Screenwriter was one of ours

16:00, Mar 29 2014
alan sharp
GIFTED STORYTELLER: Scottish scriptwriter and novelist Alan Sharp was once described by a film critic as Britain’s greatest living screenwriter.

Moral ambiguity, mixed motives, irony and sex. According to Scottish screenwriter Alan Sharp, these are the ingredients a story needs to make a decent screenplay.

I talked to him a year ago in his last interview, and he died a few weeks later, aged 78. There was little fanfare in the New Zealand press, which seemed a great pity, given that the New York Times saw fit to run a lengthy obituary on Sharp's remarkable career, and his story was our story, too.

After all, Sharp did much of his best work while perched on a wind-swept rock in the Hauraki Gulf. A former shipyard worker from the tough Scottish port town of Greenock, he bought a house on Kawau Island in 1983 and came here to write every summer.

"I've got a house with three acres on the beach with its own jetty" he told me in a Scottish burr as thick and warm as porridge. "This place is my turangawaewae. It's six miles from land, with no shops or roads. You have to go across to Warkworth for your grub."

Sharp by name, sharp by nature. In common with other working-class Scots I've known, Sharp didn't hedge around the heather, and his assessment of his own skills was unusually blunt.

"All the things I've written are pastiche, and I get work because I'm a reliable craftsman. It's like being a plumber: you come in, do a tidy job, and you're not a prick to deal with, so people hire you again."


Others had a far higher opinion of Sharp's achievements. British film critic Trevor Johnston, declared him "Britain's greatest living screenwriter", a man so gifted that his first five scripts were filmed back-to-back during the early 70s.

The Last Run starred George C Scott as a retired Mafia driver recalled for one last job. A scathing Vietnam War allegory, Ulzana's Raid featured Burt Lancaster as a grizzled army scout; in one infamous scene, Apache warriors play catch with a captured messenger's still-warm heart. Another western, Billy Two Hats, starred Gregory Peck and used uncontrollable stuttering as a plot device. Peter Fonda's 1971 directorial debut, The Hired Hand, was an ultra-violent "psychedelic western" written by Sharp. And best of the bunch is 1975 detective flick Night Moves, starring Gene Hackman as a private eye overflowing with self-loathing.

It's a remarkable body of Americana to fall from the pen of a part-time New Zealander from Greenock. "Well, I used to watch a lot of westerns and detective movies as a kid," he said. "You can layer in a lot of themes from higher forms of literature into a noir thriller before pretentiousness cracks it open. All you need are good guys, bad guys, violent conflict, clear narrative lines and a climax near the end."

Alongside a stack of television scripts, Sharp wrote more than 20 other films, including 2008 NZ/UK production Dean Spanley, directed by Toa Fraser and starring Peter O'Toole and Sam Neill, and 1995 box office hit, Rob Roy.

A fan of Sharp's movies since film school, Rob Roy producer Richard Jackson spent 48 hours in cars, planes and boats to get to Kawau Island to discuss the project. Sharp immediately hauled the jet-lagged traveller out into the gulf in his yacht and they capsized heading into open seas. The deal was sealed, one imagines, in dripping clothes.

Moral ambiguity, mixed motives, irony and sex. Sharp's personal life was almost as dramatic as his screenplays. He had six children with four different women, including Booker-nominated novelist Beryl Bainbridge, who modelled the pathologically unfaithful Scottish playwright in her 1975 novel, Sweet William, on him.

"I didn't exaggerate his character," Bainbridge later told an interviewer. "If anything I toned him down."

Sharp was busy, right to the end. He told me his office was crammed with unfinished scripts.

"As a final challenge, I'd love to write about Rudolf Hess, a fascinating dude who got stuck in Spandau Prison for coming up with a peace proposal. I've tried to get people interested in a movie about that, but it seems the sympathetic Nazi is still a bridge too far."

Indeed. This was one story Britain's greatest living scriptwriter never got the chance to tell before that title passed to someone else.

He died within weeks of our conversation, and while fulsome tributes flowed elsewhere around the globe, his death went largely unremarked in the South Pacific bolthole that was his second home for 30 years.

Twelve months on, the Kawau Island house is on the market and his scripts are boxed up, awaiting shipment to the new Alan Sharp Film Studies Department at the University of Dundee. Aside from a scattering of local friends remembering him on the anniversary of his death, it's almost as if Sharp was never here.

Sunday Star Times