The Nigel Balchin Newsletter
Issue 14: December 2014
Statement Concerning My Biography of Balchin
I am afraid that there is still nothing definite to report on this subject although the situation has become a little clearer in recent weeks.
My book is currently under consideration by the commercial publishing sector, as indeed it has been for over a year now. I am keen to have the book published commercially if at all possible because I think this would give it the best chance of achieving success. However, I am certainly not prepared to wait for ever and so if I have not received a firm offer to publish by early 2015 then I will take matters into my own hands (I have already received two offers to publish the book from self-publishing companies). If the book is self-published then I would anticipate publication during the summer of 2015. If the book is published commercially then who knows when it might appear! One company are toying with the idea of reissuing a number of Balchin’s novels and then perhaps publishing my biography afterwards if the reaction to the reissues is positive. I would, however, be opposed to any plan to bring my book out later than 2015 without a very good reason for doing so. I have now spent more than 10 years on this project and am anxious to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion sooner rather than later so that I can do something else with the rest of my life!
I am very sorry that there has been such a long and frustrating wait for the biography to appear. Unfortunately, the commercial publishing industry seems (to my eyes at least) to move at a very slow pace and there is not much I can do to change that. There have been great problems establishing exactly who owns the rights to some of Balchin’s novels although my understanding is that that problem has now been resolved and so we may well see the likes of Darkness Falls from the Air, The Small Book Room and Mine Own Executioner returning to the shelves of high street bookstores in the coming years.
I am optimistic that my book will finally be published during the course of 2015. If I do decide to self-publish then I shall probably run an associated competition on the website (www.nigelmarlinbalchin.com) so look out for that in the next few months. I will need to get an idea of how many copies to publish so in return for an email telling me that you are interested in purchasing the book I will put your name in a hat to win a signed copy.
In the meantime, here is the latest issue of the Nigel Balchin Newsletter. I am pleased to say that it contains another entry in my (surprisingly popular) ongoing series ‘How I First Discovered Nigel Balchin’. The author this time is Mary Hutchings and she has been able to tackle this commission from a different angle as her family has a direct personal connection with Balchin. As Mary touches on a number of matters that I think are of general relevance to readers I have taken the liberty of expanding her article somewhat by way of a number of explanatory footnotes. Thanks very much to Mary for taking the time to write such an interesting and enjoyable piece. Elsewhere, I have written an article outlining how to watch examples of Balchin’s work on DVD. With the festive season now just around the corner, perhaps this will give you all some ideas of what to watch on television whilst chomping on a mince pie or sipping a glass of mulled wine!
Happy viewing and Happy Christmas!
Balchin on DVD
As promised previously, this article describes how to watch Balchin films, where I have defined ‘a Balchin film’ as one that was either developed from an original Balchin story (such as The Small Back Room) or one for which Balchin wrote the screenplay (The Man Who Never Was being perhaps the best-known example).
In issue 4 of this newsletter, published two and a half years ago, I wrote an article entitled ‘Balchin at the Movies’ wherein I took a detailed look at Balchin’s career as a film scriptwriter (click here if you wish to read it: http://www.nigelmarlinbalchin.co.uk/newsletter/newsletter-4/). So as not to cover the same ground again, the current article will concentrate almost exclusively on how you, the Balchin fan, can watch flickering images of Balchin’s handiwork. I also confine myself largely to discussion of DVD releases even though it may still be possible to pick up VHS versions of Balchin films if you so desire.
Balchin worked as a film scriptwriter, off and on, for the 20-year period between 1946 and 1965. His most intense period of scriptwriting came between 1955 and 1961, and for much of that time he was based in Hollywood and in the employ of Twentieth Century Fox. I believe that he probably scripted about 25 films in total, although slightly less than half of those reached the screen. It is difficult to give exact numbers here because Balchin’s name is not mentioned in the credits for a few of the films he worked on and he may have scripted some films I remain unaware of. Three points should be made in this regard:
- I do not consider Cleopatra to be a Balchin film because the script was completely rewritten after Balchin’s involvement in the project had been terminated.
- I know for a fact that Balchin did write the script for Sea Wife (1957) but asked for his name to be taken off it as he considered it to be a lousy movie!
- Balchin overhauled the script for 1958’s The Barbarian and the Geisha at the request of his friend John Huston, the film’s director. Balchin’s name was not mentioned in the credits but I still consider The Barbarian and the Geisha to be a Balchin film. The situation here is much the same as for Mandy (1952), where Balchin was brought in to improve upon an existing script, again because he was friendly with the director (Alexander MacKendrick in this case). Balchin was mentioned in the credits for Mandy and therefore it would seem churlish to regard that as a Balchin film but not to extend the same designation to The Barbarian and the Geisha.
The Editor’s collection of Balchin DVDs.
Looking through my collection I find that I have eight Balchin films on DVD (one of which is missing from the photograph above) as well as several others on VHS. The availability of Balchin films on DVD seems to be constantly changing, with new releases being scheduled at the same time as existing DVDs are withdrawn from sale. The position certainly seems to have altered significantly since I first began planning this article just a few months ago; to give just one example, the eminently missable (in my opinion) Josephine and Men has now been accorded a first-ever DVD release. I therefore take no responsibility for the continuing validity of the information contained in this article; instead, please regard it merely as a snapshot of the situation prevailing at the time when it was written (November 2014).
If you want to obtain examples of Balchin’s work on DVD then my advice would be to start looking in the first instance on Amazon or some other large internet retailer (although don’t discount the likes of eBay if you don’t mind buying second-hand goods). As you can see from the table on the following page, many of Balchin’s films can be purchased from Amazon. Those of you with a LoveFilm subscription should also be able to order up quite a few of Balchin’s films in that way too. For those hard-to-find releases, there are some specialist companies that may be able to supply what you are after. One such company can be found at the web address www.oldrarefilms.com although I have not used them myself so cannot vouch for them.
In the UK, Channel 4 used to broadcast The Small Back Room regularly during the 1990s but do not appear to have done so for some years now. However, other arms of the Channel 4 empire, namely Film 4 and More 4, do occasionally show Balchin films so it is worth checking the TV listings each week to see what’s coming up! I know for example that More 4 have transmitted both Malta Story and Twenty-Three Paces to Baker Street in recent weeks.
It would be fantastic if one or more of the BBC, Film 4, the National Film Theatre or the British Film Institute could put together a short ‘Balchin Film Season’ in the next few years. This is an idea that I may well pursue once I have finally succeeded in publishing my biography of Balchin.
Suspect, the Boulting brothers’ 1960 version of A Sort of Traitors, is a fine film and still quite easy to track down today (see the table at the bottom of this page for details).
The table below summarizes the current picture regarding the availability of Balchin’s film work. There are two things I should point out before leaving you to peruse the data:
- My research for this article has revealed that Mine Own Executioner is due to be released on DVD next March. I think this will be the first-ever DVD release for this film, which I regard as one of the best adaptations of a Balchin story to be committed to celluloid.
- I have never seen the version of The Blue Angel that Balchin scripted and it would not appear to be available for viewing in any medium at the present time. But given that the respected film buff Leslie Halliwell described this 1959 remake of the Marlene Dietrich original as both ‘a total travesty’ and an ‘unintentional farce’ I don’t feel too hard done by in that regard!
Please let me know if there are any omissions or errors in the table but, like I say, the situation would seem to be in constant flux. I will publish amendments in future issues of this newsletter if need be.
Summary of availability of Balchin’s films as of November 2014.
|Film title||Available on DVD?||Available on LoveFilm?|
|Fame is the Spur (1947)||No||Yes|
|Mine Own Executioner (1947)||No||No|
|The Small Back Room (1949)||Yes||Yes|
|Malta Story (1953)||Yes||Yes|
|Josephine and Men (1955)||Yes||No|
|The Man Who Never Was (1956)||No||Yes|
|Twenty-Three Paces to Baker Street (1956)||Yes||Yes|
|Sea Wife (1957)||Yes||Yes|
|The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)||Yes||No|
|The Blue Angel (1959)||No||No|
|The Singer Not the Song (1961)||Yes||Yes|
|Circle of Deception (1961)||No||No|
|Separate Lies (2005)||Yes||Yes|
How I First Discovered Nigel Balchin by Mary Newman Hutchings
My mother belonged to The Book Club, run by Foyle’s, and each month received a copy of a hardback novel. Her particular excitement over one book delighted me and I asked the title and author (this was a few years after World War Two, when I was about seven years old). It was called Mine Own Executioner and was by Nigel Balchin. “I knew him” she began and then told me how she had come to know him.
The Balchin family lived in West Lavington in Wiltshire and everyone knew them. Nigel was at Dauntsey’s School with Uncle Jack, though not in the same year. Whether it was through Jack that Mum came to know Nigel I don’t know. My uncle was not interested in academic pursuits, only in sport. Nigel, too, was very keen on sport,1 so they could have become friends. They would not, however, have become intellectual friends, as my mother would snortingly remark years later. Her brother had obtained one of the local-boy scholarships2 to the prestigious school, but didn’t do a thing with it.
Mum insisted that villagers knew Nigel as “Mark”. I only questioned this when I discovered that his middle name was Marlin, but it then made sense when I read that he did write under the name “Mark Spade” for a while.3 His friendship with my mother blossomed, but not into romance. Mum said that she liked him very much as a friend, but that she didn’t find him physically attractive and it was obvious that he wanted an intelligent, good-looking young lady to talk to during his Cambridge vacations and to whisk around Wiltshire in his sports car. They discussed literature and philosophy and when Mark returned to Cambridge he wrote long letters to Mum.
During these years (from 1927) my mother was engaged to her future husband, my father, and it’s possible that Mark had already met his future wife at Cambridge.4 Certainly there was no jealousy on the part of my father, but it seems that Mum’s friendship with Mark petered out when she and Dad married in July 1931 and I think she rarely heard from Mark after that. I just wish Mum were still here, because it is now that I want to ask her so much.
Mum must have followed Balchin’s life and career, because she knew that he went to Hollywood as a screenwriter. In fact, Mum and I went to see The Singer Not the Song5 specifically to see the name “Nigel Balchin” in large letters on the screen; it was a good film too, but seems to have been lost in the dust of celluloid now. Whether Mum was carrying some sort of torch for Balchin I don’t know. Probably not. But what I do know is that her interest in literature deepened and that we started reading D. H. Lawrence, Steinbeck, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald as a result of her friendship with him.
Dedicated to my mother, Margaret Newman, née Hillier, 1 February 1911 – 8 September 2000.
- Balchin was indeed a keen (and very talented) schoolboy sportsman. Whilst at Dauntsey’s he was captain of the cricket and soccer teams and also played hockey, rugby and fives for the school.
- I have been told that Balchin also obtained one of these scholarships, although no evidence to support this claim came to light whilst I was researching my biography. Balchin came from a poor background and it seems highly unlikely that his parents would have been able to afford to send him to Dauntsey’s without the help of a scholarship.
- Balchin’s first three non-fiction books (1934’s How to Run a Bassoon Factory, 1935’s Business for Pleasure and 1936’s Fun and Games) were all written under the pseudonym Mark Spade.
- Balchin met his wife-to-be, Elisabeth Evelyn Walshe, during her first year at Newnham (1929/1930), which was Balchin’s final year at Peterhouse.
- Released into British cinemas in February 1961, The Singer Not the Song, starring John Mills and Dirk Bogarde, is still available for viewing today on DVD. See my article entitled ‘Balchin on DVD’ beginning on page 2 of this newsletter for more details.
Holly Cottage in West Lavington High Street in Wiltshire. Balchin was living here with his family when he first met Mary Hutchings’ mother.