This month, Unbound is publishing Patrick Kincaid’s debut novel, The Continuity Girl, a historical romp about a film lecturer who embarks on a Highland adventure inspired by Billy Wilder’s forgotten 1970s Sherlock Holmes movie. Here, Patrick tells me the story behind the novel…
In 2013, while taking a boat tour of Loch Ness on my honeymoon, I met a monster hunter who claimed he had watched Billy Wilder’s model monster sink in the loch in 1969.
The monster was, of course, part of Wilder’s movie The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, a movie I’d loved since I was 10. Like most of its fans, I’ve become as obsessed by what’s missing from it – the whole hour that the producers ordered the director to cut – as by what’s in it; a retelling of the Holmes myth that focusses on the bits Watson left out (i.e. the sex, drugs, and emotional damage).
The monster hunter’s story also reminded me of an interview I’d heard a few years earlier with Elaine Schreyek, who was the ‘continuity girl’ (as they were then called) for The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. Those two things inspired me to write my debut novel, also called The Continuity Girl, in which I imagine the rediscovery in 2014 of an uncut print of Wilder’s Sherlock film. A film studies lecturer, Gemma MacDonald, is given the task of unveiling it to the world, which leads to her meeting April Bloom, my highly fictionalised version of Schreyek. And while April is telling Gemma her version of events, we also hear from a monster hunter who got to know her on the banks of Loch Ness in 1969 – the lovelorn Jim Outhwaite.
Wilder’s visual and narrative style informs The Continuity Girl top to bottom. I’ve resisted calling my book a romantic comedy, not because I don’t like them – the good ones, such as those by Nora Ephron, are very good – but because I was after a different kind of cinematic tone for my story. I wanted to capture the bitter-sweet nature of the comedies Wilder co-wrote with IAL Diamond, and I was thinking particularly of The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes.
On the face of it, Wilder’s Sherlock Holmes ought to have been another of those slew of Victorian romps – Bryan Forbes’ The Wrong Box (1966), Don Sharp’s Rocket To The Moon (1967) – which came and went in the ’60s. But by balancing romance and cynicism, Wilder made something that lingers. It’s said he cast Robert Stephens as the lead because he looked like someone who could be hurt. Sherlock is typically portrayed as an unemotional thinking machine, but here he was a sensitive romantic, falling for a beautiful client (Genevieve Page) with an ulterior motive, while his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee at his best) pulled the strings from above.
There’s no denying that the film’s romance is enhanced if you know about the difficulties surrounding its production and its box-office failure. It was a labour of love for Wilder, but so much went wrong – Robert Stephens nearly killed himself with an overdose, the model monster sank, and then the producers ordered their cuts. On release, the public didn’t take to it, and critics ignored it. It was only when it was screened on TV in the ’70s that it found an audience. Jonathan Coe has written compellingly about his obsession with the film and its missing segments. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat funnelled their obsession into producing Sherlock for the BBC.
And it is a wonderful film: romantic, funny, achingly sad. The performances are superb, Christopher Challis’s photography is breath-taking, and Miklós Rózsa’s score is one the most beautiful pieces of film music ever composed. I had no idea when I first saw it that a cult had already developed around it. I thought it was mine alone – this film that reimagined a Victorian superhero as a man full of regrets and unachieved personal ambition.
In fact, The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes isn’t so different from other Wilder’s films which, on first glance, it doesn’t seem to resemble at all – those strikingly modern social comedies, The Apartment (1960) and The Fortune Cookie (1966).
These films also pitch romantics and cynics together, and to similar effect. In both, there is pathos in watching Jack Lemmon fall for a woman who is deceiving him, but we understand that she is experiencing the pathos too. Shirley MacLaine’s Miss Kubelik and Judi West’s Sandy are neither romantic heroines nor femme fatales. Both are manipulated by a powerful man behind the scenes – Fred MacMurray’s adulterous boss, Walter Matthau’s crooked compensation lawyer – and both eventually break that bond and turn towards the romantic dupe. There are no glib happily-ever-afters, though – Wilder’s best endings are inconclusive.
I attempted to cram as much of this Wilderian tone-shifting as I could into The Continuity Girl. My hero, Jim, has only known rural life in the North of England and the Scottish Highlands, and is as far removed from the permissive society as it is possible to get in 1969. He is continually on the backfoot when the happening Hollywood crew turn up, and with it the continuity girl whom he falls for so heavily. Meanwhile, it turns out that every organisation is subject to power politics – even tiny research groups looking for evidence of a legendary monster.
Additionally, Gemma’s 2014 perspective adds a commentary on the events of 1969. In the lost version of The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, a prologue involving Dr Watson’s grandson did something similar.
I also tried to write descriptive prose to match Challis’s visuals, and dialogue with the wit of Wilder and Diamond. Tall orders – but I’m grateful for the generosity built into those filmmakers’ legacy. When in Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), besotted Joe E. Brown answers Jack Lemmon’s assertion “But I’m a man” with a shrug and the best last line in film history – “Nobody’s perfect” – they gave us all carte blanche to aim high and not worry too much about falling short.
The Continuity Girl is available now from Amazon.