Obituary: Barbara Comyns

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The Independent Online
I FIRST got in touch with Barbara Comyns about six years ago because I was interested in adapting her marvellous novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead as a film, writes Teresa Grimes (further to the obituary by Ursula Holden, 16 July).

I had read some of her other books and was instantly captivated by her unique style of writing, and the odd, idiosyncratic world that she pulls you into with such immediacy. When I read Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, I knew it would make a good film. It is about the Willoweed family who live in a decrepit 'big' house by a river's edge. The family is dominated by the wonderfully awful grandmother, given to savage rages and a healthy interest in death (a sort of upper middle- class version of the bulky, black- clad Gran of the Giles cartoons). The family live in an isolated village which is cut off when the river floods and is then beset by a strange, plague-like illness which makes people go horribly mad. Later, there is a fire in which the village innocent is burnt to death. It is typical of Barbara Comyns's writing that such violent and savage events are treated in a pragmatic, down-to-earth way. The book is a vivid portrait of the bizarre nature of 'ordinary' life and the comic madness of families.

One day, after I had made enquiries about optioning the rights and written to her, Barbara Comyns rang me up and invited me to lunch. She said she had known my grandfather Leslie Grimes, who was a cartoonist (for the Daily Sketch). In the early Fifties he left England to go and live in Ibiza and paint. Barbara and her family were thinking about moving to Spain around that time and someone said, 'Write to Grimey (as he was known) to find out what you need to take with you'. He replied with a full list and lots of advice. They met when she moved to Ibiza - a time described in her tragicomic, sharply funny style in Out of the Red into the Blue.

When Barbara gave me instructions on how to get to her house she said, 'You'll know it because there's a pig in the window.' This sounded like something out of one of her books, but it was true - there was a pig in the window - a larger-than-life pink plaster pig. Her house, in Twickenham, once a shop, was the basis for the antique shop which has an important role in one of her later books The House of Dolls. It had very small rooms which were filled with lovely pieces of furniture and some of Barbara's Surrealist paintings on the walls. She was frail and slim; white hair, strong face; her voice was quite low and husky and she spoke quickly and abruptly. Conversations with Barbara were occasionally disconcerting because she would appear not to reply to a question or comment - but then you would gradually realise that she was answering you, but in her own roundabout, unobvious way.

She was very sweet to me and found old photographs of her family and the house in Bradford- on-Avon where she grew up, the house by a river which features in several of her books. I was particularly excited when she showed me a picture of the garden flooded by the river, just as it is in Who was Changed and Who was Dead.

I had several lunches with her over the years and she was keen to hear reports of my progress with turning the book into a film - 'I so much want to see it on the screen before I die,' she would say. Sadly, in spite of considerable interest and a development loan from British Screen, the film has not yet made it to the screen, one of the many projects to suffer from the depressing lack of finance for British films. It will always be a great regret to me that Barbara did not live to see her wish fulfilled. I am confident, though, that an adaptation of this book, or perhaps one of the others, will be on the screen before too long; her blend of savagery and innocence fits a tradition of British films such as Alberto Cavalcanti's Went The Day Well? (1942), and Powell and Pressburger's Gone to Earth (1950) and A Canterbury Tale (1944), in which the tranquil surface of rural life in picture-postcard villages is disturbed by wilder, unrestrained and independent forces.