Sharp Shooter

Alan Sharp, the man who wrote the scripts for Rob Roy, the recently rereleased The Hired Hand and a new film about Scotland's national bard, Rabbie Burns, calls his work "pastiche".

by Brian Pendreigh

Peter Fonda turned Hollywood thinking upside down when his low-budget road movie Easy Rider smashed box-office records round the world. Studio bosses gave the hippy film-maker a free hand to do whatever he wanted next and he chose a western written by a former Scottish shipyard worker from Clydeside.

Alan Sharp's first two novels had won huge acclaim in his native land and he decided to attempt to break into movies with a simple story of a restless man who returns to the wife he deserted years earlier. The twist was that he set it in the Wild West.

The Hired Hand was no Easy Rider on Horseback when it came to the box office, though it was acclaimed by the influential Films and Filming magazine as the best film of 1971. It has benefited from the reassessment of the Seventies as a golden age in Hollywood and is being re-released for a new generation of British cinema-goers.

Sharp was a phenomenon in Hollywood in the early Seventies, with five scripts filmed in five years, before he disappeared into the obscurity of TV movies and mini-series. But he is in demand again with film producers, even before The Hired Hand's re-release.

A Highlands Western

Rob Roy brought him back into the spotlight and he is working on the movie that could prove the biggest hit of all. For the story of Robert Burns, the 67-year-old writer is drawing on memories of his own sudden celebrity status and his own sexual adventures during the Swinging Sixties and permissive Seventies.

"The reason why we asked Alan to write Rob Roy," says producer Richard Jackson, "was entirely due to the fact that I had seen The Hired Hand and Night Moves when I was a student." It was his partner Peter Broughan who first suggested Sharp. Jackson had assumed he was American and readily endorsed Broughan's suggestion. "A western in Scotland was what we were trying to do."

Broughan set out on a gruelling 48-hour journey to the island Kawau, 40 miles north of Auckland, where Sharp was living. He arrived, jet-lagged, only to be whisked off on Sharp's yacht, which overturned as they came out of the bay into the open sea. Sharp remains an elusive figure, wandering between homes in Los Angeles, New Zealand and Tighnabruaich in the Scottish Highlands.

A Western classic?

Hamish McAlpine, who oversaw restoration of The Hired Hand, considers it the most under-rated American film of the last 50 years. As well as directing, Peter Fonda played the central role of a man who leaves his wife, eventually returning with his buddy, and working as a hired hand. Fonda's own marriage was collapsing at the time and he felt Sharp's script helped him "meditate" on his personal situation.

The one person who seems reluctant to hail The Hired Hand as a neglected classic is Alan Sharp himself. He was convinced the ending does not make narrative sense (and he is right). "But it never troubled the producer or Peter Fonda," he recalls. Sharp attributes the difference of opinion to the fact he was taking drugs at the time.

Nor did he appreciate Fonda's slow pacing and the superimposition of shots on top of other shots. "It was a perfectly straightforward little story about a guy who f***ed off and came back... I never found the style really matched the tale... It proved to be very languorous."

But Sharp has long seemed to want to minimise his achievements. His debut novel, A Green Tree in Gedde, won the Scottish Arts Council prize for literature and one critic reckoned it "altered the face of the modern Scottish urban novel", but Sharp dismisses it as "baton-twirling prose".

Ulzana's Raid, which he wrote, is one of best westerns of the last 50 years, eschewing the fashionable appreciation of all things Indian to present the full savagery of an Apache raid and drawing parallels with Vietnam. But when a viewer asked why he had to show torture and mutilation when The Searchers conveyed it through the look on John Wayne's face, Sharp replied simply that The Searchers was a better movie.


Sharp was born in 1934 in Alyth, near Dundee. He was illegitimate and was adopted by a Greenock shipyard worker and his wife when just a few weeks old. He insists he was not too bright at school. But there was something that marked him out from the crowd, organising cricket on waste ground, while others were happy to kick a ball about, making up stories to amuse friends, pretending they were the plots of books he had read, to give them more credibility.

He left school at 14 and worked in the shipyards, but an advert for a private detective's assistant seemed to offer romance, adventure and escape. His first assignment was to meet a mysterious stranger off a train. "He's got something for me," said the boss and the young gumshoe's imagination ran riot at the possibilities.

The mystery consignment turned out to be a gas cooker and Sharp was left with the problem of getting it across town. His employer was basically a debt collector, who spent most of his time in the pub, and did divorce work on the side.

After national service, Sharp returned to the yards, marriage and children. His future seemed set, but he got a grant to go to college in the hope of becoming a teacher. He gave his wife the money and he went to Germany. "I had f***ed up enough and burned enough bridges not to be able to go back to Greenock."

A career in writing begins

He decided to go to London instead and become a writer. And he did. A Green Tree in Gedde appeared in 1965 to tremendous acclaim. It follows the fortunes of four young people, including an incestuous brother and sister, which got it banned from Edinburgh public libraries. It was to be part of a trilogy, but after the second book, he was distracted by the lure of Hollywood.

His first five scripts were filmed in quick succession - The Hired Hand; the thriller The Last Run, with George C Scott; Ulzana's Raid, with Burt Lancaster as a grizzled scout; Billy Two Hats, another western, with Gregory Peck as an expat Scot; and Night Moves, starring Gene Hackman as a small-time private detective - a remarkable body of Americana for someone from Greenock. "All the things I write are pretty well pastiche," says Sharp dismissively.

After that incredible opening burst, there was a series of unfilmed scripts, uncredited rewrites (he worked on Mel Gibson's The Year of Living Dangerously), and a lot of television, before the fateful day Peter Broughan and Rob Roy turned up on his doorstep. Suddenly Alan Sharp was not just back in the movies, but taking part in the cultural regeneration of his native land.

In 1996, the year after Rob Roy came out, Broughan announced at the Cannes Film Festival that he and Sharp would be making another two further feature films together - Vain Glory, a period thriller about the murder of Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, and an adaptation of Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg's prototype psycho-thriller and one of the great classics of Scottish literature. And then? Nothing.

Not a Rabbie Burns biopic...

Director Vadim Jean, whose previous films include Leon the Pig Farmer, was having difficulties finding a writer for a proposed Burns film. His agent, who also represented Sharp, gave him a copy of Vain Glory. "It was just the best material that I had ever read," gushes Jean.

But it had never made it past the script stage. Broughan and Sharp fell out (again): the Glasgow producer refuses to talk about Sharp, while the writer describes the partnership as "brief and mistaken". Sharp could never figure out how to tackle Hogg's book, and the script for Vain Glory, for all its quality, was eight hours long.

Undaunted, Jean flew to LA to meet Sharp, who had continued to work in television and had been writing a new novel, on and off, for a decade. It was not the concluding part of his trilogy, but a semi-autobiographical story of a boy growing up in Greenock, but he was never happy with it.

Sharp was no great fan of Burns and insisted he did not want to write a biopic. Jean did not want a biopic either and they took it from there.

The story concentrates on a few years of Burns's life - his relationship with Jean Armour, her father's opposition, his plans to emigrate to the West Indies, the phenomenal success of the "Kilmarnock Edition", his arrival in Edinburgh society and romance with "Clarinda", while maintaining his ties with Jean Armour.

"That's the most dramatic part of a not very dramatic life," says Sharp. "It's not particularly about the genius poet - it's difficult to dramatise poetry. It's about a provincial boy who comes to the big smoke and runs riot and he looks around and sees what he hath wrought... He was like a sexual maniac. He went about bouncing off the walls, causing chaos around him."

James Cosmo, the Scottish actor who is producing the film, has been calling it Clarinda, but Sharp prefers the risque working title Dancing in Armour.

Sharp's connection with Burns

Sharp can identify with both the sudden literary success and the "sexual chaos". "I can do all that kind of sexual chaos thing quite well." He has six children by four different women, including Beryl Bainbridge, who used him as the inspiration of her novel Sweet William.

"He gives her a ring, his body, his love, just as he gave them to his ex-wife, his current wife and his mistresses," says the book's synopsis. "How can Ann live with William? More to the point, how can she live without him?"

Sharp has been with his current partner Harriet for 20 years, but it would be pushing it to say he has settled down. "We've done script meetings now in Scotland and LA," says Vadim Jean. "We haven't done one in New Zealand, but I do have a large collection of phone numbers for him, which basically involve me following him round the world."

Cosmo professes himself amazed by the complexity Sharp has brought to the character of Burns and is waiting to hear back from possible lead actors, including Ewan McGregor, Dougray Scott, Robert Carlyle, Gerard Butler and Johnny Depp, who he insists has declared an interest, despite a public denial. He expects to shoot next summer.

The only person who does not seem to be getting excited is Alan Sharp. "I don't know what's going to transpire," he says. "Casting is going to be critical... and it needs a really good stiff rewrite." There have been too many stalled projects, and these days Sharp insists he is no longer the literary lion, merely the hired hand.

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