How a Peruvian train nearly took me to Hollywood

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The Independent Online
About 10 years ago I got an offer from Hollywood to go and write a film that nobody wanted to make. I nearly went and finally didn't. I had forgotten all about it until the other day when I read about the new British film called Shallow Grave, whi ch apparently is all about these three friends sharing a flat in Glasgow who advertise for a fourth to share. He arrives, and drops dead the next day, leaving a suitcase full of banknotes under his bed. The three friends, instead of reporting it to the p olice, decide to dispose of the body and keep hold of the cash ... I'm cutting back 10 years now in a flashback to Claridge's hotel in London, England. I'm sitting there with one of the heads of CBS, from Hollywood, California. He has written to me the previousmonth to say that he wants to sound me out about writing a film script for a Hollywood film. In fact, this wouldn't be a bad time to go to Hollywood and earn some money. I have recently left Punch in order to go to Peru and make a film in the Great Railway Journeys series for the BBC. I am now unemployed, doing odd jobs for the Times and Punch. My wife thinks I should get a proper job. Suddenly I get a letter from a head of CBS saying: Come to Claridge's hotel and talk about writing films. As my wife says, it may not get me anywhere, but a t least I'll get a square meal out of it.

"So I'll level with you," says the head of CBS, whose name I can't remember now, though I've got his letter somewhere, and I do remember the name of his personal assistant, which was Jim Yerxa. Great Scrabble name, I remember thinking ... "I'll level with you, Mr Kington, I'd never heard of you before."

"Before what?"

"Before Mrs Shaw saw you on the television ..."

"Who's Mrs Shaw?"

"Let's start at the beginning."

The head of CBS sat still for a moment, like God working out a good opening line for the Book of Genesis, and then spoke.

"Irwin Shaw is the author of many books. Some are good, some are not. Sometimes he fancied himself as a classy New Yorker writer, sometimes he saw himself as a best seller, and to hell with art. One of his books was called Nightwork. I bought the film rights to it before I joined CBS. We had several screenplays prepared of it, including one by Shaw himself. None of them worked. So we sold the rights on again, to CBS as it happens. Now I have joined CBS and I find I am landed with Irwin Shaw's Nightwork again."

He paused. Did I see pain in his features?

"Irwin Shaw is now dead. His widow has inherited all his rights. This includes the right to OK or not to OK anything we do with Nightwork. So far she hasn't approved of anything. Every writer we propose to her she vetoes."

With me so far? No? Nor was I. He took a deep breath.

"Mr Kington, I believe you have recently made a film called Great Train Journey, set in Peru?"

I nodded.

"I have not seen it myself, but Mrs Shaw has. It was shown on US television recently. She saw it, and rang me in some excitement. She told me she had just been watching a young Englishman on a train in Peru, and she was convinced that he was the right man to write the screenplay of Nightwork."

I felt sorry for Mr CBS suddenly. Here he was in London, flown in at the behest of a widow who had seen some total unknown on television and said: That's the guy! And my job was to help him out of his hole.

"I really don't think ..."

"Don't say anything now, Mr. Kington. Just read the book. Tell us what you think. There's a very good Michael Caine role in it. And there's also a good part for Sean Connery ..."

I took the book away and read it. It was terrible, I thought - very hard going. It had a good start, though. There's this guy working as a porter in a seedy New York hotel who discovers one of the guests, in bed, dead. Before reporting it he discovers a suitcase full of banknotes under the bed. He decides to put the money in his own bank account before and then fly to Europe for a new playboy lifestyle, where he meets and teams up with a carefree British gentleman criminal ... "I'm sorry," I told Mr CBS, "But I don't think I could tackle this rubbish."

"Listen, you could throw out Shaw's plot, write your own," said Hollywood on the phone.

He must have been desperate. But I stuck to my guns. I often wonder what happened to him and Mrs Shaw, and Nightwork. It was never, as far as I know, filmed.

Until they had the same sort of idea in Shallow Grave. Which, I have to say, sounds a lot better than Nightwork ever would have been.