Saturday, July 01, 2017

Book review - "From Journey's End to the Dam Busters: The Life of R C Sheriff" by Roland Wales

I became familiar with Sheriff's career after reading his autobiography, No Leading Lady. I can't remember what compelled me to pick it up as I wasn't that familia with his work, but I enjoyed the book a lot - the tale of a quiet, unassuming insurance clerk who wrote plays in his spare time to help raise funds for his rowing club, who then wrote a play which became a phenomenon, then he went on to become one of the leading writers in Britain.

Maybe "leading writer" is too much in such a literate country but Sheriff had an excellent career. He never repeated the success of Journey's End - who could? - but he compiled a formidable body of work, including plays, screenplays, radio plays and novels. The best known are The Long Sunset, Home at Seven, St Helena, The Four Feathers, The Dam Busters, Quintet.

It was a very accomplished career and Wales has done incredibly well by it with this superb biography. It's affectionate, well-written, extremely well researched; Wales had access to many letters and diary entries of Sheriff. He also goes through as much of the man's writing as possible, including unmade screenplays, giving decent weight to them (so often these things are overlooked).

Sheriff's memoirs were full of blanks - he skipped over his war service for instance, and was hazy about his private life (he was devoted to his mother... as in, really super devoted). This fills in the blanks, tackling Sheriff's family's background, childhood, school days (glorious for Sheriff who loved sport), the boring insurance job, war service (Sheriff saw hard action but not a super large amount and indeed his superiors seemed keen to find ways to avoid having him at the front line; he received a lucky wound in a way which knocked him out of the war but didn't give him long term damage), going back to work, starting writing, developing his craft through the 1920s, writing Journey's End, the challenges of that production (where he met James Whale and Colin Clive), taking off to Oxford for a bit, expanding into screenwriting and novel writing, his experiences in the war (the bulk of which he spent in the USA), slight career wobbles, hitting new peaks in the 1950s, becoming unfashionable in the 1960s.

It was a steady career without giant dips and shows what you can do with a strong work ethic and good temperament. Also, no kids or romantic entanglements. Wales spends a bit of time on this but not too much - he sources a letter from a friend which could be deduced to referring to gay behaviour, discusses the relationship with the mother, acknowledges he preferred to be around men to women... but the proof is inconclusive. I have the feeling he was asexual.

Wales' book rises to the occasion for the big challenges - the background to Journey's End (including the inspirations for the main characters). Heaps of stuff I didn't know, like a proposed sequel to Journey's End, the many unfilmed scripts he did, his professional and personal relationships. I'm not sure that Sheriff was that compelling a person but is career was fascinating and got a fantastic tribe.

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