Article by Mike Ripley
I first met Reg Gadney five years ago, at a rather hectic Christmas party for regular freelance contributors to The Guardian. I knew the name, of course, from numerous excellent spy thrillers (more than a dozen) and as a scriptwriter, especially for his award-winning adaptation of Minette Walters’ psychological crime novel The Sculptress for the BBC.
What I did not know was that Reg was not only a fellow Yorkshireman, but a respected art historian and lecturer as well as an accomplished portrait painter and had a claim to being the on-screen James Bond between Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan!
Reg Gadney was born in Cross Hills, near Keighley, Yorkshire in 1941 and educated at the Dragon School, Oxford and at Stowe. Commissioned into the Coldstream Guards he served in Libya, France and Norway, where he qualified as a NATO instructor in Winter Warfare and Arctic Survival. He was subsequently employed in the British Embassy in Oslo as Assistant to the Naval, Military and Air Attaché. He then read English, Fine Art and Architecture at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge and whilst there became the editor of Granta.
An academic career beckoned when he was awarded a Theodore von Karman Scholarship to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he became a Research Fellow and in 1970 appointed as a part-time Tutor at the Royal College of Art. He was subsequently made Senior Tutor, Fellow and the youngest Pro-Rector in the history of the College.
A Writing Career
But by then, the fiction bug had bitten him and his first novel Drawn Blanc, an almost Kafkaesque spy thriller set in a British Intelligence still reeling from Kim Philby’s betrayal, was published in 1970.
Combining his eagle-eyed powers of observation on the seedier parts of London with his love of the remote Suffolk coast and no doubt drawing on his experience as Deputy Controller of the National Film Theatre, a second thriller (featuring a film researcher and the hunt for a Nazi war criminal), Somewhere in England followed in 1971.
And here I must declare an interest, for having fondly remembered Somewhere In England from reading it ‘first time round’ I was able to republish Reg’s first two novels as Top Notch Thrillers in 2014-15 and even persuaded the author to design the covers, based on his paintings Turning Head and River Alde.
It was not long before the world of television came calling for his services as a scriptwriter, most spectacularly for NBC’s BAFTA-winning five-hour drama Kennedy in 1983, which was broadcast in fifty countries and for which Reg also wrote the book of the series. This was followed by adaptations of Iris Murdoch’s The Bell and in 1996, The Sculptress, which won him a BAFTA writer’s award.
Reg Gadney as James Bond in Golden Eye.
In between those projects, though, came James Bond and the television movie (rather than the big screen version) of Golden Eye.
Generally regarded as the best biopic of Ian Fleming, Golden Eye was broadcast in August 1989 in the UK and went on to be shown in the USA, Finland, Germnay, Brazil and Australia, where it was known as The Man With the Golden Pen. It has, surprisingly, been rarely seen since and apart from a free DVD given away by the Daily Mail years later, is very hard to find, although a German-version supposedly exists on DVD.
It is, by any standard, a quality production telling Fleming’s story from wartime service to the gestation of his famous hero. The cast included Charles Dance (superb as Fleming), Phyllis Logan, Richard Griffiths, Julian (‘Downton’) Fellowes as Noel Coward, and a total unknown, as a captured Nazi spy, the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz some twenty years before he teamed up with Quentin Tarantino.
I asked Reg how the film had come about and his answers were deliciously vague – pehaps a little secretive?
“I cannot really recall. I imagine John Pearson had been pushing to get a film made of his biography The Life of Ian Fleming but he had no involvement in the writing of the screenplay. It was Brenda Reid [the producer] of Anglia TV who approached me to write the script as I had worked with her for the BBC. Part of the deal was that I could spend time on location in Jamaica, which I did.”
By this time, Reg was an established thriller writer. Had he been a fan of Fleming’s work?
“I enjoyed Fleming’s books, though I can’t say they influenced my own work, my favourite being Dr No. I still enjoy the films.”
Filming in Jamaica also saw the brief (very brief) flourishing of another career for Reg, that of actor as he appears towards the end of the film as the ornithologist James Bond from whose name Ian Fleming borrowed for his first novel.
“I never said I insisted on playing the ornithologist James Bond,” remembered Reg, “That was Charles Dance’s idea, but I think I received a fee…”
The Chopping-Bacon Connection
As an artist and art historian as opposed to writer, Reg Gadney also had a connection to the world of Bond, through his friendship with Dickie Chopping, the designer of the iconic hardback covers for many a Bond novel.
“Dickie and I met in the late 1960s at the Royal College of Art where we were both part-time tutors, Dickie introduced me to [his partner] Denis With-Miller and Francis Bacon and I used to deliver wine for Francis from the Royal College to his Reece Mews studios in my Alfa Romeo with Dickie and Denis in the back. Francis liked being strapped in [seat belts in cars had been made comulsory in 1968] and asked me to tighten the safety belt as tight as I could. I obliged. He suggested I might care to ‘pass the time of day’ with him, an invitation I declined for I guessed what he had in mind and anyway, I had a lecture to give.
Dickie played Cinderella in the College pantomime I organised. Francis turned up and was in raptures. Later, Dickie and Denis would stay at my house outside Cambridge from time to time, but I never got to visit them in Wivenhoe.
I was very aware of Dickie’s designs for the Bond dust jackets and I thought they were brilliant, but I have no particular favourite.”
In recent years, Reg has concentrated on his own painting (though he has written one of the standard texts on John Constable) and established a reputation as a portrait painter, often utilising unusual objects as his ‘canvas’ especially old cigar boxes. His list of celebrity ‘sitters’ is impressive, and includes Helena Bonham-Carter and Bill Nighy.
On one occasion when I visited Reg in his London home and studio, there was a just-finished portrait of a distinguished-looking gentleman drying on an easel in the hallway. “Do you know who that is?” Reg asked me. “No,” I replied honestly. “Good,” said Reg with a wolfish smile, “because if you did, I’d have to kill you – that’s the current head of MI6!”
Reg went on to have a highly successful one-man show of his portraits in London in 2015 and during it made the rash promise to paint me. Being painted by the man who was, if briefly, James Bond – how could anyone resist?