by Andrew Valente
A NOVEL written in a Majorcan village 45 years ago is being made into a Broadway musical – but its British author won't make any money out of it.
The novel is Seance on a Wet Afternoon, the most famous of the more than 50 books Mark McShane has published. Mark's name will have a prominent spot on the Broadway posters but he won't bank a single dollar. Instead, the royalties will go to a niece, who was given the stage rights as a wedding present several years ago. Seance on a Wet Afternoon was written in 1961 when Mark was living in Génova. It was published in several countries, won an award from the Mystery Writers of America and was cited by the Yearbook of the American People's Encyclopedia as the best intrigue of that year. Soon after the book was published, Mark sold the film rights to director Bryan Forbes who made a movie starring Richard Attenborough and Kim Stanley. A few years ago, a Japanese company made the book into a telefilm. It was after the telefilm that Mark had to give a wedding present to a niece. Mark has eight brothers and sisters and they all have children. “I have more nieces than most people have had hot thoughts,” said Mark on a visit to Palma from Sa Cabaneta, where he now lives. Mark always gives his nieces a present when they get married, but like the vast majority of authors who live by writing only books, he never has much spare cash, so his traditional gift has become the rights to one of his works. Mark, thinking that there would be no more major deals for Seance on a Wet Afternoon, gave the stage rights to a niece. But a year ago, lyricist–composer Stephen Schwartz came along and took out an option on Seance on a Wet turn it into a Broadway musical. Schwartz, who has won every major award in his field including three Oscars and four Grammys, first caught the public's eye when he did Godspell, a musical he had started while still at college. He has since worked extensively in films and Broadway shows, picking up three Oscars (two for Pocahontas and one for the animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame) as well as four Grammys, the Oscars of the record industry. With such an impressive track record, he didn't have much difficulty getting the moneymen to back a Broadway musical based on Seance on a Wet Afternoon. The irony of the wedding present that will become a Broadway musical appeals to Mark's sense of humour and he has taken it philosophically. But he made sure he'd get a good credit on the posters. Somewhere near the top of the bill will be the words “based on a novel by Mark McShane”. The tradition of giving relatives the rights to a work is quite common. Agatha Christie wrote a 30–minute BBC radio play called Three Blind Mice and gave the rights to her grandson as a birthday present. Three Blind Mice was later turned into a stage play and the name was changed to The Mousetrap...which has been running continuously since 1952, with all of the royalties going to the grandson. Curiously, Richard Attenborough also starred in the first production of The Mousetrap. Seance on a Wet Afternoon is about a medium and her husband who kidnap a little girl so that the medium can help the police to find her. They hope the publicity in the press after the little girl is found will lead to fame and money. But the plot goes wrong, the little girl dies, and it becomes a murder case. There is a terrific climax when the medium, with the police in attendance, holds a seance on a wet afternoon and establishes contact with the dead girl... Leonard Maltin, in his Movies and Video Guide, says of the film: “Gripping drama of crazed medium Stanley involving husband Attenborough in shady project. Brilliant acting and direction in this must–see film. Forbes adapted Mark McShane's novel and co–produced the film with Attenborough.” Mark wrote Seance on a Wet Afternoon soon after coming to Majorca. He used to sit down at his desk at 6am and worked for the rest of the day. He wrote the novel in longhand, using a pencil, and finished it in only four weeks. He then spent another two weeks doing the typescript. When his London agent was negotiating the film rights with Bryan Forbes, he sent Mark a telegram telling him what was being offered and asking Mark if he was happy with that sum. He included a pre–paid 10–word telegram for Mark's reply. Mark was usually short of money, which was why his agent sent a pre–paid reply, so there was no question of his rejecting the amount he would get for the film rights. And just to make sure that there was no doubt about the meaning of his reply, his 10–word telegram read: “Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes – Mark”. The critics hailed the low budget film, Kim Stanley was nominated for a best actress Oscar, and Seance on a Wet Afternoon went on to become a cult movie. Even today it is still shown frequently on East Coast TV channels. Mark was eager to see the film when it was released, but in the early 60s there was no way he could have seen it in English anywhere on the island. The only place that showed English language films (but old ones) was the small church cinema near Plaza Gomila. But Mark saw Seance on Wet Afternoon much sooner than he expected – and by pure chance. Mark normally went down to Plaza Gomila only on Saturday nights, because during the week he wrote all day long. He called the Saturday night excursion his “weekly primal scream”, a euphemistic way of describing a prolonged boozy round of meeting friends at Plaza Gomila's many bars. But one mid–week day Mark went to Mam's, one of Plaza Gomila's most popular bars, to pick up a bottle of Butano gas. It was late afternoon and there was only one customer at the bar. Mark said hello to owner Carl Steeves and went straight through to the back to get the bottle of gas. Carl told the customer, a stranger, that a movie had recently been released based on one of Mark's novels. When the stranger heard the name Seance on a Wet Afternoon, he said pensively to Carl: “Funny, that name was in my mind last night, for some reason.” Mark returned with the gas, said goodbye to Carl without stopping and left the bar. As soon as he had gone, the stranger suddenly remembered why he knew the name Seance on a Wet Afternoon. He was a printer on the American liner Independence, which was making a stopover in Palma, and on the previous night had set the film's title for the programme of the day's events in the shipboard newspaper. The stranger looked at his watch and said: “They'll be showing the movie in half an hour.” Carl rushed out, banged on the car top just as Mark was about to drive away, and told him the good news. Mark then sped off to Génova to get his wife and Carl got the Independence printer into the street, locked up and went to get a taxi to pick up his wife. On his way to the taxi rank he was able to pass on the news about the film to some of the Plaza Gomila regulars. When the McShanes arrived at the dockside, Carl and a group of friends were already there. They got on board and were able to find their way quickly to the liner's cinema because Mark knew the layout, having come over from New York on the Independence a couple of years before. Mark and a breathless bunch of Terrenoites sat down just as the screen credits started to roll. What are Mark's chances of seeing the musical when it opens on Broadway? He'll get complimentary tickets, but will he use them, attend the first night backstage party and wait up for the critics' reviews? Mark says: “Only if my niece takes me...”


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