Editors note: You can hear Jack's Return Home on Radio 4 on Tuesday 28 August 2012, 23:00. Here, Nick Perry writes about the dramatisation of the 1970s crime novel by Ted Lewis that became the film Get Carter. PMcD
You've probably seen Michael Caine in Get Carter but it's less likely that you've read the novel it's based on.
Ted Lewis's classic British thriller Jack's Return Home is actually set in North Lincolnshire. For the movie, writer-director Mike Hodges switched the action to Tyneside. You'll remember the scene at Newcastle Racecourse, and Alf Roberts out of Coronation St being chucked off the Trinity Square multi-storey car park, and the Wallsend ferry shootout. For the radio adaptation we decided to take the story back to its original setting, an unnamed town near Doncaster, often supposed to be Scunthorpe. Actually it's an amalgam of Scunthorpe with various fictional elements, a bit like Hardy's Wessex, but with fewer smocks.
By "we" I mean me and the serial's producers Toby Swift and Sasha Yevtushenko. We liked the deadpan delivery of the book's main character, Jack Carter, as he relates the often brutal events of the story. We wanted to make use of that tone by having Jack's first person narrative woven through the scenes in a classically Chandleresque way.
Hugo Speer as Jack nails it with a performance of great precision and a surprising degree of warmth - his character is, after all, a professional killer. His Jack seethes at the mean-spiritedness of what he calls the New Gentry - people who have risen to the top of provincial society on the back of the post-war boom.
Their town, their existence, is rainswept, humdrum, untouched, at the fag end of the '60s, by the summer of love, and governed by corrupt ganglords. We wanted to capture something of the period flavour, partly through resonances in the dialogue but also through our choice of soundtrack music. We looked for British records mainly from 1970, the year the action takes place, with the accent on less well-known acts: Badfinger not Beatles, Groundhogs not Stones. The slightly off-centre musical choices reflect Jack's view of his hometown as a place out of step with the times.
In one respect we did have an advantage over the movie. Hugo Speer is a son of Yorkshire and so had little or no discernible trouble with the accent. By contrast, in Get Carter, Jack comes home to Newcastle after an eight year absence, but when he opens his gob he sounds just like Michael Caine. Now, that doesn't stop us enjoying the movie, and that alone tells us a lot about verisimilitude in drama. We can get along without it very well.
But what helps us to accept this anomaly in the film version is the way that Jack's connection to the place is very much played down. In particular his past life with his brother - such a large part of the book - is pretty much passed over in silence. It's a missing dimension which, as it unfolds, adds emotional complexity and a couple of major twists to the plot, which we were able to reinstate for the radio version.
And then there's the ending. I love films that don't end until the last few frames, and Get Carter is a classic example of this. What can I tell you about the ending of the radio version without giving anything away? Nothing. Except to say that the ending of the film is not quite the same as the ending of the book, and the ending of the radio version is not quite the same as either of them.
Ted Lewis died in 1982, aged just 42. He wrote nine novels, all of which - with the sole exception of Jack's Return Home (and even that is marketed as Get Carter) - are currently and unjustly out of print. His work is, unaccountably, not mentioned in numerous supposedly comprehensive surveys of British crime fiction and yet his best writing deserves to be ranked alongside the best of anyone working in the genre in the past 50 years. Check him out.
Nick Perry 14th August 2012