Author Robin Hawdon’s latest novel is a topical thriller that starts with a bomb blast and only becomes more explosive from there.
By Timothy Arden
Ever since reading The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan in my youth, I have had a penchant for action-packed thrillers employing the classic ‘frame-up’ of the lead character.
For that reason alone I was already prepared to like new novel Number Ten by seasoned playwright and author Robin Hawdon. It does, after all, feature a likeable protagonist with more than a few shades of Buchan’s character, Richard Hannay.
After finishing it, however, I revised my opinion and now firmly believe that Hawdon’s latest must be a strong contender for the beach read of summer 2019.
A political thriller set in a post-Brexit near future, Number Ten is an unashamedly populist read. It’s fast-paced, full of dramatic set pieces and suspenseful situations, and as a result is thoroughly gripping.
As the title suggests, the action revolves around the corridors of power in London. The nation is thrown into a state of emergency when bombs explode on four different trains across the UK. As a bright, young member of the PM’s staff, lead character Paul Gunter has a ringside seat within Number Ten as the PM and heads of security discuss the crisis. Though a co-ordinated terrorist attack is an eventuality that has long been planned for, Gunter is none the less nonplussed by it actually unfolding before his eyes.
What isn’t immediately clear is who is behind the attacks. Cutting a dashing figure, Prime Minister James Torrence has won the backing of the electorate with his pledge to tackle the increasing threat of organised crime and religious fundamentalism. His radical measures, however, have made him public (office) enemy number one among the crime syndicates and corrupt oligarchs that have long been used to having things their own way. As such, the UK’s crime bosses, business magnates and jihadist extremists are all possible candidates as they are all equally threatened by his rule.
Despite the incidents, the PM decides to proceed as planned with his meeting with the Pakistan High Commissioner that afternoon, choosing to walk with him around nearby St James’s Park— much to protestation of his security chief. During that meeting, Torrence is targeted by a jihadist in an assassination attempt. A security guard lays down his life to save the PM from harm but Gunter, who was part of the PM’s entourage, is slightly injured in the blast. In the aftermath, MI5 begin questioning everyone who had attended that morning’s briefing with the PM, including Gunter, as it is now clear that there is a mole at the heart of Number Ten.
After the day from hell Gunter goes back to his flat only to be arrested by MI5 in the middle of the night, finding that he has been falsely implicated in the assassination attempt. On his way to a holding cell an unmarked truck rams into the police van carrying him and frees Gunter, much to his surprise. Flagging down the nearest taxi, he calls upon the one person he thinks he can trust, and whom he carries a torch for: Andrea Holt, PA to Downing Street’s Chief of Staff. Together, they set out to clear his name before MI5 or the real masterminds behind the attacks get to him first.
Will the duo survive against vastly superior forces? Will Torrence and his fragile government endure amidst the shocking revelations? I’m not telling, but I will say that the story is a rollercoaster ride packed with peril, intrigue and a smattering of romance that will satisfy even the most hardened of thriller junkies.
Some books are just screaming out for a movie adaptation, and this is definitely one of them. Author Robin Hawdon writes the novel with an accomplished cinematic style that demands popcorn and a fizzy drink while reading it.
Within the space of the first few pages you can tell that Hawdon has an inside knowledge of the mechanics of entertainment, and it’s no surprise to learn that he began his career as an actor, before carving out a new career as a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. That vast experience of stage and screen shows clearly in his writing, which balances description, exposition and narrative perfectly for the chosen genre. Characters are drawn as well as we need to root for them and things are always moving forward to the climax, as they should be.
But even though Number Ten is entirely comfortable in its own skin, not concerned with reinventing the wheel, that’s not to say that there aren’t many delightfully creative turns of phrase to admire along the way.
For example, this figurative passage from the prologue, describing the explosion of one of the trains:
“A second’s pause, then a great burst of fire and smoke erupts from the tunnel mouth, illuminating the scene as if dawn had jumped ahead of itself.”
Or this description of Rupert Creswell, the head of the counter-terrorist unit at MI5:
“His voice was soothing, like the soft tones of a clarinet set incongruously amidst the brass section.”
Hawdon has also obviously done his homework on the structure and processes of Number Ten. The backdrop is painted in a realistic manner that makes you feel like you are getting a guided tour as Gunter goes about his job.
The novel has been labelled as the British West Wing meets the Bourne films, and has been compared favourably by other reviewers with popular TV dramas including House of Cards, Bodyguard and Designated Survivor.
I can’t argue with that, for Number Ten is an explosive political thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.
To add my own humble two penn'orth, this fast-paced page-turner never lets up, and never lets down. A must-read for anyone who loves a thriller firmly in the mould of a Hollywood-style blockbuster.
Meet the Author: Robin Hawdon
British author Robin Hawdon is a man of many talents, starting his career as an actor before redirecting his attention to writing for theatre, where he is now known as one of the UK’s most widely-produced playwrights. He has also penned screenplays, poems and novels within a variety of genres over a career spanning six decades.
For more than two decades, during the 1960s and ‘70s, Robin Hawdon was a familiar face on British TV with regular appearances in series such as Play For Today, Armchair Theatre, Compact, Flying Swan and Robin’s Nest.
He was also the male lead in a number of films including 1970’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, a box office success where he played noble caveman, ‘Tara’, and another cult classic, Zeta One, a 1969 British sci-fi comedy where he played a spoof James Bond alongside a cast that included James Robertson Justice and Carry On star Charles Hawtrey among the cast.
Shortly after Zeta One wrapped, Hawdon had a near miss in becoming the real 007. When George Lazenby stepped down from the iconic role after just one movie, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Hawdon was called up by producers Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Unfortunately, the film test they scheduled was subsequently cancelled when Roger Moore stepped into the tuxedo.
On stage, meanwhile, Hawdon was seen in several leading roles in London’s West End and also played a number of classical leads around the country including Hamlet, Henry V and Henry Higgins in ‘Pygmalion’.
In 1977 he co-starred with Michael Crawford in the short-lived ITV sit-com Chalk and Cheese, with Crawford playing a boorish Cockney living on a genteel street and Hawdon his posh neighbour. It would be his last acting role. Growing tired with the insecurity and itinerant lifestyle of an actor, Hawdon decided to curtail his acting in 1980 to concentrate instead on his writing and directing careers.
Portrait of Sir Roger Moore sitting on the photographer's bed” by Allan Warren is licensed under CC BY 3.0
As a writer his early plays Barn Dance, The Secret, and The Hero were seen at such venues as the Hampstead Theatre and the Edinburgh and Salzburgfestivals. His first major commercial success was farce The Mating Game which achieved a long run at London’s Apollo Theatre. Despite poor initial reviews from the critics, the play proved hugely popular with audiences and became a fixture on the British touring circuit for the next twenty years, and is still frequently revived abroad where it has played in over thirty countries.
During this period, Hawdon also found time away from the typewriter to launch the annual Bath Fringe Festival in 1981 and to serve as Director of the Theatre Royal Bath, England’s premier touring theatre, between 1983 and 1986.
The Mating Game was followed by much-performed and published plays such as Birthday Suite, Revenge, Don’t Rock The Boat, Perfect Wedding (which became a 2010 TV movie) and the runaway comedy success, Don’t Dress for Dinner. Based loosely on an original play by French author Marc Camoletti, it ran for six years in London’s West End in the 1990s and has since played constantly throughout the English-speaking world, in particular the USA where it has received several hundred productions and, in 2012, transferred to Broadway where it was nominated for two Tony Awards and two Outer Critic’s Circle Awards.
In 2000, Hawdon caused something of a media stir when his straight play God And Stephen Hawking, about the phenomenal advance of modern science and its effect on traditional philosophical thinking, was objected to by Hawking himself. Despite having given the play his endorsement, he came to denounce it as an intrusion on his private life. The play, which starred Robert Hardy in the lead role, proved equally divisive among critics and the controversy surrounding it meant that the play never made it to the West End despite receiving a warm reception by early audiences.
More recent plays have included comedies I Do, I Do, I Do (2013) and 2014’s Volcanic Eruptions, and with such a wide and diverse catalogue of work to his name, at any one moment there are likely to be at least twenty productions of various titles by Hawdon running in various countries.
Hawdon’s first book, young adult novel A Rustle in the Grass, was published in 1984. Telling the story about a war between colonies of ants, an allegory of the Cold War, it was publisher Hutchinsons’ book of the month upon release and went on to sell more than 60,000 copies. In the intervening years it has become a cult classic and was reissued in 2014 through Thistle Publishing. His second novel, wartime adventure The Journey, was published by Hawthorn's in 2002, and his third, Survival Of The Fittest, about Charles Darwin, followed in 2013. In 2017, Hawdon released a collection of children’s poems, Charley Poon’s Pomes, while Number Ten is his latest novel. This fast-paced political thriller, based off an unpublished screenplay, marks a new chapter for Hawdon in the realm of more mainstream fiction. All of his titles have garnered a raft of five-star reviews on Amazon and now aged 80, Hawdon is focusing his attention away from plays to concentrate on writing novels.
Exclusive Q&A with Robin Hawdon
We speak to Robin Hawdon about his latest book, Number Ten, the differences between writing plays and novels, and why he decided to leave the acting business.
Q. Your new novel has been praised for its cinematic quality. What advantages do you think a career as a playwright and director has brought to your writing?
A. Of course my experience in the theatre has helped. Theatre is all about pace. Providing as much information and as much drama as possible with as few words as possible. With a novel one can indulge much more with descriptions and side issues. But nevertheless a thriller has to keep the pace going or you will lose your audience along the way.
2. The novel is very topical, being set in a post-Brexit near future. Why did you choose this setting?
A. Current world politics are in a pretty disorganised state, quite apart from Brexit. However, the problems of organised crime and religious extremism are always with us. I wanted to write a political thriller because I have always been interested in the workings of politics, so it was logical that I should set it in the near future without having to refer to the contemporary arguments.
Q. You’re a great fan of the Jason Bourne movies, and your novel has been favourably compared to this series. Would you describe your protagonist, Paul Gunter, as a British Bourne, or would you say there is another, uniquely British side to the character?
A. I would love it if readers identified with my hero Paul Gunter in the same way as they do with Jason Bourne. A lone operator fighting immensely more powerful forces, and with only his own wits and jungle skills (and, of course, his love interest) to protect him. Bourne, of course was a trained specialist, whereas Gunter is a mere government minion and tough rugby player, but otherwise there is probably not a great deal of difference between them except for the accent!
Q. You recently started a new series of ‘How To Write’ articles on your website. In a nutshell, what would your key advice be to aspiring writers and playwrights?
A. Passion and tenacity. If you can make writing work it’s the best career on the planet. You are living two lives at once: your real one and your invented one. If one of them gets tedious or frustrating, you can simply swap into the other! And you can work anywhere in the world (I divide my time between the UK, France and Australia). But it requires discipline and perseverance, as you will learn from reading the blog.
Q. Number Ten is just screaming out for a film adaptation, so if you were the director then who would you cast in the lead roles, and why?
A. Ah, now there’s a question! Ideal casting, perhaps Benedict Cumberbatch forthe lead, Carey Mulligan as Andrea, Rupert Graves or Michael Sheen as the Prime Minister, Brian Cox as the villain. But there are so many great actors to choose from. I’d be happy with anyone who can bring it to life.
Q. How does the experience of writing plays differ to writing novels?
A. A play for a writer is as it is for an audience – a faster, more intense experience. A novel can take its time and go into far more detail, description, and reflection. However, as before stated, a thriller has to keep up the pace and the suspense. Which is probably why Number Ten, being a book written from what was originally a screenplay, moves along so fast, asseveral reviewers have commented on.
Q. Number Ten is your fourth novel, but marks quite a departure from your other works, being more of an action-packed blockbuster in print. Why did you decide to go with this direction?
A. My other books, whilst receiving plaudits from critics and reviewers, never made it onto the best-seller lists. This is my blatant attempt to achieve that. But it’s an uphill struggle these days. There are far too many titles out there, and the long established big names get all the publicity.
Q. You were, for more than two decades, a successful actor on stage, TV and film. What are your personal highlights of those times, and why did you ultimately decide to retire?
A. I had a lot of fun as an actor, working with many famous names – John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More, Kenneth Williams, Dudley Moore, Michael Crawford, Vivien Leigh etc. And I had a brief spell as a minor film star. But in the end the profession is not conducive to a steady family life, and writing is a more fulfilling calling. Acting is interpretive, whereas writing is creative.
9. Likewise, you are known as one of the UK’s most prolific playwrights. Which of your works would you say you are most proud of, and why?
A. I am best known for my comedies and farces, which are what pay the bills. But I am concentrating now on more serious stuff, even though it’s not so commercial. We are currently casting for a play of mine about an extraordinary meeting between Churchill and Chamberlain. I have had some near misses with straight plays, notably a political drama titled The Hero, starring Roy Dotrice, and a play called God and Stephen Hawking with Robert Hardy (as God!). I would love to make a name as a serious playwright alongside the rest.
Q. How have theatre tastes changed in the decades since you penned your first play?
A. Radically. When I started out, the longest running shows in the West End were the farces and ‘boulevard’ comedies. I had my first commercial success with The Mating Game, starring Terry Scott, which ran for a long time at the Apollo Theatre. However, London theatres are now dominated by musicals, which are what the tourists want to see. Possibly the last long-running comedy was my Don’t Dress For Dinner, which ran for six years in the nineties. I can’t get my comedies into the West End these days, but thankfully the rest of the world still seems to want to laugh. I am better known abroad as a playwright now than I am in the UK. But that’s great. I get to visit some wonderful places—from Chicago to Warsaw and Tel Aviv—that I would never otherwise see.