1. Thank you for sending me a copy of The World Of Shaft’ to read. It was such an insightful read. What initially inspired you too write this book?
I had just re-read Raymond Benson’s James Bond Bedside Companion covering the Bond books and movies – one of many written about the character. I love books that give you insight into the creative process and development of iconic characters or movies. Having been a fan of the Shaft books and films, I wondered if there was anything similar covering the creation and history of John Shaft. Surprisingly, given the character’s cultural significance, I could not find anything beyond a few internet and magazine articles. So, I thought why not write something myself? If it would be of interest to me, maybe it would be to other fans of the character. The World of Shaft was my first published book and my first attempt at non-fiction. I’d previously written some short stories (a couple of which were short-listed in competition) and a novel, which I intend to go back to one day and get it tight.
2. The franchise has always had a strong following, do you prefer book or movie Shaft?
If I was to choose I’d say the books, as the character has much more depth on the printed page. I first became aware of Shaft through the Isaac Hayes theme tune, which became a chart hit. I then came across the TV series and although this proved to be a diluted version of Ernest Tidyman’s vision, there was something about Shaft’s self-confidence, single-mindedness and the fact that he didn’t take any nonsense that appealed to me. I was too young to have seen the first three movies, as they were “X” rated, and I was only thirteen years old when the TV series first aired in the UK in 1974. However, around the same time on a trip to my local WH Smith’s I saw the paperback Shaft Has a Ball. I bought the book and loved it. For a young teenager this was adult stuff. Action-packed, violent and sexy. The stuff I couldn’t get into the cinema to see. I gradually picked up other books in the series and grew to love them all. I didn’t get to see Gordon Parks’ movie adaptation of Shaft until it was first broadcast on TV by the BBC in 1976. I think the movie is an excellent adaptation and Richard Roundtree, whilst not Tidyman’s ideal for Shaft, did a wonderful job and obviously became synonymous with the character. I immediately wanted to go out and buy a leather coat!
3. You put so much effort into writing this book, how long did the whole process take?
It took a couple of years once I got going. The big breakthrough was discovering Shaft author Ernest Tidyman’s papers were stored at the University of Wyoming. I found a vast amount of material there and, as I live in the UK, had to hire a proxy researcher to help me work through letters, contracts, outlines and manuscripts. From all this I managed to pull together a timeline to use as a framework and built the story from there through the research. I decided I would tell Shaft’s story from the perspective of his creator – Tidyman was also involved in producing and writing the first two movies, Shaft (1971) and Shaft’s Big Score! (1972). He did not shy away from offering his opinion, whether it be on cover art work, book promotion or proposed scripts. I also made some interesting discoveries during my research, such as the planned newspaper strip that never materialised – all the test artwork was held in the papers. I also tracked down others involved in the development of Shaft – notably Alan Rinzler, who commissioned the original book for Macmillan back in 1968 and Joel Freeman the producer of the first movie, who unfortunately died last year. Joel told me he was preparing his own book on the making of Shaft, but I guess we won’t get to see that now. I also got in touch with Tidyman’s widow, Chris Clark-Tidyman, who offered her encouragement and forwarded some further papers to the University, which I was able to access.
4. I have honestly not read any of the books yet. They are hard to track down. Would you have a personal favourite novel?
My personal favourite is Shaft Among the Jews, the second in the series. There are more facets to Shaft’s character in this book. The story involving a crooked diamond merchant, an old Israeli diamond-cutter with a secret formula for creating synthetic diamonds on the run with his daughter and Mossad agents trying to track him down is great fun. The first three books – Shaft, Shaft Among the Jews and Shaft’s Big Score! – are all written by Tidyman and are fantastic. The next four become a little more formulaic as Tidyman used ghost writers to help with these, although he made major edits and additions and added his own mark to the text.
5. ‘Shaft’ got ‘rebooted’ in 2000 with Samuel L Jackson as John Shaft and Richard Roundtree reprising his role as now Uncle John Shaft. What were your thoughts on the then updated ‘Shaft’
As movie entertainment it was okay. I quite enjoyed it. I like Samuel L Jackson and I thought John Singleton was a good choice as director, but overall the story lacked the resonance and gritty urban style of Gordon Parks’ original and Tidyman’s novels. I also did not buy into Shaft having an extended family – given that in the books he was an orphan with no siblings. In the latest version they fixed this. I would personally have preferred a continuation of Tidyman/Roundtree’s John Shaft.
6. To follow suit on the previous question ‘Shaft’ was retooled in 2019 with Jackson and Roundtree reprising their roles alongside newcomer Jesse Usher, did you enjoy seeing ‘Shaft’ on the big screen again?
I was so much wanting to like the movie. But it was awful. The film doesn’t work on any level. Turning the franchise into an action comedy is just wrong. Also, having a third generation Shaft at odds with his father and grandfather moves us another step away from Ernest Tidyman’s concept and makes caricatures out of those characters. There was little attention to the plot and the performances of Jackson and Usher, not helped by the script, were one-note and lacked depth. Richard Roundtree added some much needed class, but on the whole it was a massive disappointment.
7. I never knew ‘Shaft’ also had life in comic form, so I had to track an issue down. They are gritty and reminiscent of ‘Shaft’ from the ’70s right?
That’s right. David F Walker managed to persuade Dynamite Entertainment to purchase the literary rights to Shaft in 2014. He had originally planned to adapt Tidyman’s novels as comic books. In the end he produced an excellent prequel to the first book in Shaft: A Complicated Man. This is what New Line should have gone with for the new movie, it would have been a great introduction to the character set in period. The second comic book was Shaft: Imitation of Life. David, like myself, was a fan of the books and wanted to stay true to Tidyman’s vision and did a great job, We got in touch whilst I was writing The World of Shaft and David kindly contributed the Foreword to my book. As well as the comic books, David also wrote a new Shaft novel, Shaft’s Revenge, which is a great tribute to Tidyman.
8. Would you consider doing another book based on the world of character?
Yes, I have ideas for other books. I’d like to do something on my favourite movie, Rio Bravo or the adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Another subject I’d like to take on is the Dirty Harry movies of Clint Eastwood. It’s really trying to find something that excites me and has not been done already. At the moment I’m working on a book about the songs of the rock band Genesis, which should be published next year. In the meantime I have contributed a chapter on the Shaft books to Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre’s Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980 due out next month. I’d also like to do a second edition of The World of Shaft to tie in with the 50th Anniversary, expanded to include David F Walker’s work and the latest movie.