Jan Read

Jan Read with his mentor Fritz Lang.

One of the most significant film industry figures to hail from St Andrews is the scriptwriter Jan Read, who was born in St Andrews in 1917.

During his adolescence Read became passionately interested in photography and made regular trips to the cinema, falling in love with Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo and developing a taste for musicals with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. As he grew older his viewing habits matured and he was soon engrossed in foreign language films by the likes of René Clair and Marcel Pagnol. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) made a particularly strong impression on him when it screened at The Cinema House.

Jan soon began to harbour dreams of working for the cinema, but it was not easy for someone from a place like St Andrews to break into the world of film. Indeed in his autobiography, Young Man in Movieland (Scarecrow Press, 2004), Read is astonished at ‘how wide the gulf was between life in the quiet Scots town where I was brought up and the career I had cut out for myself…Life in that northern outpost was in fact nearer to Jane Austen than it was to today.’ (p.2) Moreover, his father, a Professor of Chemistry at the University, thought movies frivolous and would certainly not have approved of such a career. So Jan enrolled in university to study chemistry, first in Cambridge and then, when the city proved not to his liking, St Andrews.

During this time he had his first practical encounter with film when he was engaged to shoot a 45minute, 16mm film on St Leonards School (the film now resides in the Scottish Screen Archive). While studying for his degree he also ran the University Film Society, which held regular screenings in one of the town’s cinemas.

By the time he graduated, Read had finally revealed his ambitions to his father, qualifying them by saying that he wanted to make documentaries, which he felt his father would find more respectable. His father introduced him to the documentary filmmaker Paul Rotha who landed Read his first professional job as an assistant on a documentary shot in Truro.

After spending the early 1940s working as a chemist to support the war effort Read applied for a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship to study the ‘semi-documentaries’ then being produced in the U.S. To his surprise he was accepted and soon found himself in New York, working (un-credited) for producer Louis de Rochemont on Elia Kazan’s Boomerang! (1947). He then made his way West to Hollywood where he began mixing with the stars he had once watched on the silver screen in St Andrews. He also met and became friends with Fritz Lang, whose Metropolis had so impressed him at The Cinema House, and was later to describe the German émigré filmmaker as his ‘mentor’.

Read returned to the UK when his fellowship ran out in 1947. At this time a Hollywood embargo imposed in response to an import tax levied by the British Government on American films meant that British production was being increased to meet the demands of cinema exhibitors. This gave Read the opportunity to step up the career ladder, obtaining his first scriptwriting job for Gainsborough Pictures. Perhaps the most significant project he worked on was The Blue Lamp, for which he wrote the original treatment. Gainsborough turned down his idea and Read sold the project to Ealing; the film was directed by Basil Dearden and released in 1950, going on to become one of the acknowledged classics of British cinema.

When production was scaled back in the early 1950s, Read left Gainsborough to pursue a career as a freelance scriptwriter. Over the next two decades he penned dozens of films and television series.

One of the best known of these is Jason and the Argonauts (1963). As part of his background research, Jan drew heavily on A Handbook of Greek Mythology, a book written by one of his father’s friends, a professor at St Andrews University. Memories of St Andrews influenced a number of other unlikely projects as well. The television series Dr. Finlay’s Casebook (1962-1965) was based on a novel by A.J. Cronin about a country doctor in the Scottish Highlands, Memoirs of a Black Bag. In scripting the many episodes, Read drew on some of the eccentric university professors he had met through his father – not to mention his recollections of having his tonsils removed by a doctor from Dundee on the drawing room table!

In the early-Seventies Read retired from writing for the cinema to pursue a successful career writing about his other passions – wine, travel and food. In 2004 he published his autobiography, Young Man in Movieland (Scarecrow Press), which recounts his journey through the world of cinema.

Alex Marlow-Mann