After the publication of Ice Station Zebra in 1963, Alistair MacLean’s adoring public had to wait three years for its successor – When Eight Bells Toll. As he done before, the author just quit. But unlike the previous disappearing act, when he continued to produce books under the pseudonym of Ian Stuart, this time nothing came down the prolific pipeline. The goose had laid its last golden egg.
After a five-year tax exile in Switzerland, MacLean had returned to Britain in 1962, setting up home first in Farnham, Surrey, followed by a brief hiatus in Ireland before settling down in a Georgian mansion with a two-acre estate in Haslemere, Surrey.
But as he delivered the manuscript of Ice Station Zebra to publisher Ian Chapman of Collins, he dropped a bombshell. He had made more than enough money. He was fed up with the high-and-mighty attitude of his editors. He was depressed by the sales of Fear Is The Key, which had been a writing breakthrough for him. He had written his last book. Now he was going to become a hotelier and to that end had bought the famous Jamaica Inn plus Bank House at Worcester and the Bean Bridge Hotel in Somerset.
The 400-year-old inn, immortalized by the Daphne Du Maurier book and Alfred Hitchcock film, was a solid going concern, takings from accommodation and food augmented by income from three bars and a souvenir shop. MacLean was a hands-on manager and felt immediately more at home dealing with real people than sitting in a lonely room pounding out his fiction. He had come to the conclusion that writing novels was “not a moral way of earning money.”
In dreaming the dream, he was especially particular, having inspected over 100 hotels before plumping for Jamaica Inn. He had the idea that hotel-keeping was in his blood. His younger brother Gillespie was a hotelier and since he could not afford a hotel of his own Alistair had bought him one near Fort William. Gillespie, however, was less than enthusiastic about the notion of operating three hotels far apart, and doubted his brother’s skills. Alistair showed little aptitude for running a business. He failed to understand the importance of stock-taking and before he could get to grips with the basics had already invested in a beer-making operation.
In despair he turned to his older brother Ian who was a high-flyer at Shell. Sensibly, Ian did not give up the day job but trying to keep an eye on a failing enterprise proved impossible. Alistair lacked people-management skills and was a poor judge of character. It was no surprise the hotels failed to flourish.
That Alistair MacLean returned to writing at all was the result of a leap of faith by producer Elliot Kastner who had parlayed $1,000 for the rights to Ross MacDonald novel The Moving Target and another $5,000 for a screenplay by William Goldman into a $3.3 million private eye picture Harper (1966) starring Paul Newman, along the way netting a cool half a million bucks for himself. In Britain to make Kaleidoscope (1966) with Warren Beatty, Kastner opened a production office at Pinewood. Aware that MacLean had no books to sell, his entire portfolio already snapped up and since his retirement nothing in the locker, he went down another route. He suggested MacLean write an original screenplay, offering $100,000 plus a share of the profits and the book rights.
Apart from the money they brought in, MacLean had not been too happy with Hollywood’s treatment of his novels. Richard Widmark had substantially altered The Secret Ways (1961), Carl Foreman had not only added characters to the film version of The Guns of Navarone (1961) but appeared to have appropriated the entire work and applied a possessive pronoun to the main title credits as if he had dreamed up the whole thing instead of just, as producer, putting the package together. The Satan Bug (1965), too, had been considerably changed and judging from the number of screenwriters hired for Ice Station Zebra, which had not gone before the cameras at this point, it was more than likely the producers had moved away from the Chayefsky treatment which MacLean had approved.
At least at the start, Kastner seemed trustworthy and his enthusiasm was flattering. After convincing the author that he had an ear for cinematic dialogue, and that his plots were ideal, Kastner handed MacLean some sample screenplays. Although MacLean was interested he told the producer he was too busy to commit right away. Assuming this was a reference to the hotels, Kastner was surprised to learn that, unbeknownst to Ian Chapman, MacLean had already renounced his retirement and was working on When Eight Bells Toll. A deal for Where Eagles Dare was struck on January 15, 1967. Eight weeks later MacLean delivered the screenplay.
Four years after apparently giving up writing forever, he had stumbled into a new career. And it wasn’t just Kastner queuing up to buy his work. Since “you can sell a picture just on the basis of his name,” Alistair MacLean remained a major attraction for filmmakers. By 1969 all 14 of his novels (up to Puppet on a Chain) had been bought for the movies, Ransohoff picking up the rights the previous year to The Golden Rendezvous, published in 1962, lining up MacLean for screenwriting duties. Another seven original screenplays, with book deals pending, had also been purchased by producers including two sequels to When Eight Bells Toll, a pirate tale Swashbuckler and a western Deakin (renamed Breakheart Pass).
He never quit again.
SOURCES: Jack Webster, Alistair MacLean (Chapmans, London, 1992 paperback) p118-132; “New York Sound Track,” Variety, My 8, 1968, p30; “Film Slump No Problem for Alistair MacLean,” Variety, p35.