Saturday, August 04, 2007

Farewell to Rodney

Earlier this week, Essex-based crime writer Mike Ripley (creator of cab-driving P.I. Fitzroy Maclean Angel) brought the sad news that Rodney D. Wingfield, another Essex man and the author of the Jack Frost mysteries, had died. Not long afterward, Scottish writer Stuart MacBride told us how sad he was to hear of Wingfield’s passing after a long and very private bout with cancer. Later in the week, I had a chance to speak with Ripley, and I could see how devastated he was by the loss of his old colleague.

It was only right that Ripley should have written Wingfield’s obituary, which appears in today’s edition of The Guardian. After recapping the author’s hesitancy about a television adaptation of his Frost novels, starring David Jason, Ripley gives a bit of background on Wingfield and his fiction:
Born in Hackney, Rodney attended the Coopers Company school in the East End and was, along with the entire school, evacuated to Frome in Somerset during the second world war. After junior office jobs with a furniture company and in the Port of London docks, he became a clerk in the sales offices of the Fina oil company, while devoting his spare time to writing short, one or two-act plays.

In 1968, BBC Radio Drama bought his 45-minute play Compensating Error, and swiftly commissioned two more. After three well-received broadcasts, Rodney gave up the office job and for two decades provided BBC radio with a steady stream of 45- or 60-minute dramas, noted for clever plot twists and surprise endings. He also tried his hand at pure comedy, writing a radio series for Kenneth Williams (obituary, April 16 1988) in the role of a secret agent.

But it was Rodney’s reputation as a craftsman of mystery stories featuring small-time criminals and multiple plot lines that brought him to the attention of publishers Macmillan. In 1972, they offered him a £50 “non-returnable” advance for a crime novel. Rodney, who was to say later that he had been spurred on by the word “non-returnable”, duly obliged with Frost at Christmas, which Macmillan promptly rejected.

Loathe to abandon his laconic, chainsmoking detective, Jack Frost, Rodney recycled the character into his radio work in the play Three Days of Frost in 1977, with Ronnie Barker (obituary, October 5 2005) pencilled in for the lead. Television commitments meant that Barker was unavailable, so the role of Frost was taken by Leslie Sands (obituary, May 23 2001), whose performance was to remain Rodney’s favourite.
It took 12 years for Frost at Christmas to be published, as it eventually was in Canada. And by then, Ripley explains, “Rodney had used the character in another radio play, A Touch of Frost, which he turned into a second novel in 1990. There followed Night Frost (1992), Hard Frost (1995) and Winter Frost (1999), though Rodney described himself as “a reluctant author ... thoroughly disenchanted with the grind of writing full-length novels.” (A sixth entry in the Jack Frost series, A Killing Frost, will be published posthumously in Great Britain next spring.)

Having known Wingfield well, Ripley reveals in his obit a picture of the author who, to most other people, seemed an eccentric recluse:
A very private man, [Wingfield] avoided the usual round of publishing and show business parties, choosing to keep in touch with friends and colleagues by regular, often scurrilous, faxes and then emails. He was rarely photographed, and an Italian edition of one of the Frost books, following a mix up in translation, carried an author photograph on the jacket of Kenneth Williams.

Rodney had a stubborn streak, and relations with publishers and BBC radio producers could be strained. After one dispute with the BBC in 1984, he submitted the highly regarded six-part serial The Killing Season under the name Arthur Jefferson (the real name of Stan Laurel). His last broadcast play was Hate Mail in 1988, after which the Frost novels occupied him completely.
You’ll find Ripley’s full tribute to R.D. Wingfield here. And to read the London Times obituary of the author, click here.

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