Nigel Balchin

Nigel Marlin Balchin[1][2] (3 December 1908 – 17 May 1970)[3][1] was an English novelist and screenwriter particularly known for his novels written during and immediately after World War II: Darkness Falls from the Air, The Small Back Room and Mine Own Executioner.

Nigel Balchin
Nigel Balchin, c 1957
Born(1908-12-03)3 December 1908
Potterne, Wiltshire, England
Died17 May 1970(1970-05-17) (aged 61)
Hampstead, London, England
Pen nameMark Spade (occasional alongside own name)
OccupationPsychologist, author


Balchin was born in Potterne, Wiltshire,[1] the third and last child of William Edwin Balchin (1872-1958), a baker and teashop proprietor, later grocer, and Ada (née Curtis), the daughter of a railway guard.[4] His paternal grandfather, George Martin Balchin (1830-1898), of a line of wealthy Surrey farmers, was a farmer of 800 acres; his sudden decision in 1887 to cease work on his farm had a negative impact on the Balchin family's finances.[4] At the age of eighteen months, Nigel knocked over a kettle of scalding water, and was so badly burned that he was not expected to survive.[4] He was educated at Dauntsey's School and Peterhouse, Cambridge,[1] where he took a scholarship and became a Prizeman in Natural Sciences. He then worked for the National Institute of Industrial Psychology between 1930 and 1935. For part of this time he was a consultant to JS Rowntree & Sons,[1] where he was involved in the design and marketing of Black Magic chocolates[5][6] and, he claimed, responsible for the success of the company's Aero and Kit Kat brands.[1]

He wrote for Punch magazine, published three non-fiction books as Mark Spade, and also wrote novels under his own name. During World War II he was a civil servant at the Ministry of Food, and then, on the basis of his pioneering work on personnel selection and scientific research, appointed Deputy Scientific Adviser to the Army Council, being promoted to the rank of brigadier at the early age of thirty-six.[4] In 1956, he moved abroad to write screenplays in Hollywood and elsewhere, but was increasingly troubled by alcoholism,[1] and returned permanently to England in 1962. He died in 1970 at a nursing home in Hampstead, London,[1] and is buried on the edge of the north path in Hampstead Cemetery in north London. His gravestone is small, but distinctive, having the form of an open book.


His novels enjoyed great popular success for a time. Darkness Falls from the Air is set during the London Blitz and was written while the bombing was still in progress. The Small Back Room became a Powell and Pressburger film. A Way Through the Wood was adapted as a stage play, Waiting for Gillian, and as the 2005 film Separate Lies, which marked the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes. Other critically acclaimed Balchin novels include A Sort of Traitors, Sundry Creditors, The Fall of the Sparrow and Seen Dimly before Dawn.

As a screenwriter he worked on an early draft of Cleopatra but is principally remembered for The Man Who Never Was, for which he won the 1957 BAFTA Award for Best British Screenplay, and Mandy, the story of a deaf child. He also wrote the screenplay for The Singer Not the Song and adapted two of his own novels for the screen.


Balchin was married twice, firstly in 1933 to Elisabeth Evelyn Walshe, daughter of the novelist Douglas Walshe, whom he had met at Cambridge where she was reading English, archaeology and anthropology at Newnham.[7] Their children were:

  1. Prudence Ann Balchin (born 1934),[8] who married Z-Cars scriptwriter John Hopkins and ran a successful zoo for many years.
  2. Penelope Jane Balchin (born 1937),[9] better known as childcare expert Dr Penelope Leach, who married the noted science journalist Gerald Leach (1933–2004).[10]
  3. Freja Mary Balchin (born 1944),[11] who became the first female president of Cambridge University's theatre group[12] and married Richard Gregory, a leading psychologist.

His first marriage broke up following a partner-swapping arrangement between the Balchins, the artist Michael Ayrton and the latter's partner Joan. Elisabeth also had an affair with the composer Christian Darnton. Balchin divorced Elisabeth in 1951 and she married Ayrton a year later.[1]. Balchin included an unflattering caricature of Darnton as the poet "Stephen" in his novel Mine Own Executioner (1945).

He married secondly in 1953 Yovanka (now Jane[3]) Zorana Tomich.[13] They had two children:

  1. Charles Zoran Marlin Balchin (born 1955),[14] who held senior roles at the BBC, Sky Sports and various overseas broadcasters.
  2. Cassandra Marlin Balchin (1962–2012),[15] an authority on women's rights under Islamic law.


Books by Mark Spade

  • How to Run a Bassoon Factory; or Business Explained (1934)
  • Business for Pleasure (1935)
  • Fun and Games – How to Win at Almost Anything (1936)
  • How to Run a Bassoon Factory and Business for Pleasure (1950)

Novels by Nigel Balchin

  • No Sky (1934)
  • Simple Life (1935)
  • Lightbody on Liberty (1936)
  • Darkness Falls from the Air (1942)
  • The Small Back Room (1943), made into a film in 1948
  • Mine Own Executioner (1945), made into a film in 1947
  • Lord, I Was Afraid (1947)
  • The Borgia Testament (1948)
  • A Sort of Traitors (1949), made into a film (Suspect) in 1960
  • A Way Through the Wood (1951), made into a stage play, Waiting for Gillian in 1954, and the 2005 film Separate Lies.
  • Sundry Creditors (1953)
  • The Fall of the Sparrow (1955)
  • Seen Dimly before Dawn (1962)
  • In the Absence of Mrs. Petersen (1966)
  • Kings of Infinite Space (1967)

Screenplays by Nigel Balchin


  • Income and Outcome. A Study of Personal Finance (1936)
  • The Aircraft Builders. An Account of British Aircraft Production 1935-1945 (1947) monograph
  • The Anatomy of Villainy (1950) essays
  • Last Recollections of My Uncle Charles (1954) stories
  • The Worker in Modern Industry (1954) pamphlet
  • Fatal Fascination (1964) essays by Balchin and three other writers


  1. Peter Rowland, "Balchin, Nigel Marlin (1908–1970)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, accessed 9 December 2008
  2. The middle name 'Marlin' was inherited from his great great great grandmother, Mary Marlin, who married Uriah Balchin in 1748. All subsequent generations of this branch of the Balchin family have used this middle name. Marriage licence held by the London Metropolitan Archives.
  4. Collett 2015.
  5. Nigel Balchin, Derek Collett, Book and Magazine Collector, issue 301, December 2008.
  6. Rowntree's Cocoa Works, Making the Modern World study guide, The Science Museum
  7. Justine Hopkins, ‘Ayrton , Elisabeth Evelyn (1910–1991)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 accessed 16 Jan 2017
  8. GRO Register of Births: DEC 1934 1a 16 PADDINGTON – Prudence A. Balchin, mmn = Walshe
  9. GRO Register of Births: MAR 1938 1a 808 HAMPSTEAD – Penelope J. Balchin, mmn = Walshe
  11. GRO Register of Births: MAR 1945 1a 551 MARYLEBONE – Freja M. Balchin, mmn = Walshe
  12. Daily Express, 1 May 1966
  13. GRO Register of Marriages: MAR 1953 5d 712 MARYLEBONE – Balchin = Tomich or Tomic
  14. GRO Register of Births: DEC 1955 5d 189 PADDINGTON – Charles Z. M. Balchin, mmn = Tomich
  15. GRO Register of Births: JUN 1962 5d 261 PADDINGTON – Cassandra M. Balchin, mmn = Tomich
  • Collett, Derek (2015). His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin. SilverWood. ISBN 978-1-78132-391-5.
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