The man behind ‘Straw Dogs’
Anyone who has ever tried to write a book knows it is a lengthy process: there’s the research, the various drafts, the frustration of writer’s block.
Say that to author Gordon Williams, however, and he just chuckles.
In 1969, the Paisley-born author wrote his seventh, most famous novel in just nine days. Albeit the title, Siege of Trencher’s Farm, may not register with the public straight away but the book achieved notoriety when adapted then released, in 1971, as the film Straw Dogs.
Williams’ motivation to complete The Siege at Trencher’s Farm in nine days was a publishing deal which gave him £150 for a title and first page with a further £150 on delivery of the manuscript.
The man possesses a dry sense of humour. When I asked what his purpose was in writing a novel as darkly violent as Siege at Trencher’s Farm, he replied, “300 quid,” adding, “I suppose it was rather like the Vietnam War. There was no moral purpose for that war. It was insanity. It was barbarism and obscenity”.
Williams’ agent, George Greenfield, was canny and realised the novel, intended as a quick beach read, would stimulate Hollywood. It did. The original idea was for Roman Polanski to direct, but, as he was booked three years in advance, the task fell to Sam Peckinpah, the director responsible for the bloodbath known as The Wild Bunch.
We all know the plot: prissy American academic George Magruder, his beautiful English wife Louise and daughter, Karen, who didn’t make it into the film, abandon noisy Philadelphia in search of British tranquillity. They rent an isolated stone house in Devon and spend a freezing winter tolerating suspicion and hostility from locals; soon becoming the unwitting targets of an exceptionally primitive violence.
Williams, who now lives in London with his wife, Claerwen, recalled: “It all started when David Susskind took me for lunch at The Savoy and bought the film rights. He offered me an extra $65,000 to write the script but I said no because I didn’t have a clue. He said I could learn, but I still refused.” In the event, Williams dismisses Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs as “utter crap”.
“You soon learn never to trust anyone in the film industry,” he said. “For a start, the accountancy is extremely creative, to put it mildly.
“Just to screw me, Peckinpah changed my title. Bear in mind, the action took place in Devon yet the script was full of Texan farmhand stuff like, ‘chicken shit, man,’ and ‘go grab a piece of that ass, man’. “No one in Devon talks like that,” Williams laughs and warms to his theme: “Peckinpah was a rabid right winger, a chronic alcoholic; a very sick man. All he cared about was the rape scene with Susan George.
“The truth about that film has been hushed up because it would be too libellous to print. There’s a book I might write one day, the truth behind Straw Dogs”. More chuckling before Williams continues, “Although it was not a commercial success, Peckinpah actually did me a big favour. I have never met anyone who hasn’t heard of Straw Dogs. Everybody involved with the film died being owed money, apart from Dustin Hoffman, Susan George and me”.
Williams loathed the film’s most controversial scene, notably Susan George’s character apparently enjoying being raped, which was not, repeat not, in his book – a fact that evokes a stream of invective from its author, “I managed to get hold of a copy of Peckinpah’s film script”, he said, “a closely guarded secret at the time. It was excruciating, beginning with a page-long description of the female lead’s tightly-trousered rear.
“In that draft, the rape scene was quite repulsive; much more so than the one in Straw Dogs. I was told there were several illegal subliminal sexual messages as well. It was way beyond nasty”.
It took thirty years for the British Board of Film Classification, long horrified by the violence in Straw Dogs, to grant it video certification. Then, last year, a remake of the film starring James Marsden and Kate Bosworth attempting to fill the shoes of Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, proved a major box office flop.
The author does acknowledge that the original Hollywood movie was an exciting time: “I’ll never forget the day I was on a bus to Campbeltown and I read that Dustin Hoffman had been signed to appear in Siege of Trencher’s Farm. I remember looking around the bus and only just managing to stop myself from shouting: Dustin Hoffman is going to star in my movie – only it wasn’t my work anymore.
Williams said: “My wife and I went to the trade showing. We’d seen The Wild Bunch and loved it. But we couldn’t believe Straw Dogs. To say we were shocked would be a massive understatement. It was a travesty. There wasn’t even a premiere. Do you know why? The distributors were frightened people would suffer heart attacks.”
Born in 1934, Gordon Williams grew up in Ferguslie Park Avenue, Paisley, which, he says, once won an award for being the worst street in Britain. He said: “It consisted of grey council houses, three in a curl, facing a cattle market. My father, William, was a policeman. He left school at 11 and my mother, Kathleen worked in the family leather shop but was also a mill girl. “I worked every school holiday as a farm labourer so missed out on the typical teenage years. The farm was under permanent siege with people stealing hens and eggs.”
“By the time I was 13, I could use a scythe and a sickle. We worked a huge field if it was sunny and dry. I remember a photographer from Scottish Field taking pictures of us. We posed and smiled, happy, like the laughing peasants we were, hiding our exhaustion.”
After a brief silence, Williams added: “I would say I wasn’t so much inspired by the past as imprisoned by it. My parents didn’t want me to be a farm labourer, so, one day, I saw an advert for a trainee reporter on the Johnstone Advertiser. Johnstone was the Wild West back then. Paisley, in comparison, was an oasis of civilisation. It had industry back in the 40s and 50s, shipbuilding yards and thanks to the mills, boasted seven women for every man. I arrived at the paper and another guy had turned up as well. I told him the job had been filled and he went away. There was a bloke sitting against the wall outside the newspaper office, not at all the ‘done thing’ in those days. He asked me what I wanted and when I said, “I’m looking for the editor,” he replied: ‘That’s me’.
“Anyway, he gave me the job but I was called up in 1952 to do National Service with the RAF in Germany. When I returned two years later to the Johnstone Advertiser, I was paid just over £2 a week. I wanted more so I wrote to 20 Scottish papers and not one replied. I also wrote to one English paper, the Poole and Dorset Herald. The editor phoned and offered £6 a week. Off I went. Poole was a fantastic place. We loved the area so much that we put a deposit on a house in Sandbanks but my daughters thought there were too many old people.”
Williams has written some 20 books as well as a number of successful biographies. In the early 60s, he was given a brief by a magazine to commission pieces from famous footballers but quickly realised he could just as easily ghost books on his subjects. So he wrote the autobiographies of Bobby Moore, Terry Venables, Denis Law and Ralph Brand. The latter, he says, would be highly topical now because it concerns life behind the scenes at Ibrox. He also ghosted Tommy Docherty’s story which he describes as “a stream of consciousness on a par with Ulysses”.
His novel, The Man Who Had Power over Women was a great success as a film. Paramount paid him $22,000 for the film rights. Williams then wrote From Scenes like These, an account of a teenage boy working on an Ayrshire farm in the early 1950s; a brilliant insight into Scottish masculinity, for which, in 1969, he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, along with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark. He says he got “bored” with writing novels and turned his hand to TV, writing the series, Hazell, known for the hero’s phrase: “I’m the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell-button”. It was co-written with Terry Venables, who was still a player at Queen’s Park Rangers. In the late 60s, thanks to Paramount, the family moved into a four-bedroom house, in a village in Devon; an area close to Dartmoor Prison, well into the land of fogs and bogs.
There was a dark side to this corner of England, according to Williams, a certain insularity and suspicion of strangers. The move coincided with the escape of Frank Mitchell, the Mad Axeman, sprung from jail by the Kray twins.
Williams said: “The area around us was under immediate siege, with widespread public panic. When Mitchell escaped, locals started leaving a packet of sandwiches, a sports jacket and a five pound note on their doorsteps, praying the supplies would be enough to stop him from breaking in.”
And, the idea for The Siege of Trencher’s Farm was born.
Williams still has a way with words. As he prepares to say goodbye, he has time for one more bon mot: “I owe everything to two men – Frank Mitchell, the mad axeman and Sam Peckinpah, the mad director. What a pity the two never met.”
Nicola’s Note: The best, albeit unpublished, interview I’ve ever done!