The Anti-hero’s Journey
The Work and Life of Alan Sharp
(Carl MacDougall, writer and former President of Scottish PEN)
«If Alan Sharp’s career was a unique one within modern Scottish culture, it has proved an underexplored one within modern Scottish Cultural Studies. "The Anti-hero’s Journey" remedies that collective oversight by making a compelling and critically informed case for both the individual singularity and international significance of Sharp’s creative voice.»
(Jonathan Murray, Senior Lecturer in Film and Visual Culture, Edinburgh College of Art)
Alan Sharp was Scotland’s greatest screenwriter and one of its most important transnational writers. The adopted son of a Greenock shipyard worker, he became a bestselling novelist, a leading playwright, a record-breaking Hollywood screenwriter and the central figure of a new Scottish national film industry. Today, however, his books, television plays and screenplays are forgotten.
This study seeks to restore his work to the prominence it deserves. Including previously unknown work available only now in the Alan Sharp papers collection in the University of Dundee Archive, it traces the life’s work of a man who made a unique contribution to Scottish culture and considers his themes, especially his awareness of landscape and his use of the ambivalent male protagonist, the anti-hero.
Working in exile but consistently «coming back» to his homeland, Sharp wrote from a point of view which allowed him to love Scottish culture without having to pamper it and gave him the detachment to connect it with others. «The Anti-hero’s Journey» seeks to reposition him as a vital component of Scottish cultural studies from the 1960s into the twenty-first century and proposes that he should be re-evaluated as a major contributor to contemporary transnational Scottish cultural history.
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- List of Figures
- Chapter 1. Early Novels (1965–7)
- Chapter 2. British Radio and Television Plays (1962–71)
- Chapter 3. Westerns (1971–4)
- Chapter 4. Noir Films (1971–5)
- Chapter 5. American Television Dramas (1975–92)
- Chapter 6. Return: Scottish Screenplays (1993–2010)
- Chapter 7. South Sea Tales (1997–2009)
- Chapter 8. Alan Sharp Papers
- Series Index
This book came about because of my lifelong interest in the work of Alan Sharp, whose novels I first read in the late 1970s. By then he was long gone from Scotland, but as time passed, I kept looking out for his name, and I was glad when, in the 1990s, he reappeared in Scotland to help make the film Rob Roy. I followed his career from then on until his death.
Parts of this study rework texts I have already published. I am indebted to other scholars for help with the rest. Alan Riach offered me guidance and copies of Sharp’s interview with Tom Shields (1992) and his obituary in The Herald (Damer, 2013). He also loaned me his copy of the Night Moves novelization (Sharp, 1975, Corgi). Gerard Carruthers was also encouraging and helpful. The work of both these academics, and of Ian Brown, provided me with much information about Sharp’s work. Gerry was also supportive in my role as editorial assistant for the forthcoming edition of A Green Tree in Gedde from the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. Matthew Gear shared his research notes and interview material for his book, Moseby Confidential: Arthur Penn’s Night Moves and the Rise of Neo-Noir (Gear, 2019). I doubt if this study could have been completed without his generosity. Similarly, River Seager loaned me a copy of his doctoral thesis, Knights in Tarnished Armour: Masculine Genre Archetypes Subverted in the Literature and Screenwriting of Alan Sharp (Seager, University of Dundee, 2021), and also his master’s dissertation, both of which helped me investigate the material in Sharp’s archive. Carl Lavery offered advice on ecology and performance theory, which greatly assisted me in unpacking Sharp’s use of atmosphere, environment and mobility in his work. Jack Lyons and Matthew Gear offered perceptive and searching criticism. The playwright Peter McDougall was generous with his memories of Alan in two long interviews and several email exchanges. Peter also contributed one of the images which appears here. Bob Cooper, formerly of the University of the West of Scotland, talked to me about his memories of Alan during his visits to Hollywood in the 1970s. Anthony Jones, Sharp’s agent, who ←ix | x→worked with Alan for over fifty years and became his close friend, recalled his days working with his client and shared information about Sharp’s projects which are still going forward. Stewart Conn, who remembered meeting Sharp at the BBC Queen Margaret Studios in Glasgow in 1964 for the recording of We Are the People, was enthusiastic about the idea of reconsidering Sharp. As a past member of the Board of Scottish PEN, I was glad to be able to use material by its former president, Jenni Calder, about Robert Louis Stevenson’s South Seas adventures, and by my fellow board member and colleague on the Writers for Peace committee, Mario Relich, for his work on Alexander Trocchi, Muriel Spark and Sharp himself. Carl MacDougall, another former Scottish PEN president, was more than supportive in helping me to keep going, as was Martin Connor, a writing colleague and friend. Viki McDonnell, an author and the mother of Sharp’s son Michael, answered my questions about Alan’s days in Greenock with great patience and was helpful with advice. The BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham Park, Reading, helped me locate Sharp’s BBC television and radio plays and were always supportive. All BBC copyright content is reproduced by courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights are reserved. Brendan King, Beryl Bainbridge’s biographer, was on hand with advice and memories of his holiday as a guest of Alan’s in France in 2010, and also of his days as Ms Bainbridge’s secretary. Mr Hugh McIntyre of Greenock provided me with stories of the times when he and Alan were 14-year-old ‘gate boys’, their first jobs, in Lithgow’s East Yard in Port Glasgow.1 The Hollywood screenwriter Gerald Wilson, whose wife knew Sharp’s second wife Sally Travers, recalled his days with Alan watching old westerns in late-night fleapit cinemas in London. Rudi Davies, Alan and Beryl’s daughter, answered my questions with great courtesy; she also sent me a copy of the speech made by her husband, the screenwriter Mick Ford, at Alan’s funeral. Scottish screenwriter Sergio Casci talked me through the day-to-day life of the professional writer for the screen and was the first to promote Allan Shiach’s idea that the screenwriter is truly the architect of the screenplay. Producer Eddie Dick of Makar Films shared his memories of working with Alan and Burt Lancaster in Glasgow. I was grateful too ←x | xi→to Alan’s third wife, Liz, for her in-depth interview with Matthew Gear, which supplied us both with background to Alan’s early visits to the United States and his first encounter with Key West and his muse Paula, who developed from real life into one of Night Moves’ most significant and intriguing characters. Jonathan Murray and Sarah Neely, of Edinburgh College of the Arts and Glasgow University respectively, encouraged me complete the project. I was grateful too for the book chapter by Brian Hoyle of Dundee University in A Companion to the Biopic, which examines Sharp’s 2010 version of the screenplay Burns (Hoyle, 2020). Brian’s concept of ‘an alternative national filmography’ encouraged me to understand the importance of Sharp’s unproduced screenplays, which are examined in some depth in this book. Brian was also instrumental in setting up the archive at the University and in helping me liaise with the archive service there. John R. Cook of Glasgow Caledonian University talked to me about the 1960s television playwrights and helped tease out some of the nuances of Sharp’s contribution as a Scottish writer to the BBC anthologies of single plays. I would also like to extend my special thanks to Louise Sharp, Alan’s oldest daughter, for her help in circulating a draft of this book to all the members of the family in order to gain the necessary permissions. Recently, other members of the family have assisted with more information and reminiscences about their father and grandfather, and I wish to thank Michael Sharp, Ruth Davies, Minnie Perry and her daughter Sophie, whom I met in the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow in October 2022, just before this book went to press. Thanks also to Sandy Kassalias, Alan’s granddaughter, and his good friend Bill Mapel of Sonoma, California, for their online interviews.
There are signs that Alan Sharp’s work is at last emerging from its long period of neglect. As well as the recent work by Hoyle, Seager and Gear, it is encouraging to note that international – especially American – interest in Sharp’s work continues to grow, with recent criticism from commentators such as Jonathan Kirshner and Nicholas Godfrey, and well-informed blog posts by other critics and commentators (see Ray Banks, ‘Three Bullets from the Greenock Kid’). Similarly, Jonathan Murray’s contribution to the online magazine Cineaste in 2017 seems to indicate a thawing towards Sharp in Scottish academic criticism. Online resources such as those by the Scottish film critic Brian Pendreigh and the commentator John Wheatcroft ←xi | xii→are other evidence of increasing Scottish and UK-wide interest, while material from the BFI’s Screenonline series, Royal Holloway’s ‘Forgotten Television Drama’ chapters and the BBC-100 Voices radio project provide invaluable new commentaries, alongside traditionally published resources, about some of the worlds Alan worked in. It is my hope that these signs of life represent the start of further research into Sharp’s work.
Last, I would like to thank Jan Merchant, head archivist at the University of Dundee, and her staff for their unfailingly generous assistance in accessing the Sharp papers. She and her colleagues made my several extended visits to the archive as pleasurable and as interesting as archive work can be.
Copyright has been obtained from the BBC Archive, Caversham, for the use of quotations from Sharp’s BBC broadcast work. Permission for the use of extracts from A Green Tree in Gedde and The Wind Shifts has been gained from the Alan Sharp estate. The University of Dundee archive has given permission for the use of quotations from the screenplays, novels, letter, essays, drafts and diaries in the Alan Sharp papers collection, including screenplays produced as feature films. Permission has been gained from Vadim Jean for quotations from the screenplay Burns (2004) and the Director’s Vision in the archive. Where any other quotation has been taken from a film, a recorded interview or another published source, every effort has been made to credit the relevant copyright holder and its use is seen as fair dealing.
1 Interview with Hugh McIntyre, 15 April, 2020.
Figure 3. John Galt’s grave, Inverkip Street Cemetery, around 1927. The sign for The Rowan Tree can be seen just above the perimeter wall on the right. Reproduced with permission from the Greenock Telegraph (2022).←xiii | xiv→
Alan Sharp is one of the greatest Scottish writers of the twentieth century, but his work has been mostly forgotten. A respected novelist and screenwriter, whose films were directed by some of the most legendary directors in Hollywood and who continued to produce novels and scripts for successful films for the rest of his life, he is now almost unknown in his home country, his work neglected or associated with outdated artistic eras. This study argues that the time is right for his standing in Scottish history and culture to be reconsidered.
This is the first piece of research to look at Sharp’s work in its entirety, as far as it is known. This only became possible with the establishment of the Alan Sharp papers collection at the University of Dundee in 2013, the year of Sharp’s death. This made a collection of his unproduced and unpublished work available for the first time, much of which has never been seen before. The unproduced screenplays, drafts of ideas and treatments, unknown novels, journals and letters in the archive make fascinating reading, revealing more than has ever been known about Sharp’s work and life. For the first time, it is possible to trace the development of his characters, his themes and the backgrounds and contexts of the different phases of his work from start to end. From these, it is now possible to draw some conclusions about Sharp’s intentions and his achievement.
This study, then, takes a chronological approach, tracing Sharp’s extraordinary journey through the worlds of literature, film and television from his breakthrough in the 1960s to his death. However, the collection is incomplete. Sharp’s files and notebooks were gathered together by his wife Harriet Hall from his home in Scotland after his death, but Harriet herself sadly died before she could collect the papers from her other home in New Zealand, where Sharp kept a second property. There may yet be discoveries to come.
The title of this book is taken from the work of the mythologist Thomas Campbell, whose book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) ←1 | 2→became influential in the world of American film from the 1970s. Central to Campbell’s argument was the idea of the hero’s journey, where a man of admirable qualities sets out on a quest to find something he desires, faces multiple challenges, including the threat of death during his journey, and returns home having learned something. Campbell’s theory was based on his vast knowledge of comparative mythology and religion and used psychoanalytic approaches as the means of interpreting films. But Sharp, who wrote successful novels as well as many screenplays and television scripts, worked in the era before Campbell’s work became widely accepted. Sharp was influenced by older and more pessimistic archetypes, genres and traditions. Although he also used myths as a way of composing his tales, he wanted to write worlds which were realistic and even harsh, narratives which examined ‘real life’ as opposed to fable and dealt with the inner natures of men with ambiguous aims. Sharp’s anti-heroes set out journeys which are often mistaken and anything but heroic.
Greenock-born Sharp also wrote essays, articles and novelizations which looked at the contradictions of other things, such as Scottish football, and himself. He was fond too of symbols – green trees that radiate ancient power, soldiers suffocating in kitbags – that bring the real and the metaphorical together. But his ultimate intention was to explore the kinds of stories he told. His famous ‘on spec’ Hollywood screenplays, which were made into five feature films in the 1970s, investigate different kinds of anti-hero in the genres he was interested in. His novels also trace complex characters’ journeys through times of social upheaval and change. Sometimes he was passionately interested in the stories he wrote; sometimes he hacked them out for money. But in every case, he brought something uniquely his own – what he called his ‘Alan Sharpness’ – to his stories.2
Like the hero’s journey, Sharp’s quest for success in the worlds of writing novels and films passed through different stages. He produced British and Scottish novels, television dramas written in and broadcast from London, Hollywood screenplays and novelizations, American television film scripts ←2 | 3→and screenplays written in Scotland and New Zealand. These are only the ones that were produced. There are many other previously unknown examples of these kinds of narratives in the Dundee archive. Across all of them, a consistent outlook and set of themes emerge which identify them as the work of an artist intent on following a particular vision. For this reason, the book argues that Sharp should be considered an auteur, the ultimate creator of his work despite operating in industries where the director is usually seen as every production’s creative centre. This is important to a consideration of Sharp’s contribution to Scottish culture because his work seemed to disappear from view in Scotland for long periods, when his reputation began to suffer. Attention is paid here to these phases as well as to his best-known work in order to make clear the part they play in his legacy. The contention is that the body of work Sharp left behind, despite some flaws and occasionally variable quality, should be recognized as an addition to Scottish studies.
The idea of the structure of a story being its most important element, a technique used more by writers of drama than novelists, is used here to analyse Sharp’s work. The anti-hero’s role within Sharp’s narratives, which is in many ways similar in all of Sharp’s stories, is developed into a paradigm which allows us to comprehend his tales in a particular way. In this study, this is done in terms of their environments. The fictional worlds Sharp’s anti-heroes inhabit and travel through are seen as central to their quests. Their landscapes, atmospheres, dangers and challenges, and also the sensitivities and actions of the protagonists who travel through them, are analysed for their role within each story. This pattern is traced in each narrative for variations to elicit differences in meaning between them, rather than applied as a rigid model.
Sharp’s role as a transnational writer is a consistent subtext of this book. Perhaps no other Scottish writer, with the exception of Robert Louis Stevenson, travelled as far and engaged so whole-heartedly in the places he chose to live. His many journeys meant that, like the shepherd poet James Hogg, self-taught Alan Sharp also had to cross other borders, boundaries of class, culture, medium and industry, which affected how he made his narratives and how audiences received them. This allowed him, a dweller in places other than Scotland for much of his life, to be in constant contact ←3 | 4→with international influences and histories. The study examines how Sharp’s work is a part of other cultures while also remaining Scottish, and what this means for his place as a writer of Scottish literature.
- XIV, 376
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (Softcover)
- Publication date
- 2023 (April)
- Scottish culture Scottish film industry transnationalism Scottish theatre The Anti-hero’s Journey: the Work and Life of Alan Sharp David Manderson
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. XIV, 376 pp., 4 fig. col., 9 fig. b/w.