Alan Melville (1910 – 1983)

EAMVAlan Melville was a playwright, revue author and lyricist. He wrote no radio plays but some of his stage plays were adapted for radio. Born William Melville Caverhill in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, England, he was educated in his home town and then a boarder at the Edinburgh Academy. Leaving school at 17, he started work in the family timber merchants as an apprentice joiner. At the age of 22, he entered an essay competition in John O’Leary’s Weekly with an essay entitled My Perfect Holiday and won the first prize; a return trip to Canada (1934). Soon afterwards he sent the BBC North Region six short stories called The Adventures of the Pink Knight (1934), which were accepted and used on Children’s Hour. He was required to read the stories himself, his first professional engagement. He continued to write from the timber yard, his short stories, poems, manuscripts sometimes being accepted by various publishers. He wrote his first novel, a whodunit called Weekend at Thrackley, which was accepted and published and later made into a film called Hot Ice.

Melville left the timber yard and struggled on his own for a while until he met a composer called George McNeill. Together they turned out number after number, Melville writing the lyrics. In 1936 the BBC offered him a job as a scriptwriter in the variety department in London under Eric Maschwitz at £250 per year. After a three-month training course, he was sent to the Aberdeen radio station as features and drama producer.

In the early part of World War II, he compiled daily instalments of the Robinson Family serial about an ordinary family in London on the BBC’s North American Service. In 1941 he enlisted in the RAF where he reached the rank of Wing Commander. He worked as a war correspondent sending regular dispatches to the BBC. His experience enabled him to write First Tide. He was with the Allied Invasion force of 1944 and took part in the Normandy landings, sending back reports to the BBC; then onto Brussels and in Germany for the surrender. He was sent back to London on embarkation leave, after which he should have gone to the Far East but was kept for an RAF pageant in the Royal Albert Hall, which he scripted and Ralph Reader directed with 1,500 RAF personnel.

During the war years he wrote revues, Sweet and Low, Sweeter and Lower and Sweetest and Lowest, which ran in all for five years at the Ambassadors Theatre. After its success, he was signed up on a five-year contract for London Films by Alexander Korda. Melville’s collaboration with composer Charles Zwar began in 1942 when they wrote Which Witch?” for “Sky High; they continued to work together for some of the numbers in Sweeter and Lower and for all of Sweetest and Lowest.

After the war he wrote plays including Castle in the Air (1949; filmed in 1952), Full Circle (1952, previously Dear Charles and adapted from Les Enfants d’Edouard by Marc-Gilbert Sauvajon and Frederick J. Jackson), Simon and Laura 1954, which was later made into a film in 1955, and the book and lyrics for the musical Gay’s the Word (1950, music by Ivor Novello). The musical premiered at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, England, on 17 October 1950. It transferred to the Saville Theatre in London, opening there on 16 February 1951, where it ran for 504 performances and starred Cicely Courtneidge, Lizbeth Webb and Thorley Walters.

In 1951, Melville wrote the musical Bet Your Life, with music by Kenneth Leslie Smith and Charles Zwar and starring Arthur Askey and Julie Wilson. A few years later he wrote the musical Marigold based on the play by Francis R. Pryor and L Allen Harker; the score was composed by Charles Zwar and it starred Jean Kent, Sally Smith, Sophie Stewart and Jeremy Brett.

Alan Melville became one of Britain’s first television stars. He became chairman of The Brains Trust and a panelist in What’s My Line? He wrote and appeared in many television programmes, among them A to Z, which ran for two years (1957–58) and played host to more than 400 guests including Bob Hope, Phil Silvers, John Dankworth and Dame Edith Evans.

Merely Melville, one of his television programmes, he used as a title for his autobiography. He took the leading role from Ian Carmichael in the play Gazebo at the Savoy Theatre. Moira Lister was his co-star.

He moved to Brighton in 1951 and died at the age of 73 in December 1983 at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton, where he had been a patient since November. He was cremated in the Downs Crematorium, Brighton, on 12 January 1984. (Source: Wikipedia)

As Martin Edwards has written in the Introduction to the latest reissues of Melville’s novels by British Library Publishing, ‘ … his detective novels, written in a short burst of energy when he was in his twenties, do not deserve the total neglect into which they have fallen. They are dated, but they possess a certain charm. The British Library’s revival of  his books [Quick Curtain, Death of Anton and Weekend at Thrackley] offers a new generation a chance to appreciate the work of a writer with a genuine talent to amuse.’

Bibliography: Weekend at Thrackley (London, Skeffington & Son, 1934. Re-published British Library Publishing Division, 2018); Quick Curtain (London, Skeffington & Son, 1934. Re-published British Library Publishing Division, 2015,); The Vicar in Hell (London, Skeffington & Son, 1935); Death of Anton (London, Skeffington & Son, 1936. Re-published British Library Crime Series, 2015,); and Warning to Critics aka The Critic on the Hearth (1936).

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville very definitely counted as a Forgotten Book, at least until a few weeks ago [7 August 2015], when it reappeared in the British Library’s Crime Classics series. Originally published in 1934 by Skeffington, it was one of a handful of books that Melville dashed off as a young man in the Thirties, before making his name as a wit and broadcaster. (Martin Edwards at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’)


(Facsimile Dust Jacket, Skeffington & Son, Ltd. (UK), 1934)

The author, Alan Melville, was a successful playwright and man of the theatre, and he uses his knowledge of backstage life to good effect in this breezy whodunit. The slender plot revolves around the shooting of the leading man, but when the show opens at the Grosvenor Theatre to a packed house, Brandon Baker is killed by a real bullet. When another member of the company is found dead, initial appearances suggest a straightforward case of murder followed by suicide. But there is, of course, more to it than that.

The audience includes Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard and his son, an enthusiastic young reporter, making an amusing variant on the Holmes–Watson pairing of sleuth and sidekick! The British Library’s revival of this book offers a new generation a chance to appreciate the work of a writer with a genuine talent to amuse. (Source: British Library)

Quick Curtain has been reviewed, among others, at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’, crossexaminingcrime, Mysteries Ahoy! Shiny New Books, Fell From Fiction and The Invisible Event.

Even though Quick Curtain has not received as enthusiastic reviews as Death of Anton, my impression is that it is worth reading. Stay tuned.

Christopher St. John Sprigg (1907 – 1937)

76015_1Christopher St. John Sprigg aka Christopher Caudwell was a British Marxist writer, thinker and poet. He was born into a Roman Catholic family, resident at 53 Montserrat Road, Putney. He was educated at the Benedictine Ealing Priory School, but left school at the age of 15 after his father, Stanhope Sprigg, lost his job as literary editor of the Daily Express. Caudwell moved with his father to Bradford and began work as a reporter for the Yorkshire Observer. He made his way to Marxism and set about rethinking everything in light of it, from poetry to philosophy to physics, later joining the Communist Party of Great Britain in Poplar, London. In December 1936 he drove an ambulance to Spain and joined the International Brigades there, training as a machine-gunner at Albacete before becoming a machine-gun instructor and group political delegate. He edited a wall newspaper. He was killed in action on 12 February 1937, the first day of the Battle of the Jarama Valley. His brother, Theodore, had attempted to have Caudwell recalled by the Communist Party of Great Britain by showing its General Secretary, Harry Pollitt, the proofs of Caudwell’s book Illusion and Reality. Caudwell’s Marxist works were published posthumously. The first was Illusion and Reality (1937), an analysis of poetry. Caudwell published widely, writing criticism, poetry, short stories and novels. Much of his work was published posthumously. (Source: Goodreads)

Further reading: A Short Life of Crime: Christopher St. John Sprigg (1907-1937)

Christopher St. John Sprigg published six detective novels in a flurry between 1933 and 1935.  A final tale appeared in 1937.

Bibliography: Crime in Kensington (1933) aka Pass the Body; Fatality in Fleet Street (1933); The Perfect Alibi (1934); Death of an Airman (1934); The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face (1935); Death of a Queen (1935); and The Six Queer Things (1937)


(Facsimile Dust Jacket, Hutchinson (UK), 1934)

Death of an Airman is an enjoyable and unorthodox whodunit from a writer whose short life was as remarkable as that of any of his fictional creations. When an aeroplane crashes, and its pilot is killed, Edwin Marriott, the Bishop of Cootamundra in Australia, is on hand. In England on leave, the Bishop has decided to learn how to fly, but he is not convinced that the pilot’s death was accidental. In due course, naturally, he is proved right. The Bishop and Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard make an appealing pair of detectives, and ultimately a cunning criminal scheme is uncovered. (British Library Crime Classics).

Death of an Airman has been reviewed, among others, at Vintage Pop Fictions, The Invisible Event, Beneath the Stains of Time, and In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

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