The Book of Wag

By Paul Sidey

A remarkable posthumous South London novel from a legendary editor

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Memoir of a Failed Film Producer no. 7:For the Friends of Paul, patiently waiting for the publication of The Book of Wag (January!) here is the seventh and penultimate instalment of his 'Failed Film Producer' memoir(7)

My long stint at Hutchinson was not devoted exclusively to books about theatre and cinema. But actors and performance have remained a preoccupation. Such courage is required, such feats of memory. And these talents often include instinctive skill with the written word and the ability to tell story, where every element comes alive. On the whole, I always steered clear of anything ghosted, and had the good fortune to publish the multi-talented Sir Antony Sher; the smooth and sophisticated Alan Alda; Britain’s one man Film Industry Lord Attenborough; as well as the late ‘enfant terrible’ Ken Russell. He I commissioned to write a book about the worst excesses of home-grown cinema. The book was called FIRE OVER ENGLAND. I had always hated grey, class-obsessed, prim little Passport to Pimlico movies, and Ken, out of favour with audiences everywhere, was ready to have a go. But even though he wrote teasingly about Brief Encounter (a film that never fails to make me weep these days), Russell’s profound love of cinema transformed the initial brief. And it swept away my own silly prejudices.

Sir John Mills began his career on stage as a chorus boy. But he made his film debut in 1932, and went on to appear in more than 120 movies in a career that spanned seven decades. One of the last roles was Gus, the Theatre Cat in the film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s huge stage success Cats. Mills was famous for the scrupulous detail and range of his acting and for his utter professionalism. There were no stories of tantrums, fights, walk-outs or disappearances. And no one who has seen Great Expectations will ever forget either David Lean’s direction or Mills’s most moving central performance.

An agent friend, Andrew Lownie, asked me if I might be interested in publishing a book by the great man. I wasn’t sure. Weidenfeld & Nicolson had brought out an autobiography in 1980. But this was twenty years on… As it turned out, the proposal was that this should be a book of photographs, largely by Sir John himself, who, at aged ten, had been given a Brownie Box. I was curious.

Acquiring the rights to STILL MEMORIES involved three tests. The first was courage. Andrew Lownie drove us from London to Denham rather as though we were on a motorbike. We swerved in and out of traffic – all perfectly safe I am sure – and arrived at the Mills’ house in record time. I maintained a stiff upper lip, although my legs were wobbly.

Along with Sir John’s son Jonathan, who would be the key liaison, and a man called John Novelli, who acted as a sort of manager, we had lunch in a local restaurant. Lunch is always a test. Is there instant rapport? Will there be enough wine?

The first thing was an instruction from our host. I had to call him Johnny. This was no hardship. At this time of his long life, he was fairly deaf, and almost blind. But you could not tell, because he sparkled.

Afterwards, arm in arm, we walked round the ground floor of his large country house and into the grounds, where he showed me the swimming pool he still used in the summer months. Then, I was invited upstairs. We halted on a landing. One wall was covered in photo portraits, some, but not all taken, by Johnny. I spotted Laurence Olivier and Rex Harrison, Stewart Granger too. I cannot say for certain if this was a formal test, but Johnny asked if I could identify them all. Well I could. Except for one. A man with a thin moustache. I knew the face, but could not reach in to my memory for the name. ‘Adolphe Menjou,’ said Johnny. Ah oui…

I must have done something right. By the time I got back to the office, we had a deal.


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