The Spoilers – Characters from the pages of history

Desmond Bagley - The Spoilers character names from Northcott Theatre Exeter Programme 1968 © & Courtesy of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University. Original programme © Northcott Theatre.

Hidden away in a file in the Desmond Bagley collection (held at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center in Boston USA) is a rare example of how the author selected the names for the characters in one of his novels, providing us with a fascinating insight into the author’s modus operandi.

In June 1968 Bagley had been asked by Robert Clark of the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) to write on the specific topic of heroin smuggling, with the view to a film being produced from the published novel. At some time during the next two months the author took inspiration for his characters names from an unlikely source; a 1968 programme for the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, Devon.

The theatre, situated on the Streatham Campus of the University of Exeter, had opened the previous year, in 1967. Their magazine programme V included a piece on The Bastard King, a documentary drama written by Jack Emery, performed by The Northcott Theatre Company from 9th July to 10th August 1968.

The drama, set thirty-four years after the English Civil War, told the story of the James Scott, the 1st Duke of Monmouth, Protestant and illegitimate son of Charles II, and his attempt to overthrow James II, the Duke of York and the last Roman Catholic monarch of England, Ireland and Scotland. It dramatised Monmouth’s early hopes of a Protestant crown through the failed Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 to the subsequent trials of Monmouth’s supporters by Judge Jeffreys, which became known as The Bloody Assizes. Of the rebels, 320 were condemned to death and around 800 were sentenced to be transported to the West Indies.

James Scott Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch By Jan van Wyck © Wikimedia Commons.
James Scott – Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch. By Jan van Wyck © Wikimedia Commons.

Emery’s drama was based on eye-witness accounts, contemporary reports, official documents, letters and reported speeches of the characters involved. The actors improvisation and staging was directed by Terry Palmer. Filmed at the theatre from first rehearsal to first night by the BBC the drama, and story of its stage production, aired on BBC One the following year on 4th April 1969.

Reproduced on pages twelve and thirteen of the Northcott Theatre programme was a list of names of the rebels that were executed, together with the names of those which were respited until further orders. It was from this list that Bagley selected the names of his characters for his novel The Spoilers.

Due to the profession of the lead character, and concerned not to cause any offence to any particular individual in the medical profession, Bagley decided to take care when choosing the names of his cast. All of the names of the English and American characters were drawn from this list with an exception being Metcalfe, who had appeared in the author’s first novel The Golden Keel.

Desmond Bagley - The Spoilers character names from Northcott Theatre Exeter Programme 1968 © & Courtesy of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University. Original programme © Northcott Theatre.

Bagley’s programme had been annotated with small x’s, marked alongside the following names: Robert Matchet; Andrew Tozier; Benjamin Hewling; Percy Morrin; John Follet; Benjamin Bryan; John White; James Pomray; George Speering; Elias Stephens; Daniel Parker; Edward Lane; Robert Hellier; John Ipsley; Nicholas Betts; Samuel Walden; William Lowrey; John Hutchins; Nicholas Warren; and John Eastman.

Of the other characters in the novel, President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr of Iraq, Mullah Mustapha Barzani and Abd al-Rahman al-Bazzaz were genuine individuals, though both Sheikh Fahrwaz and Ahmed were fictional creations.

For this novel Bagley had also undertaken some research into international arms trading, which he alluded to in an interview with William Hickey, published in the Daily Express:

Desmond Bagley - The Spoilers 'Want to buy a torpedo?' Daily Express 30th July 1969 © Northern and Shell Media Publications.

Adventure writer Desmond Bagley, 45, has uncovered some bizarre information while researching for his topical new novel The Spoilers – about an international opium and arms running racket – published by Collins this week.

“It is, for instance, quite possible to buy a torpedo in London,” he tells me.

“The Ministry of Defence won’t help you, but you can order one from a shop in St. James’s which acts as agent for an international arms company. It will even supply you with a submarine to fire the torpedo from.” [1]

Desmond Bagley - The Spoilers 1969 - Cover artist: Norman Weaver © HarperCollins Publishers.

The author delivered The Spoilers to his publishers in November 1968. It was published the following year with a cover, Bagley’s favourite, by the artist Norman Weaver.

First edition publisher’s blurb:

‘Sir Robert Hellier, millionaire film tycoon, was too busy making money to realize that his only daughter had become a drug addict until he learned she had died from an overdose of heroin. Now Sir Robert wanted action; he wanted blood. Not the blood of the sleazy drug-pushers who had supplied his daughter, but the blood of the big-time international suppliers of the market in Europe and the States. And Sir Robert was prepared to stake a large part of his personal fortune to cut heroin off at source.

Enlisting the help of Dr Nicholas Warren, London drug specialist who knew as much about the problem as any police force, Sir Robert prevailed upon him to select a seemingly ill-assorted group of men and mount an expedition to the Middle East in pursuit of two slender clues.

But the clues lead to two separate lines of enquiry. Once in Beirut, the expedition is forced to split in two. While one group, posing as an advance film unit, follows the perilous trail to the opium farm in the secret valley where the deadly poppy is grown, the other, back in Beirut, infiltrates by a means as ingenious as anything since the Trojan Horse the murderous organization which is planning to ‘export’ a hundred million dollars’ worth of heroin. Their two-pronged attack is complicated by an explosive political situation involving gun-running into Kurdistan, and by the need to rescue the infiltrators from a gang whose ruthlessness and high-powered organization are equalled only by the stakes for which they play.

Desmond Bagley had produced as tense an adventure story as any he has written, set against the usual authentic and well-researched background which gives his novels their unique and ever-growing appeal.’ [2]

If you haven’t yet read The Spoilers you can purchase the book here.

You can also listen to Nigel Alefounder’s podcast about this novel via his website here, or YouTube channel here.


Images: Theatre Programme from personal papers in the Desmond Bagley Collection © & Courtesy of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University [Original programme © Northcott Theatre]; © Wikimedia Commons; © Northern and Shell Media Publications; © HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

1. ‘Want to buy a torpedo?’ by William Hickey Daily Express (Manchester: Express Newspapers, 1969), 30th July 1969, p. 3. © Northern and Shell Media Publications.

2. The Spoilers (London: Collins, 1969) © HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.