Obituary: James Clavell

Peter Guttridge
Friday 09 September 1994 00:02 BST

James du Maresq Clavell, writer, scriptwriter, film director and producer: born Sydney 10 October 1924; married 1953 April Stride (two daughters); died Vevey, Switzerland 6 September 1994.

JAMES CLAVELL claimed that his novels - rarely under 1,000 pages - were never plotted in advance. He would start writing and follow the story wherever it went, often expressing surprise in his interviews at twists in the plot which he said came as much of a surprise to him as to the reader.

'Check or you're dead' was one of the rules at Changi, the jail where Clavell spent four years of the Second World War as a

prisoner-of-war of the Japanese, which he applied in turn to his writing. He went to infinite pains, often doing 20 drafts of the same page and spending days checking the smallest detail. He had strong views on writing. 'The first time you write a novel you go into ecstasy with the purple prose - how the clouds look, what the sunset is like. All bullshit. What happens? Who does what to whom? That's all you need.'

Although critics were often sniffy, James Clavell was a master storyteller whose success was unique: he wrote long, literate adventures set in a time and a place few people know much about and they all became best-sellers. King Rat (1962), Taipan (1966), Shogun (1975), Noble House (1981), Whirlwind (1986), Gai-Jin (1993): in a 40- year career his books sold some 21 million copies.

Clavell's character was formed by his wartime experiences at Changi. Born in Sydney, he was the son of Commander Richard Clavell RN, who was stationed in Australia to help establish the Royal Australian Navy. The family was posted back to England when James was nine months old. He was educated at Portsmouth Grammar School, and left at the outbreak of the war filled with notions of duty instilled by his family's long tradition of military service, and notions of heroism from reading Rider Haggard and other Empire writers. The war changed all that.

Clavell's eyesight kept him out of the Navy and the Air Force so he joined the Royal Artillery as a young captain. In 1941 the Japanese captured him in Java and he was shipped to the hellish Changi jail in Singapore, where he remained until the end of the war. He was 18 years old. Only one in 15 men survived the malnutrition, disease and torture there. Clavell survived because, he said, he adopted an attitude in which he dominated the environment so that it could not destroy him. He never publicly discussed how his wartime experiences might have scarred him, but he was ruthless in ensuring that he kept total control of his extraordinary career.

At the end of the war he worked as a distributor, then in 1953 moved to Hollywood as a scriptwriter. Early success with the cult sci-fi film The Fly (1958) and the Rider Haggard B-movie adventure Watusi (1958) was followed by mainstream popular writing about men at war: 633 Squadron (1963), the prisoner-of-war drama The Great Escape (1966). In 1959 he produced and directed - as well as wrote - Five Gates To Hell, a frenzied tale of American doctors and nurses snatched by Communist mercenaries in Vietnam. A year later he did the same for Walk Like a Dragon, a curious liberal western about a cowboy and a Chinese girl. His most successful film as a writer-director-producer (a 'hyphenate') was the least likely: To Sir With Love (1966). Based on ER Braithwaite's autobiography, it was set in an east London secondary school with Sidney Poitier as a schoolteacher from British Guiana, coping with the likes of Judy Geeson and Lulu. Clavell followed it three years later with an underrated meditation on men at war, The Last Valley, starring Michael Caine as a ruthless mercenary in the Thirty Years War occupying a peaceful Alpine village.

By the time The Last Valley appeared, however, Clavell was already established as a best-selling novelist. A screenwriters' strike in 1960 left him idle for 12 weeks, and during this period he exorcised his prison-camp experience by writing King Rat, a novel set in Changi. It is an evocative account of the treatment of prisoners by the guards and focuses on the lives of an English prisoner (an RAF officer) and an American NCO (the King Rat of the title). Clavell's first draft was 850 pages long.

In working with his American publisher editing the novel line by line, Clavell reckoned he learned how to write. The first draft was finished in three months and the novel published in 1962. It became an immediate best-seller and three years later was filmed by Columbia starring George Segal, Denholm Elliott, James Fox and John Mills.

King Rat may have exorcised his wartime experiences, but nothing ever removed Clavell's obsession with the East. It was an obsession he inherited from his father, who had served in the Royal Navy in the China Station before the First World War. Clavell grew up listening to stories of adventures on the Yangtze river. His ancestors were adventurous too. The Clavell family traced itself back to Walter de Claville, an Armour Bearer for William the Conqueror.

Clavell turned his interest in the history of Anglo-Saxons in Asia into a series of best-selling novels whose popularity made him a very rich man. Tai-Pan, Shogun and Noble House were made into television mini-series, under Clavell's close supervision as producer. When Shogun, which chronicled the exploits of a British navigator in Japan in the early 1600s, was screened in 1980 starring Richard Chamberlain, it became the second highest rated mini-series in history with an audience of over 120 million. (Shogun the musical followed on Broadway in 1989.)

Clavell brooked no nonsense in his dealings with television companies. In the early Sixties he had turned down the chance to write the screenplay for the film of King Rat on the advice of two old pro scriptwriters. They told him if he wrote the script he would be a screenwriter who had written a book. If he didn't he would be a novelist and could therefore put a zero on his writing fee. When the same couple told him that producers like calling long distance, Clavell moved with his wife April to Vancouver to bring up their two daughters.

Clavell was tough on his publishers too. He eschewed advances and showed his publisher a novel only when it was completed. 'I speculate,' he explained. 'They don't gamble with anything I do. I've got my own drop-dead money, so I write what I want at my own pace. When I finish it I let them read 200 pages. If they can't tell within 200 pages what it's about then they shouldn't be in the business.' In 1986 his novel Whirlwind was auctioned for a record dollars 5m.

The majority of Clavell's readers are women and he thought most of his books were so popular because they feature ruthless, successful women.

Clavell had the look of a stern, choleric man and he could be chilly and distantly polite with people he didn't know. The huge success of his work made him a millionaire many times over and he and his wife had homes in the US, Austria and France, and travelled frequently in Asia. Clavell - like his wife - was a qualified pilot and they owned their own helicopters. But that was the extent of his extravagance. Later in life he said he trusted only his wife and his two daughters, Michaela and Holly.

James Clavell claimed to believe strongly in the contradictory notions of joss and karma. Joss - luck, God and the Devil mixed together - is something you can and can't control, but essentially you just have to accept it. Karma is pre-ordained by what you did in previous lifetimes. Essentially, he thought, 'The gods want to screw you up.'

Clavell's most recent book, Gai- Jin, came out last year and became an international best-seller, but he was already working on another one. 'There's no such thing as a retired writer', he once said. 'We just go on and on.'

(Photograph omitted)

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