If You Have to Negotiate a Film Deal

Posted by on October 2nd, 2010 at 9:12 AM

Jonathan Clowes represented Kingsley Amis from the 1970s on. He was “wholly self-taught as an agent,” writes Zachary Leader in The Life of Kingsley Amis. Clowes didn’t move on up from an agency mailroom. He was “working as a painter and decorator,” and one of his mates wrote a play, and Clowes talked one of London’s best-known theater directors into reading it. That’s all. Maybe there’s a book somewhere about Clowes that can tell us the details. But really, whatever they are, that’s all. He’s the sort of person who knows how to do something like that, and therefore he’s a big-deal literary agent.

His third client was Len Deighton, at that time a graphic designer who had just written a spy novel. Clowes sold the book and it was a huge success, first as a novel and then as the Michael Caine movie. The Amis Life says the deal was the first Clowes ever did for a film:

The producer Harry Saltzman sent him an enormous, largely incomprehensible contract. Clowes sent it back three times, each time with the message: “this is totally unacceptable.” By taking careful note of how the contract improved with each rejection, a process which took a year, Clowes learned how to negotiate a film deal.

God, I hope that’s true. It’s beautiful and I wish I could live my life that way.

Clowes also represents Doris Lessing, making for a wild spread of clients — from Len Deighton to Doris Lessing. I think of Lessing as somebody who listens to no voice except the one pealing inside her head. But apparently Clowes has a touch with her. At least the Amis Life says Lessing “welcomed editorial suggestions” from him. (Side note: When she won the Nobel, Clowes told a reporter that, in the words of the New York Times, “she was out shopping and may not yet know she had won the prize.”)

Who was the director? She was Joan Littlewood, and it sounds like Clowes got her ear around the time she staged A Taste of Honey. No, I don’t know much about her, but Honey was a hit and a landmark of British theater, and during the 1960s she staged Oh, What a Lovely War, whose movie version featured John Lennon in a disappointingly small role. I gather it was a prestige vehicle of a mid-’60s London sort: it could pull in a Beatle for a bit part. (update, Jeff Albertson alerts us in Comments that the Lennon film was How I Won the War, released in 1967 and directed by Richard Lester, the man who did the Beatles films. The Greenwood musical had its film version in 1969, directed by Richard Attenborough and featuring Olivier, Gielgud, Michael and Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde and a long list of other bright names. A modish, high-prestige venture, but a different one than I thought. Jeff, I should have checked. )

Per Wiki, Littlewood ran the Theatre Workshop, which it describes as “left-wing,” belonged to the Communist Party as a young woman, and was surveilled by MI5 all thru the 1940s. Then she built a career bringing radical, angry, passionate, etc., left-wing voices to British theater. Then, in her 50s, “she settled in France and became the companion of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the vintner and poet, and wrote his memoirs, Milady Vine.” Well, Jesus.

Eyes the color of freckles. Kingsley Amis hated the passionate, left-wing, etc., voices of trendy London. He figured that their owners were all childish idiots or posturing opportunists, and that in either case you were dealing with people who couldn’t see past their sense of entitlement. His kind of people, you would think, but maybe he didn’t like his kind of people.

At any rate, he was in his 40s when ’60s London was going full-blast, and that’s a lousy time of life to be surrounded by young people celebrating their ability to have sex. Amis’s I Want It Now, a novel in which he told Swinging trendy-media London what he thought of it, features a young girl who is repellent in her childish, deboned, affectless, mewling, reality-fractured sense of the world as a big tit off which she is free to suck. But man, the hero wants to do her. There you have the resentment and desire of the pre-’60s generation, male division, faced with the new youth, female division.

The hero (he’s a scumbag, really) sees her at a party. Typically for the era, he’s not sure at first if she’s a boy or a girl. He gets closer and, yes, she’s a girl. There follows a description that I like:

He thought it might be the most attractive face he had ever seen, but he could not be anywhere near sure because it was so much unlike all other faces. He had not known before that a human complexion could be as sallow as that, or that there was a kind of lion’s-mane-coloured straight hair to go with it, or that moles and freckles could be the same colour as someone’s eyes. … As she stepped forward Ronnie noticed rather muzzily that her feet were bare and streaked with dirt. She spoke in a husky undertone.

First words: “Hallo, will you get me a drink?” Take, take, take. Something that strikes me about the passage: Amis’s clever way of amplifying the effect of an impression by being frank about the little mental processes that go into impression formation. She has brown eyes and tawny hair and is sallow. Well, all right, that’s not common but it’s not necessarily amazing. Yet one reason (not the only) that it seems uncanny is that we’re let in on the hero’s mental rummaging as he tries to make sense of her: “He thought it might be … not be anywhere near sure … He had not known before that … or that … or that …” The tone is down to earth, the English ostensibly too plain for tidy syntax; no need to be fancy, we’re just turning out the brain’s pockets and seeing what’s there. But what an effect is produced. This skinny girl in a sweater comes across as some uniquely appealing, damaged seductress.

Be Sociable, Share!

3 Responses to “If You Have to Negotiate a Film Deal”

  1. Jeff Albertson says:

    Wasn’t it a different anti-war film for Lennon, ‘How I won the War’?

  2. Mike Hunter says:

    Lennon starred in that one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_I_Won_the_War

    About the other one mentioned in “If You Have to Negotiate a Film Deal” (superbly written piece, Mr. Crippen!):

    Re: Oh! What a Lovely War!
    I saw it not long after it was originally released (!!!!), and the buzz was all about John Lennon being in it (and sucking, as I learned when I saw it)…

  3. Tom Crippen says:

    Jeff, you’re right. I updated accordingly.

    Mike, thanks, that’s sweet of you (as always). I saw How I Won the War when I was in college and the film society put it on. I stand by my description of Lennon’s role as a bit part. At any rate he definitely wasn’t the star, no matter what the movie’s poster might indicate.