Something we do all too rarely on Fully Booked, mea culpa, is to feature articles and reviews by guest writers. I am delighted that an old mate of mine, Stuart Radmore (we go back to the then-down-at-heel Melbourne suburbs of Carlton and Parkville in the 1970s, where he was a law student and I was teaching art at Wesley College) has written this feature on a writer who, as an individual, never actually existed. Stuart’s knowledge of crime fiction is immense, and so I will let him take up the story.
P.B Yuill was the transparent alias of Gordon Williams and Terry Venables, who in the early to mid 1970s wrote a number of novels together. Gordon Williams (1934-2017) and pictured below, started out as a straight novelist, but over time would turn his hand to almost anything literary – thrillers, SF screenplays, even ghosted footballer’s memoirs. Terry Venables (b. 1943) was at this time described as “top football star already worth over £150,000 in transfer fees”.
Their first joint outing (published under their own names) was They Used To Play On Grass (1971). Described, not incorrectly, on the paperback cover as “the greatest soccer novel ever”, it’s still an enjoyable read, with each man’s contribution being pretty obvious.
Next up was The Bornless Keeper (1974), published under the name of PB Yuill. A credible horror/thriller, set in modern times.
“Peacock Island lies just off the English south coast. But it could belong to an earlier century; its secret overgrown coverts, its strange historic legends are maintained and hidden by the rich old lady who lives there as a recluse.”.
If the tale now seems overfamiliar – the moody locals, the over-inquisitive visiting film crew, the one person who won’t be told not to go out alone – it’s partly because these elements, perhaps corny even then, have been over-used in too many slasher movies since. Although credited to P.B Yuill, the setting and theme of the novel reads as the work of Gordon Williams alone
Now to Hazell. There are three Hazell novels, published by Macmillan in 1974, ’75 and ’76 – Hazell Plays Solomon, Hazell and the Three Card Trick, and Hazell and the Menacing Jester.
The premise of the first novel is original; James Hazell, ex-copper and self-described “biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell button” is hired by a London woman, now wealthy and living in the US, to confirm her suspicion that her child was switched for another shortly after its birth in an East London maternity hospital. Clearly, there can be no happy ending to such enquiries, and the story leads to dark places and deep secrets.
The next two novels are a little lighter in tone, but still deal with the grittier side of London life. In Three Card Trick a man has apparently suicided by jumping in front of a Tube train. His widow doesn’t accept this – there is the insurance to consider – and hires Hazell to prove her right.
In Menacing Jester we are on slightly more familiar PI ground; a millionaire and his wife are apparently the victims of a practical joker. Or is there something more sinister behind it?
All three novels contain plenty of sex, violence and local colour – card sharps, clip joint hostesses, Soho drinking dens – and the authors were clearly familiar with the more picturesque aspects of the London underworld and portray these with energy and humour. Readers looking for evidence of the “casual racism/sexism/whatever” of the 1970s will not come away empty-handed.
The authors were keen to develop the Hazell character into a possible TV series, and the later two books seem to be written with this in mind. This duly came to pass, via Thames Television, and the first series was broadcast in 1978, starring Nicholas Ball as a youthful James Hazell. Gordon Williams, with Venables (right) and other writers, was responsible for a number of the episodes (including ‘Hazell Plays Solomon’), and it remains a very watchable series. The second, and final, series broadcast in 1979/80 was not so successful. The hardness was gone, Hazell and Inspector ‘Choc’ Minty had become something of a double act and, while not outright comedy, it came close at times. It’s not surprising to learn that Leon Griffiths, one of the second series screenwriters, went on to create and develop the very successful series Minder later that year.
And that was about it. But there was to be a last hurrah for Hazell in print. Two Hazell annuals, “based on the popular television series”, appeared in 1978 and 1979. The tales in these books are surprisingly tough, bearing in mind the intended teenage readership. Hazell’s adventures are told via short stories and comic strips, and include strong-ish violence, blackmail and other criminality. While the contribution of “P. B Yuill” was probably nil, the stories are true to the feel of the first series of the TV programme.
To conclude: English fictional private eyes are a rare breed, and fewer still can claim to have begun as a literary, rather than television, creation. Hazell is among the best of these. The three novels rightly remain in print, and are eminently readable.
There is a postscript. There was one last appearance of P.B Yuill. In early 1981 ‘Arena’, a BBC2 documentary series, devoted a programme to the attempts of Williams and Venables to write a new Hazell adventure – tentatively entitled ‘Hazell and the Floating Voter’ – and it featured such worthies as John Bindon and Michael Elphick playing the part of Hazell. It’s never been broadcast since, and while it was pleasing to see the authors discussing the character of Hazell, in retrospect the programme seems like an excuse for a few days’ drinking on licence-payers’ money.