Reg Gadney obituary

Artist, television scriptwriter and author of thrillers featuring unheroic heroes

To a host of art students Reg Gadney, who has died aged 77, was an inspirational teacher; to television producers he was a reliable, award-winning scriptwriter; to readers of popular fiction he was a master of the unconventional thriller featuring unheroic heroes; and in later years he became recognised as an innovative portrait painter of the great and good. Then, to a select few who realised the connection, he would introduce himself as “the fifth James Bond, between Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan”.

His script for the Anglia Television film Goldeneye (1989), based on the life of Ian Fleming, got him the plum role as Bond. Gadney had accepted the job, he maintained, only if he could accompany the film crew to the Jamaican locations. While he was there, Charles Dance (playing Fleming) suggested he should take the brief cameo role of James Bond, the ornithologist whom Fleming discovers bird-watching on his Goldeneye estate, and whose name he promptly borrows.

Gadney was born in Cross Hills, near Keighley in Yorkshire, the son of a schoolmaster and England rugby captain, Bernard Gadney, and his wife, Kelly (nee Lilley), a watercolourist. He was educated at the Dragon school, Oxford, and at Stowe. It was decided that a career in the army would “make a man” of Reg, though he added the caveat: “It failed.”

Commissioned into the Coldstream Guards, he served in Libya, France and Norway, where he qualified as a Nato instructor in winter warfare and Arctic survival and was an assistant to the military attaches at the British embassy in Oslo.

On leaving the army, he read English, fine art and architecture at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, became the editor of the university magazine Granta and was awarded a Theodore von Kármán scholarship to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1969 he was appointed deputy controller of the National Film Theatre in London and in 1970 became a part-time tutor at the Royal College of Art. He was subsequently made senior tutor, fellow and pro-rector.

It was at this time that he began to write fiction, aspiring to produce “seedy thrillers”. His first novel, Drawn Blanc (1970), was a bleak, Kafkaesque dissection of the shambolic workings of a British secret service still suffering from the fall-out of Kim Philby’s treachery. His second, Somewhere in England (1971), combined his love of film with the British obsession about Nazi war criminals escaping justice through the “Odessa” network – a postwar escape route for former SS officers.

A dozen other novels were to follow, including a number featuring the nearest Gadney came to a series hero, Alan Rosslyn, ostensibly a customs agent whom Gadney described as “dull but a good listener”. For the devoted thriller reader, the Rosslyn books, beginning with Just When We Are Safest (1995), were the author’s best work, but Gadney did not confine himself to fiction and also produced highly regarded histories of John Constable, the Kennedy clan and the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

In his academic life, he lectured at Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and at the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Moscow, until television began to tempt him away. He wrote the four-part drama Forgive Our Foolish Ways in 1980 and then adapted Iris Murdoch’s The Bell in 1982, both for the BBC, and his seven-part miniseries for American television, the Bafta-winning Kennedy, starring Martin Sheen, in 1983 cemented his international reputation. Gadney contributed scripts for The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones and adapted, to great acclaim, Minette Walters’ psychological thriller The Sculptress for the BBC in 1996.

With the new century, Gadney rekindled his passion for painting, specialising in oil-on-board portraits, his subjects including Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy, Nicole Farhi and Sir David Hare, as well as members of his own extended family. His one-man show Portraits ran at the Friary in London in 2014 and his own paintings were used as cover art for new editions of his first two thrillers.

After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he wrote a new novel, Albert Einstein Speaking, which was published, under the name RJ Gadney to distinguish it from his backlist of thrillers, days after his death.

Generous and mischievous towards his friends, Gadney could have been classed as a jack of all trades – academic, writer, artist – were it not for the fact that he seemed to be master of all of them.

He is survived by his second wife, Fay Maschler, whom he married in 1992, and her children, Hannah, Alice and Ben; and by Guy and Amy, the children of his first marriage, to Annette Kobak, which ended in divorce.

• Reginald Bernard John Gadney, thriller writer and painter, born 20 January 1941; died 1 May 2018

Contributor

Mike Ripley

The GuardianTramp

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