February 21, 2020


Interview: Ian Dickerson. Spy Vibers might know Ian from his many projects around The Saint. He has recently published a new book, this time examining the life of Leslie Charteris. With a new Saint film just announced, it's a perfect time to learn more about Charteris and his famous creation. Welcome, Ian!

Congrats on the new book about Leslie Charteris! For readers who are new to the topic, can you give us a snapshot of who Charteris was?

Thank you! I’m just happy to see it out there and to hear that people are enjoying it.

Leslie was the creator of Simon Templar, a modern-day Robin Hood who was better known as The Saint. He wrote, edited and oversaw nearly a hundred books featuring the character. These books have sold over forty million copies and been translated into over thirty languages; to date they’ve provided the inspiration for fifteen feature films, three television series, ten radio series and a comic strip that was syndicated around the world for over a decade.

It’s more than that though. He was born in Singapore in 1907 and had been around the world three times before the age of twelve. Along with his mother and brother he settled in England and he went to Cambridge University to study law, but dropped out after a year because he found it boring and he was determined to be a writer. He took on a number of jobs but kept writing and his first novel was published in 1927. It was his third novel that introduced the Saint to the world. Eventually he became a translantic best-seller and moved to the USA, where he went to work in Hollywood, playing tennis with Marlene Dietrich, going sailing with Errol Flynn and writing a handful of films as well. All whilst overseeing the career of his creation. As many people have said, his life was as fascinating as one of his books. [Below: Return of the Saint annual].

How did you first get introduced to the Saint books?

When I was nine I watched Return of the Saint on TV and loved it. I discovered that one of my older brothers had a couple of books which had the word ‘Saint’ in the title so promptly purloined them in the hopes that they would be as good as the TV show. They weren’t, they were much better. I then spent several years and much pocket money, in an era long before the internet, doing what I could to acquire all the Saint books I could find. Oh, and joining the Saint Club of course.

The notion that there was a tradition of Saint Clubs for boys really appealed to me as a kid. I had no idea what went on, but I had a fantasy of boys gathering to practice skills like archery, boxing and gymnastics. How did those clubs come into being? 

Leslie set up the Saint Club itself in 1936, feeling that the enthusiasm for his creation ought to be funnelled into something constructive. Right from the outset any profits it made were donated to charity, initially supporting a hospital wing in London before the NHS was introduced. For many years afterwards the target of its philanthropy was the Arbour Youth Centre in Stepney, east London which was in desperate need of financial help. It was a local community centre for boys and girls where they could come and, as you said, practice skills such as archery and boxing. Such youth centres were quite common in most towns around the UK at the time, many of them living financially hand to mouth. At its peak a number of local Saint Clubs were set up, both in the UK and America, and all were encouraged to support worthwhile causes local to them.

Are there any remnants today?

Sadly not. The Saint Club moved away from the Arbour in the early 1990s when they were able to stand on their own two feet financially and since then we’ve donated our profits to causes nominated by Leslie’s family.

Very interesting to hear about that, thank you. What was the tone of Leslie's writing?

The tone of his writing, much like the character of Simon Templar, evolved throughout the years as did Leslie of course. The initial Saint adventures were full of cut and thrust -‘battle, murder and sudden death’ was the Saint’s philosophy and Leslie mixed it with a lot of humor and occasional political comment. Leslie himself would point out that whilst some of his plots weren’t terribly original he brought his audience along for the ride and they simply enjoyed the way in which he told the stories. As Leslie himself matured so did the Saint, and the tone of his adventures, and eventually he became the slightly world-weary man of the world, familiar to viewers from the 1960s TV series. [Below: Pan edition of The Saint’s Getaway].

Do you remember your early impressions as a reader?

Definitely... it was the humor and the style of writing that attracted me. I remember sitting on the sofa whilst my eldest brother read out a passage from The Saint’s Getaway to my other brother and I. It’s become one of my favourite passages from the adventures of the Saint;

"...he had done nothing desperately exciting for a long time. About twenty-one days. His subconscious was just ripe for the caressing touch of a few seductive stimuli. And then and there, when his resistance was at its lowest ebb, he heard and felt the juicy plonk of his fist sinking home into a nose.

"The savour of that fruity squash wormed itself wheedlingly down into the very cockles of his heart. He liked it. It stirred the deepest chords of his being. And it dawned persuasively upon him that at that moment he desired nothing more of life than an immediate repetition of that feeling. And, seeing the nose once more conveniently poised in front of him, he hit it again.

"He had not been mistaken. His subconscious knew its stuff. With the feel of that second biff a pleasant kind of glow centred itself in the pit of his stomach and tingled electrically outwards along his limbs, and the remainder of his doubts melted away before its spreading warmth. He was punching the nose of an ugly man, and he was liking it. Life had no more to offer."

I was nine, couldn’t help but laugh. My only ambition in life then was also to punch the nose of an ugly man. Right from the outset I got the impression that Leslie was an author who had fun with the mechanics of writing; he enjoyed the vocabulary, he enjoyed putting the sentences together, he had fun with the actual act of writing. Many years later his daughter Paddy told me that she would often hear him chuckle as he sat at his typewriter. Sadly, I’m yet to find another author who gives me that same feeling.

You've reminded me of my own early impressions reading his books; Leslie's palatable sense of his delight on the words. Was Charteris drawing from earlier gentlemen-adventurer characters when he created Simon Templar?

Young Leslie was very well-read and I think a lot of the momentum for the Saint came from his fondness for Chums magazine, which featured a lot of adventure stories and was something he read in his formative years. I don’t think he was directly inspired by the likes of Bulldog Drummond and The Lone Wolf when he created the Saint, but I have my suspicions he may well have read one or two of them and thought he could do better.

Clearly Templar resonated and the works have had much more longevity than many creations by other authors. [Below: Charteris on camera 1939].

What did Charteris bring to his stories and creation that reflected his own unique point of view and experiences?

Leslie imbued the Saint with a lot of his thoughts and philosophies. Both were outsiders and both shared a desire to prick pomposity and where possible tweak the nose of the establishment. Leslie said of the Saint “certainly he thinks pretty much like I do” but there was also a healthy degree of creative license involved.

Both loved to travel. There was a period in the 50s and 60s, after Leslie had married his fourth wife Audrey, that everywhere that Leslie and Audrey went the Saint was sure to go.

What sort of elements of his life were you focusing on when you wrote your book?

For many years—decades even—Leslie had closely guarded his privacy and what was known of his life—in books such as Lofts and Adley’s The Saint and Leslie Charteris—was what he wanted to be known. I wanted to fill in the gaps; I wanted to discover more about his family, his time in Singapore and certainly more about what he got up to in Hollywood. He would have been equally horrified and fascinated by what I discovered, but I think even he would have agreed that it’s a story worth telling.

Were there any discoveries that really stood out for you? Did anything come as a surprise?

A number of things... I was fascinated with what I found out about his father’s family—there’s definitely a high-achievement gene in the mix somewhere there; I love the poem he had published in a national newspaper at the age of nine and a half and I had great fun discovering the real-life elements that appeared and influenced the adventures of the Saint.

Small things as well though -had his plans to open a curry restaurant in Hollywood in the mid-1940s come together then this book, and indeed the story of the Saint, might have been very different.

I think my biggest surprise was discovering an unfinished Saint story. Leslie had, by his own admission, a “sordid commercial mind” so naturally if he was going to write a story, it was going to be finished and it was going to be sold. Except this one slipped through the cracks.

That's an exciting discovery! Were you able to include any photographs or visual artifacts?

There are quite a few photos in the book, including one from his pilot’s licence (when he was just twenty two years old), one of him in his Lagonda and a rare one of his very good friend, radio scriptwriter Bruce Taylor. Plus there’s plenty that aren’t in the book that I will find a home for at some stage. [Ian Dickerson with Leslie Charteris 1992].

You’ve been involved in Saint projects for quite some time now. How did this all come about?

After Leslie died his widow Audrey encouraged me to keep the Saint Club going. This was at a time when the internet was starting to take off, so I set up websites, social media accounts and generally kept the thing ticking over. As is always the way with the Saint, requests to use the logo, to reprint the books, to adapt the books for television, came in from time to time and Audrey encouraged me to get involved and to respond to many of them on her behalf.

What are some of the other projects you’ve created or overseen?

Well I’ve written a number of books including The Saint on TV and The Saint on the Radio -the content of which I’m sure you can figure out. And, probably sooner rather than later given the way things are moving with the new film, I will at some stage finish up The Saint in the Movies and The Saint in Comics as well.

I’ve also edited two volumes of the radio scripts that Leslie and Denis Green wrote for the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce long running radio version of Sherlock Holmes. Doing that inspired me to write a history of Sherlock Holmes on American radio, which was published last December.

As an offshoot to the Saint work it was whilst researching the old black and white Saint films that I became intrigued by the adventures of the Falcon who, in certain incarnations, was very Saintly. So I wrote a book about him called Who is the Falcon?

I wrote, produced and directed a number of documentaries for Network DVD on the making of The Saint TV shows which initially went as extras on the box sets but have now been given their standalone release.

A few years ago I oversaw the reprints of the original Saint books for Mulholland in the UK and Thomas & Mercer in the USA which was fun, for I had the bright idea of getting people to write introductions to them. It was fascinating to discover the effect the books have had on people.

I was co-producer on the 2017 TV movie of The Saint, which starred Adam Rayner and I believe is still available on Netflix.

So many fantastic projects! I think we're all very fortunate that you have been able to bring your passion and respect for the work as a custodian, creator, and advocate for Leslie's legacy. How has the response to your new book been so far?

Very encouraging. I first mooted the idea of a biography just after Leslie died, and whilst I worked on it and pitched it to various people over the years I was increasingly afraid it would read like a patchwork rather than a cohesive story. Thankfully the team at Spiteful Puppet and Chinbeard have helped me tell a fascinating story.

Where can readers find it?
You can order it online, direct from the publishers here. And they’re having a 20% off sale which runs until early March [use code "2020"].

Great timing! I see that stock is low, so Spy Vibers should order quickly to guarantee a copy of the book. Ian, thanks so much for chatting with me today. I look forward to hearing more as new projects develop. Spy Vibers can read our 2015 interview about The Saint on Radio here. John Buss and I interviewed Return of the Saint star, Ian Ogilvy, here. Ian's fantastic documentary Saint Steps In... To Television here. [Below: some of Ian Dickerson's projects].

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1 comment:

  1. Ian Dickerson is the perfect person to pen these comprehensive and insightful books on the Saint's various incarnations. Ian knew Leslie, shared considerable time and space with the witty and engaging gentleman who created Simon Templar, and was remarkably generous to me thirty years ago when I began working on "THE SAINT- A Complete History." Of course, it really wasn't complete -- but as close as I could get. Ian Dickerson has done what I always hoped someone would do-- dig deeper, reveal more and stimulate continued appreciation of both The Saint and Leslie Charteris. I am eager to read the Charteris biography. I'm sure it is as excellent as Ian's other published works. -- Burl Barer