OBITUARY : Christopher Falkus

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Not all editorially inclined publishers are also good salesmen, good businessmen, good managers. Christopher Falkus, though unorthodox, sometimes infuriating and often quite outrageous, delivered the goods for Weidenfeld & Nicolson for year after year in the 1970s when he was its managing director.

He was born in 1940, the twin son of the naturalist Hugh Falkus; neither Christopher nor his brother had an easy upbringing. Their mother was left to feed, clothe and educate her children on meagre resources. Despite, or perhaps partly because of this, the boys showed outstanding aptitude - both intellectual and physical. They went first to the Marist convent in Paignton and then to St Boniface's College, Plymouth. Christopher then went to University College, London, where he was awarded an outstanding First Class history degree and also won the Derby Prize. After a year as a BBC trainee and a period working for the children's partwork Knowledge, he emigrated to Australia as a Lecturer in Modern History at Queensland University. In Australia he blossomed - as teacher, researcher, tennis and squash player and cricketer. He also became an enthusiastic and knowledgeable naturalist.

On his return to England in 1968 he forsook academia (in which his brother was to flourish) for the dodgier world of London publishing, first at the British Printing Corporation, where he edited historical partworks. In 1970 he was approached by George Weidenfeld to join his firm, as Publisher of the Art and Illustrated list. Shortly after, he became joint managing director with Alan Miles.

The years he spent with Weidenfeld were testing ones for an irreverent and inexperienced young historian. In 1973, when the firm's fortunes were at a low ebb, he thought up the "Kings and Queens" series with Book Club Associates and persuaded Antonia Fraser to edit it. He wrote the volume on Charles II and his wife Gila wrote the one on Queen Anne. The success of this major package of mainly excellent royal biographies in large part restored the Weidenfeld fortunes. Other publishing successes were to follow. Falkus's love of sport brought the revival of the Arthur Barker imprint, his historical expertise introduced a new generation of historians to the list. Amongst authors with whom he worked closely were most members of the Pakenham family, Olivia Manning, A.J.P. Taylor and Kevin Keegan, as well as Morecambe and Wise. His own tastes were eclectic and ranged from wild life and the history of ideas to P.G. Wodehouse and Arsenal.

The managerial problems at Weidenfeld were not dispelled by a healthier balance-sheet. Lines of command were obscured; and strong, talented personalities distorted good management. Falkus taught himself how to manage other people and draw the best from them, by encouragement, by enabling other voices to be heard, by a willingness to let others take the limelight, which - though not always appreciated at the time - led to a period of harmonious relationships and good publishing. He was particularly adept at encouraging younger colleagues and creating opportunities for them.

His departure in 1980 for Associated Book Publishers, where he became chairman of the General Books Group, and his eventual return to Weidenfeld after a brief but unhappy experience of working with Robert Maxwell, were years of increasing stress in his professional life, and the strain eventually told on his health. He refused to slow down or reduce his availability to colleagues and authors. At the end of 1991 he had a heart attack which was not diagnosed until January 1992. In May that year he retired. Then he enjoyed spending time with his family, playing the piano, talking. Friends and colleagues such as John Cleese and John Potter consulted him, and with formidable determination and energy he fought his ill-health to build a successful new career as a freelance writer and editor.

He was completing a history of everyday life in Imperial China on the day of his death.

Christopher Hugh Falkus, publisher: born 13 January 1940; managing director, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1970-79, publishing director 1989-92; chairman, Methuen General 1980-88; married 1965 Margaret Mathias (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1976), 1977 Gila Curtis (one son, one daughter); died London 29 March 1995.