Obituary: Alan Sharp, writer.
Alan Sharp was one of the greatest Scottish writers of the 20th century, even though many people have never heard of him. He left school at 14, worked in the Clydeside shipyards and electrified critics with his debut novel A Green Tree in Gedde in 1965.
It was banned in Edinburgh public libraries, prompted comparison to James Joyce and was acclaimed as the greatest Scottish fiction since Sunset Song in The Scotsman. Sharp was living with Beryl Bainbridge and seemed to have the literary world at his feet.
But he turned his back on it all and went off to pursue his own personal Hollywood dream. He scripted a string of critically acclaimed films in the 1970s. And then he virtually disappeared – until the Scottish producer Peter Broughan tracked him down to a little island in New Zealand in 1992.
Broughan made the 48-hour journey in an attempt to persuade him to write the screenplay for Rob Roy. He arrived seriously jet-lagged, only for Sharp to suggest they talk while going for a sail in his boat, which got into the open ocean and promptly capsized.
Sharp agreed to write the script, Liam Neeson played Rob Roy and the film appeared in 1995, at much the same time as Braveheart. Mel Gibson’s epic won the Oscar, but Rob Roy is regarded as the better film by many critics, taking a chunk of Scottish history and turning it into a Scottish Western.
Sharp subsequently worked on the script for a film about Robert Burns, focusing on the poet’s sudden celebrity status and the sexual chaos in his life, something with which Sharp felt he could identify – Sharp had six children by four different women.
But the Burns film was never made and Sharp more or less disappeared again, continuing to make a lucrative living from writing for American television, including a recent mini-series remake of Ben-Hur. He could have been a household name. Perhaps he chose not to be, happy with the life and lifestyle he had. He seemed to lack commitment sometimes – a point Beryl Bainbridge underlined when she used him as the model for the philandering lover in her 1975 novel Sweet William.
Sweet William was filmed with Sam Waterston declaring his undying love for Jenny Agutter, as she gives birth, and then walking out forever. Sharp was the father of Bainbridge’s daughter, actress Rudi Davies.
Sharp said they were like Ali and Frazier. His only complaint was that while she portrayed him accurately as Ali in her book, she turned herself into Minnie Mouse.
I first met him more than 20 years ago when he was staying in an ex-wife’s London home, though he forgot I was coming and was watching the Olympics in his dressing gown when I arrived in the middle of the day.
Sharp was difficult to get hold of, but a fascinating and charismatic character when you did. Like Bainbridge, I used him in one of my stories – he was the inspiration for the protagonist in Sometimes She’ll Dance – the novelist, who goes off to Hollywood, then turns his back on the world.
Born in Alyth, near Dundee, in 1934, Sharp was illegitimate and was adopted by a Greenock shipyard worker and his wife when just a few weeks old. Sharp met his natural mother when he was 28. As a boy he made up stories to amuse friends and pretended they were the plots of books he had read.
He left school at 14 and got an apprenticeship as a joiner in the shipyards, but an advert for a private detective’s assistant seemed to offer romance, adventure and escape.
His first assignment was to meet a stranger off a train and collect a mystery package. It turned out to be a cooker.
After national service, Sharp returned to the yards, marriage and children. His future seemed set, but he got a grant to go to college in the hope of becoming a teacher. He gave his wife the money and disappeared off to Germany instead. He felt he would not be welcome back in Greenock and decided to go to London, where he wrote A Green Tree in Gedde. It follows the fortunes of four young people, including an incestuous brother and sister. It was meant to be the first part of a trilogy, but he got bored and the third part never appeared.
He wrote five screenplays on spec – three westerns and two thrillers, all set in an America he knew only from movies. All five were made, by major studios, with some of the biggest stars of the day.
Peter Fonda, fresh from Easy Rider, starred in The Hired Hand, and Gene Hackman, an Oscar-winner for The French Connection, played a private detective in Night Moves.
It appeared when America was struggling with Watergate and ends with a scene of a boat going round in circles, going nowhere. The boat is called Point of View.
Sharp clashed with director John Huston on the 1971 thriller The Last Run. MGM sacked Huston. That was the sort of clout Sharp had in those days.
Sharp’s films were probably too dark and too complex to be big commercial hits, but they continue to impress critics and attract audiences on TV, DVD and occasionally in the cinema, and Ulzana’s Raid is regarded by many aficionados as one of the best Westerns ever made. It features a clash between Apaches and military and was seen as a comment on the Vietnam War.
His last film, Dean Spanley, was a low-budget period drama, about a man who may have been a dog in a past life. With no hype it ended up in contention for the Baftas and I saw it without knowing Sharp had written it. But it was obvious that this was something special.
Sharp had written it years before, yet another producer had tracked him down in New Zealand and Peter O’Toole was sufficiently impressed to play the lead. It was hailed as the best film of 2008 by GQ magazine.
Sharp is survived by his wife Harriet, his partner for more than 30 years, and his six children.