Serial killer Archibald Hall, the ‘Monster Butler’, hoped screenwriter Paul Pender would write his story. Their relationship turned ugly, forcing Pender to flee to America. Ten years after Hall’s death, the tale is told in a new book by Pender and, soon, a film starring Malcolm McDowell. By Stephen McGinty
THE clear California sun is shining through the windows of Paul Pender’s elegant office in the Sovereign apartment block in the city of Santa Monica, Los Angeles, California. Built in the 1920s, the converted hotel, whose buttressed balconies and arched windows rise high above the palm trees below, is considered among the most beautiful buildings in this sprawling metropolis.
When Glaswegian screenwriter Pender first arrived 15 years ago in LA, he decided to follow the advice of his literary hero, Aldous Huxley, who, when screenwriting in Hollywood, preferred a plain room with bare white walls onto which the sun streamed. Yet over time the walls have filled up with testaments to his trade. On one wall is a framed picture from The Bogie Man, the BBC drama he adapted from a comic book – published in Glasgow – which starred Robbie Coltrane as an escaped mental patient convinced he was Bogart in The Big Sleep, trudging the mean streets of Glasgow. On another wall is a framed poster of Evelyn, his critically acclaimed film, based on a true story, which starred Pierce Brosnan as a father struggling to rescue his daughter from an Irish orphanage. Tucked behind his desk is a picture from Nacho Libre, the comedy starring Jack Black as a Mexican monk-turned-wrestler.
“I keep that behind me as it wasn’t necessarily a great experience,” says Pender, who wrote the first draft before watching as it was subsequently rewritten by four different people. “As I said, not a great experience, but certainly a well-paid one.” A nearby shelf is groaning evidence of this, the screenwriter’s lot, stuffed as it is with various scripts Pender himself has re-written or polished for anxious producers.
Yet the reason for our conversation is not a new film, but a book with a striking cover of a man with his hands behind his back, wearing white gloves spotted with blood. The Butler Did It: My True and Terrifying Encounters with a Serial Killer is Pender’s first book, which tells for the first time about his curious friendship with Archibald Hall, a butler, thief and murderer who was finally sentenced in 1977 to natural-life imprisonment for killing five people.
“He scared me witless and, in a way, I ended up fleeing to Los Angeles to escape him,” Pender says.
Born in Govan, the son of a postman and an unhappy mother who yearned for a better, more sophisticated life, Archibald Hall grew up entranced by the jewellery shops of the Argyll Arcade in Glasgow, determined to achieve the finer things in life both by hook and turning crook. Arrested in London for attempting to sell jewels he had stolen in Scotland, Hall served a short jail sentence during which he educated himself by a scrupulous reading of Burke’s Peerage and Who’s Who. Once out he took elocution lessons to remove the perceived stain of his Scots accent and changed his name to Roy Fontaine, a tribute both to Roy Rogers, whom his mother had once served on the star’s visit to the Glasgow Central Hotel, and the actress Joan Fontaine.
As Roy Fontaine, he was a promiscuous bi-sexual, an inventive conman who dressed as a Texan millionaire and an Arab sheikh and, finally, a murderous butler. In 1976, he was working for Margaret Hudson – a dowager who lived at Kirtleton House in Dumfriesshire. Hall – who had planned to rob her, but grew so fond of her that he relented – discovered that his former lover and the estate’s gamekeeper, David Wright, was threatening to expose him. Hall killed him and buried him by a stream in estate’s grounds.
He then moved back to London and the employ of Walter Scott-Elliot, a former Labour MP, and his wife Dorothy, wealthy landowners whom he planned to rob. However, when he was overheard by Dorothy Scott-Elliott plotting with an accomplice, Michael Kitto, it set in train a bloody spree which ended with the deaths of both the Scott-Elliotts, a prostitute – Mary Coggles, who assisted the pair and was then rewarded by being beaten to death with a poker – and Hall’s own half-brother, Donald, who had recently been released after serving a sentence for paedophilia, and who he hated because he saw him as the product of their beloved mother’s adultery.
It was curious phone call that united Pender and Hall. Shortly after the BBC broadcast The Bogie Man in 1992, Pender, who was then working as a script editor at BBC Scotland, received a telephone call from an Englishman who, once he realised he was speaking to the right person, launched into broad Glaswegian, and declared his love for The Bogie Man drama before insisting: “You’re the man to tell my story.”
For the next year, with the approval of Bill Bryden, head of drama at BBC Scotland, Pender made eight visits to Full Sutton prison in Yorkshire, where Hall was then detained, to interview him with a view to the BBC producing a six-part drama series based on his life and crimes.
Like a kind of Scots version of Silence of the Lambs, with Pender in the role of Clarice Starling and Hall as Hannibal Lecter, the pair bonded over tea and biscuits, Hall using almost perpetually pornographic language in which he detailed his lusts and conquests. An intelligent man who had studied the works of Nietzsche, he set about bending Pender to his will, manipulating him into smuggling in a £20 note in a box of cigarettes.
“As someone once said, evil seduces – it doesn’t rape. So he was very charming, although he is known as the ‘Monster Butler’ or the ‘Killer Butler’. To me he was always the charming butler. That was the bedrock of his success as a confidence man, he seduced all these people into believing that he was this other character.”
Does Pender believe he was evil?
“Yes. I do. He was evil. He was well-read in books about Satanism and Aleister Crowley and Hitler. But the odd thing is that if he had died at 53 he would have been known as a loveable rogue who did these scams like dressing up as an Arab or a Texan billionaire.
“It was when his mother died everything went to hell. There was nobody to root him to the moral world. He seemed to kill with a cavalier quality. Up until then there was no evidence of cruelty, he loved animals and a lot of serial killers had a history of cruelty to animals.
“He did not meet the standard definition of the serial killer, which makes me think he is one of the most fascinating characters in British criminal history. His whole life was an insight into the class system. But if evil exists then Hall was evil.”
The author was given a small insight into Hall’s true character when, towards the end of their relationship, he refused to bring any more money, at which point Hall – who had previously arranged for baskets of fruit to be delivered to Pender’s flat in Glasgow’s West End by a series of scarred flunkies – threatened to have him killed.
“I took it absolutely seriously and I was terrified. He knew where I lived, he used to phone me at home and he seemed to know everyone in the criminal underworld from his stints in Scotland’s jails. He took to sending me postcards of people’s faces with the eyes cut out or hearts with a needle driven through it.”
At one point Pender moved out of his flat and grew a moustache in a small attempt at a disguise. Eventually word reached Pender that Hall had forgiven him. He had, apparently, spoken to a jail “lawyer” – a crook in the next cell – who assured him that the authorities could have prosecuted Pender if he had continued with his secret deliveries. Yet it was partly through fear that Hall might turn against him once again that Pender decided to seek his fortunes in LA. It was there, in 2002, that he read on the internet of Hall’s death in prison at the age of 78.
“He was a very charismatic guy. The odd thing was that I felt sad when I heard he had died. In one way I knew I was off the hook, there was relief, but there was also sadness because I missed those conversations. We talked about things that mattered in a way you don’t in casual conversations. You don’t get down to the nitty-gritty about life and death. He sharpened his witticisms between meetings. He came up with the motto of the Full Sutton book club – “short sentences preferred” – which I thought was very funny.”
In a twist, Pender came face to face with Hall one last time. When the actor Malcolm McDowell, who for 25 years had been developing a film about Hall, learned about Pender’s new book, they met for lunch and McDowell was so taken by the manuscript that he asked him to rewrite the dialogue for Monster Butler (which is shortly to begin filming in Scotland).
“So I spent a happy few days at his house in Ojai, which is like Tuscany with orange groves. It was quite scary because he was keen to practise his Scottish accent and so I read all the other parts. You realise what a great actor he is because he was investing everything with great intensity. At one point I thought, ‘This is scary, the guy who worked with Kubrick speaking my lines,’ and there he was becoming Archibald Hall.”
Although Pender is today happily married to Tracey – a successful partner in a law firm, with whom he has a six-year-old daughter, Petra – he still misses the dreich Scots weather and is looking forward to a visit home to promote his book. The threatening phone calls, however, keep on coming. “Gerry Butler phoned me up at the weekend and said, ‘What’s this about your book: The Butler Did It? I wanted my biography to be called The Butler Did It.’”
• The Butler Did It: My True and Terrifying Encounters with a Serial Killer by Paul Pender is published by Mainstream, priced £11.99