Good popular writers are hired to be chameleons. The downside is that they go unnoticed. They write short films, books and stage plays sponsored by products, or performance pieces to show off actors’ ranges. One such fellow was John Burke, who had the oddest of all writers’ jobs – he’d take an original film and return it to a source it never had as a novel.
In the past, not all authors were determined to produce a roman a clef that would make sense of their lives. Many were simply available for hire and would turn their hand to just about anything. This was not an easy way to make a living, because the writer’s prose was not allowed to possess its own identity. Jobbing authors were required to submerge their stylistic quirks in the service of the product.
Occasionally, though, an author would come along who managed to combine both skills. Sussex-born John Burke (b. 1922) worked under at least ten names, also writing Victorian Gothic romances with his wife Jean beneath the pseudonym Harriet Esmond, but he specialised in the lost art of film novelisation. His paperbacks for Hammer each contain four condensed movie novelisations and are now highly collectable. His backlist reads like a summation of postwar pop culture.
He wrote versions of ‘Look Back In Anger’ (which must have been odd for John Osbourne), ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ (likewise for Roald Dahl), ‘The Entertainer’, ‘The Angry Silence’, ‘The Jokers’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Privilege’ and ‘Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors’, before turning to TV spinoffs like ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘UFO’. Often, his narratives feel more structurally cohesive than the works upon which they were based, and have a clearly identifiable style that marks them with the author’s imprimatur.
But Burke has another identity, as an excellent short story writer. Some of his most chilling works were collected in a single volume by Ash Tree Press, entitled ‘We’ve Been Waiting For You’. He produced books on the history of England, its counties and its music, science fiction novels and thrillers, and television series. Burke was not an innovator but a safe pair of hands. It kept him in work for a lifetime.