Published on January 4th, 2016 | by voxx0
Ted Lewis, Master of the Noir Novel
Barton upon Humber novelist Ted Lewis is best known for writing the account upon which the 1970 seminal noir crime film, Get Carter, was based. In it, Jack Carter, played superbly by Michael Caine, travels to his home town of Scunthorpe to discover and ultimately avenge the death of his brother who had died at the hands of gangsters. Director Mike Hodges controversially decided to write the screenplay and use Newcastle as the location instead of the North Lincolnshire setting of the original Jack’s Return Home despite Lewis’s graphic description of our steel town, its furnaces and eerie industrial landscape.
Redressing that geographical selection is one task that Barton’s Ted Lewis Group relishes as it identifies Ted’s 1950’s local ‘Riverbank Boys’ experiences as Ted’s major influences. Polished, as they were, by regular viewings of B action movies at Barton’s (then) two cinemas, they repeatedly emerge graphically in many guises throughout the writer’s 9 novels. In consequence, visitors to Barton can now pick up a Ted Lewis Trail at all usual tourist outlets. There are guided tours and also an arial view of haunts that so influenced the young aspiring novelist. Visitors can even wander freely amongst overgrown kilns of the long deserted river bank Adamant Cement Works, the backdrop where Carter finally lost his life and scenes in Plender his third book which was also made into a film.
Lewis was not a one trick pony. Sketching from a very young age following childhood illness he developed as a talented graphic artist, training at Hull College of Arts and Crafts, where he was also able to develop his passion for Jazz. Taught piano at an early age, he developed a talent for improvisation and playing by ear encouraged by an eclectic record collection. Whilst his piano style favoured Oscar Peterson, for some years he played with the Unity Jazz Band in Hull and East Yorkshire. Recently the Ted Lewis Group’s Barton Jazz Festival brought together his Hull trombonist, Ron Burnett of the York Mardi Gras Band as well as former Riverbank Boys Trombonist, Alan Dickinson, Alan’s brother John and Group member, Nick Turner. Fond memories of acting out gangster movies and crafty Woodbines on the Old Cements!
After qualifying in Hull, Ted travelled south in 1961 to find work as a journeyman illustrator. The pinnacle of Ted’s career was, when living in London, an appointment on the classic Beatles’ animated film, Yellow Submarine on which he co-ordinated its images as animation clean up supervisor.
Ted’s first novel published while he was still working as a graphic artist was All the Day Long and All the Night Through, an account of Lewis’s student life and loves containing fascinating accounts of local living persons and places that are even now identifiable. He had been taught English at Barton Grammar School by prolific poet and writer Henry Treece who had studied alongside Dylan Thomas. Although a well-respected writer of children’s literature, Treece was also a fan of the hard boiled novels of Raymond Chandler much to the delight of Lewis and his action seeking schoolmates. Treece’s instinctively recognised and encouraged an early talent in his otherwise rebellious pupil to demonstrable effect.
London life, particularly the fleshpots of Soho, fascinated Ted, His love of dark, sometimes violent subjects epitomised in his all-time favourite film, Shack Out at 501, melded with the lives of real gangsters and corrupt police strutting their stuff in the capital. Jack’s Return Home, Lewis’s second novel was pounced on for its film rights in an era of more explicit and realistic material and became an icon. From then on, Lewis no longer needed to rely on income as a graphic artist although he delighted in presenting friends with pithy sketches.
More novels and success continued for Ted with further Jack Carter novels but his Soho lifestyle was not conducive to a stable family life, good financial management or sobriety. From his idealised setting of a Suffolk farmhouse, Ted was back in Barton in 1974 and stayed in the area for the rest of his life finally dying from alcohol related illness at 42 in 1984.
Whilst in Barton Ted still managed to write Jack Carter and other novels although his lack of discipline was renowned as deadlines disappeared into the early hours of the morning, distracted by the camaradie of the evening. His second semi-autobiographical novel, ’The Rabbit’ was also published in this time and again recounts a vivid tale of 1950s Barton, again drawing on characters and events from real lives, a treasure for locals. He also wrote TV scripts for Z Cars. His childhood friend, John Dickinson, was now a GP in Barton and a new friend and Dr John Ball, partner in the same group practice, commissioned Ted to undertake sketches of Old Barton which are now preserved at Wilderspin National School.
Ted’s final novel in 1980 was GBH, typically dark but also whimsical containing humorous episodes set in Mablethorpe but drawing characterisations from wider underworld connections. This and most of Lewis’s crime noir novels are now reprinted and available online, a fulfilment of one item on the Group’s original wish list.
Lincolnshire is justly proud of Ted Lewis who was arguably the first UK novelist to develop the noir fictional genre. However he is still fondly remembered as the good-looking youth sporting a signature Billy Fury quiff, pint on the piano, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, brooding good looks dangerously attractive to the girls as he noodled jazz riffs into the late night.
Ted Lewis, Novelist, Artist, Musician, Hard or Soft Boiled by Monty Martin is available at Barton tourist outlets and online.
Ted Lewis Group is at 35, High Street, Barton upon Humber, firstname.lastname@example.org