century Cornish squire and tin-mine owner, fighting and swaggering his way through hour upon hour of the Poldark television series during the 1970s and 1980s; the veins at the temples of male viewers still doubtless throb at the thought of Angharad Rees as the feisty, wayward Demelza, Poldark's wife.

Yet, even though nearly 15 million viewers tuned in, week after week (rather more than for the new version of 1996), gripped by plot lines highlighting love, lust, revenge, mining, wrecking, smuggling, feuding, plunder and riot, all played out against some of the wildest, starkest scenic backdrops in all England, Graham kept the lowest of low profiles, preferring to get on with the business of writing. And not for him the word processor, or even the typewriter, electric or otherwise. He wrote in longhand - over 40 novels in a full-time writing career that stretched from 1934 to 2002, when his last book, Bella Poldark, was published.

The Poldark saga, in its original novel form, began life in 1945, when television was little more than a freakish technological gimmick. In Ross Poldark, the eponymous hero returns to Cornwall from the catastrophe of the American revolutionary wars, determined to make something of his rundown estate, and his life. Demelza (1946) continues the tale; Jeremy Poldark (1950) chronicles the birth of his son, Warleggan (1953) the near-triumph of his bitterest enemy. The entire sequence owed a good deal to John Galsworthy, as well as Hugh Walpole, whose chronicles of "Rogue" Herries and his tempestuous, swashbuckling Lakeland family and descendants stretched from the 1730s to the 1930s.

Every Poldark story - there are over a dozen books - has as its subtitle "A Novel of Cornwall", followed by two dates which circumscribe the action (Graham was always a precise plotter). The chronicle starts in 1783 and is unusual in the sub-literature of the "family saga" in that Graham's (and thus Poldark's) sympathies lie with the poor, the starved, the dispossessed; the outcast who is forced by wretched circumstance and an unforgiving fate to become an outlaw.

There is more than just a tinge of incipient socialism in Poldark's views and actions, which are mirrored on a much larger, even heroic, scale across the English Channel, where revolution, which will directly affect the Cornish fisher-folk, is breaking out. All this chimed in perfectly with the recent coming to power of a reforming Labour government under Clement Attlee.

When the narrative finally reaches the 1820s, a vast familial octopus has been created, its tentacles curled round most of the major historical landmarks of the period, with a cast of characters - mainly the Poldarks and their deadly rivals the Warleggans, together with each family's hangers-on and minions - which runs into the hundreds. Even so, the saga was never sprawling or ill-disciplined; Graham always ran a tight ship.

Historical fiction was not the only arrow in Winston Graham's quiver. He was equally proficient at novels of adventure and intrigue, the psychological thriller, detective(ish) yarns (in which it was clear that mere clue-planting did not much appeal to the puppet-master). He was also one of the few male writers who could triumphantly carry off, even at an advanced age, the "Gothic Romance", with all its plot and characterisation singularities.

However, in the wider world he scored a far greater success even than with his Poldark novels, when his psychological suspense story Marnie (1961) was turned into an Oscar-winning 1964 movie by Alfred Hitchcock, with Tippi Hedren as the tragically mixed-up, kleptomaniacal heroine, and Sean Connery. The original screenplay had been by Evan Hunter ("Ed McBain"), who had worked with Hitchcock on the script of The Birds (1963), also with Hedren (one of Hitchcock's most put-upon leading ladies), but he and Hitchcock had fallen out and Jay Presson Allen, a prolific screenwriter responsible for the scripts for such classic movies as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cabaret and Graham Greene's Travels with My Aunt, had taken over, to impressive effect.

Yet another writer (George Bluestone) took on the task of translating Graham's 1967 suspense novel The Walking Stick, which featured yet another psychologically, but also this time actually, scarred heroine Deborah (she's beautiful, but limps), into a film-script. This time the girl (played by Samantha Eggar) helps with a major jewel heist - in the novel, Graham turns the prelude to the robbery into a sequence of almost intolerable tension, and then, in a brilliant coup de roman, entirely upends the reader's expectations.

Winston Graham was born in Manchester in 1910, and seems to have been only very accidentally educated: a bout of pneumonia as a child caused his doctor to proclaim that he was "not long for this world" and that for his education he should travel no further than the local day school - his father, a comfortably-off tea merchant, had set his sights on Manchester Grammar.

When the family moved to Cornwall and his father died (after a crippling stroke) Graham was kept at home and supported financially by his mother, a passionate believer in her youngest son's writing abilities. Graham paid her back by cracking the short-story market in the monthlies (such as the Windsor Magazine) and getting welcomed aboard one of the busiest library suppliers of the day, Ward Lock, whose mainly young writers churned out genre fiction by the yard for a pittance (sometimes as little as £30 per book, all rights).

Although his early novels made little or no impact, and even less money, Graham (like the tiro adventure-story writer Ralph Hammond Innes at around the same time, although for the publisher Herbert Jenkins) virtually taught himself how to write by turning "the product" out on a regular basis. His sales rose steadily: readers began to know what to expect when ordering "the new Winston Graham" at the library. If you liked E. Laurie Long, say, then your taste was for thrillers set on the Seven Seas; if "Mark Cross" (A.T. Pechey - father, oddly enough, of Fanny Cradock) light and by no means brain-racking detective yarns; if Winston Graham socially aware thrillers and vibrant, red-blooded tales of 16th-century Cornish life (in which the county itself almost becomes a character, so fiercely is its spirit limned).

In 1950 he transferred his talents to Hodder & Stoughton with a "break-out" thriller, Night Without Stars, which was bought by J. Arthur Rank, who then offered Graham £150 a week (an eye-popping sum in late-Austerity London) and a flat, to write his own screenplay. From then on Graham lived the writer's life, and "never [did] an honest day's work" again.

This was typically self-deprecatory; in any case not true. Graham, like many crime and historical writers, had a passion for research and put in a good deal of hard graft, especially on his backgrounds. Having no experience of the noble art of fisticuffs, he decided he needed a boxing setting for a new novel and hung around seedy pubs in London's East End watching the broken-nose and cauliflower-ear brigade. Henry Cooper and the promoter Mike Barrett helped him. At his first match in the Albert Hall he sat too close to the action and got spattered with blood. The result was the impressive thriller Angell, Pearl and Little God (1970).

For the robbery details in The Walking Stick he managed to elicit the services of Chubb's then managing director, R.J. Pilgrim, who fed him a good deal of useful information on safe-cracking - although obviously (Graham noted wryly later) not the most crucial information of all.

One of the distinguishing features of a Winston Graham novel was his attitude towards women which, certainly 50-odd years ago, was light years ahead of the times he wrote in. In the main the Graham heroine fights to live her life the way she - not anyone else; not even her lover - wants to live it. In the main she succeeds. Another Graham characteristic was his special re-creation of old Cornwall itself: his vivid images of the land and its struggling yet defiant people have rarely been bettered in British popular fiction.

A writer of many parts, Winston Graham was a success in as many fields. His The Little Walls won the very first Golden Dagger awarded by the Crime Writers' Association in 1955; his contemporary and Victorian-Gothic suspensers were snapped up for the movies; he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1968, appointed OBE in 1983; and the old Wendren tin mine near Helston was renamed Poldark in his honour only last year. Before his death he had completed an autobiography, Memoirs of a Private Man, which is to be published in September.

Such was the success of his Cornish family saga - with its own flourishing appreciation society; most of the books still in print; a new audio version (read by the excellent Michael Maloney) recently released - that it cannot be long before someone has another shot at bringing it back to the small screen. Perhaps even - now that swashbuckling historical spectaculars seem to be back in fashion - the very large screen.

Jack Adrian