The Book of Wag

By Paul Sidey

A remarkable posthumous South London novel from a legendary editor

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Failed Film Producer Seeks Work (4)

I was all right there. For a year or so. I also learned two important lessons – as I always say: always keep in with Production and never hurry back from lunch.

But, if not a one-way ticket to Palookaville, the role of Editorial Programme Controller was not going to take me anywhere I wanted to be for a long period of time. Word slipped out that there might be vacancies for two junior editors at Penguin's editorial John Street office in Bloomsbury.

After a rather furtive afternoon meeting at an airport hotel with Dieter Pevsner, then the Chief Non-Fiction Publisher, I was offered the post I didn’t want, assisting on a list that was devoted to Sociology, Geography and the Environment, Education, Business and Accountancy, Cookery and Wine. Pevsner said he wanted an inspired amateur…

Some months later, idly checking through some columns of figures in a manuscript on Accountancy, it was an unanticipated thrill to find a series of mistakes in the basic addition. That was my only achievement. I worked for ages on a translation of a Larousse Dictionary of Wine. I don’t believe it ever saw the light of day.

But I had made the critical journey from Runway Number 1 to the London office in John Street.

The famous Penguin green-backed Crime list was being revived. I jumped ship, and got the job. A year later, we moved to new offices in Victoria’s Grosvenor Gardens. There was a bit of musical chairs, including redundancies, and now I found myself with a hardcover list as well as an editorial responsibility for a wider and really exciting list of authors. I published Angela Carter, Olivia Manning, Antonia Fraser, JG Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, Patricia Highsmith, Graham Swift and John Lahr. My first major non-fiction edit was Lahr’s famous biography of Joe Orton PRICK UP YOUR EARS, later made into a film starring Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina and Vanessa Redgrave as the redoubtable and eccentric theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay. John went on to become the New Yorker’s chief theatre reviewer for 20 years, and we have remained the closest friends to this day.

The Play list came my way too. I was up and running. I might have failed after university as a Writer/Producer/Director but at least, now, at last, I could make legitimate offers for books on theatre and cinema. In 1978, I published Charlton Heston’s THE ACTOR’S LIFE.

For our end-of-first year LSFT film 16mm exercise, my old friend Jack and I had made a fifteen-minute spoof biography of Gordon of Khartoum, complete with Intermission. Unable to find an actor at short notice, I was persuaded to take the leading role. Although the film was played for laughs, we were serious students of this genuinely extraordinary Victorian General, and also were great fans of Charlton Heston’s interpretation of the part in the 1966 feature, KHARTOUM.

Heston came to London to promote his book, and gave a bravura performance in a Guardian interview at the National Film Theatre. After the screening of the inevitable but thrilling chariot race from BEN-HUR, the great actor – Moses, El Cid to the life (even with the very obvious toupee)  – descended from the back of the auditorium to a standing ovation.

At the party afterwards, I presented him with a picture of myself in false moustache and fez from our little film, signed ‘From one Gordon to another’. He looked at me blankly. He didn’t get the joke.

But just because Charlton Heston later became a powerfully vocal spokesman for the National Riflemen Association, it did not mean he lacked a sense of humour. At our last night supper with his London agent at her house in Holland Park, he laughed so hard at one of his own jokes that the antique dining chair he was sitting in disintegrated beneath him.


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