Miles Kington: One or two plots to occupy my declining years

'The older you get, the more you can see that duplication is impossible to avoid'
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The Independent Online

Some weeks ago, I was talking about a new novel by a Ukrainian writer in which the hero hires a contract killer to murder him. I said that I myself had devised the same plot many years ago and was only deterred from getting anywhere with it because a film had promptly come out with the same plot idea, though I could not remember what the film was called or who was in it.

Some weeks ago, I was talking about a new novel by a Ukrainian writer in which the hero hires a contract killer to murder him. I said that I myself had devised the same plot many years ago and was only deterred from getting anywhere with it because a film had promptly come out with the same plot idea, though I could not remember what the film was called or who was in it.

The editor of this very paper contacted me to identify the film. It was, he said, called Parting Shots, it was directed by Michael Winner and, despite the glittering cast, was possibly the worst film ever made. If you are ever in a deep depression, he added, pour yourself a drink and watch the film. You will be in an ecstasy of happiness by the end.

I looked up the film in Halliwell's guide to all the films ever made, and they certainly agree about it being one of the worst films ever made. They sum it up as being like Winner's own Death Wish remade as a comedy, and not being as funny as the original.

But I don't think it is the film I was thinking of in the first place. For one thing, Winner's film was made in the 1990s and I heard about my film at least 25 years ago. For another, the protagonist of Parting Shots, although suffering from an incurable disease, actually goes on a killing spree of all his old enemies instead. So I don't think I have quite discovered that missing film yet.

Still, it was pretty near, and it makes me realise that the older you get, the more you can see that duplication is impossible to avoid. Last Christmas, for instance, Philip Ardagh brought out a clever little book called The Not-So-Very-Nice Goings-On at Victoria Lodge, in which he had cut out lots of Victorian illustrations and put captions to them to make a ludicrously melodramatic story.

On the jacket, they acknowledge their debt to E V Lucas and George Morrow's What A Life!, which did the same thing in 1911 with drawings from Whiteley's Catalogue.

But they did not mention a much more recent book called Intimate Relations by T E B Clarke (1971), which did exactly the same. Clarke was the screenwriter who got an Oscar for Lavender Hill Mob and wrote so many other brilliant comedies.

I met him at the very end of his life when he was still sparkling (I luckily got him to write a couple of pieces for Punch before it, and he, died) and he told me once that one of his biggest regrets was that his Intimate Relations had been allowed to go out of print.

Described by Smith's Trade News as "an excruciatingly comic book" and by The Sunday Telegraph more primly, as is their wont, as "a wildly indecent Victorian biography. One laughs aloud", it is indeed a frantically funny book and I suppose, if I were a gentleman, I should devote some of my declining years to getting it republished in Clarke's memory.

Another plot duplication which has come my way recently resides in Anthony Horowitz's very clever new comic thriller, The Killing Joke. The plot springs from the hero's urge to trace back to its source a joke he hears in a pub one night. We have all wondered where jokes come from, but Horowitz's character does actually get right to the source.

He is not the first to do so, however. Many years ago, I read a short story by the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in which a scientist decided to enlist a computer's help to trace the source of all jokes. He feeds it all the information he can muster about jokes, then asks it the simple question: Where do they come from? (The computer answers simply: "From extra-terrestrial sources". It turns out that jokes have been installed in our mentality as a control mechanism by observers from outer space, so that the development of human thought can be monitored... )

Perhaps what the world needs is a book which traces the origin and development of all known plots. Yes, I might devote my declining years to compiling that instead.

PS: I have just been informed that it has already just been done, by Mr Christopher Booker. Thank goodness for that.

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