Letters from a friend

Vol. 8 No. 3 - 2005

Letters from a friend

by Bertie Martin

Alexander Walker
Alexander Walker

Alexander Walker was born in Portadown in March 1930. Educated at Portadown College and Queen's University, he went on to the College d'Europe at Bruges, before going to Ann Arbor University in Michigan. He worked as a journalist in Birmingham before being appointed Film Critic for the London Evening Standard, a position he filled until his death in 2003.

The author of over twenty books, he was named 'Critic of the Year' 3 times, received international acclaim and in 1981, was honoured in France with the "Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres".

He bequeathed a very valuable collection of art works to the British Museum. He had also intended to bequeath some of his books to the library here, but unfortunately various difficulties arose after his death which prevented this coming about; he would have been very disappointed.

As a very private man, Sandy would have been amazed at the large obituary notices that appeared in the national newspapers.

Following the death of a mutual friend, Jack Shanik, he had contributed a memoir to The Portadown Times and wrote about that piece, "Such things should be remembered and revealed to those who had no knowledge of them."

"Remember and reveal"

I was privileged to learn over the years of some of the thoughts and ideas of this talented man and his remark "to remember and reveal" prompted this article.

Many years ago there was a small group of people in Portadown with a shared interest in the cinema and theatre; among the dozen or so involved were Sandy Walker, Denys Hawthorne and myself. If we met, the only subjects discussed were the latest films or plays we had seen. Denys went on to become a professional actor with a successful career in films and TV. Sandy's interest in the world of film never altered and he went on to become a distinguished critic and author with an international reputation.

For several decades I watched with interest him being interviewed on TV and some of the series he was involved in for that medium, "Moviemen", "Greta Garbo" and "Charles Chaplin", and read some of his books.

Rotary Club

Then in 1976 he wrote to me to tell me how much his father had enjoyed being on a Senior Citizen's Outing organised by the Rotary Club of Portadown. I can now reveal that he made an anonymous donation to Rotary Charities.

At that time, when he was home he spent time touring the local roads on a bicycle, a practice he kept up for years. A bicycle was kept for him, year after year, by Mr Raymond.

When I replied he wrote referring to our mutual interests and reminded me that he had occasionally dropped into the shop in Woodhouse Street which my brother Harold and I had, to talk about films and plays.

Some years later when he was home he gave a talk about how his interest in the cinema began, as a small child, when a maid of his parents took him to the pictures for the first time. The evening following that talk, my wife and I took him for a meal at a local restaurant; some months later when we were in London, Sandy insisted on taking Mona, my daughter Lynne and myself to an interesting Italian restaurant in Soho.

In the mid 90s I sent him an article by Victor Gordon in The Portadown Times. I believe he was pleased about this article. That really started a friendship by correspondence that lasted until his death in 2003.

A letter to Sandy was always answered promptly, was neatly typed. and filled an A4 sheet. and this from a busy man seeing about 10 films each week. With one exception, every letter I received was signed "Sandy" and only one "Alex".

Over the years he covered a variety of topics, always interesting and at times amusing.

When I sent him an old programme for 'Hamlet' performed by Portadown College Dramatic Society in March 1948, in which he played the leading role, he joked how in a conversation with the Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh, he had said "You and I have this in common, we both acted Hamlet!"

That programme is interesting, as the cast, all in their 'teens, included Denys Hawthorne, James Mehaffy (who entered the Church of Ireland and became a Bishop), Gerald Hampton and Garfield England (who worked in Education), and Brenda Green (later Mrs Thompson) an active worker in community affairs. The producer was the Headmaster Mr. D.W.J.Woodman.

Another time I came across an old Regal Cinema programme and sent it on. He remembered seeing one of the films listed. It starred Rex Harrison, and later Sandy was to write a biography of that actor, one of the many he was to write.

In another letter he recalled being sent to Monaco, to interview Her Serene Highness Princess Grace about her time as a famous star in Hollywood, but she thought he was the gardening correspondent of 'The Daily Telegraph' and could not understand why he would not talk about flowers .

Apart from his annual cycling trips in his home county, he loved skiing, and in one letter in 2002 wrote about a visit to the Isles of Scilly and visiting Cornwall.

In 1995 when he was in Portadown he spoke as my guest at a Rotary luncheon, and was so impressive that he was asked to be a speaker at the Rotary Conference in Londonderry in 1999. This was attended by hundreds of delegates and visitors from all over Ireland.

His great love of Portadown

One theme that occurs again and again in Sandy's letters is his great love of Portadown and how fortunate he was to be born in a town with three cinemas.

He wrote about the local Festival with its verse-speaking classes and Gloria Joy Gordon and Derek Marsden competing for the Victor Hawthorne Cup. He said in one letter "I often find myself wishing I could go back to Portadown in say 1945 for just a day, and see the town as it was then when the War ended, and my father's ever spreading empire of war allotments, and to the old College and the green, green grass between Margretta Park and Windsor Avenue".

The last letter I received from him was in February 2003. He had written over 20 books and was completing the third volume of a special series about films made in Britain. He said its sub-title was "The Decline and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry" and added, prophetically it would seem, "The last book I shall write, no doubt, if only because no one will speak to me again". That book was published in the autumn of 2004 under the title "Icons in The Fire".

Sandy never took up the suggestion that he should write an autobiography, but what a book that would have been. He had a unique insight into the world of cinema, and had met and written about many legendary figures.