The Nigel Balchin Newsletter
Issue 22: December 2017
As I said last time, this is the last of these newsletters. Quite simply, I have now run out of things to say about Nigel Balchin after more than ten years of reading and re-reading his books, researching him and writing extensively about him including, of course, His Own Executioner in 2015. The ‘Balchin revival’ that I had hoped to bring about when I first began researching my biography has, sadly, failed to materialize, despite little flickers of interest from time to time. Without much in the way of Balchin news to convey, there seems little point in continuing with this newsletter. I will, however, continue to maintain the Nigel Balchin Website (www.nigelmarlinbalchin.com). If there is any exciting news to impart in the future then I will do so via the website so do please take a look at it once in a while.
I would like to thank all those of you who have got in touch with me as a result of these newsletters: I have had some very good correspondences over the years. Thanks also for all the kind comments I received about His Own Executioner. Although the book didn’t do quite as well as I had hoped, it has been very heartening to have received so many complimentary comments from readers: they made all the hard work worthwhile!
The best of luck to you all and my email account is always open if you have any news of Balchin activity that I may have missed or if you just want to talk about him or his books.
With best wishes,
Seen But Not Read (Yet)
I was delighted to discover recently that retired aeronautical engineer Richard Thorn has done for Nevil Shute what I endeavoured to do for Balchin with His Own Executioner, namely to write the first full-length, authoritative biography of him. I wish Richard every success with his venture and I look forward to reading his book at the earliest opportunity.
Many of you will already know of the links between Balchin and Shute as novelists, as ‘boffins’ during World War Two and because they both succeeded in jobs of a scientific or technical nature before deciding to earn their livings solely by the products of their typewriters. But if you don’t, then this article will sketch in some of the background for you:
Clive James once grouped Balchin, Shute and Eric Ambler together as ‘technocratic authors’. With the publication of this new Shute biography, only Ambler is now lacking a full biography. Any takers?
I have succeeded in making a little progress with this matter in recent weeks although there has been a change at the agency who handle the rights to Balchin’s novels, which has slowed negotiations down. I am cautiously optimistic that it will be possible for me to reissue some of the long-out-of-print titles in the future, although I can’t promise anything at this stage as the situation is largely outside my control. Further updates will be posted on the Nigel Balchin Website.
As you can probably imagine, there were quite a few ‘leftovers’ that didn’t make it into His Own Executioner for reasons of space. Ever since I went to its London premiere in 2005 I have been fond of Separate Lies, the adaptation of Balchin’s novel A Way Through the Wood, which served as the directorial debut of Julian Fellowes. Here is a longer critique of the movie.
Fellowes updated the book to the present day, so that Jim Manning (always referred to as James in the film) is now a partner in a firm of corporate lawyers based in the City of London rather than an employee of a cigarette manufacturer, as is the case in A Way Through the Wood. Other alterations are as follows: Jill is renamed Anne; the Mannings are given a plush townhouse in London and an idyllic cottage in Buckinghamshire (as opposed to just a house in Sussex); Bill Bule has two children from a former marriage and a doting father; and the policeman who investigates the hit-and-run accident is a Detective Inspector with no personal connections to the deceased, as opposed to the village bobby in the book, who is also the brother-in-law of the victim.
Following a brief but very effective dramatization of the road accident and some footage establishing the work and home lives of James, the first major scene in the film is a cricket match, replacing the village fête in the book. This is followed by the fallout from Anne’s drinks party. Anne admits to James that she was driving the car that killed Joe and has been having an affair with Bill Bule. Amid an atmosphere of animosity, the participants in the ménage-a-trois get together to concoct their cover story. The police procedural part of the narrative is then set in motion.
The central portion of A Way Through the Wood, in which the three main characters travel extensively around continental Europe, is almost completely jettisoned and the plot duly telescoped. In Separate Lies, James and Anne travel to North Wales (a poor substitute for Paris!) in an attempt to patch up their marriage. Bule and Anne then holiday in Paris, not Spain, and are observed by James, who just happens to be there on business.
On his return to England, James enjoys a night of passion with his secretary (played by a pre-Spooks Hermione Norris) before receiving a summons from Bule. A drastically truncated version of Jim and Bule’s breakneck car journey in A Way Through the Wood to try to intercept Jill before she can confess her ‘crime’ is then enacted. The scene at the home of Elsie the charwoman—here renamed Maggie and employed as the Mannings’ housekeeper—is faithful to the book: Anne admits that she was responsible for the manslaughter of Maggie’s husband and Maggie remains tight-lipped when the Detective Inspector arrives to question her.
At a railway station, James meets an old acquaintance who informs him that Bule is dying from cancer. James visits Bule in hospital and then tells Anne of her lover’s illness. There is then a moving and memorable scene in the rain outside Bule’s flat during which James makes his peace with Anne, who is living with Bule so that she can provide him with end-of-life care. Unlike in the book—where Bule survives TB, goes to live in Switzerland with Jill and Jim remains estranged from his wife—the film ends with Bule’s funeral, and with James and Anne seemingly reconciled.
The best thing about Separate Lies is the acting. As James Manning, Tom Wilkinson is exceptional and if the picture can be said to be a success, much of the credit must be laid at his feet. His use of gesture and body language is supreme and every little twitch of his conscience as he negotiates the moral minefield he is confronted with is beautifully conveyed. Emily Watson is very nearly as good as Anne, and if she just fails to convince us that her somewhat vapid character could be a real person then that is a fault with Balchin’s writing and not with the film.
Rupert Everett is far less successful as Bule. Around the time that Separate Lies was released, he turned down another film role in which he was asked to play a twice-married man with two children. Here he attempts to portray Bill Bule (a once-married man with two children) and struggles to make the part seem realistic. Perhaps the Bule character in A Way Through the Wood (unmarried, no children) would have been more in his line? Although his is an eye-catching performance, Everett is overly louche and cynical and fails to show any of the charm or likeability that Bule occasionally displays in the book. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent though, with Linda Bassett as Maggie and David Harewood as Inspector Marshall especially worthy of plaudits.
It may seem churlish to take issue with what is generally a very sensitive adaptation, but I do have some problems with Fellowes’s cinematic transformation of the book. My main bone of contention concerns the race in Bule’s car to intercept Anne before she can confess her crime to Maggie. This is the one genuinely exciting episode in A Way Through the Wood and by boiling it down so ruthlessly—ten pages of brilliantly tight writing are replaced by less than a minute of screen time—Fellowes deprives his film of what could have been a very dramatic conclusion. In common with other cinematic interpreters of Balchin’s work, Fellowes also cannot resist the temptation to tinker with the ending deployed in the book: he therefore kills off Bule, instead of allowing him to recuperate in Switzerland with his beloved. Although Bule dies, the ending can be said to be a happy one (not something that Balchin usually indulged in) as James is offered the prospect of resuming his relationship with Anne, something which is denied him in A Way Through the Wood.
Separate Lies has many admirable qualities. In addition to the superb acting, there is very clever use of locations and the photography is exquisite. It would have made a very fine two-part Sunday evening television series. But despite some effective use of humour and the genuinely poignant ending, Separate Lies remains ultimately a very watchable but slightly unsatisfying film.
My Ten Favourite Nigel Balchin Novels
Apropos of nothing except self-indulgence, the fact that this is the final edition of this newsletter and also that it is just two days until Balchin’s birthday, here is a list of my favourites among his novels, in order of preference.
- The Small Back Room
- Darkness Falls from the Air
- The Fall of the Sparrow
- Mine Own Executioner
- Sundry Creditors
- A Sort of Traitors
- A Way Through the Wood
- Seen Dimly Before Dawn
- In the Absence of Mrs Petersen
- Lightbody on Liberty