Jimmy Sangster is known to most as the writer of a brace of seminal Hammer gothic horror films. From his pen came the scripts for The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula/Horror of Dracula (plus their immediate sequels) and The Mummy, not to mention the likes of Jack the Ripper and Blood of the Vampire for rival producers. Sangster’s place in the history of cinema is assured, but what’s not quite so well known is he didn’t have any particular interest in period horrors. Sangster got into screenwriting largely out of necessity, to supplement his meagre salary as a production manager at Hammer Films. His first script for the studio was a short subject, A Man on the Beach, made in 1955. This mini-film was directed by Joseph Losey and starred English theatre ogre Sir Donald Motherfucking Wolfit and Hammer regular Michael Ripper. Even at this early stage in Sangster’s career, Beach featured elements that would come to be recognised as his trademarks, including a honking great twist at the end.
X The Unknown, a follow-up to the hugely popular The Quatermass Xperiment, was Jimmy’s first feature screenplay, and then it was full steam ahead. He could work fast and knock out a compelling 85-minute yarn that could still be shot in Hammer’s every-expense-spared production style. The Curse of Frankenstein was another huge hit, written while Sangster was still juggling occasional scripts with being a production manager (a job he didn’t like much and claims he wasn’t very good at). By then Jimmy had made his mark as a writer and was accepting work outside of Hammer. Unfortunately he was doing so on company time. Producer Michael Carreras caught Jimmy in the act and, rather than firing him, offered to buy at least one screenplay a year so he’d have a guaranteed income. As it turned out this generous deal was hardly necessary, as Jimmy began to churn out sci-fi and Gothic horror flicks by the bucketload. But his own interests as a writer lay more with thrillers, leading to the successful run of so-called ‘mini-Hitchcock’ mysteries that took their cue from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques.
Sangster later moved to Los Angeles and found plenty of work writing episodic TV, where the ability to work fast and within a meagre budget served him well. But while his films and much of his TV remain in circulation, Jimmy’s work as a novelist is all but forgotten. In his funny and self-depreciating autobiography Do You Want It Good Or Tuesday?, Sangster laments that novels were his favourite thing to write, but also the least successful (at the time the book was written, several manuscripts remained unsold). Sangster’s first novel, Private I (“There was only one way for Smith to leave the service — feet first”) was adapted into a movie of the week as The Spy Killer. Jimmy initially managed to secure the services of Trevor Howard and Laurence Olivier, but the US producers felt these weren’t big enough names for American TV (seriously, LAURENCE OLIVIER) so ultimately it went before the cameras with Robert Horton and Sebastian Cabot. Subsequent Sangster books stayed firmly in the crime thriller/Eurospy bracket, including the two Touchfeather novels discussed here. That’s where we meet Jimmy’s heroine Katy Touchfeather, an operative for a secret British organisation never explicitly named. Her cover is she’s an air stewardess, and believe me this book is from an era long before the more acceptable terms ‘cabin crew’ or even ‘flight attendant’.
My admiration for Sangster’s work is broad and genuine, but also realistic. So it’s no surprise that Katy’s first-person narrative (written by a middle-aged man in the late 1960s) is the stuff of pure male fantasy. She’s a tall, sexy, tanned redhead, with in inner monologue that spends a lot of time dwelling on how fabulous her tits are. She’s sexually liberated, which means happily jumping into bed with a succession of different men. Katy is skilled with both her fists and a gun, but her biggest asset is her feminine wiles. She knows how to get what she wants from a man and if that involves Sangster lovingly describing how she wears black stockings or sleeps in the nude, then by jove he’s just going to have to do it.
Touchfeather finds Katy sent by her boss, a man she doesn’t much like called Blaser, to shadow a top scientist on a flight to India because he’s suspected of selling secrets to the Russians. Despite her instructions to observe and seduce, the silly girl goes and falls in love with him over the space of about three pages. Having convinced herself he’s innocent, Katy is devastated when their return flight is hijacked and the scientist spirited away to be tortured. Despite being dropped from active duty for her romantic gaffe, Katy delves further into the reclusive millionaire her missing beau worked for. There are inevitable twists and turns and a big reveal at the end (fans of the mini-Hitchcocks will know that Jimmy liked a third act twist even more than M. Night Shyamalan, though he was rather more consistent at pulling them off). It also suffers somewhat in that the final act takes place in California. I suppose because the USA has been so well-documented by movies and TV it’s never really struck me as sufficiently foreign and exotic for spy adventures, which is one of the reasons I’ve never quite warmed to Goldfinger the way most Bond fans do.
The first book did well enough that a sequel quickly followed. Touchfeather, Too (where are Jimmy’s royalties, Teen Wolf?) sees our heroine embroiled in the operations of a seedy Greek millionaire stockpiling gold. She finds herself variously confined to a luxury yacht or hanging around a small African country, while falling for yet another dishy pilot. At least this time she proves to be a bit more resourceful when it comes to escaping and beating up bad guys. Even so she still gets captured, stripped and tied up about once a chapter. One wonders if Sangster wrote these books with film or TV adaptations in mind. Novels gave him the scope to dream up action scenes and plots that even the Bond movies couldn’t hope to realise. But the scale here is classic Sangster; short (under 200 pages, barely a novella by modern standards), quick and cheap. This feels more on the level of Bond knock-offs like that Raquel Welch flick Fathom, or the fun Bulldog Drummond adventure Deadlier Than the Male (scripted by, oh look, Jimmy Sangster).
It’s also, like much of Sangster’s work, pure unashamed exploitation. Every man leers over the delectable Katy and most of the bad guys conspire to feel her up, or worse. To enjoy the books one has to ignore the inner voice that keeps loudly pointing out how beyond the pale all of this is to a vaguely liberally-minded 21st-century reader. Plus the rest of the sexual and racial stereotyping runs the gamut from ‘outmoded’ to ‘reprehensible’, but then so do the Bond movies and — even more so — their source novels. These are definitely artefacts from a different era and must be viewed as such.
They’re also pretty darn fun. Katy may fall foul of the villains a lot (which usually means being stripped, tied up or both), and will let those silly lady!feelings get the better of her where men are concerned, but she never needs a guy to ride in and rescue her. When required she’s ruthless enough to break a dude’s arm, whack him with a chair leg or just shoot ‘im in the face. And as outmoded as it is, the sexy stuff is pretty effective. A buxom redheaded air stewardess (sorry, flight atte… cabin crew) still pushes the right buttons. Assuming you can roll with the anachronisms, if you have a fondness for old spy thrillers the Touchfeather books are worth a look. Currently they can only be found second-hand but Amazon prices aren’t too ridiculous. Hopefully the ubiquity of e-readers will prompt some enterprising publisher to make these (and Sangster’s other novels) available in electronic form someday. It would be nice to see Katy fly again.