My search for Ted Lewis, the hard-boiled, hard-drinking author behind Get Carter

·9-min read
Caine with Lewis on the set of Get Carter - Alamy
Caine with Lewis on the set of Get Carter - Alamy

Since his death in 1982 at the age of 42, Ted Lewis’s gritty synthesis of American hard-boiled and social realist writing has become an elemental influence in contemporary British crime fiction. Traces evident in the work of Ian Rankin, David Peace and others link directly to the aesthetic Lewis pioneered in Jack’s Return Home, found again in Plender and Jack Carter’s Law, and took to new levels of intensity in his final novel, GBH.

I came across the Lewis story 15 years ago, made curious by a chance conversation about a “local lad who wrote that film with Michael Caine”. I dug deeper and discovered a narrative as compelling as any noir: a good-looking, jazz-loving, cinema-obsessed kid from a small town on the banks of the Humber who’d written his way into history then drank his way out again.

Lewis was elusive. Other than published work and the memories of those who knew him, there are few readily accessible sources. No formal archive or broadcast media, only a few pieces written about him for magazines. He didn’t keep a diary and most of his papers and personal documents were destroyed after his mother’s death in 1990. People entered and left his life with regularity; few can claim to have been close for any length of time and many of those are gone. With the exception of Get Carter, his books were out of print. Second-hand editions were hard to come by and expensive.

I set the project aside more than once, only for a scrap of information or obscure lead to bring it into focus. Finally, after a decade of research and writing, Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir was published in 2017. I reconciled the complexities, mysteries and half-remembered fragments and told the story as I’d found it. I made the case for Lewis’s importance as an original voice in British crime and noir fiction; “an example”, as Derek Raymond wrote, “of how dangerous writing can really be when it is done properly”.

In May this year, as the BFI’s promotional campaign for the restored Get Carter kicked into gear, I was contacted by blogger and Lewis fan, Mark Ramsden. Had I seen the first edition Jack’s Return Home for sale on Abe Books? I hadn’t and wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway – first editions invariably sell for over £500. In that case, had I seen the seller’s handwritten essay by Ted Lewis, telling the story of how he came to write the novel? I was back on the Lewis trail. One last time.

Michael Caine and Ian Hendry in Get Carter, the film adapted from Lewis’s novel - Alamy
Michael Caine and Ian Hendry in Get Carter, the film adapted from Lewis’s novel - Alamy

I exchanged emails with bookseller, John Atkinson. John invited me to view the manuscript at his rare and first editions bookshop on Harrogate’s Royal Parade. He’d bought the collection from another rare book dealer and knew little about its provenance. Only that the original seller claimed to have “a connection” with Mike Hodges. No one else had set eyes on the nine hand-written foolscap pages and assorted notebook photocopies, decorated with typical Lewis doodles and crossings-out in looped blue biro. The papers came with a photocopy of the printed article, circa 1975. Oddly, the magazine’s title, subhead and by-line are missing.

In the manuscript, Lewis names the inspirations for Jack’s Return Home as American B-movies of the 1940s and 50s and the novels of Raymond Chandler. He credits his grammar school English teacher, the novelist and poet, Henry Treece, with feeding his interest, recalling how Treece had lent him Chandler’s novels:

I loved every word of them. I’d read Hemingway, but at that time Chandler seemed to me to be vastly superior. Chandler was more subtle, less sentimental, wittier. There was also a satisfying morality to his work…

In Getting Carter I charted the evolution of the character of Jack Carter – origins as far as Dickens’s Bill Sikes – and the development of what would become Jack’s Return Home, exploring how Lewis crafted conscious and subconscious fragments of lived experience, history, anecdote and fiction, drawing inspiration from his own life and observations in the pubs and clubs of Soho where he worked and drank.

Britt Ekland as Anna in Get Carter - Alamy
Britt Ekland as Anna in Get Carter - Alamy

By summer 1968, Lewis was in the final stages of work as animation clean-up supervisor on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Married, with a young daughter and bills to pay, he was desperate for new ideas. He describes the concept for the book as having come from “absolutely nowhere”, beginning, as Carter’s story begins, with a train journey:

I was sitting on a train, looking out of the window at the idyllic rural landscape, when I thought, for no good reason whatsoever: “Suppose I wrote a book about this criminal whose brother is murdered, and the criminal sets about finding the murderer, one of his own fraternity, perhaps even an acquaintance, or even his own boss.” The idea, a simple, unoriginal sort of idea, exhilarated me enormously, to write an English version of the American crime novel.

Once he’d arrived at the premise – “A villain goes back to his home town to find his brother’s killers” – Lewis worked through title options: Weekend in Scunthorpe; Red Weekend (a nod to Dashiell Hammett); Funeral in Scunthorpe; Return of the Gangster; The Gangster’s Return.

Pages from Ted Lewis's Get Cater manuscript - Nick Triplow
Pages from Ted Lewis's Get Cater manuscript - Nick Triplow

In these unworkable titles – he calls them “ludicrous” – Lewis set the terms for Carter’s story. It centres on a funeral; a gangster returns home to the Lincolnshire steel town of Scunthorpe; and the story takes place over a weekend. He settled on Jack’s Return Home towards the end of writing the book, a “sort of ironic joke” at the expense of Victorian melodramas in which an errant son comes home to save the day. (He doesn’t mention that it also featured prominently in an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, The East Cheam Drama Festival, broadcast in April 1958.)

Title aside, Lewis sensed he was onto something. He wrote the first third of the book and sent it to his agent, John Johnson.

… I showed what I’d written to the man who was then my agent, who, to say the least, was unimpressed by what I’d written and suggested I abandon the project.

The rejection left him reeling. Enter literary agent, Toby Eady. Son of the novelist Mary Wesley, Eady had worked in banking before becoming an agent in 1966. Enthused by emerging ideas in language and culture, he set up Toby Eady Associates as an independent agency in 1968. Lewis’s timing was inspired.

By accident, I met another agent who asked to see what I’d written so I sent him what I had. He phoned immediately after reading it full of enthusiasm and asking to read the rest. I promised him the finished book inside three weeks. I must have been mad. My wife and I sat down and worked out the remainder of the book and somehow I managed to finish it inside the three weeks.

Unsung hero: Ted Lewis at his typewriter in 1971 - Alamy
Unsung hero: Ted Lewis at his typewriter in 1971 - Alamy

Interviewed for Getting Carter, Lewis’s wife, Jo, remembered working on the manuscript. “I couldn’t wait to type each new page. I’d snatch them from him as soon as they were finished.” Lewis was adamant nothing should be changed. He would read the typed versions and ask Jo’s opinion, but never rewrite. “He thought it would suffer if it was overworked, if it wasn’t spontaneous.” Lewis attributes the energy of Jack’s Return Home to the impending deadline:

I’m sure that final two-thirds of the book benefitted from the pressure I was under. I think pressure sharpens a writer’s mind and unlocks compartments in his mind that might stay closed without the pressure turning the key. I usually find that when there’s no-one breathing down my neck my mind stays its usual sluggish self and I produce material to match.

By the time Jack’s Return Home was published in March 1970, the rights had been acquired by film producer, Michael Klinger, for £10,000. Klinger had been searching for something home-grown, gritty and honest for a British crime thriller. He sent first time feature director, Mike Hodges, a proof of Lewis’s novel with a note asking him to “consider turning the book into a film that he might like to handle”.

With Michael Caine agreeing to take on the role of Jack Carter, Klinger convinced MGM to back the project and was able to raise the necessary funds. Hodges and Klinger scouted locations, settling on Newcastle, Gateshead, Belmont and Blackhall. These were places Hodges knew well, some 200 miles north of Lewis’s Scunthorpe. Filming took place between July and September 1970. From the point at which Klinger received the material, Get Carter was in the can in 37 weeks. It was released in March 1971. Lewis’s life would never be the same again.

Caine’s turn as Carter remains one of his most well-known and celebrated roles - Alamy
Caine’s turn as Carter remains one of his most well-known and celebrated roles - Alamy

The manuscript ends with Lewis reflecting on the nature of artistic vulnerability, though clearly grounded in his own experience. Writing at a time when his dependence on alcohol had tipped into full-blown alcoholism, in part a result of the struggle to repeat the success of Jack’s Return Home, the closing insights are telling:

…this is what any creative artist does … he publicly lays it on the line that he has intended people to judge him by offering something he’s created: setting up himself, through his work, to be knocked down or accepted the way he would like himself to be accepted. If he fails, his failure is public. Although the presentation of himself is a willing act, it is nevertheless, for the artist, an anxious and frightening process.

It was a process Lewis drove himself to repeat several times until his final novel, GBH, was published to a largely indifferent reception in 1980.

I didn’t set out to dedicate 15 years to a relatively obscure British crime novelist – I’ve just written a novel called Never Walk Away, which is as fitting a description as any. The manuscript feels like Lewis having the last word. With Mike Hodges, Michael Caine, and Michael Klinger’s masterful film receiving fully-deserved reappraisal, it’s a timely reminder that without Ted Lewis’s unflinching ability to combine tawdry underworld violence with the reek of the authentically domestic, the brutal and banal, dark and psychological, there would be no Jack Carter and then the course of British crime in film and fiction looks very different indeed.

Nick Triplow is the author of Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir, published by No Exit Press. To order your copy for £6.66, visit Telegraph Books.

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