Ian Chapman: The Man Who Discovered Alistair MacLean

Ian Chapman (1925-2019) began his career in book publishing at William Collins, the renowned Scottish publisher. There he read a short story in ‘The Glasgow Herald’ by the unknown Glasgow-born author Alistair MacLean titled ‘Dileas’ about the sea and sailors which had won first prize in a competition run by the paper. Chapman found it finely written and totally compelling.

Chapman contacted MacLean, who was then a teacher at Gallow Flat School in Rutherglen, and invited him to join him and his wife for lunch in the grand Royal Restaurant in Glasgow’s Nile Street. The Chapmans found MacLean to be a wee bit dour with a strong Highland accent and showed little enthusiasm when Chapman suggested that he should write a novel for William Collins.

However, the Chapmans persisted at the lunch and probed MacLean on his war experiences in the Royal Navy when he sailed on the Murmansk convoys to northern Russia in terrible weather conditions and experienced savage bombardment from the German navy. Chapman instantly recognised the potential for a thrilling adventure story. MacLean left without any agreement to write even an outline and the Chapmans presumed the lunch had been a useless exercise.

But a few weeks later Chapman’s phone rang and MacLean’s strong accent asked, “So, do you want to come and collect that thing?” Chapman dashed to MacLean’s tenement in Rutherglen and was handed a bundle casually wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. MacLean simply commented, “Ach, any idiot can write a book.”

As Chapman hurried home he held the manuscript of ‘HMS Ulysses’ which told of the Russian convoys and the crew being pushed to breaking point. Chapman read the book overnight and immediately knew he had a best seller in his hands. It was published in 1955 and sold a quarter of a million copies in six months.

His career prospered and Chapman guided MacLean’s career both as publisher and agent until the author’s death in 1987

The success of ‘HMS Ulysses’ certainly ensured that Chapman moved to London in 1955 and rose to become, in 1968, joint managing director and chairman from 1981-89. He was managing director when Rupert Murdoch (chairman of News UK, of which HarperCollins is now a subsidiary) bought 41.7% of Collins. Chapman resigned in 1989, setting up Chapman Publishers with his wife Marjory which was later bought by Orion.

Alistair MacLean never wanted to live the celebrity-author lifestyle and it took all Chapman’s tact and persuasion to get him to attend the 1961 royal film premiere of ‘The Guns of Navarone’, when he was presented to the Queen. Similarly, in 1969 for the London premiere of ‘Where Eagles Dare’, Chapman eventually got MacLean not only to attend the film but organised a private table at the after-premiere banquet at the Savoy at which he and MacLean sat amongst the stars, Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood.

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