There it is, amongst the Top Ten films directed by Stephen Frears as chosen by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, there alongside such excellence as The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things and My Beautiful Launderette, in at No. 10, Gumshoe, Frear’s first feature, working from a script by Neville Smith and starring Albert Finney as a Liverpudlian bingo caller who fantasises about being a private eye.
Neville won a Writers’ Guild Award for his screenplay, which he then – after some persuasion from his publisher, his agent and, quite possibly, his bank manager – turned into a novel. First published by Fontana Books in 1971 to tie-in with the film’s release, it was allowed to drift out of print, and joyfully picked up by Slow Dancer Press when we had a crack at publishing crime fiction alongside poetry in the late 1990s.
Pre-publication, I tracked Stephen Frears down to W8 and talked him into writing an introduction and Neville himself supplied a Coda. All it needed then was a strong and snappy design for the cover, which, as was usual, Jamie Keenan supplied, using a photograph by Trevor Ray Hart.
And this is how it begins …
He looked like the kind of guy your mother would like to marry your sister. If you had a mother. If you had a sister.
He wore a three-button Italian suit, a Billy Eckstine-style flex-roll, buttondown collar, a slim-jim tie. Neat, flat-cut hair topped the lot off. The perfect brother-in-law, circa 1957. He leaned back with his feet on the desk, bored out of his mind, looking at me sitting opposite in my vintage Grenfell trench coat (Hawkes of Savile Row, W1. By Appointment); I wasn’t bored.
Stephen Frears and Neville Smith first met in 1968 when they were both working for Yorkshire TV. In his Coda, Neville describes it thus …
I was acting in an episode of Parkin’s Patch for Yorkshire Television in Leeds. The director was Michael Apted. Sitting in the canteen, in a powder blue suit, and dripping with gold, was Les Dawson, fidgeting while his wife fetched him a cup of tea. Apted and I took the table next to him, hoping to overhear a few quips.
We were joined by an unshaven chap. He wore tennis shoes, baggy corduroys, a green sloppy joe, and a black jacket, all of which had seen better days. He had a mass of black hair and, like Apted, was handsome.
Very soon he and Apted were drawling away in their posh Oxford accents. It was like listening to Trevor Bailey nattering away between overs. Then Apted said, apropos of nothing at all, it seemed to me, “Was it Nietzsche or Wittgenstein who said that the limits of language are the limits of the world?” The unshaven chap said, “No. It was Fatty Arbuckle.” I laughed, and that is how I got to know Stephen Frears.
It was then, or a little later, as he says in his Introduction, that Frears said to Neville, “Why don’t you write a thriller?”
He … gave me the opening pages of what would turn out to be Gumshoe. I don’t think it then had a title. And I found I’d stumbled on a writer with the grace of Jackie Milburn and the wit of S. J. Perelman.
I had thought he was writing a thriller. In fact he was constructing a self-portrait; a record of what it was like to have been a teenager in the English provinces in the Fifties. “I want to write The Maltese Falcon; I want to record Blue Suede Shoes.” He could describe a life unlike my own yet one I would like to have lived. His world was warm, funny, observant, generous, ironic, scrupulous, complex.
… I’ve never lost my love or admiration for Neville, who is in some ways, I think, the best writer I’ve ever come across. This book – the book of the film – I’ve never read. I couldn’t bear it if I found a job he hadn’t thought of when he wrote the film.