Sometime in the early 1990s, I was busy trying to write a comedy stage thriller. I was obsessed with them. It was my ambition to produce a Dial M for Murder, Deathtrap or Sleuth.
I absolutely adored the genre (and still do) with its charming villains, witty dialogue and twists galore. I think it’s the puzzle of thrillers that appeals to me. That and the not whodunnit but can-he-get-away-with-it element; always so much more satisfying to watch in my opinion.
I was working away on an idea of mine called Twist. Set in a plush South Kensington mansion block flat, it involved an antiquarian book seller, David Woods, who sees a sensational way of making a fortune by writing a ‘kiss and tell’ book about his bitchy wife Sarah who is the nation’s best loved actress from a hit TV soap opera.
David then realises that his book will do even better if he murders her first! The premise being that the dead can’t sue for libel so he could write anything he wanted about her.
I’d shown early drafts to two people. Firstly, Michael Callahan at Warner Chappell Plays who had been most encouraging and secondly the West End producer Jeffrey Cambell who was interested enough to take me under his wing as I developed the play.
Every morning Jeffrey would phone me at about 9.30 to enquire how the script was going. His calls were most welcome. There is nothing a writer likes more than someone who is constantly keeping up to date on his every written word. It’s why anything with a deadline generally gets finished and anything without one doesn’t.
Unfortunately, for one reason or another, Jeffrey could not move forward with Twist. He was too busy producing a French farce, Paris Match, at the Garrick Theatre that starred Sian Phillips and Leslie Ash and had his hands full.
I was just wondering what to do with the play when, just like John Lennon and his 4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, a newspaper article caught my eye.
It was only a filler but it said that Brian Clemens, the man behind The Avengers, had written a new unpublished stage thriller and had just had it produced. The theatre had been a small one in Beverly Hills and a well-known film producer living nearby had gone along to see it. The result being that the producer had immediately snapped up the film rights!
I re-read the piece again. What a brilliant idea. Instead of putting the play on in a small London theatre why not put it on in Beverly Hills where there was a chance that you could strike gold like Brian Clemens had done?
The first thing I had to do was find out the name of the Los Angeles theatre and then mail them a copy of Twist. I somehow got hold of Brian Clemens’s phone number and called him.
When I got through, this polite and charming man patiently listened to my crazy tale about my play Twist and how I was keen to find out the name of the Beverly Hills theatre his play had been produced in.
After a pause he asked me what my play was about. I said “Well I don’t want to bore you with a synopsis….” And to my amazement he replied, “No, please do. I’d love to hear it. Fire away.”
Ten minutes later I had finished explaining the entire plot of my thriller and was amazed that he was still on the line. After a moment’s thought he said “Sounds good. I’d love to read it. Get it in the post today and with any luck I should receive it tomorrow.”
Sure enough, the next afternoon Brian Clemens called me. He had read Twist and had enjoyed it. He felt it was something that he wanted to get involved in. Would I be free to join him for lunch the following day?
One o’clock the following afternoon found me entering one of the best Italian restaurants in West London – Mr Frascati’s in Spring Street, Paddington. As we sat in the white tiled restaurant and made our way through their excellent seafood dishes, I discovered a great many things that I didn’t know about this talented man.
Firstly, like just about everybody else, I associated him solely with The Avengers but as it turned out he’d been involved with so many other classic shows.
There was hardly a British TV series of the 60/70s that this prolific writer hadn’t been involved with. He created The New Avengers and The Professionals, wrote the pilots for Danger Man and The Persuaders and wrote episodes for Adam Adamant Lives!, The Champions, The Baron, Man in a Suitcase and The Protectors.
In addition he created and wrote the ATV series Thriller! and the successful sit-com My Wife Next Door.
And all that was before you even got to his stage plays.
I was in awe to say the least and must have asked him a hundred questions which he politely and patiently answered. Then after about an hour he brought up the subject which was the reason for our meeting.
“You’ve written a good play Miles. I was caught out on every twist and turn and believe me that takes some doing as I invented most of them,” he explained as he filled my glass with more wine. “I want to put a proposal to you. I think I can improve the play. Would you be interested in me co-authoring it with you?”
I stared at him in total disbelief. I would have understood it if he had said that he liked the play and wanted to show it to a producer friend or even the theatre in Beverly Hills that had unknowingly brought us together. But for this great world-famous writer to want to co-write with me was almost too much to take in. Unsurprisingly I said yes.
His friendly face lit up, “I was hoping you’d say that.” He then took some papers out of a leather case he had by his feet and passed them to me. “I hope you won’t feel that I’ve been presumptuous but I’ve been making a few notes…”
I looked at the hastily type-written notes (Brian was not a fan of home computers) that he had made the evening before on my play. He had certainly pulled it apart and added a new visual element.
Audiences want to be thrilled he explained so he had changed the profession of the leading man from a bookseller to an Egyptologist. Now instead of the South Kensington flat being filled with dusty, boring antiquarian books it now had two gleaming sarcophaguses! “It’s where he hides her body” continued Brian enthusiastically. “No-one will ever know until halfway through act two where one night during a storm, one of the lids falls open during the sťance. Just as the police arrive and the maid shoots herself...”
I had to admire his imagination. Years of creating fantasy TV series meant that he was just able to reel out incredible scenarios with the greatest of ease. It didn’t stop there. Within minutes he had thrashed out a plot that was like Alfred Hitchcock meets James Bond with a pinch of Edgar Wallace!
After we had discussed the play, I skilfully steered the conversation back on to The Avengers. I fired all sorts of questions at him and then he asked me which was my favourite episode? I told him I particularly liked The Forget-Me-Knot, which was the one that introduced Linda Thorson as Tara King as well as saying goodbye to Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel. He asked when was the last time I had seen it? Not in years I replied, as at that time I didn’t even own a TV set let alone a video recorder. “Well we’ll have to sort that out,” he said.
We left the restaurant and walked around to his flat a few streets away. He found the appropriate episode and we watched it. And all the time he kept talking. Telling me where the locations were, why that shot had been so difficult to get, why such-and-such an actor couldn’t really drive despite a thrilling car chase. Diana Rigg this, Linda Thorson that. Anecdotes about Patrick MacNee. All kinds of Avenger tittle-tattle, all told with great affection.
It was like watching a Director’s commentary DVD of your favourite film with the Director sitting beside you!
Sadly the Clemens/Tredinnick version of Twist never got written. There were all kinds of complications. Getting the two of us in one room at the same time was the main bugbear. Brian was incredibly busy writing a new screenplay and could only work with me on certain weekdays as weekends were strictly family time and I was working flat out all week for the Keith Prowse company and could only spare time to write at weekends. We could just never synchronise our diaries.
It was a great shame and I wish now that I’d tried that much harder.
Later, my agent Tessa Le Bars, sold my original version of Twist to a German producer where it was translated by Ursula Grutzmacher-Tabori under the title Der Letzte Dreh (The Final Trick). There wasn’t a sarcophagus to be seen and none of Brian’s ideas were in it.
I later rewrote the story making David a mild-mannered accountant and retitled it Getting Away With Murder (which was a play title I was amazed to discover had never been used before, but then coincidentally at the same time Stephen Sondheim chose to use it for a Broadway play). That version had a run at The Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead in a production directed by Stephen Warden.
The play, with its original title Twist, has since been successfully produced in the UK, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Germany, India, and the USA.
In 2010 I flew to Massachusetts to see the US premiere performed by the excellent Rogue Theater Company under the sharp directorial eye of John Beausoleil and couldn’t help thinking, just for a second, what it would have been like if it had had a couple of gleaming sarcophaguses on stage?