Forgotten Authors No. 40: Francis Durbridge

Reading & Writing


My ‘Forgotten Authors’ column has sort-of restarted in the Independent On Sunday, but like good programmes on the BBC schedules, has a habit of disappearing at short notice because it’s not time-sensitive. Here’s the last one if you missed it.
40. Francis Durbridge
I suspect there are readers who not only remember Durbridge’s work but who can also whistle his theme tune, which was either ‘Coronation Scot’ by Vivian Ellis, or Rimski-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherezade’, depending on your age.
The Hull-born author and playwright was born in 1912 and died in 1998. His output was prodigious; I count at least 35 novels, 22 TV series, 7 theatrical plays and around 30 radio plays and serials. He sold his first play to the BBC at 21, and created his most enduring character, the crime novelist/ detective Paul Temple, at 26. In many ways he was the first of the popular multi-media writers, with simultaneous hits on radio, TV, film and in print. In later life he turned to the theatre with similar success. Typically, the critics sneered and the public adored him. Now, his books have completely vanished and only some of his radio plays survive, kept alive by the BBC’s desire to turn a buck and make up for wiping much of their archives.
Durbridge also used the pen name of Paul Temple, thus becoming his own character. There’s a warm glow of nostalgia around his middle-class mysteries, which usually turn on the elaborate planning and solution of a murder, with plenty of cliff-hangers. He was less interested in the whodunit so much as the will-he-get-away-with-it? because he knew this was a better way to create suspense. But are the stories any good? Actually yes; I think of him as the English Cornell Woolrich, a pulp fiction writer whose energetic style contrasted with the enervating period in which he wrote. Paul Temple is absurdly British, rather too solid and square-jawed for my liking, but he proved instantly popular and went on to become one of the most successful characters ever created for broadcasting, which makes his disappearance strange. Our detectives are more complex and beset with personal problems now. Temple’s world is filled with lost images; it’s a world of telephone exchanges, manor houses, glamorous cabaret artists, Mayfair flats, mysterious piano tuners, diamond robberies, kidnaps, clergymen and calling cards, where carrier pigeons are used to smuggle gems and the only clue to a crime is a cocktail stick. It’s easy to make fun of such plots – and why not? ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ has become a huge hit again, doing just that – but it’s a shame that his thrillers have disappeared so completely.

6 comments on “Forgotten Authors No. 40: Francis Durbridge”

  1. Evelyn Sawyer says:

    Our amateur drama group did Durbridge’s “Suddenly At Home” a few years ago, it was tremendous fun to do and completely loopy (only Abigail’s Party was more fun). Thank you for reminding me I wanted to check out more of his work!

  2. Helen Martin says:

    I know I read one of his not too many years ago and I have a vivid memory of a canal and some very nice characters, including a clergyman, if I recall. Must see if our library has any of them. Or our Bookcrossers.

  3. Agatha Hamilton says:

    Have you got Pamela Branch on your list? ‘Lion in the Cellar’ and ‘Wooden Overcoat’ particularly, both set in 1950s Chelsea? Not sure how forgotten she is, actually – books still available from U.S. (I think). Wonderfully light and funny touch.

  4. Ian says:

    I think it was Sheridan Morley who observed that Suddenly at Home was so slow it should have been renamed Gradually at Home.

    I remember seeing a Durbridge play at the Whitehall in the late eighties (can’t recall the title). It starred William Franklyn who, like Gerald Harper, Jack Hedley and Francis Matthews was a typical Durbridge actor, and had various goings-on in an opulent apartment the likes of which are necver seen outside…er…Francis Durbridge plays. Still, it wasn’t bad for all that, although the TV series or mini-series seemed more his metier. The Doll, in the seventies, was a typical effort, keeping audiences gripped for several weeks.

    I’ve only read one Durbridge book, a late Paul Temple thriller that whilst hardly gripping at least passed a merry hour or two.

  5. Reuben says:

    I’ve never read a Durbridge book, I think they’ve been out of print for years now.
    I do own all the BBC audio books though, and do get a thrill out of listening to them all (and trying to spot names and scenes he has reused through out the series), but maybe I’m easily pleased.

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