Michael Caine’s classic 1971 gangster film Get Carter focuses on the story of London underworld enforcer Jack Carter as he returns to his native North East to find answers regarding the supposedly accidental death of his brother. A gritty and dark revenge story, Get Carter marked a sea change in British crime movies.
The film was based on a book called Jack’s Return Home, by author Ted Lewis, who is now widely recognised as the father of British Crime Noir, renowned for his dark and gritty portrayals. In his biography Getting Carter – Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir, Nick Triplow takes an in-depth look at Lewis’ formative years and the story behind the man that changed a genre.
Exhaustively researched, this detailed account of Lewis’ short life unearths a wealth of new insight and knowledge about a man whose impact was felt by many. The MALESTROM sat down with Nick to ‘get’ the lowdown on Carter, and Lewis’ colourful existence.
The MALESTROM: Nick, what inspired you to write ‘Getting Carter’ and the real story of the author, Ted Lewis?
Nick Triplow: I moved to Barton-Upon-Humber, a small town on the banks of the river Humber and by coincidence, this is pretty much Ted Lewis’ old stomping ground.
I knew the film Get Carter well and I’d read the book which it was based on too, Jack’s Return Home, and while I was writing a social history book on the area, everyone kept coming up to me and saying, ‘You should be writing a book on Ted Lewis’.
TM: What prompted people to say that? What was so intriguing about him?
NT: Well, because he was a bit of a character and he’d had such success early on with ‘Jack’s Return Home’ and it becoming ‘Get Carter’, and it was also at a time when not many people left a small town like Barton and went to the big bright lights of London, but he did.
He got to art school and went on to become an animator. He left for London and ended up working on the Lone Ranger and then The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. He got hired as a clean-up supervisor, and that meant that every single frame of that film went through Ted’s team.
TM: That’s a big leap from being an animator to writing a hardcore crime novel like Jack’s Return Home?
NT: It is, but in the 60’s Lewis was spending a lot of time in and around Soho’s dens, in the bars and clubs with various nefarious characters, brushing shoulders with villains like the ‘East End boys’, who were running protection rackets at the time and even aristocrats who used to haunt the same venues.
It was a unique time when he was certainly around proper gangsters and villains. There was one club in particular called Gerry’s, which was a regular and the French House too. They were all classic Soho hang-outs of the 1960s.
TM: And presumably one of the people he met back then was the inspiration for Michael Caine’s Jack Carter?
NT: Yes, and the book is very much about tracing that story and the influences, and because he was such an autobiographical writer he always put a lot of himself in his novels; it’s been an intriguing journey.
The book I’ve written puts together his life like a jigsaw puzzle to find out what gave him the knowledge to write such an extraordinary story, and slowly you find out that it did actually come from Ted’s own life.
TM: That’s interesting. How similar is the book Jack’s Return Home to the film Get Carter?
NT: They’re pretty much the same. The book came out in March 1970 and it had already been optioned as a film and was already in the early stages of production by the time the book hit the shelves.
It was a writer’s dream and a film Producer called Michael Klinger was very much looking to make a British gangster film to rival the American gangster films for their content, and for something that was hard-hitting.
It all landed at the right time and Michael Caine was one of the biggest British stars in the world, having just come off The Italian Job and before that Alfie and of course, Zulu. When you look at the British stars at the time, there was probably no one else who could have quite matched Michael Caine either.
TM: What’s interesting is that the film is so dark, almost bleak?
NT: Well, that’s in Ted’s writing. That’s the kind of writer he was and that’s what made him unique at that time and that’s why Jack’s Return Home is such a groundbreaking book. No other British writer had written anything like it. You could say he started British Crime Noir because if you look at the story, nobody wins.
There are no sympathetic characters in that novel, let alone the film. You’d never really root for Jack Carter because he’s a psychopath and nasty all the way through, and for Ted Lewis to be that unflinching and to tell that story in that way, it broke new ground at that time of British crime writing.
TM: Get Carter, is, without doubt, a cult classic, was it a hit when it came out?
NT: It was, but I think the public just wasn’t ready for something that hit as hard as it did. It was an uneasy film for people back then. If you take for example the phone sex scene with Britt Ekland, the girl drowning in the boot of the car, and Jack making Margaret, his brother’s ex-girlfriend undress in the woods before killing her.
There’s some harsh stuff in there and it shocked people from the reviews back at the time. It was on at the cinema and that was it, there was no TV, DVD or streaming. It wasn’t shown on British TV until the 1980s and even then it was in a cut version as it was deemed quite shocking. It wasn’t shown in an uncensored cut until 1986 and even Michael Caine doesn’t really discuss it.
TM: Why is that?
NT: I don’t know, I find it quite strange. The only thing it does say in his autobiography is that he grew up in south London and knew people of that world, so maybe it was a bit close to home… I don’t know? It’s certainly one of his finest performances.
TM: There are also a couple of hidden secrets in the film that few people know about?
NT: Yeah, well the one that I believe most ordinary people don’t know about is that the assassin who kills Jack at the very end is actually in the carriage with him at the very beginning of the film, following him all the way up to Newcastle. It is truly a great little reveal that he’s there right from the beginning to the end, and most people miss it.
The very first second in that first scene, when Jack Carter stands behind the glass with the Fletcher brothers watching that dodgy slide show and they say, ‘We don’t want you to go up north, Jack.
We’ve got business up north, you could screw things up.’ From the very first minute when he goes, ‘Well, I’m going,’ in essence his fate is sealed right from that first frame, and with that brilliant, haunting theme tune.
TM: And what was the other secret?
NK: His brother’s daughter is really his!
TM: You’re joking?
NT: No, that’s part of the motivation. It’s part of the subtext. In the book, it gives you a lot more scope to talk about the character and Jack and his brother Frank. Although they’ve grown up together, they’ve grown up into quite different men. Frank was conventional, looked after things and did the right thing, while Jack moved into crime.
The thing that drives Jack Carter in the novel, as much as it’s about revenge over his brother’s death, the real driving force is over his own guilt about the fact that he had sex with his brother’s wife and that Doreen is actually his daughter.
TM: That’s shocking!
NT: Well, yeah! So, when he watches that porn film she’s in with her and cries, that’s because it’s not his niece, it’s his daughter. The motivation for that character is far deeper than revenge. It’s about his own failings and his own guilt as much as being on the trail for the murderer of his own brother.
TM: So what kind of person was Ted Lewis to think up such a dark plot?
NT: He was certainly a heavy drinker, there’s no hiding that, and he died of alcoholism at 42. Also though, when you speak to people of that generation who worked in film or animation as Lewis did, social drinking was the absolute norm.
For those Yellow Submarine animators to go down the Dog and Duck in Soho and have three pints at lunchtime was nothing. The problem was that after Get Carter his drinking slipped into something else, something a bit darker and in the end, that’s what led to his early death.
TM: Do you think Get Carter influenced any other British films?
NT: Without a doubt, if you look at Get Carter and The Long Good Friday, they’re both entry and exit points to the 1970s. They stand there as these two pillars of crime fiction
NT: Classic American crime books are almost a barometer for society. And when you look at these two films you’re looking forward into the decade to come with the corruption and decay of the 1970s. You know the world is not a swinging place in Jack Carter’s Newcastle, any more than Thatcher’s dream isn’t realised in Harry Shand’s Long Good Friday.
The other thing I’d say is that if Jack Carter hadn’t been killed on a beach in Newcastle, he would have become Denny Mortwell, the sleazy pornographer in Neil Jordan’s 1986 classic, Mona Lisa. I love Mona Lisa but there’s also a third film that’s more recent! Have you ever watched Shane Meadows’ film Dead Man’s Shoes?
TM: Now that’s another cult classic, that film haunts you for days afterwards.
NT: Well, that’s a film of another outsider returning to his hometown for revenge, and if you look at the motifs in that, obviously his brother’s dead, but obviously his brother’s there and as a presence all the way through.
Like in Ted’s book of Get Carter, and if you compare the places, Uttoxeter in Meadows’ film and the North East from Get Carter, they’re both similar areas in that they’re both, post-industrial towns that are on the edge of a rural wasteland.
But there are echoes of Ted Lewis everywhere. I just watched the last episode of BBC’s Inspector George Gently and he gets shot at the end on a beach in Newcastle. Now, you can’t tell me that there aren’t echoes of Get Carter that haven’t stretched 50 years?!
TM: Tell us about GBH, the other Ted Lewis crime book you really rate?
NT: I would say GBH stands up to any British crime novel ever written. It’s a brilliant book. According to people I spoke to, they were surprised Ted Lewis was able to write at all though through his alcoholism.
His marriage had broken down and he came back home up north, he was bankrupt and he moved to about as far out on the east coast that you can get, to a worn-out old seaside town in 1976.
But it provided the inspiration for this last novel about a pornographer and gangster who is in exile, hiding out in a little village on the far east coast of Humberside, and he’s out there drinking himself into a psychotic black hole, and it alternates with what took him there in his life, and what had happened to him back in London.
TM: That sounds like it would also make a great film.
NT: There were rumours a long while ago that it had been optioned for a film, but whether that’s the case now I couldn’t really tell you. It would make a fantastic film and it’s a crying shame its not in print in this country now.
TM: Can people buy it online?
NT: Yes, Paul Oliver of Soho Print in New York is a big Ted Lewis fan and republished some of Ted’s novels a few years ago. So, you can buy them online from the States.
TM: Where would you place Ted Lewis in the list of British crime writers?
NT: He was certainly a pioneer and his work broke new ground and I think he’s certainly overlooked, a real forgotten talent. His ability to create that fusion between American traditions and British social realist narratives was unique, and his use of real people and real places is second to none.
Nobody had done that before and it was groundbreaking, he pretty much invented British Crime Noir. Certainly, writer’s like Derek Raymond name check Lewis and say he opened the door for authors like him, and David Peace who wrote The Damned United, he’s a complete Ted Lewis fan. So, his influence goes through into contemporary fiction as well.
TM: If Ted Lewis was alive today and you had the chance to ask him one question, what would it be?
NT: (Laughs) ‘Are you getting them in, or shall I?’
Buy your copy of Nick Triplow’s book Getting Carter HERE
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