He fell out with Granada. Then he created one of the best-selling book series of all time

One lunchtime, Jim Grant bought three pads of lined paper from the WHSmith in the Arndale Centre and became Lee Child

By Heather Martin

Jim Grant was good at his job. He likened it to being an air traffic controller. It wasn’t glamorous. But the stakes were high.

This was the pre-digital mid-Seventies. The Central Control Room at Granada Television on Manchester’s Quay Street looked like something out of the Starship Enterprise, a two-person flight desk facing a six-by-four bank of grey, convex screens. Transmission teams worked in pairs, the senior partner issuing instructions, the junior operating the desk. The assistant was like the controller’s arms and legs. The controller was there to troubleshoot and answer the red telephones when a problem was called in from across the network.

Film, three-inch and two-inch videotape, slide commercials on cassettes: everything went through two faders operated entirely by hand, built into the control desk side by side and plugged into the network wires, with separate sound slightly apart in case of the need to crossfade. Sometimes there were five cassettes to play in a single break, but the stack only held three, which meant they were holding down the faders with one hand while changing cassettes with the other.

Commercial breaks only lasted five minutes but could involve up to fifty separate actions, which meant fifty chances of getting it wrong. If they got it wrong they’d go in the log: “15:45 break, finger trouble, missed first two seconds of commercial.” Mistakes were not only broadcast across the land but cost the company serious money. Which on the flip side meant the controller wielded tremendous power. Not even the managing director could override you. On the day, you were the word of God.

Jim joined Granada in 1977, buying his first house in Stalybridge and moving to Alderley Edge with his first promotion. Those were the days of free education and full employment. He’d taken four years to do a three-year law degree at Sheffield, spending most of his time in the theatre. He’d always been a backstage guy, a technician, he didn’t mind working behind the scenes.

He was happy to keep the wheels turning in the golden age of British television, ensuring the smooth delivery of Brideshead Revisited, Jewel in the Crown and Cracker, not to mention Coronation Street, and meeting Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier on the side. He would happily have stayed on to collect his pension had it not been for the fact that one day, his boss said: “You’re fired.”

He’d already been fired once. On that day, he refused to release the fader. It was Wednesday 5 September 1979 and the time was 12:59 — the one-minute countdown to the one o’clock news. The National Union of Journalists was in a dispute with ITN and a non-union-produced programme had been sent down the line. Jim’s thumb was on the slider. Standing behind him on one side was the shop steward, urging him not to transmit.

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Standing behind him on the other was his boss. Jim didn’t transmit. At one o’clock precisely, screens around the country went blank. “You’re dismissed,” his boss said. It signalled the beginning of an eleven-week lockout which ended with pay increases all round.

By the time he was fired for good, in 1995, Jim himself was the shop steward. He’d taken on the role to negotiate the 24-hour deal — “like printing our own money” — and to fight for the best possible redundancy terms for his colleagues as the company down-sized, on its way to being dissolved into ITV in 2002. The writing was on the wall for him, too. He could see that clearly. He would have to look for another way to support his family. It was time to take matters into his own hands.

On Thursday 1 September 1994, Jim Grant left the building. It was his lunch break. He walked to WHSmith at the Arndale Centre, bought three pads of lined paper, one pencil sharpener and an eraser for a total of £3.99 — and emerged as Lee Child. It was like Clark Kent stepping out of a phone booth. It wasn’t the first time he’d used a pseudonym. He’d done that whenever he doubled up roles in the theatre or moonlighted while under contract to Granada. He drove back to Kirkby Lonsdale (another promotion) on the fringes of the Lake District, sat down at the dining-room table and wrote the first sentence of his first novel, set in the US state of Georgia:

CHAPTER ONE 1st draft

I had slept on the bus right through the long haul from _______ . It had rained all night. It was cold. The bus droned and hissed and vibrated. The passengers dozed and snored and stank. I knew none of them. I hated them all.

Something didn’t feel quite right. Lee Child stood and paced and smoked. Sat down again. Crossed out that paragraph and wrote:

CH 1

I was arrested in Eno’s diner.

That was better. He wasn’t just up and running: he was flying. It was like he’d found his superpower. Those six words that opened his best-selling debut novel Killing Floor kick-started a second-act career that would embrace the legendary twenty-four-book Jack Reacher series, two Hollywood movies, and every conceivable industry accolade.

By the time he retired last year he’d sold over a hundred million books and in his hitherto best financial year, coinciding with the second Tom Cruise movie, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, had made roughly ninety cents per second. He’d got his revenge against British television a thousandfold and was content to pass on the franchise to younger brother Andrew (who had already followed his lead into thriller writing), with the tantalising promise of an Amazon Prime series to see him through his twilight years. It was all gravy.

He’d put in the hard graft. He wrote all six hundred pages of Killing Floor with pencil on paper, writing it out again in blue ink before the two-fingered typing on his fourteen-year-old daughter’s laptop even began. At that point, the title wasn’t Killing Floor and the name wasn’t ‘Reacher’. His intention was to write popular fiction. He wanted his book to be “like someone was speaking a story to me”. He was aiming for a fragmentary, choppy, faux-naif style to characterise a hero who would use words sparingly but with almost pedantic precision, who was observant of people and their surroundings. He figured he had about the length of a television commercial to make himself unputdownable.

Here is the third paragraph, characteristically fast-paced, but without skimping on description and laden with atmosphere:

I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a President I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time. Outside, the rain had stopped but the glass was still pebbled with bright drops. I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrops on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns. This was heavy stuff. One revolver and one shotgun ran to the back. One of each rushed the door.

No chance of anyone channel-hopping after that.

The definitive back story of Jim Grant, who in 2020 was made Commander of the British Empire for Services to Literature, is the substance of my authorised biography, The Reacher Guy, tracking the formation of the artist from his origins in East Belfast and South Shields through Coventry, Birmingham and New York to retirement in Wyoming and Colorado. And although Reacher was undoubtedly conceived in anger as a hard-hitting head-butting response to the Granada enemy, closer investigation reveals he was already lurking in the shadows of Jim Grant’s West Midlands boyhood.

Killing Floor was published by G. P. Putnam Sons of New York on 17 March 1997 and first optioned by Hollywood on the same day. It was an instant cult hit in the crime and thriller community, winning two prizes; The Telegraph described it as “Kafka with Violence” and the Lancaster Guardian compared Child to Graham Greene. The contract was for two books. He’d put the finishing touches to Die Trying in December 1996, and in optimistic vein had begun work on his third, speculatively titled The Hook, but eventually published as Tripwire.

He topped the charts in New Zealand — “the world capital of Reacher madness” — from book two, but in fact, it took ten years for him to become “an overnight success”. In 2007, his eleventh book, Bad Luck and Trouble, became his first UK no. 1 (reprinted four times before it even hit the shops), and in 2008 he went straight to no.1 in the New York Times with Nothing to Lose, finally achieving a lifelong dream inspired by the Beatles when his agent called and said the immortal words: “You’re no. 1 in America”. Tom Cruise had secured rights to the franchise in 2005: Lee was becoming a superstar.

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Many of the qualities that define Reacher are inherited directly from his creator. The self-sufficiency, the ability to talk smart, but to say nothing too. The fascination with numbers and trivia. The readiness to use his fists when required, the refusal to tolerate a bully.

Like Reacher, the old transmission controller had grace under pressure. He famously held it together on the night of the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980, when he was left on his own at the desk and had to completely rewrite the schedule. Likewise the time he infamously patched into the BBC when Granada lost their live feed just as Prince Charles was saying “I do” to Diana. “It was a matter of professional pride,” he told me. He was primed to pass on advice to his fictional alter ego, as here in chapter six of Killing Floor:

“Evaluate. Long experience had taught me to evaluate and assess. When the unexpected gets dumped on you, don’t waste time. Don’t figure out how or why it happened. Don’t recriminate. Don’t figure out whose fault it is. Don’t work out how to avoid the same mistake next time. All of that you do later. If you survive.”

Like Reacher, he could play dirty. Granada fired a shop steward on specious grounds, then his replacement a week later. Which was when Jim stepped up and said they should try and fire him. His boss warned he’d be out of work in a week. He lasted “one hundred and fifteen weeks”, fighting “a desperate, rearguard battle”.

I’ll show you what the gutter is about, he thought. He would wait till the last member of management left the parking lot at 5pm then send out his SWAT team of cleaning staff to search every bin and bring him anything that looked like the torn-up draft of a memo. Others steam-opened mail and hacked into computers. When locks were installed on the keyboards his engineering buddies whipped out the hard drives and copied them at home.

That old law degree gave him the confidence to act. He knew what precedent he would cite in case of a legal showdown.

Redundancy was only a fleeting setback. Like Reacher, Jim Grant would always win.

Heather Martin’s authorised biography of Lee Child, The Reacher Guy, is out now from Constable at Little, Brown.

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