Updated: May 10, 2020
“If Ted Lewis had been born in France or America… he would occupy a place similar to Jim Thompson,
Raymond Chandler and the rest of the hard boiled school of writers. I suspect this will never be the case in Britain. The nation is still incapable of facing the deep malaise that blights it from top to bottom. And let’s face it, British literary culture, for what it’s worth, is largely middle class.”
The words of Mike Hodges, interviewed by crime writer Nick Triplow in his biography of Ted Lewis, get to the heart of a complex and fascinating story that fills in a gap in our cultural history. Getting Carter is the story of the man who wrote the book that became the iconic gangster movie Get Carter, and which — as this book argues very convincingly — instigated Brit noir and changed the face of crime drama.
That claim is no mere hype. Hodges is just one of the names who acknowledges the debt to Lewis. Derek Raymond, David Peace, Shane Meadows, Sean O’Brien, Denis Lehane, Eric Barbier and Ben Myers are among those who acknowledge the influence of Lewis. And you can draw a line from Lewis’s work that runs through films such as The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa and Dead Man’s Shoes, TV’s Z Cars and The Sweeney to today’s slick but still gritty and challenging dramas such as Line of Duty, the novels of writers such as Jake Arnott, Cathi Unsworth, Martyn Waites, John King and Triplow’s own Frank’s Wild Years, a tale of betrayal and dead ends set in the shabby half light of the south London underworld.
Like the best crime fiction, Triplow’s book tells the tale behind the story, opening up the space between the lines to show us the creases and imperfections in the face a society likes to present. Triplow’s approach is also firmly rooted in an understanding of the cultural importance of class and that genuine feel for working class culture allows the concept to suffuse every page without ever turning into polemic.
As with the best of noir, the idea of the outsider is also central, and in many ways Lewis himself was a classic outsider, one caught up in the changes shaking up post-war Britain.
Lewis was born in Stretford, Manchester in 1940, but in 1946 his family moved to Barton-upon-Humber in North Lincolnshire, a market town Triplow — who also lives there — describes as small and insular. A bout of rheumatic fever led to a lengthy period of recuperation during which Lewis developed an interest in books, comics and radio thrillers — and in particular hard-boiled crime capers, often with an American flavour. This enabled him to build up a body of knowledge unusual in kids from his background, something that gave him some kudos as he emerged from his recovery and began to kick around with the local kids. That self-educated appreciation of language and creativity got him into grammar school, and Lewis’s first brushes with authority.
The school’s headmaster was a strict disciplinarian and, taking exception to what he saw as Lewis’s insolence, slapped the boy across the face so hard Lewis wet himself in front of his peers. It was an incident that was to shape his attitude to authority and power, and to the abuse of power. While Lewis hated school, his interest in books and films and popular culture fed into a creative potential that was recognised by the school’s head of English Henry Treece, himself an accomplished poet and novelist and one of the more enlightened members of staff. It was Treece who encouraged Lewis to develop his talents, and who persuaded Lewis’s father — who was at first opposed to the idea — to let Lewis go to art school in Hull.
So in 1956 Lewis began a journey familiar to anyone who understands the history of Britain in the 20th century. A working class boy moving into middle class territory, a kid from a small town moving to the bright lights of the city, dealing with new terrain and new opportunity. From our vantage point of now, of course, we can also appreciate one of the central themes not so apparent at the time. Because British cultural definitions of class are so deeply intertwined with the notion of intelligence — working class knowledge is not intelligent, while middle class knowledge is. It’s nothing new, of course, that those in positions of influence attempt to define what real intelligence is. Think of the monastery’s dominance of the printed word in the middle ages. But understanding this is key to understanding why Lewis is important — and what a loaded word that is — and to why Mike Hodges’s observation opens this review.
In Hull, Lewis plunges into the emerging jazz culture, expands his appreciation of film and storytelling, hones his talents as an illustrator, and develops what will become a damaging relationship with women and drink. There’s an unflinching portrayal of Lewis the man that shows us an individual who, while capable of great charm, could be deeply unpleasant. Using the phrase ‘a man of his time’ may prompt accusations of euphemistically writing off behaviour that would now be beyond the pale, but judging Lewis by today’s standards would also betray a failure to appreciate that he was just that, a man of his time. Lewis’s own recognition of his flaws informed his creation of characters who were flawed and conflicted, an essential ingredient of the noir thriller.
At around the time he began work as an illustrator, two films came out that proved key influences. Val Guest’s Hell is a City and Joseph Losey’s The Criminal signalled the beginning of a move away from the traditional crime yarn featuring officers and spivs and pre-war ideas of law and order. “”For the first time since Brighton Rock,” says Triplow, “here was a credible British crime/noir aesthetic rooted in working class and underclass experience.” In The Criminal, Stanley Baker pioneered the emergence of the British anti-hero, the kind of character that “didn’t care if you liked them or not” as Triplow says.
All the time. Lewis was writing, and his break came when his novel All the Way Home and All Through The Night was published in 1965. It was a semi-autobiographical tale of love, friendship, doubt and disillusion, and can be placed in the same category as the novels by writers such as Stan Barstow, John Braine and Alan Sillitoe.
Lewis, by now the archetypal Sixties cool media mover in black polo neck, corduroy jacket and desert boots, left the world of advertising illustration soon after the novel was published, taking on a job at Soho-based animators Halas and Batchelor to work on animating episodes of the Lone Ranger cartoon series. It was a gruelling job, but Lewis’s ability to deliver landed him a job on the production team of Yellow Submarine, which at the height of the production period had 200 animators working on it.
By now Lewis was splitting his time between London and rural Essex, largely in the pubs when not in the office. His London drinking exploits placed him firmly in the period’s mix of edgy characters, chancers, gangsters and refugees from the crumbling edges of the class system that defined the London scene, and his fascination with the world of crime deepened.
One of life’s bittersweet lessons is that it is not enough to be talented, you have to be talented in the right place at the right time. Lewis’s novel Jack’s Return Home was just that, a hard-boiled crime thriller that tapped into the emerging genre of socially-realistic, regional, working class storytelling at the same time as the trial of the Kray twins and their associates peaked. Triplow calls the book “the most important crime novel of its era”, and, he says, the novel itself bears reading as a separate work to the film it became, Get Carter.
The book was published in 1970, a direct descendant of Brighton Rock and James’s Curtis’s 1938 classic They Drive By Night. But the book attracted criticism as well as acclaim. The language, especially, was uncompromising, but the criticism — as is the way when the middle classes attempt to assert their supposedly natural superiority — maintained that Lewis was wrong rather than different. He was “ungrammatical”, he “couldn’t write English”. ’Course, squire.
There’s a great little piece of trivia buried in the section about the novel. The title Jack’s Return Home was borrowed from an opening lament delivered by Hattie Jacques in a 1958 episode of Hancock’s Half Hour.
The film rights were soon snapped up by Michael Klinger, a character who himself could have been a product of a crime yarn. A Jewish, Soho-born son of a Polish tailor, he graduated from selling hot dogs and ice cream to be a market trader on the streets of Soho and then owner of a strip club and blue comics business. His initial forays into film were low-budget sexploitation flicks and his background meant he knew the life Lewis depicted. Klinger commissioned Mike Hodges, a documentary filmmaker with a taste for a crime yarn and social commentary, to work up the film version of Lewis’s book. Hodges shifted the northern parts of the story from Scunthorpe to Newcastle, ground he was more familiar with, but Lewis’s tale remains largely intact.
Another piece of trivia, Michael Caine’s iconic line about his adversary being a big man but out of shape, is actually a misquote. In the book it’s “You’re a big bloke — you’re in good shape, but I know more than you do”, and in the film it’s “You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full-time job.” Caine’s portrayal of Jack Carter as a stylish, emotionally tortured character extends far beyond the surface depiction of a screen villain, and Lewis said after the film was made that Caine was “ideal casting”. Caine, though, said years later that he had no great affection for the film and “couldn’t stand being out in the fucking rain”, according to Brian Case, who interviewed him about the role on several occasions.
The film was well-received, although a few reviewers couldn’t resist commenting on it being “morally dubious”, betraying an inability to recognise that the role of the crime yarn had moved on from simple morality tale to something far more complex. And that’s why Get Carter retains its attraction, even after all these years. And why the story of Lewis’s life makes such an absorbing read.
There’s plenty about his flawed personal life and the damage he did to those around him without the tale descending into judgement or exposé, and plenty more about Lewis’s later work. In another familiar twist, Lewis expended much effort trying to reproduce the success of Jack’s Return Home, largely without the same success. There’s also a ill-fated dalliance with writing scripts for Dr Who, some seminal episodes of Z Cars that helped change the standard TV cop show forever, and Lewis’s resentment that The Sweeney was rooted so deeply in what he did without him ever being asked to write for it. Triplow’s book also encourages the reader to search out Lewis’s later novels, particularly GBH, described by The Washington Post as “”one of the most coldly brilliant crime novels you will ever read” and by Triplow as “as fundamental a commentary on the human experience as Camus’s The Stranger”.
Lewis died on 27 March 1982. His heart was infected, he had chronic pancreatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. His health had been declining for some years, and he had moved back home with his mother after alienating almost everyone close to him. He was arguably the daddy of British noir and, says Triplow “reached further and said more in a handful of novels than most writers ever accomplish”. To call his life story important risks the charge of pretension, hints at the fall into that very ranking of culture’s worth that relegated him to the margins for so long. Let’s just say Lewis’s contribution to our culture deserves greater appreciation. Nick Triplow’s book should help.