The Guardian (14/Jul/2003) - Obituary: Winston Graham
(c) The Guardian (14/Jul/2003)
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Marnie (1964), Royal Albert Hall, London, Sean Connery, Winston Graham
The author of the Poldark series and Marnie, he kept his readership by always being ahead of his time
When Alfred Hitchcock made his 1964 film of Marnie, the novel by Winston Graham, who has died aged 93, he was wary of the antihero who blackmails for sex a beautiful girl he knows is guilty of kleptomania. Hitchcock wheeled the dark, tall and handsome Sean Connery into the part, gaining glamour and losing some plausibility: would such a man have to resort to such manipulation?
Graham himself had made the twisted sexual blackmailer less attractive and more darkly believable, a piece of decidedly contemporary noir. With his elf's face and elfin eye for a slightly off-centre character - villain or hero - Winston Graham was a popular novelist who kept his readership because he was arguably, in terms of emotional flavour, always ahead of his time.
He wrote over 40 novels, which were translated into 17 languages. The television series made from his dozen Poldark historical novels were watched by 15 million people. In Cornwall, churches altered the times of their services to avoid clashing with Poldark.
On video, the stories were the most popular historical series ever, after Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice. They made Graham a fortune, though even at the height of their popularity - they were first shown from 1975 to 1977 - he himself remained a strangely (by modern standards) unknown figure.
He rejoiced in being described as "the most successful unknown novelist in England", and gave few interviews. But this was a defensive professional ploy, and evidence of a conventional upper middle-class mistrust of self-hype, rather than a mark of reclusiveness: he did in fact enjoy being a member of several London clubs.
His creation of Ross Poldark, Cornish mine-owner and saturnine adventurer, is likely to be the factor which keeps him in the literary canon. Graham always maintained that he had never received a rejection slip, but his first novel, published when he was 23, The House With the Stained Glass Windows (a title typical of his flair for the off-centre) made him only £29, and his first 16 novels, written in longhand when he was still a very young man, were also not successful; he had to be subsidised by his widowed mother. But in 1945, Ross Poldark: A Novel Of Cornwall 1783-1787, was published, the first of the sequence, all bestsellers.
Ross Poldark was created as a hero with shades of Cornish barrenness and darkness, including an unpredictable wife of lower social class, Demelza. Graham had every reason to be aware of social class - his father was a tea importer, his mother was a member of the Mawdsley family, who ran a firm of grocery wholesalers, and his great uncle, James Mawdsley, contested the two-seat Oldham constituency for the Conservative party alongside Winston Churchill.
The Liberals won in each case; Churchill joined that party, and the author's mother, a keen Liberal, later insisted on calling her second son Winston. Though he did not go to public school himself, Graham sent his son, Andrew, to Charterhouse and saw him become, in 2001, Master of Balliol, which the author jokingly regarded as being "next door to being God".
But in his monetarily leaner youth it was the Cornish terrain that created the atmosphere and character of the Poldark saga; Graham experienced it at first hand through a family tragedy. Though the family came from Manchester, where Winston was born, and expected to go to Manchester grammar school, it moved to Cornwall when his father was disabled by a stroke at the age of 54. Graham was later to ask himself what he could possibly have written about if the family had moved instead to Southport.
As it was, his dark-tinged imagination had plenty of places to roam in Cornwall. For the 2002 Poldark novel, Bella Poldark, which he said was to be the last, he maintained his habits of always writing with a fountain pen and always doing hands-on research. Bella was an opera singer, and though Graham and his wife Jean used to go to Vienna for the opera every year, he knew his familiarity with the subject was superficial. So he persuaded English National Opera to let him watch a rehearsal of Rossini's The Barber of Seville, which was to feature in the novel.
This was typical of his preparation. For his boxing novel Angell, Pearl And Little God (1970), he went into a pub on the Old Kent Road, met the boxer Henry Cooper and the promoter Mike Barrett, heard managers talking about "purses" and sat in the front row of a boxing match at the Albert Hall. When he wanted to know about safebreakers, he took one to a smart restaurant.
His relations with the film industry were guarded. As a young author, his first whiff of serious money came from his film script of Take My Life (1947), a J Arthur Rank production. Rank provided £150 a week, a flat and a Rolls-Royce with chauffeur. He was delighted when Rank seemed to tire of him, and hastily returned to Cornwall, having, as he saw it, avoided the pitfall that claimed so many novelists who wrote for the films: writing future novels as if they were scripts. His next novel, in 1949, was the historical Cordelia, which gratifyingly sold 560,000 in hardback, but was deemed by him to be safely unfilmable.
His relations with high tax avoidance were similarly guarded. At one stage, through some arcane manoeuvre, he lived in France and paid tax in Switzerland, but came back home because, as he put it, he preferred to be taxed to death than bored to death.
He braved the public stage as chairman of the Society of Authors from 1967 to 1969 and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1983 he was appointed OBE. But always he was a real writer of the old school, above all interested in the job itself, and steadily productive to the end - his autobiography is due to appear in September.
In 1939 he married Jean Williamson, who died in 1992. He is survived by their son and daughter.