Nicola Barry

Category Archives: Interviews

Joan Rivers

JOAN RIVERS 

The wonderful Joan Rivers who died yesterday.

I am so sorry and sad to hear of the death of Joan Rivers. As a journalist, so often, you are forced to listen to people who imagine they and their lives are enthralling when they are not. But Joan Rivers was fascinating: outrageous beyond belief and wonderful to interview. We had the strangest of conversations, not so much a case of what she said but where she said it. Joan was sitting in her New York bathroom, which, she said, she used as an office. The apartment used to be a ballroom but now it is a beautiful home overlooking Central Park. In many respects Joan was whatever you wanted her to be: a comedienne first and foremost, but also an award-winning television talk-show host, a best-selling author, a jewellery designer, a business guru, and a real family woman. She absolutely adored her daughter, Melissa and grandson, Edgar Cooper.

THE SCAATS

When we spoke, Joan was heading for Scotland to give an annual farewell tour. She said she loved “the Scaats”, as she called us, and, above all, she loved Edinburgh, especially the Castle. In real life Ms Rivers had the gruff, husky New York voice which came to define her. Her words were punctuated every so often with snorts, usually at her own jokes. She was extremely funny, but endearingly so.  When I asked her about her reputation for being one of the hardest working women in the world, she quipped, “Yeah, if you don’t count the hooker on the corner.” Doesn’t she ever feel exhausted? “Gaad, no,” she rasped, “We’re all pals on the tour bus. We make a point of visiting historical sights or of having a great lunch. It’s so much fun. Last time we visited the home of the Brontes. Fascinating, and had lunch in an adorable English country pub.”

AGE

This delightfully dotty woman was born to Russian immigrants, in Brooklyn, “on June 8.  If you need the year, go find it yourself,” she famously added, probably with her trademark smirk. She was direct to the point of being rude, but you just knew by the humorous undercurrent that she wasn’t being nasty. Her age was and wasn’t a sensitive subject. Unlike many Hollywood stars, she didn’t lie about it.  A frequent and unapologetic user of cosmetic surgery, Joan became a popular guest on the series, Nip/Tuck. In one episode, she asked the doctors to let her see how she would have looked without all the surgery. When they showed her on a computer, she all but threw up. When we talked, Joan was preparing to leave for the UK to appear on the Jonathan Ross show and to make one more episode of Nip/Tuck. “I have always told the truth about my surgery,” she said. “It really annoys me when women lie about it. I’ve watched so many female actresses of my age grow steadily younger. They always swear they haven’t had surgery. For God’s sake, everyone has Botox. Even my dog has Botox.” When I asked her what she thought of women, she said, “On their own, they are wonderful. I love them. But the minute you bring a man into the equation, a lot of women can be treacherous.” She could have any man she wanted, surely? “Oh yeah, right,” she scoffed, letting out a vintage Joan guffaw. She has had her fair share of men, devoted ones at that. At 21, Joan married the owner of a big department store and the marriage lasted six months. “Six months longer than it should have done,” she mumbled. Her second marriage was to Edgar Rosenberg. It lasted 22 years and he was her manager. After Edgar, there was millionaire Orin Lehman but that, too, ended after nine years. One of the world’s funniest women, she has had her fair share of tragedies, most notably the suicide of Edgar, her second husband. “Edgar and I had agreed on a trial separation,” Joan explained. “Three years later, he took his own life. He just wasn’t coping.” These days, Joan lectures all over the world on suicide prevention and survival. When I told her a high number of young people took their own lives in this country, she said the States had the same problem. “Why?” she said. “Do you know someone once said that suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem? And that is exactly right. People who feel so bad need help to realise that things do get better. If only I had known how ill Edgar was, I might have been able to help him give life and living a chance.  The trouble with suicide is that the aftermath is never over. The guilt. I still feel it. Families and friends are left reeling when someone takes their own life. I will never know what Edgar’s suicide did to our daughter, Melissa, but it was bad. I know that much.” She and her daughter were close. They spoke every day. She also adored her grandson, Edgar Cooper. “I am the granny from hell,” she confessed. “I’m the one who always lets him have dessert first. I just figure it’s what a granny is supposed to do.”

GLITTERING CAREER

Joan began her comedy career by doing the rounds of sleazy agents, tawdry clubs and hostile audiences. “Custer did better at Little Big Horn,” she said. In 1965, a booking on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson finally turned her dream into a reality. Four months later, Joan met and married producer Edgar Rosenberg, and on January 10, 1968 their daughter Melissa was born. That year, Joan got one of the first syndicated talk shows on daytime TV. Subsequent guest hosting on Carson and appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show rapidly earned her an international reputation. In 1983, Joan became the permanent guest host on The Tonight Show and her star rose meteorically. She sold out concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall, comedy albums, two best-selling books. Then, for some reason, she hit a rocky patch but managed to claw her way back up the greasy pole, proof of the gutsy woman she is, until she got her own syndicated daytime talk show in 1989 and won an Emmy and a much prized star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I asked her about her friendship with Prince Charles and Camilla. Joan was one of four Americans to attend their wedding. “I have never seen such a happy wedding party,” she said. “Usually, at weddings, there’s always somebody moaning. But theirs was glorious. I think the British public will end up loving Camilla the same way they did the Queen Mum.”

JOKER

But that’s too serious for Joan Rivers. Back to business, does she have a funniest sketch?  “You always think your latest joke is your funniest,” she said. “We’ve been working on something for Jonathan Ross, about how incredibly stupid Americans are. For example, when you British had the London bombings, the police were out there straight away, tracking down the perpetrators. Yet, here we are, STILL looking for Osama Bin Laden. It’s unbelievable.” How about 9/11? Was she there? I could actually hear her shudder. “It changed the face of New York,” she replied. “It was so weird to see all these people coming out of the subways with white all over their faces. I remember,” she said quietly, “we went, immediately, to donate blood, but there was no need, because everybody was dead.” A grim silence. The question is was Joan Rivers as outrageous in real life as her stage persona suggested? Did she crack jokes about vibrators to people she met at a bus-stop? “With my close friends, yes, I probably am outrageous,” she agreed. “But the less I know someone, the more reserved I tend to be.” She and her daughter have become feared for their performance on the red carpet at major award shows like the Emmies. The scathing comments they make on the live pre-show, to some of the world’s top celebrities have sent viewing figures through the roof. Joan memorably told Bjork her dress made her look like a swan and Lara Flynn Boyle that hers resembled a tutu. “The Red Carpet is just a bit of fun,” Joan said. “Melissa and I are never going to upset real stars like Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts. The people who lack self confidence, they may get upset sometimes. But, honey, you can’t please everybody.”

I can hardly believe this really is her final farewell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Shand dies

 

Asian elephant at the zoo in Hamburg, Germany

Mark Shand founded Elephant Family, the sole charitable organisation dedicated to Asian Elephants.

 

Mark Shand: Elephant Man

In the somewhat stuffy world of the royals, Mark Shand was a hidden gem, a man of a thousand contradictions – which makes his tragic death in New York at the age of 62 so sad. He was a travel writer and conservationist as well as being brother to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. We met a few years ago when he was in Edinburgh to launch Jungle City, a collection of animal sculptures which were displayed around the capital during the Fringe to raise money and awareness for the conservation of endangered species. Companies, charities and private individuals could sponsor an animal for £4,000 then the exhibits were auctioned off in aid of Mark’s charity, Elephant Family.

TARA

His passion for the Asian elephant (rather than the more traditional royal obsession with horses and corgis) began when he met Tara, one of four begging elephants, in Orissa, on India’s east coast.

He said, “In India, people own elephants, often a lot of them, and the animals work during what they call the “marriage season”, from September to March. Then, disreputable people blackmail farmers by telling them the elephants will eat their crops. Sadly, in India, there is always a way to make money.” When Mark first saw Tara, he said he fell in love with her. His description was somewhat graphic, “Maybe it was her eyes- dark, gentle, brown pools of kindness … or, maybe, it was the way she stretched out her trunk and, with the utmost delicacy, explored my pockets searching for hidden goodies, or the way she squeaked with excitement, flapping her huge ears, when I tentatively offered her a banana for the first time.” But poor Tara was in a pitiful condition, scrawny and starved, her ribcage clearly visible and her skin hanging in folds. She looked exactly what she was, a beggar – a beggar with a pronounced limp due to a deep-rooted ulcer caused by metal-spiked shackles used to hobble her.

ELEPHANT MAN

Known affectionately as the Elephant Man, Mark would visit Tara regularly at her home in Kipling Camp in Madhya Pradesh, “Tara is spoilt,” he would tell people, “She eats about 250 kilos of roughage a day as well as various treats such as chapatis.” Mark also revealed that elephants love alcohol, “They can smell it a mile away. It could be the sugar.”

His love of elephants was all consuming. In the past 100 years, the elephant population has shrunk by a massive 90 per cent. Once there were 250,000 elephants roaming Asia now there are only about 25,000 left. In the early Eighties, Mark undertook a 1,000-kilometre journey through India on Tara’s back; a story told in his bestselling book, Travels on my Elephant, which he undertook with photographer and friend, Aditya Patankar. He also wrote Queen of the Elephants, the account of a 300 mile trek across East Benghal and Assam on the back of an elephant, with Parbati Barua, one of India’s greatest elephant experts and the only female mahout (elephant driver) in the world. Eventually, in 2002, Mark became so enamoured with his subject, he gave up a lucrative business selling Cartier jewellery to write books and found The Elephant Family – the sole charitable organisation dedicated to Asian elephants.

Camilla’s brother believed that if these elephants were not preserved, they would become extinct within 30 years; tigers within six years. “I am passionate about this. The Elephant Parade in London last summer made £4million, double our target. I want Edinburgh’s Jungle City to be the biggest possible success.” Marks revealed the disturbing fact that, every single day, an elephant kills a human being and a human kills an elephant. He said: “It is our fault because we humans have driven them away from their natural habitat. To cut the risk of human-elephant conflict and casualties, we are securing habitat all over Asia and purchasing corridors of land for elephants and helping local people relocate. We do this with the overwhelming support of the communities – some of whom have been plagued for years by bewildered, hungry elephants. These people have often lost crops, property – even loved ones – in human-elephant conflict.

“We make sure indigenous communities are settled safely elsewhere with good-quality housing and agricultural land. Then, we work with the State Wildlife Department to grant the corridors protected status.” I remember at that point Mark smiled and added: “Only then can we elephant-lovers breathe a sigh of relief.”

CHILDHOOD

Born and brought up in a beautiful country house in Plumpton, on the Sussex Downs, Mark lived happily as younger brother to sisters, Camilla and Annabel: “We had the best upbringing in the world and I have always loved country life. I still think of that house as home, even now, long after I left.” Despite his royal connections, Mark was an adventurer at heart. He once rode a horse through the Andes then completed the London to Sydney motor race and was shipwrecked in the Western Pacific while attempting to sail round the world. He has worked with Goldie Hawn and Julia Roberts on documentaries about life in the wild. He has also written and travelled with internationally renowned photo journalist Don McCullin.

When we met, Mark was preparing to attend the wedding of Prince William and Kate with his 16-year-old daughter, Ayesha who had just told him she didn’t want any elephants, fluffy or otherwise, in her bedroom. No doubt she was duly taken to tusk.

 

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Ian Hamilton – Stone of Destiny QC

Ian Hamilton – Stone of Destiny QC

With customary boldness, Ian Hamilton QC, has said that Westminster is “very, very frightened” at the prospect of an independent Scotland.

Hamilton is one of this nation’s treasures. In 1943, he volunteered for active service while still at school and went before a selection board.

English: Panorama of Westminster North Entrance

Panorama of Westminster North Entrance. Wikipedia)

Deemed suitable to be a commissioned pilot, he was put on deferred service until a vacancy arose. A few years ago, in an interview, he said: ““Not many people know that Bomber Command killed some 55,000 grammar schoolboys like myself. I spent nearly three years in a barrack hut, just lying about doing nothing. It made me so angry. Some 20,000 men were retained for aircrew training. We never saw any action at all while our contemporaries were being killed.  An officer told me he thought there could be another war against the Russians. I said if there was, I would be on the other side. It was the closest I ever came to mutiny.”

The mantel of being the most famous Scot in modern history still sits somewhat uneasily on the shoulders of retired QC Hamilton. His daring feat, on Christmas Day, 1950, with three fellow students, was not done for fame or fortune, but to make a point about Scotland’s true place in the brave new post-war world. And it was there in some lonely RAF base that the daring plan to steal The Stone of Destiny first took shape. A thoughtful, quiet man, obviously proud of his actions as a young man, he is unwilling to be defined by them. Neither is he the sort of person to be carried away by the rhetoric of others. Whether he likes it or not, Ian will always be known as the man who hatched a plot to steal the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey, bring it home thus reawakening the sleeping giant of Scottish Nationalism.

What led up to stealing the stone? “I was at university,” Ian said, “but had hatched the idea on deferred service. After a barrack room, university was an enormous freedom. Life suddenly exploded into meaning for me and the anger I felt gradually gathered a bit like a boil.” At that time the only guard on the stone was The British Empire. “No-one ever imagined anyone would break into the very heart of the British Empire, so, they didn’t bother guarding it.”

Over coffee in his house with stunning views over Loch Na Beithe, beneath Ben Cruachan, he told me how he and three other young Scots, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart stole the stone of destiny from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950 and brought it home to Scotland. The symbolism of what the trio did was not lost on Scots who took to the streets to celebrate, what they saw, effectively, as Scotland’s destiny released from English hands. “I suppose I was a Nationalist but I was always a Scot first. Every single political party these days is nationalist, every single party supports home rule. What is a nationalist but someone who wants extended power for their country? During the war the SNP was run by fascists Dr Robert Macintyre and Arthur Donaldson. They were dotty, completely. They continued to be dotty for about 20 years. The current official line is that we weren’t prosecuted because, to do so, they would first have to establish rightful ownership. Any lawyer knows that is nonsense. With theft you don’t have to prove ownership. Most stolen cars belong to an employer or a hire purchase company. The Lord Advocate does not make the searches to find out who owns the car. We weren’t prosecuted because the Scottish people made it clear by taking to the streets and cheering that there would be riots if we were.  It took them three months to find us. The Glasgow Police had no clues, the crime was unique so there was no modus operandi. My father gave me an alibi and because he was a strict Presbyterian, everybody believed him.”

As part of his research, Ian had withdrawn from the Mitchell Library as many books as he could find on Westminster Abbey
”The police concluded that the perpetrator must have had a deep inside knowledge of the Abbey,” he said, “They went to Glasgow University library but nobody had taken out books on the abbey. However, at the Mitchell Library, however, they discovered one person had taken out every single book.   The police arrived early one morning and asked me to go with them. I told them the law decreed they must arrest me first. But when they told me they had the other two men and that they would get all the grief, I went.  There were a lot of policemen and a chief inspector from Scotland Yard who interviewed me. He held my library slips in such a way that I could see them, whether to intimidate me or just carelessness, I’ll never know. I pre-empted him by saying my main interest was ecclesiastical architecture, true, that I had taken out all the books on Westminster Abbey I could find. It could have been a fraught morning but it wasn’t.”

When first admitted to the bar in 1954 as a young advocate, Ian took another stand and refused to swear the oath to Elizabeth 11. He was told if he refused, he couldn’t become an advocate. In the end, once again, popular opinion forced the authorities to capitulate. He said: “It was bad enough for a young person to defy the establishment,” Ian says, “but when he also forces them to climb down, he is not going to be popular.” Did his rebellion hold him back professionally? “Yes, it held me back for 2 years. Then, by chance, in 1956, someone put me into the appeal court where junior counsel opens for the appellant, with senior counsel only there to sweep up at the end. Within a week, I was offered work by the firm of solicitors who had been on the other side in the appeal court. I worked for insurance companies as well. It was challenging work and I soon built up a big practice. I should have been a writer, like, say, Alan Bennett, the award winning playwright.” In fact Ian is an award winning playwright. In 1957, he won the Foyle award for Tinkers of the World, for the best play in British repertory. The award was won the previous year by Sheila Delaney and John Osborne the following year.” Does he see himself as a writer? “Oh yes, absolutely,” he said, “I do not regard myself as a reasonably successful lawyer but as a failed writer.” In the Nineties, he also wrote his autobiography, A Touch of Treason as well as his republished and unputdownable Stone of Destiny. As an advocate, Ian had a formidable reputation

His biggest murder trials Bluebell woods, in 1986, and the murder of a prostitute, body found in exhibition centre car park, one of six or seven murders of women in the sex trade. “Because of that acquittal, Strathclyde Police became convinced there was no serial sex killer yet the modus operandi in each case was the same. The real evidence just didn’t fit my client. “I have probably done more murder trials than anyone else in Scottish criminal history. Murders tend to happen outside pubs, a phenomenon I call causing death by careless kicking. A young man goes out at night, particularly these days, armed with a knife. I tell you the same person ends up on the mortuary slab as in the High Court on a charge of murder, just because of a flurry of blows outside a pub.”

How does he think Scotland is doing?

“There is a buzz about Scotland because we are getting our self confidence back”, he said. “Nationalism is just another name for self confidence. I believe we will see independence in my time. And we will be able to solve problems like poverty here as well as abroad. In Scotland, you can discount the Tories, the Liberals will always go where there’s a little power and the only election Labour can be sure of winning is the election for a new leader.”

Does he rate politicians? “They are like anyone else although an SNP politician is more likely to be driven by ideals. People vote for two reasons, self interest and idealism. The Labour and Tory Parties have satisfied neither of these in Scotland for all these years. They are imploding on themselves.

“I have always believed independence would come. Becos when I was lying in my barrack hut and the Atlee Government was doing everything to support the British Empire’s hold over the weaker nations, I learned that people are very fond of their own country, and, as soon as you start to acknowledge your country exists, you immediately want a say in its government. Anyway, history is on our side.”

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INTERVIEW WITH GORDON WILLIAMS

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.

Cover of "Straw Dogs"

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!

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