Gerald Seymour: the thriller writer who just loves story-telling

Written by Tony Millett on .


Gerald Seymour Gerald Seymour The White Horse Bookshop brought the internationally respected  thriller writer Gerald Seymour to Marlborough Town Hall on Wednesday (January 27) for a well-attended "Evening with..." session.

Interviewed by the bookshop's manager Angus Maclennan, Seymour was in an impish mood: "Thank you all for coming out on a January night - I too didn't think there was anything on television this evening!"

When we got into the story of his journalism with ITN and his books, one thing became obvious:  Gerald Seymour simply loves story telling.  Whether it's a passing tale about the way he works or one of his complex thrillers, it 's a story - and he tells them all so well.

Seymour described how he joined ITN aged 21 - apparently on the strength of his way with a googly - at £875 a year.  In at the deep end - he reported on The Great Train Robbery and The Profumo Affair: both stories meriting a very definite article with capital 'T'.

He told us how he got one of ITN's great scoops of the 1970s.  During the long running Nixon-Watergate scandal, none of the main characters would talk much, and certainly not to British television.

Somewhere in the ITN film archives there is a clip of Gerald Seymour walking, hand outstretched, across John Ehrlichman's front lawn.  Ehrlichman was Nixon's counsel and chief assistant.  The shot is followed by the exclusive interview with this man right at the heart of the Watergate web.

Working at ITN at the time, I promise I have never seen so many dropped jaws - not to mention the alarm expressed by the resident Washington correspondent - when this interview arrived at ITN headquarters.  A scoop got by a reporter who was just passing through Washington on his way back from another story - in Hawaii.

Gerald Seymour gave us a hint as to how he got this key member of the Nixon circle to talk.  He found out that Ehrlichman had been with American bomber squadrons based in Britain during World War 2 - and Seymour told him how grateful the British people were for his service.

Gerald Seymour's professional writing career has lasted longer than his time at ITN - all thirty-two books and six film versions worth.  This session celebrated the publication of his new book No Mortal Thing and the 40th anniversary of the publication of his first book, Harry's Game - set in the Northern Ireland troubles he had been reporting for ITN.  

When it was published, Northern Ireland was not considered 'good box office'.  The man who bought the film rights asked the head of EMI for some advice on what to do next, he got the reply "See a psychiatrist."  To which Seymour commented: "I thought it covered relatively new ground."

Angus Maclennan asked Seymour why he never takes side in his books, but lets readers make up their own minds on characters' moral failings.  Gerald Seymour replied with the well known quip: "If you've got a message go to the Western Union."

But he added: "Life is complicated - things are very rarely black and white.  It's the shades of grey I try to explore."

He did cite two issues on which he lost his objectivity and became 'partisan' - "I rarely take sides, but...".  

One was over the Italian Mafia, which he learnt a lot about when he was based in Rome for ITN: "They are not very nice at all - very horrid people. Yes - I am partisan with them."

The other arose while he was researching a book involving the current Russian secret service.  He was introduced to a recent Russian defector and spent an hour learning about the FSB which had taken on the mantle of the KGB. Days later he saw the man's face in the newspapers, dying in his hospital bed: Alexander Litvinenko.

"What they did to him was disgusting - utterly ghastly."  And only Porton Down's last minute identification of the polonium unmasked the killers: "They must be so angry they didn't get away with it. I'm not usually partisan - he was a charming man and I liked him."

Describing the kind of people who fire his imagination, Gerald Seymour pictured the person who gets up in the morning, puts his socks on as usual, but by the end of the day has become someone totally new and different - whether hero or villain.

Gerald Seymour, it is clear, gets up in the morning, puts his socks on as usual and starts on his next book - beginning with meticulous research: "I am a journalist - still."

Signed copies of the new book are still available at the White Horse Bookshop.