An Interview with Francis Durbridge
Francis Durbridge on Desert Island Discs

An Interview with Francis Durbridge (1979)

In January 1979 Francis Durbridge (FD) met an Italian journalist Renee Reggiani (RR) who was writing about thrillers and who subsequently sent him 16 questions about his work to which he replied in writing as follows:

RR: During our pleasant lunch in London you told me that some time ago you had a call from Dino De Laurentis in Rome and he had asked you to write a film script for his company. I remember that you answered that you had important and pressing things to do and added “I have to meet my son”. An elegant manner, spiced with a pinch of the well-known British sense of humour, of saying no. Did you say no to Dino de Laurentis with regard to that particular film or films in general?

FD: My meeting with Dino de Laurentis, which took place in Rome many years ago, was both pleasant and rewarding. He wanted me to stay in Rome for several weeks and write a Film treatment for him, based on a story he had already purchased. I was unable to do this because I had to return to England for an interview with a school master, concerning the entry of one of my sons into a public school. Dino was disappointed at my inability to stay in Rome as suggested but he fully understood the importance of my appointment in England.

Had my appointment been with another film producer I doubt whether he would have been so understanding! I agreed to write the script for him and did so, in England. The film was never made – for reasons which had nothing to do with the script.

RR: As is well known, you are a TV writer par excellence; your thriller serials enjoy universal success, but a most particular and great success in Italy – a success equalled, perhaps, only in the serials of a previous century with the illustrious signatures of Dumas the elder, George Sand, Balzac, Dickens, Collins etc. Many of these contained elements of detective fiction without actually being such in the proper and modern sense of the word – the only exception being Wilkie Collins. The difference, but also the similarity, between serials of those days and those which are transmitted now by the mass media, is great.

What would you think was the substantial difference, and even more importantly, similarity, between them?

FD: I don’t really think there is a substantial difference between the serials and novels written by the masters of the past – Dumas the elder, George Sand, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, etc. Many of the novels written by these great writers have been adapted for Television and Radio with considerable success. The reason being that basically they are not just well written novels but are interesting stories with fascinating characters and with an unmistakable element of mystery.

Even the non-mystery novels like David Copperfield have that strange feeling of suspense.
Anthony Shaffer, the well-known author of Sleuth in talking about my work said “The TV serial writer gives himself a proposition, however absurd, but he works hard and in the end he gets there. Its not unlike it was with Dickens. He too had to hook his readers.”

Somerset Maugham is another writer whose work is nearly always successful when adapted into another medium; stage, television or radio. Once again, the reason being that Maugham had a tremendous sense of drama and did not sacrifice his story for philosophical or political side issues. The story and characters being his main interest.

If there is a difference between the work of the past century and the present day I think it is mainly in the area of ‘speed’ of presentation. It is essential today on both Television and Radio to present the story without any ‘frills’. After all, the TV viewer and Radio listener – unlike the book reader – cannot skip the boring passages in the story, should there be any!

RR: In Italy the best known Durbridge serials are: The Scarf, Melissa, A Game of Murder, Bat Out of Hell, A Man Called Harry Brent, The Doll, etc etc., but you have also written all these as books. Before or after the TV works? Why?

FD: Almost all my novels are based on either my TV plays or radio serials. The novels always appear after the presentation of the serial or play. When my serials are televised or broadcast I frequently receive letters from viewers and listeners asking if they can read the script of the play since they missed a particular episode. It was mainly for this reason - many years ago - that I decided to turn my plays into novels.

RR: You are certainly an author who ‘starts’ from TV or radio, or in any case from a mass medium, and therefore one presumes that the idea is born in dramatised form. I know that you also write for the theatre. The theatre has such great limitations, where it is difficult to bridge times and, even more difficult, places, as one can do in TV. In what way does this obstacle, or any other, pose difficulties in writing thrillers for the theatre?

FD: It is true that I have written for various media. Television, Radio and the Theatre etc. each medium provides its own problems and difficulties. I enjoy writing for television and the Theatre more than any of the other mediums. Nevetheless, writing for the theatre becomes increasingly difficult because of the high cost of production. It is almost essential these days in writing a stage play to constantly keep in mind the limitations of the medium. One must have as few characters as possible and certainly no more than two sets.

From a writer’s point of view this can of course be frustrating, but it is also a challenge. My two most successful stage plays Suddenly at Home and The Gentle Hook had only one set and a limited number of characters.

RR: In England thrillers are popular in the theatre, even though not all of them achieve the incredible success of The Mousetrap (an unbeaten record). Your plays Suddenly at Home and The Gentle Hook have had great successes and been presented in many countries in Europe. In Italy theatres don’t do thrillers, certainly not any of the big companies. Do you think that this depends on the lack of tradition, or can it be that some of us, still consider the detective work as a lesser genre (wrongly in my opinion), or does it depend generally on the taste of the public? And yet the people in Italy love a thriller, whether in literature, on TV or in the cinema.

FD: Frankly, I don’t understand why thrillers in the theatre are not popular in Italy in view of their success and popularity on TV and Radio. I suspect that this has nothing whatsoever to do with lack of tradition or that some people consider the detective/thriller play of lesser importance than other dramatic material.

I have a feeling that at some point in time a theatre producer suffered a heavy financial loss through offering the public a bad production of an inferior thriller. Consequently theatre managers are reluctant to try again. A stage thriller requires a serious production; careful casting; and a top-ranking director. Ira Levin’s new thriller is a big success on Broadway and also in London. Both productions have been mounted with great care, directed by two top directors and the main character played in both instances by first class actors – actors usually associated with the classical roles. National Theatre actors.

RR: To what can we attribute this provincial judgment on the part of some Italians to consider the thriller a lesser genre? It is nothing of the kind; it is just different. And, of course, in the genre itself there are good and bad works. In my book I am only considering the best examples.

FD: It is true that some people consider the detective story a lesser genre. There are of course people who quite genuinely dislike the work of popular authors. Just as there are people who are bored with Shakespeare – but of course would never admit it! So far as disliking thrillers is concerned I think in many instances it’s a ‘snob/intellectual’ complex. They probably read thrillers avidly whilst having Proust and Dostoevsky on the coffee table. This, I assure you, is not in any way peculiar to Italy.

RR: Many important writers of detective fiction consider the thriller as a minor genre because they feel it might fall into rhetoric, something from which a straight detective work is free. Do you share this opinion, or do you think differently?

FD: In my opinion the line between a good thriller and a good detective story should be pretty difficult to detect. To my way of thinking the main character in a good thriller should be concerned not only with suspense and action but also with deduction/detective work. Surely the best thrillers have this quality? And the best detective stories have action and suspense in support of detection.

RR: To come back to the serials of a previous age, when people used to fight to obtain the latest issue of the journal in which the serial was published; the same happens in TV today when the serial excites the public interest; people await the next instalment with bated breath, neglecting all else. What, for you – the master in the field – constitutes ‘suspense’?

FD: My definition of suspense? Suspense, to my way of thinking, is when a TV viewer, or Radio listener, or reader – feels that he is personally involved in the drama on hand. When he – or she -feels that what is happening to the main character in the story could so easily happen to themselves. They are terrified! “My goodness, this could be me! I could very easily be in this predicament!”.

RR: I am a great believer in the process of detection, more than the final discovery of the perpetrator, and I think that this is even more valid in a TV or radio serial than a book. What is your opinion?

FD: I agree with your comment. The perpetrator of the crime must only be revealed through the process of detection. But in a dramatic presentation – TV, Radio, Theatre – the process of detection must be an integral part of the dramatic action and not just a ‘long winded’ exposition by the main character.

RR: You have not concentrated on creating a ‘single’ personality of the type of Maigret or Nero Wolfe. I wonder why? Did you want above all, to remain Durbridge (as has happened) and not a particular character, or was there some other reason?

FD: It is true that I have not concentrated solely on the presentation of a particular character. On the other hand my character of Paul Temple had become probably the best known of all radio detectives. The Temple adventures have been broadcast from almost every country in Europe over the years. An article in the Guardian described the character of Paul Temple in the following terms:

“He writes successful novels but is better known for his criminal connections. His favourite drink is a dry, a very dry, martini. He is intelligent, assured, sophisticated, compassionate and he has always been blissfully married to an intelligent and attractive lady called Steve. You will no doubt by this time have recognised Paul Temple the BBC’s longest established serial hero”.

Apart from Paul Temple I also created the character of Tim Fraser. A new Tim Fraser novel entitled Tim Fraser Gets the Message has just been published in England and will no doubt find its way into the book shops in Italy when it is accepted for publication.

RR: What do you consider the best, or strangest coup de theatre or dramatic moment in your various productions?

FD: This is a very difficult question to answer.
I am very fond of the development – incident – which occurs very early on in the first episode of A Man Called Harry Brent.

“The girl had the flowers when she left the train and she had them when she got out of the first taxi. But she hadn’t got them when she picked up the second cab in the High Steet. Both drivers are remarkably clear on that point.”

“Because she had given them to someone?”

“Right, Mr Brent. So the big question is, who? Who did she give them to?”

Carol had swung her legs to the floor and was following the conversation with interest. The colour was coming back into her cheeks.

“Alan, is there a hospital or nursing home at Helford Bridge?”

The Inspector turned with a smile to his former fiancée. “No, Carol. We did think of that. There isn’t”.

Eric Vyner inspected the now empty bowl of his pipe and thrust it into the baggy pocket of his tweed jacket.

“There’s a cemetery, of course.”

“A cemetery?”

Alan Milton’s tone was not exactly one of surprise so much as consternation. He had just realised that even he was capable of missing an obvious fact that was staring him in the face. Vyner watched his reactions almost apologetically. “Yes. By St Mary’s Church. I was just thinking. You know – flowers, cemetery. It can’t be much more than five minutes’ walk from Helford Bridge.”

RR: It is obvious that you see your thrillers vividly in your imagination, and so I think it must be difficult for you to adjust to seeing them realised because productions can sometimes bring disappointment. What is your reaction normally when watching a transmission of a Durbridge work?

FD: I take an active part in most of my productions – visiting the rehearsal rooms, studios etc –
I also watch my plays on TV with obvious interest, but it must be realised that by the time they appear on screen I have seen several rehearsals and in many instances been present when the final performance has taken place. I cannot honestly say that I enjoy watching my plays. I always feel professionally involved – rather like one of the actors – and on the lookout for any possible flaw in the production.

This doesn’t mean that a first-rate production – (and I have been well served by many directors and producers) – doesn’t give me a great deal of pleasure. It certainly does.

RR: Your attitude to the ‘Woman’ is positive, and above all, calm and balanced; one clearly senses that your male characters are not ‘afraid’ of the woman. Perhaps it is because you have chosen not to portray ‘Supermen’ – like Sherlock Holmes, Philo Vance or Nero Wolfe, where the woman only serves to bolster the hero’s personality. Why have you not chosen a ‘superman’?

FD: I’m delighted to hear that you think my attitude to the ‘Woman’ is positive and above all, calm and balanced!
I don’t think I could create what you call a ‘Superman’. I certainly wouldn’t get much enjoyment out of doing so. I try very hard to make the characters in my plays true to life. I feel that a great deal of the suspense is generated by the fact that the TV viewer and Radio listener can identify themselves with the people involved.

One of the best-known London dramatic critics – Milton Shulman of the Standard – made this point when he said…

“A Francis Durbridge serial derives its popularity and power from the credibility of his characters and the ingenuity of his plots”.

Francis Durbridge on Desert Island Discs (1968)

Francis Durbridge (FD) was invited to appear as the guest on BBC’s Desert island Discs. Interviewed by Roy Plomley (RP)the creator of the long running radio programme it was broadcast on 8th July 1968.


RP: Now our castaway this week ladies and gentlemen is a writer of thrillers especially for radio and television; its Francis Durbridge. Are you a musical person Francis?

FD: Er- no I would say I’m not.

RP: Do you ever use music as background when you’re writing?

FD: No I, at one time, disliked hearing any sort of noise, music or otherwise, but now I…I’ve changed a little bit and I don’t think music would worry me unduly. I like listening to music, but I really have no special knowledge of it at all.

RP: What would you want music to do for you in isolation?

FD: Well I think in -er -in extreme isolation like on a desert island I would like it to comfort me, I would like … like the music to give me a nostalgic feeling. I would like it to recall past events and people and cities and places.

RP: Mmm – what’s that first disc you’ve chosen on that pile there?

FD: Well the first disc is from the musical show CABARET, because I have always enjoyed music shows both here and America and I think this is probably a very good example of the sort of thing I have enjoyed.


RP: Jill Haworth singing CABARET -what’s your second choice?

FD: My second choice is a Chopin Nocturne.

RP: Why do you choose that?

FD: Because many years ago, about ten years ago when I was abroad actually, in Venice, I was trying to write a play and someone across… the Grand Canal was always playing the piano and this particular Nocturne I’ve picked was what they were playing. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but my wife told me what it was and I said ‘”I wish she’d stop playing”, but gradually I rather liked it and – er – although I didn’t do very much work I used to sit back and listen to it. I think it would have a rather nostalgic feeling for me if I was on a desert island.


RP: Artur Rubenstein playing the opening of Chopin’s Nocturne No 1 in D Flat Minor. What part of the country do you come from?

FD: Well I was born in Yorkshire but I spent most of my life in the Midlands and in London, or near London.

RP: Yes – were you a voracious reader as a youngster?

FD: Yes I was, yes. I used to read a great deal. Especially between the ages of – er – what fifteen and twenty.

RP: Mmm – When did you begin to write as a hobby first of all?

FD: Well I started when I was twelve – short stories and – er – this sort of developed and I made up my mind at a comparatively early age that I wanted to be a professional writer and I never really changed my mind. I just sort of went ahead with it.

RP: You wrote a play while you were still at school.

FD: Yes I did, yes.

RP: Was it performed?

FD: Yes, it was performed. It was very very long. I think that was the chief merit, the fact that it was long; looking back on it it also had a very complicated plot, which probably isn’t unusual for me at any rate.

RP: You went to Birmingham University. What did you read?

FD: I read economics and – er – English Literature, but I didn’t take a degree.

RP: Any theatricals at university?

FD: Yes, whilst I was there I .. I - er – acted in a revue which I was part author of. I … we did quite a few revues and they were very popular and – er I used to take part in them and write a lot of the sketches and so on and it was whilst I was appearing in a revue that Martyn Webster who has produced a lot of my radio plays saw me in this revue and he telephoned me the next day and said “Well I think you’re a terrible actor, but I like the material and have you ever thought of writing for radio.”

RP: Yes

FD: And that is how it all more or less started.

RP: So that enabled you to go straight from university to being a full time writer?

FD: Well just as I was finishing at university I wrote a play called  - PROMOTION – which was a play about life in a department store and Martyn produced this and it was ... it was sort of .. everyone liked it. And from that moment I … the doors began to sort of open. I was very lucky in that respect.

PR: And radio kept you busy?

FD: Very busy yes.

RP: When was Paul Temple born?

FD: Well Paul Temple first started in 19.. I think in 1938 I think it was, yes 1938 – April 1938. And – er – well he’s been going ever since.

RP: Yes. He began as a serial – straight away.

FD: Always as a serial.

RP: Yes. And I believe Martyn Webster has produced the lot.

FD: He’s done the lot, it’s quite incredible really, because there’s been about sixteen Temple serials of half… of eight episodes and one of ten episodes and he’s never once missed – er- he’s never missed a rehearsal or a production of an episode through illness or anything. It really is remarkable.

RP: Well we’ll talk some more about Paul Temple in a minute. In the meantime let’s have another record.

FD: Well I’d like to hear SO I HEAR A WALTZ which again is more or less song music and it’s the sort of thing I’d personally go for, although it probably labels me as being a bit of a square.

PR: Who is singing it?

FD: Sammy Davis junior.


RP: Sammy Davis junior singing a Richard Rogers tune DO I HEAR A WALTZ. You told us there have been about sixteen Paul Temple serials. How many Paul Temple’s have there been?

FD: Oh there have been quite a lot of actors playing Paul Temple. Of course it started with Hugh Morton, who was very successful. And then they went on to – er – Carl Bernard, he made a very good Temple. Then we had Howard Marion Crawford, Richard Williams and Kim Peacock who played it for many years. Now at the present moment it is being played by Peter Coke.

RP: And Steve? Always Marjorie Westbury?

FD: No not always Marjorie. We – er – originally it was a girl called Bernadette Hodgson. And then after I think three serials Marjorie Westbury took the part over and has been playing it ever since.

RP: Paul Temple has never been on television has he?

FD: Not yet. No.

RP: Although your best known creation, Paul Temple has only been a small part of your output. When did you start writing for television?

FD: I started writing for television about 18 years ago. The first show was called THE BROKEN HORSESHOE. I think – I’m not sure about this – but I think it was probably the first serial on television in this country.

RP: How many television serials since?

FD: Well if you count the Tim Fraser saga, or whatever you like to call it, of three, then I think I have written 16 television serials.

RP: Which means getting on for 90 half-hour plays. That’s a lot of screen time.

FD: Well I try very hard not to think of it in that… like that. I think I’d probably have a nervous breakdown if I thought I’d written that much.

RP: Let’s have your next record. Number Four

FD: Number Four, which is the – er – Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5.

RP: Why do you choose that?

FD: Well because a little while ago I suddenly decided I really knew very little about serious music and I thought I’d like to listen to some serious music. And my wife, who knows a great deal more about these things than I do, bought the long-playing record and she said “Well here it is, get on with it”. So I listened to it and I found I enjoyed it, and that’s why I’d like to hear it again.


RP: A section from the third movement of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto, The Emperor, with Wilhelm Kempe at the piano and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Francis, your radio and television plays are broadcast in many countries, aren’t they?

FD: Yes, they are. Yes indeed, yes. On the Continent and in the Commonwealth.

RP: A universal appeal. Why do you think this is?

FD: Well I think it’s because the .. the way in which the plays are very closely knit and devised, and because I think that the characters in the plays are the sort of characters which are, well, easily recognised and understood, not only in this country but in other countries as well.

RP: Yes. There’s the touch of genius in the suspenseful endings you .. you find for each episode. Do you ever think of an ending and work back to get there?

FD: Never. Never do that, no. I don’t think it would work. You see, I think a little too much emphasis is put on the actual ending in this respect. That unless you can hold an audience right through the half hour, or whatever the .. the ep .. length of the episode, they are not going to be interested in the ending however dramatic or whatever suspense there is in it. They’ve got to be carried along with the movement of the actual episode. In fact I once wrote an episode, the first episode of a television serial called THE OTHER MAN, and it had no highly dramatic ending to the first episode. It had no, what is commonly called, a cliff-hanger. And yet it was one of the most successful serials I ever did because, the people were interested in the characters and in the actual progress of the story.

RP: Yes

FD: The ending of the episode is important, but its not so important that you could start with it and work backwards. At least I couldn’t.

RP: Mm. I believe in this country – er – you insist that the actors in radio are never allowed to see future installments of…

FD: Well, I don’t insist on this. This was an idea developed with the director and its been used to a certain degree in television too. But I .. I .. it’s not an idea which ever really … It think it .. it served its purpose in the early days of radio certainly, but you couldn’t possibly .. you can’t do it in television for the simple reason that there is so much filming and its taken out of sequence and very frequently you film the ending, before the actors have even rehearsed the first episode.

RP: Yes. You rely on the integrity of the actor not to .. to leak the name of the victim before the next broadcast.

FD: Oh clearly.

RP: Are you a systematic worker? Do you work so many hours a day?

FD: Well I am systematic insofar as I go to my desk every morning fairly early, usually about half-part 8. And I sit down at my desk, but I wouldn’t like to say that I .. every day I do a lot of work. I mean some mornings it’s much easier than others.

RP: When you are building a plot, do you still sit at your desk, or do you like to walk around?

FD: Well, I start by sitting at the desk, then  if I come up against a sort of – er – a point beyond which I really feel that my .. imagination stops and I can’t develop the story, then I usually roam around and drink coffee and go for a drive in the car and become irritable and fall out with people and this sort of thing.

RP: How technical is your knowledge of crime? Are you a criminologist?

FD: No. I’m not a criminologist. No I make .. I .. I ..I do research and get people to do research for me so that whatever aspect in my story is relating to crime and police work is correct. But I make no .. no pretence to be a criminologist myself. Not in any way. I’m just a professional writer of suspense stories.

RP: Do you ever feel that you want to tackle something a little deeper than suspense stories?

FD: I never stop feeling other than that. One .. I mean I think all writers, I think, want .. like actors, they always want to play the big part or write the big book or write the big dramatic play for the National Theatre. I think we all have this sort of feeling, you know. But – er -  I .. I write suspense stories and I enjoy writing them. They are successful and – er – I hope I can go on doing that. And I hope maybe one day I will write something which is better.

RP: Have you written for the theatre?

FD: A long long time ago.

RP: Let’s have record number five now.

FD: Which is Mickey Rooney singing MANHATTAN.

RP: Why do you choose that?

FD: Because I think if I was on a desert island I would want to recall happy memories of places, and I’ve had some very happy times in New York with some very dear friends of mine. And I think this tune does recall, to me at any rate, all the hurly-burly of that big city.


RP: Mickey Rooney singing ‘Manhattan’ from the soundtrack of ‘Words and Music’. Where do we go now?

FD: Well, I think we’ve got ‘Scheherazade’ which was the original music for Paul Temple.

RP: Was it?

FD: Er – before it was changed to ‘Coronation Scot’ I actually .. this was picked by Martyn Webster, not myself, and – er – I like the music of ‘Scheherzade’ very much, and I am sure that in listening to it I would recall some of the happy days we had in the early Temple days with Martyn and Marjorie Westbury and the cast and – er – well I would like to hear it again.


RP: An excerpt from the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’. The Royal Philharmonic conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. How well could you take loneliness?

FD: Complete loneliness, I don’t think I could take it very well at all, quite frankly. I think I would be very unhappy.

RP: Could you look after yourself?

FD: Er- no.

RP: No?

FD: No.

RP: As flatly as that?

FD: Yes. Oh quite definitely. Be a complete wash-out in that .. in that connection.

RP: What about – er – food? Any useful assets like fishing or …

FD: No, I’m very good with a tin opener, but apart from that I don’t think I’d get very far.

RP: Would you try to escape?

FD: Yes.

RP: So you know a bit about boat building or navigation.

FD: I think I’d find out pretty quickly.

RP: Do you have a religious faith that would sustain you on this island?

FD: Yes, I have. I think I have. Yes, I have. Yes.

RP: Let’s have your seventh record.

FD: Well the seventh record is .. is a Noel Coward – er – Noel Coward singing ‘Nina’. I have always enjoyed Noel Coward’s work, both in the theatre and on records. And I think it’s a very attractive voice, and I am sure that I would find great comfort in listening to some of the very witty lyrics that he’s written, and I think ‘Nina’ is one of the best.


RP: The voice of Noel Coward. What’s your last record?

FD: Well the last record again, is a rec .. is a tune from a show, which I saw and enjoyed enormously and I thought this particular number was awfully well done by Jack Cassidy and – er – I went with some very good friends of mine in America who took me to see the show, and I know that in listening to it I should feel very much - er - feel very sad at the thought that I was on an island and this would probably inspire me to make a determined effort to get off it.

RP: You haven’t told me what the show is.

FD: The show was SHE LOVES ME and the tune, or the number, is ‘Ilona’.


RP: Jack Cassidy singing ‘Ilona’ as he did in the New York production of SHE LOVES ME. If you could take only one of the eight records you’ve played to us, which would it be?

FD: The Beethoven.

RP: The Beethoven ‘Emperor’. And one luxury to take with you to the island.

FD: A painting. A picture.

RP: Mm. What?

FD: Oh, I think any picture – oh well not any picture. But – er – the painting by Matisse. I’m very fond of one, called ‘The Open Window’ but there’s a lot of space in that and I think I’d probably find that a little irritating on the island. So I’d probably take ‘Still Life with Oriental Rug’, another painting by Matisse.

RP: Yes. Where is it?

FD: Oh. Oh dear. I think its in Grenoble.

RP: Alright we will try to get it for you.

FD: I’m not sure, but I think it is.

RP: And one book.

FD: I would choose the Collected Plays of Bernard Shaw and the Prefaces

RP: Alright. You shall have them. And thank you, Francis Durbridge, for letting us hear your desert islands discs.

FD: Thank you, Roy Plomley.

RP: Goodbye everyone.


Reproduced by kind permission of the BBC