The Nigel Balchin Newsletter
Issue 9: September 2013
Results of the Reissue Poll
Thanks to all those of you who took the time and trouble to vote in the reissue poll that I announced in the previous issue of this newsletter. Although there were not quite enough votes cast to make the construction of a chart of favourite Balchin novels worthwhile (and some people forgot to state an order of preference, which made things a little tricky for me!), some interesting findings emerged nonetheless and the exercise has certainly provided me with some interesting information to mull over.
Slightly to my surprise, the novel that you would most
like to see reprinted was The Fall of the Sparrow. However, it came as no surprise to me at all that this choice was very closely followed by Darkness Falls From the Air, The Small Back Room and Mine Own Executioner, with the rest of the field not in sight.
The question I had posed originally was “Which three Balchin novels would you most like to see reissued?”. Some of you chose to interpret this question rather differently from how I had intended, which was of course your prerogative! For example, one or two of you made the very reasonable point that although you accept that The Small Back Room et al. are intrinsically better as novels, it would be nice to see some of the lesser-known works being reprinted in order to improve the availability of those titles. In particular, there was a small (but I think significant) groundswell of support for the republication of one or more of Balchin’s first three novels, namely No Sky, Simple Life and Lightbody on Liberty. Whilst I have said before (see Newsletter 7) that none of these books is any great shakes as a novel, I do understand that, as Balchin aficionados, you are curious to discover what these books are like and keen to read them yourselves and make up your own minds about them. Although I am convinced that reprinting the first three novels would not in any way be a commercial proposition perhaps it may prove possible in the future to reprint small quantities of them, i.e. just sufficient to satisfy what I imagine will be very limited demand. This is certainly something that I will give some thought to.
There does now seem to be some genuine interest in the publishing world in trying to reprint at least one or two of Balchin’s most popular titles. I will keep on banging the drum in this regard and I hope we will not have too long to wait before the name ‘Balchin’ returns to the shelves of the nation’s bookshops.
The Fall of the Sparrow: coming soon to a bookshop near you?
Balchin at the BBC
As trailed in the previous edition of this newsletter, the subject of this article is Balchin’s work in the media of television and radio. As there is rather a lot of it, I have tried to pick out some highlights and so this piece really comprises just a brief overview of the subject. Full details of Balchin’s broadcasting career can of course be found in my forthcoming biography.
Early days: Men Talking
Balchin’s first connection with the BBC came in 1935 when a short story of his, ‘The Service of Miss Eyles’, was read out on the Regional Programme, alongside an H. E. Bates story, in August of that year. Two years then passed before Balchin received his next pay cheque from the BBC. I consider the author’s 1936 non-fiction book on the subject of personal finance, Income and Outcome, to be something of a hidden gem among his output and it was this book that helped to prise open the door to Broadcasting House. A Talks Producer at the BBC read it “with interest and amusement” and felt that it contained “some material for talking at the microphone”. The BBC man then interviewed Balchin, found to his delight that he was both “a ready talker with quite a pleasant voice” and on the right side of thirty and signed him up to participate in a series entitled Men Talking. Balchin contributed to three of these roundtable discussions in which a panel of men and, oddly, a woman too on one occasion debated the subjects ‘Family Budgets’, ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Home’ and ‘Humour’. Balchin also gave a talk on his own entitled ‘Household Budgets’, a clear spin-off from Income and Outcome.
Little more than a year after he had described him as “a ready talker with quite a pleasant voice”, the same BBC man was much more disparaging about Balchin, expressing the opinion that he had now “developed an affected and somewhat condescending voice”. It is not known what had happened in the brief intervening period to have effected such a dramatic change in the quality of the sounds emanating from Balchin’s larynx but perhaps the alteration in his voice is one reason why his broadcasting career was temporarily put on hold in 1938. A much more relevant reason though is that Balchin was engaged on work of national importance between 1939 and 1945 and simply didn’t have the time during World War Two to work for the BBC.
Income and Outcome. A Study of Personal Finance was the book that launched Balchin’s career with the BBC in the mid-1930s.
Back at the Beeb: late 1940s
Once he had been demobilized in 1946, Balchin wasted little time in resuming his relationship with the BBC. In April he made his first appearance on the radio for seven and a half years when he served as a member of the panel on The Brains Trust, the popular and influential ‘forum of the air’ in which public figures answered questions sent in by listeners concerning some of the leading issues of the day. This sparked a plethora of Balchin radio appearances over the course of the next few years that saw him give talks on subjects ranging from Sagas of Old Iceland (always a favourite subject of his) to incentives and criticism.
The success of Balchin’s novels during and immediately after World War Two suggested to the BBC that his fiction would be likely to appeal to a radio audience. The Small Back Room was adapted for the Third Programme in 1948 and this was the first of a wave of adaptations of Balchin’s works that lasted right up until his death and then continued for some considerable time afterwards. The Small Back Room and Mine Own Executioner tended to be by far the most popular candidates for adaptation but other pieces that made the transition to radio and/or television included A Sort of Traitors, Waiting for Gillian (Ronald Millar’s stage version of A Way Through the Wood), The Fall of the Sparrow and some of the stories from Last Recollections of My Uncle Charles.
A Minor Celebrity: the 1950s
During the 1950s the nature of Balchin’s association with the BBC began to change. Instead of simply using him as a knowledgeable ‘talking head’ who could be relied upon to dispense information in an authoritative manner on subjects such as Norse Sagas, budgeting or incentives, the Corporation began instead to exploit his popularity as a writer and to trade on the fact that his name was becoming ever more widely known to the general public. Television in particular made good use of Balchin’s newly found status as a minor celebrity. Thus in the space of a five-year period beginning in 1951, Balchin gave a talk (in a primetime Saturday night slot) about his approach to the writing of novels, read a short story entitled ‘Major Cole’s Third Shot’, appeared on two panel games and, most prestigiously of all perhaps, was one of the mystery guests that a group of celebrities were tasked with identifying during the course of a 1956 edition of What’s My Line?
Balchin also continued to find work on the radio. Notable appearances from the mid-1950s included two stints on the successor to The Brains Trust, Any Questions?, and one on its sister programme Sporting Questions. He also gave an illuminating interview with his fellow ‘factory novelist’ Walter Allen in a strand called We Write Novels, during which Balchin stated that he had “never really liked writing novels” because it was “appallingly hard work” and revealed that he had torn up the original completed manuscript of Mine Own Executioner because he had been so dissatisfied with it. Another sign that Balchin had transcended his status as a novelist and become something more akin to a ‘personality’ came in 1954 when he selected the eight pieces of music he would have liked to have been able to listen to had he been shipwrecked on a desert island. His choices for the long-running radio show Desert Island Discs included compositions by Purcell, Haydn, Berlioz and Bach, and his luxury item was a piece of sculpture (“a very cheerful little Donatello urchin, with his trousers coming down”).
Two Original Plays
During the course of his career as a novelist, Balchin also wrote two original pieces of drama for the BBC (a third, the thriller Better Dead, was transmitted on Independent Television in 1969 and represents his final connection with the medium). The first of these, The Leader of the House, starred Wilfred Hyde-White as a diffident Prime Minister clinging perilously onto power only because he is an inoffensive compromise between two violently opposed factions in his Cabinet. Balchin described The Leader of the House as “an irreverent comedy” but reading the script today it has more of the feel of a lightweight and unconvincing political farce and reviews in the newspapers of the time were very mixed.
Balchin’s second television play was transmitted in 1962. The Hatchet Man drew on its creator’s recent experiences of working in Hollywood and given his unhappiness during most of the time he spent in Tinseltown was understandably a rather jaundiced and cynical piece of work. It starred Donald Pleasence in the titular role as a film studio ‘executioner’ whose job is to issue actors with their marching orders. When Pleasence’s character produces a movie as a vehicle for his actress girlfriend he finds himself getting fired by the new hatchet man at the studios where he used to perform the same role. This must have been what the Observer’s reviewer was referring to when he mentioned The Hatchet Man’s “neat circular story” and he added that Balchin’s handiwork had possessed “plenty of viewability”.
The 1960s: Rejection Becomes the Order of the Day
Between the years 1955 and 1962, Balchin concentrated almost exclusively on writing film screenplays instead of penning novels or developing new material with radio or television in mind. He did give a televised talk about the Norse Sagas in 1961 but after returning permanently to England the following year his work for the BBC grew more and more sporadic. Balchin was interviewed on the radio on a few occasions during the 1960s but television adaptations of his fiction now tended to be transmitted on the independent channel instead of the BBC, two examples being a well-received version of The Fall of the Sparrow in 1965 and
the series Uncle Charles in 1967 (see Newsletters 7 and 8 for more details on this). One intriguing BBC project from 1964 was a mooted nine-part television series entitled The Nine Lives of Nicholas Hurst, which was about a character who inhabited nine distinct personas sequentially. Balchin grappled with the technical difficulties inherent in his concept before the series was scrubbed by the BBC after he had written four (unfilmed) episodes.
For the rest of Balchin’s life, rejection was the inevitable fate of most of the projects that he pitched to the BBC. A drama called Lennie’s Point of View was bleak, misanthropic and, unusually for Balchin, lacking in realism. It was unceremoniously turned down by the Corporation in 1965. But Balchin fared no better when he tried to manipulate other people’s work in preference to developing his own ideas. So when he tried to adapt Thackeray’s novel The History of Henry Esmond for television in 1968, the BBC’s Production Department reported that his were “the worst scripts they had seen in four years”. By the late 1960s, Balchin’s ability to work to his previous high standard had been fatally comprised by his alcoholism. In addition, the unhappiness he experienced at times during his second marriage seems to have been responsible for the introduction into his writing of an unattractive vein of misogynism. The final idea that Balchin submitted to the BBC was for a series of open letters to women with the aim of explaining “characteristic male and female misunderstandings”. These were emphatically rejected by the female-orientated radio magazine programme Woman’s Hour because “they are horrid. They are superficially good humoured, but just under the skin he really dislikes women very much (evidently) & wants to say humiliating & physically offensive things with a would-be urbane smile.” This rebuff effected an inglorious end to Balchin’s intermittently sparkling career in the media of radio and television.
BBC Broadcasting House in Portland Place, London: Balchin spent a lot of time working in studios here in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
Like most of Balchin’s artistic endeavours (see also his plays, novels and film scripts), his work for the BBC was fitful and of variable quality. But he does seem to have had a certain flair for broadcasting and the original work of his that was transmitted by the Corporation (almost all of which is now sadly unavailable for either viewing or listening) highlights yet another string to the bow of this extraordinarily talented individual.
News of Progress with my Biography
There is not too much new to tell you. I still need to complete some of the peripheral items for the book such as the Foreword, Acknowledgements and Appendices but the main text is now finished and I don’t plan to make any significant changes to it unless I really have to.
I am about to embark on the next significant stage of the project, namely arranging to have the book published, and I hope to have some positive news to report in that regard before too much longer.
Thank you for your continued patience and I do intend that the biography will finally see the light of day during the course of 2014. Below, please find a contents list together with some idea of what each chapter contains.
The Man Who Never Knew Who He Was: A Biography of Nigel Balchin
A scene-setting introduction that also explains the book’s title
Chapter 1 – Simple Life
Balchin’s early life, and particularly his time at Dauntsey’s School
Chapter 2 – Psychology Welcomes a New Recruit
Balchin’s student days at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and his discovery of psychology
Chapter 3 – How to Run a Chocolate Factory
Industrial psychology in the early 1930s, including Balchin’s pivotal role in the launch of Black Magic chocolates
Chapter 4 – Making a Good Beginning: the Hamish Hamilton Years
Balchin’s early novels and non-fiction books
Chapter 5 – One Night in the West End
Experiments in play-writing, plus work for the BBC
Chapter 6 – Darkness Falls From the Air
Work for and with the Ministry of Food during World War Two, plus Darkness Falls From the Air
Chapter 7 – Marital Discord 1: As Easy as EBCD
Elisabeth Balchin’s affair with composer Christian Darnton and its effect on Balchin’s fiction
Chapter 8 – “No More Square Pegs in Round Holes”: Transforming Morale in the Army During World War Two
Balchin’s wartime role in army personnel selection
Chapter 9 – The Small Back Room
Balchin’s scientific research work for the army; Lilliput articles; The Small Back Room
Chapter 10 – Mine Own Executioner
Life in rural Kent just after the war; Mine Own Executioner
Chapter 11 – A Very Thorough Demobilization
Balchin’s work/life balance during the immediate post-war period
Chapter 12 – Socially Minded Donkeys and A Chinese Examination
Theory of incentives; The Aircraft Builders; Lord, I Was Afraid
Chapter 13 – Finding the Key to the Film World
Balchin’s film scripts for Fame is the Spur and Mine Own Executioner; The Borgia Testament; The Anatomy of Villainy
Chapter 14 – Mr. Balchin’s Formula: Too Much the Mixture as Before?
A Sort of Traitors and the film of The Small Back Room
Chapter 15 – Marital Discord 2: “People do what they want to”
The disintegration of Balchin’s first marriage
Chapter 16 – Finding a Way Through the Wood
The fallout from Balchin’s marital break-up, particularly the writing of A Way Through the Wood
Chapter 17 – A Return to Elbow Grease
TV and radio work; Sundry Creditors; getting married for a second time
Chapter 18 – Before Hollywood
Mid-1950s writings, especially The Fall of the Sparrow, and more marital problems
Chapter 19 – The Man Who Never Was
Balchin’s ‘Hollywood years’
Chapter 20 – “A Very Destructive Period”: Florence 1957–1962
Life in Italy and a final round of film scripts
Chapter 21 – All These Bloody Things
Ill health; return to England; Seen Dimly Before Dawn
Chapter 22 – Return Journeys
Miscellaneous mid-1960s writings, especially In the Absence of Mrs Petersen
Chapter 23 – Failing to Achieve Lift-Off
Balchin’s observation of the US space programme; Kings of Infinite Space; life in Suffolk in the late 1960s
Chapter 24 – Balchin and Drink
Balchin’s damaging relationship with alcohol
Chapter 25 – Death of a Famous Writer
The Famous Writers School; Balchin’s death, funeral, obituaries and legacy
Developments since Balchin’s death, especially the film Separate Lies; reasons for the demise of his reputation; chances of a Balchin revival
Were the novel above and its predecessor, The Dark Portal, written by Nigel Balchin? I think not but unfortunately, as several of you have pointed out to me this year, a number of second-hand booksellers who list their wares on Abebooks have got it into their heads that The Dark Portal and The God on the Mountain were written by Balchin under the pseudonym John Furnell and are advertising the books for sale as genuine Balchin artefacts. I have read both novels, one of them for a second time just this summer, and am confident in my own mind that they were not written by Balchin. In the next issue of this newsletter I will explain in much greater detail why I do not believe that John Furnell and Nigel Balchin were one and the same but for now I will just conclude by saying that the only pseudonym that Balchin ever used to my knowledge was Mark Spade, under which sobriquet he wrote three early humorous works of non-fiction: How to Run a Bassoon Factory, Business for Pleasure and Fun and Games.