Thursday 30th October 2003
All content © New Journal Enterprises, 2003

Winston Graham

The most famous unknown author in Britain
You’ve probably never heard of Winston Graham, but you may heard of Poldark, just one of his 40 novels, writes Osman Streeter

Memoirs of a Private Man, By Winston Graham. Macmillan, £18.99

Winston Graham is best known as the author of the Poldark novels, which became a hugely popular television series round the world. In his long lifetime (he died earlier this year aged 93) he was also known as “the most famous unknown novelist in England”.
For an “unknown” novelist, who wrote over 40 novels, amongst them Marnie, which Alfred Hitchcock made into a memorable film starring Tippi Hedren in the title role, he did very well.

True, Graham had been hoping for Grace Kelly to play Marnie, but the Prince of Monaco put his foot down when he discovered that his fairy tale Princess was supposed to play the part of a thief and a liar. But he still did very well. He died rich. Not many novelists can afford a large country house with servants in their 90s, but Graham could.
And yet, as this timely autobiography shows, he never lost his modesty. Most people, when they make it, like to forget their less successful moments. Not Winston Graham.

For example, how many rich and successful people would write about making a fool of themselves in a Paris brothel? Yet here he is, describing how, on seeing the array of girls on offer, he was overcome with a fit of giggles.

Graham tells how the Madame sized him up. “Monsieur,” she said, “I think I have something more suitable for you.” She guided him through corridors, opened a door – and Graham found himself amongst the dustbins in the back yard.

In truth, there are times when the modesty, genuine though it is, becomes a bit much. One moment, he is telling us that the reviews of his first published novel “were kind, perhaps too kind”. The next, he is considering moving to France because of the huge tax bill on his burgeoning earnings.

But behind the modesty there was an edge of steel, and it shows in his description of his dealings with the people filming Poldark for the BBC.

At the start, he was treated like dirt. The producer even told him that, if he dared to show up on the shoot, he would be treated like an ordinary member of the public. By the end, they were leaping to attention when he turned up on set, and begging him to write a third series.

He especially warmed to the actors and actresses in Poldark – and they to him. In particular Angharad Rees, who played Demelza Poldark, took him under her elegant arm, visiting him in hospital as he grew increasingly frail, and charming both staff and patients during each of her many visits.

When people live as long as Winston Graham did, names become a problem for many readers. He writes of evenings with the likes of Gilbert Harding and Sir Ralph Richardson, and of working with the likes of Gregory Peck, Jack Hawkins and Dennis Price, not to mention Valerie Hobson, Arlene Dahl and Samantha Eggar. Perhaps you have to be of a certain age to recognise most of these names.
However, most readers will surely appreciate his contribution to modern films in giving the pre-007 Sean Connery a big boost to his early career by casting him to play against Tippi Hedren in Marnie. And what readers of all ages can appreciate, if they have any literary ambitions, is the fascinating chapter in which Winston Graham relents from his modesty and describes his awesomely professional approach to writing.

One book at a time, never write two things at the same time. Write, rewrite, keep on rewriting, for however long it took until he was satisfied.

Yes, he could afford to take his time, but it is still impressive. For example, to learn about boxing when writing Angell, Pearl and Little God, he spent so much time in the Thomas à Becket pub in the East End that he was treated like a regular, and big fight promoters like Mike Barrett – and big boxers like Henry Cooper - treated him as a friend.

Graham sums it up thus: “I have never been clever enough – or egotistical enough to spend 300 pages dipping into the sludge of my own subconscious”.

Of course not. He was much better than that, as this autobiography shows.
n Osman Streeter is the chairman of the Savile Club and former PR consultant to Lonon Docklands.