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The Artistry of Ted Lewis

Years ago I mentioned during a conversation with a friend that a particular writer or filmmaker I admired just seemed to have that inborn artistic temperament. My friend challenged me to define what it means for a person to have that capacity, and I struggled to form an explanation—it’s one of those things you see clearly in your mind’s eye but have a hard time putting into words. What I didn’t realize then, but know now, is that I could have simply answered, “It’s what Ted Lewis had.”

Ted Lewis was a guy who had artistry coming out his pores. He first began expressing himself creatively as a young boy, decades before he wrote Jack’s Return Home, the brilliant and influential 1970 novel that established his still-strong reputation as the originator of the British school of hard-boiled crime fiction. Born in 1940 in the Manchester suburb of Stretford and raised for the most part in the small north Lincolnshire town of Barton-Upon-Humber, Lewis showed himself to have a keenly creative mind from his earliest days. In addition to writing fiction he was an artist and a musician, and although he never worked directly in film, he was a cinema buff forever fascinated by everything having to do with the movies.

Lewis was a gifted visual artist who spent a lot more time sketching figures in drawing pads than he did writing novels. He drew pictures for his friends and family members throughout his life. Some of his drawings are breathtaking. He did schoolboy sketches of zoot-suited gangsters, an early hint at the direction his artistic leanings would ultimately take him. His manuscript notebooks are filled with comics and other sketches. The birthday gift he almost always gave to friends and relatives was a drawing of them, or of something he felt was meaningful to them. Even in Lewis’s last days —when he was penniless and hopelessly addicted to alcohol—he was still taking time to draw pictures as gifts. At times it seemed like these drawings were the only way he knew to effectively communicate with other people, and this practice of expressing himself through his pictures began in his childhood years.

Lewis’s younger cousin Alf Lewis says that when their two families got together during their childhood, Ted (then Edward) was loath to make chitchat but always willing to have a family member sit for him:

“Edward looked at me as an inconvenience and hid constantly from the ‘what are you doing’ requests. It was always the fact that I stopped him from sketching and the moments of solitude that I think he was deeply involved in. In hindsight, I see that what he really wanted was to be alone in his own world. I do know that art was his passion. He would request that we [sit and pose] for him while he sketched. Each family member would sit in the kitchen on a wooden chair for hours, so he could sketch them. He clearly enjoyed doing this and never spoke much while drawing. He never tired of capturing images mentally and on paper. He never spoke about his future but I think that any other route was not an option other than something to do with art.”

Lewis’s school friend Zilla Gilfoy (née Yarwood) remembers his  constant practicing of the visual arts, from their time together as teenagers at Barton Grammar School: “In class we all remember his exercise book. He doodled all the time, everywhere, all over the covers and margins of the book. He did heavy lined black ink drawings of guns, daggers, Dick Tracy –style gangsters. He would be told off for spending his time in class doing this, but of course he would ignore it.”

Lewis took piano lessons as a boy and played that instrument in a traditional jazz band during his time at Hull Art College, where he developed his knack for the visual arts by formally studying commercial design. He  wrote about his time in the band in his debut novel, 1965’s awkwardly titled All the Way Home and All the Night Through. That jazz group was something Lewis and the other members of the band engaged in just as a good-time diversion from their studies, and he never seriously undertook piano playing as a profession. But he played the piano throughout his life, and music was always a factor in his books. Whether it be all the references to “Walker Brothers haircuts” in Jack’s Return Home, the list of jazz records Victor Graves and his various girlfriends listen to in All the Way Home and Lewis’s other straight-ahead literary novel, 1975’s The Rabbit, or the 1970s singer-songwriter albums George Fowler spins while losing his mind in Lewis’s swan-song novel GBH, he was always working music into his fiction. As an adolescent and a college student, he had a great love for traditional jazz, George Shearing and Dave Brubeck being among his favorites.  And in addition to becoming an able pianist, he seems to have been a serviceable drummer. Cousin Alf recalls how much young Edward, in the early years of his childhood, enjoyed singing hymns in front of the Salvation Army on a Sunday—an activity Jack Carter and his brother Frank took pleasure in, as recounted in one of the many vivid memory passages from Jack’s Return Home.

And then there were the films. The one constant you get from anyone who knew Lewis, at any point in his life, is talk of his love for the cinema. Lewis developed this interest as early as childhood and fully immersed himself in it in his adolescence, when he and a group of friends frequented the two cinemas in Barton town center and caught the second-run features those venues offered. One of those friends, Colin Johnson, recalls, “The evening pastime for these backwater boys was the two local cinemas which, because both were owned by the same man and were not on a major circuit, meant a diet of B-movies which got them in the way of fantasizing their own productions.” Lewis was especially taken by American films, particularly B-movies and westerns. High Noon was a favorite, as was On the Waterfront.

Lewis didn’t stop at merely enjoying the films. Several of his friends note that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of all manner of trivia surrounding the movies. In his teenage days, and right up through the end of his 42 years, you could stop Ted Lewis at any given moment and ask him who was the key grip, who did the lighting, who made the soundtrack, etc., for hundreds of films, and he could tell you within seconds. He loved pop culture quizzes, and it was no contest if any of the questions that came up had to do with the cinema.

Ron Burnett, a longtime friend of Lewis’s and a member of the jazz band from Hull, says Ted was so passionate about the movies that he had dreams of being a cinematic auteur. “Talented in music, visual arts and writing, [Ted wanted] to be a film director. Within 20 meters of the Art College were three cinemas and we often skipped college to enjoy double-bill programs at all three. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of any film he saw—he knew the director, composer, cameraman, etc. Late ’50s, early ’60s, we saw Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, John Cassavetes, John Ford, etc., in addition to mainstream stuff.”

Lewis always wrote in a visual way. In a 1974 newspaper interview that was printed on the heels of the publication of Jack Carter’s Law—Lewis’s third crime novel and second book featuring his signature character Jack Carter—Lewis told the reporter Patrick Otter, “I like films and I cannot help writing in a visual form and a way which transmits itself easily into film terms.” It’s no wonder that movie producer Michael Klinger saw the cinematic possibilities in Jack’s Return Home; he optioned the story for film before the book was published. We all know what came of that: Get Carter, the landmark movie from 1971 that many consider the quintessential British gangster film, and which currently ranks  as one of the selection of the favourite British films of the 20th century.

The makers of the original Get Carter are far from the only movie-industry professionals who have found Lewis’s writing ripe for film adaptation. In 1972 U.S. director George Armitage took Jack’s Return Home and set it in an American inner city for his “blaxploitation” release Hit Man. Lewis’s first crime novel was made into a feature film for the third time when Stephen T. Kay remade Get Carter in 2000, with Sylvester Stallone playing the lead character. In 2006 French director Eric Barbier adapted Lewis’s novel Plender and created Le Serpent. And, in what promises to be the most interesting film based on Lewis’s work since the first Get Carter,  the team of film producer Mia Bays, screenwriter Jay Basu, and director Pete Travis are currently doing pre-production work on a new film based on GBH; they plan to begin filming later this year.

Lewis, who died in 1982 and thus didn’t live to see Le Serpent or the remake of Get Carter, didn’t stop thinking in terms of having his books made into films after the original Get Carter. When he was working on Plender, the splendid and underappreciated follow-up to Jack’s Return Home, he was already planning on  adapting that story into a screenplay (nothing came of those plans). In the newspaper interview referred to above, Lewis mentions that Michael Caine, who so famously played Jack Carter in Get Carter, was reading Jack Carter and the Law with an eye toward reprising the Carter character on celluloid (didn’t happen).

Despite Lewis’s talents in other artistic media and regardless of how remarkable some of his drawings are and whether or not he was serious about wanting to become a film director, the art form he  applied himself to professionally was writing fiction. And, just as with his other modes of creative expression, he began this artistic venture at an early age. When he was between 14 and16, Lewis contributed three short stories to Barton Grammar’s annual school magazine. The stories have a few things in common. First, they are all done with deft artistry that few teenagers are  capable of. Second, they all have about them the cinematic effect Lewis would always strive for in his adult writings—you can easily visualize any of the three as the basis of an excellent short film. And finally, and most significantly, they all have that nightmarish, interior quality of Lewis classics like Plender and GBH, that inwardly directed intensity that grips the reader and forces him or her to look at the same horrifying visuals that occupied the mind of the writer. The stories are outstanding, and it’s jaw-dropping when you consider how old Lewis was when he crafted them. The best of the three, “Double Shuffle,” opens with a scene in which a man arrives in a town by train and immediately goes into a pub—sound familiar?

Lewis’s early artistic mind-set was partly brought on by illnesses he suffered as a boy. Young Edward was prone to bouts of rheumatic fever, which often kept him home from school for days and weeks at a time. His mother was told by school authorities that as long as Edward had books to read while he lay ill, his education would not suffer. To picture Lewis as a boy—ailing, in bed, book in hand, when all of his peers are off at school—is to begin to see the mind and spirit of the future novelist forming. Lewis’s friend John Dickinson is quoted in a history of Barton Grammar School as saying, “Being confined to bed with rheumatic fever for months may have helped him to discover a world of his own.” Couple that quote with the following one from another of Lewis’s boyhood friends, Colin Johnson, and a picture of the formative years of Ted Lewis the crime writer starts to come into focus: “Mr. Treece liked to read Raymond Chandler to us in an American accent.” (“Mr. Treece” is Henry Treece, a novelist, poet, and children’s book writer who taught at Barton Grammar and was a hugely influential mentor to Lewis.)
All the Way Home and All the Night Through, Lewis’s first full-length work of fiction to appear in print, is a highly autobiographical coming-of-age story written in the vein of gritty “Angry Young Man” books by other writers from northern England like Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, and Barry Hines. Lewis worked on the novel part time while doing day work as an advertising artist and hiring himself out as a book illustrator (he drew jackets and illustrations for editions of The Bridge over the River Kwai and Alice in Wonderland). The book was published when Ted was a mere twenty-five—by Hutchinson’s, as part of their New Authors series (Derek Raymond’s early novels were published as part of the same list). Lewis felt he had crafted a strong work of lyrical drama and was greatly dismayed when the book failed to do much in the marketplace. Adopting an “I’ll show ’em” attitude, he resolved to have his next book be something blatantly commercial. Remembering the love of Chandler that Henry Treece fostered in him, and thinking of his passion for shoot-’em-up films, all the while being conscious of the British public’s current interest in the Richardson and Kray gangster families, he went to work on a gangland novel.

Of course, all of us who know and love Jack’s Return Home realize that it is much more than a crassly assembled book written to win over readers of dime-a-dozen bestsellers. It’s a convincing portrait of the goings-on of London’s criminal underworld; it’s a study of the culture clash between the north and south of England, by someone in a position to know both sides (Lewis had been living in London and other parts of the south since around 1963); and it’s a pained exploration of the hopelessly complicated relationship between two brothers. In a 1992 article he wrote about Lewis for Arena magazine, John Williams calls Jack’s Return Home “the finest British crime novel ever written.” David Peace says of Lewis’s classic, “I was blown away by it. I very consciously used it as a blueprint for Nineteen Seventy-Four, my first novel.”

Lewis went on to write six more crime novels before his death, at age 42. But would he have done any of them if it hadn’t been for the success of Jack’s Return Home and the Get Carter film? Both Lewis’s ex-wife and his agent think not; both feel that if All the Way Home had sold more, he would have never gotten into noir to start with, and both feel that the success of Jack’s Return Home trapped Lewis into becoming a crime writer. Reading hard-edged jewels like Plender, Billy Rags, Jack Carter and the Law, and especially Lewis’s last and arguably finest book, GBH, it’s hard to accept the notion that these genre-defining books were written by a man who penned them reluctantly. Frankly, they seem too damned good to have been written by someone who churned them out begrudgingly. But who can say? Raymond Chandler, whom Lewis admired greatly (so much so that he put a Chandler Hotel in Boldt, his 1976 crime novel set in America), was a frustrated poet who always felt pigeonholed as a crime writer. And even after writing his first four crime novels, Lewis returned to the traditional literary milieu he first explored with his debut novel and in 1975 wrote another coming-of-age drama, The Rabbit (which is similar, but far superior, to All the Way Home).

Lewis himself took a noncommittal stance on the question of whether he was meant to write crime fiction or more traditional literary fare. In his 1974 interview, he says, “I never intend to write a thriller as such. I get an idea of story, just a single idea, walk away from it, think about it, then a few weeks or a few months later I sit down and start writing about it.”

Regardless of whether you believe that Lewis wrote crime novels because he felt forced to, or because that’s where his muse naturally directed him, there is no arguing that he applied a sharply creative mind to his noir works. Even Boldt and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon, which are weak in comparison with Lewis’s other crime books, are written extremely well; they just lack the depth and the sting of the others. And in all of his novels, crime and otherwise, Lewis endowed his words with that cinematic quality that so many filmmakers have recognized in his writing, and that he began employing as a teenager crafting short stories for his school magazine. Whatever he was writing, Lewis always came to the page with that same keenly creative mind, that same artist’s eye, that he employed every time he struck a note on the piano, every time he opened a sketchbook and made a drawing, every time he watched a film and dreamed of making one of his own. He couldn’t help himself but approach so many things in this way—that’s just how it was with him, because he had an artistic temperament.

Brian Greene’s short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in twelve different publications since 2008. He won a short fiction contest held by “Jerry Jazz Musician” in 2008. Greene is a regular writer for “Shindig!,” a U.K.-based music magazine with worldwide distribution. He has written articles on Ted Lewis for the publications Noir Originals, Crime Time, Crimeculture and “Paperback Parade”; he is at work on a full-length study of Lewis’s life and career. Greene lives in the Triangle area (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) of North Carolina with his wife, Abby; their daughter, Violet; and two cats.