It is impossible to discuss Richard Williams without discussing ‘The Thief’, a project that consumed much of his career. ‘The Thief’ had its origins in the mid-1960s when Richard Williams became very interested in Sufism, which is a concept related to an inner mysticalaspect of Islam – although some Sufi scholars teach that the concept pre-dates religions and only flowered under Islam.
Omar Shah was the first business manager that RWA had in its twenty-year lease at 13 Soho Square. Omar Shah was a prominent exponent of Naqshbandi Sufism, an order that traces its connection to Muhammad through Abu Bakr, the first Caliph and a companion of Muhammad – while most Sufi orders trace their lineage through Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and the fourth Caliph. At the time, his brother, Idries Shah, was a major Sufi scholar/master; he had written a seminal work on Sufism, ‘The Sufis’, and was collecting folk tales about the Mulla Nasrudin. In around 1966 Williams collaborated with Idries Shah by providing illustrations for a series of humorous books on Nasrudin. The illustrations became the model for the styling of ‘The Thief’.
The idea for an animated feature film was Idries Shah’s, but it became Williams’ obsession. There was a reference to the project as early as 1968 International Film Guide, which noted that Williams was about to begin work on “the first of several films based on stories featuring Mulla Nasruddin.” By 1970 it was being called, The Majestic Fool, but it was soon being referred to as, Nasruddin!.
In the early 1970s there was a falling out between Williams and Omar Shah. Williams had done a lot of work on the Nasruddin project before claiming that Shah was stealing from the studio. Shah was the studio business manager and executive producer, but the relationship with the studio came apart during the production of the television special, A Christmas Carol (1971), which was later released theatrically and received an Oscar® for Best Animated Short Subject in 1972. Omar Shah received a credit on A Christmas Carol as production consultant.
Idries Shah was also demanding 50% of the profits from the Nasruddin! film and the situation was complicated by his sister claiming ownership of the Nasruddin stories because of having done some of the translation. Williams included Idries in his condemnation of Omar for stealing. Idries Shah eventually gave Williams the rights to The Thief character to avoid threats of taking his brother to court for embezzlement, but maintained control of the Nasruddin character. A 1973 RWA promotional booklet explained the disappearance of the Nasruddin character as being due to it being “too verbal.” The focus switched to The Thief and introduced the cobbler, Tack. Williams and his wife, Margaret French, co-wrote a new script. The character, Zig-Zag, is said to be based on Idries Shah. The project went through many name-changes over the years: The Thief Who Never Gave Up,Once,The Thief and the Cobbler, and, much later, The Princess and the Cobbler, and Arabian Night.
New information about the relationship between Richard Williams and the Shah brothers recently came to light when Carl Gover, the business manager at Richard Williams Animation after the departure of Omar Shah, made available a threatening note purportedly sent to RWA by the Shah brothers. The note generated many reminiscences, and some unsubstantiated gossip, about the Shah brothers.
Carl Gover A blackmail note from the brother of an early RWA producer, fired for embezzling huge amounts of money from the studio. It is one of two threats after Omar’s brother, Idries Shah, felt he had rights to such close references to Nasruddin tales within “The Thief,” which only he had translated from the original Persian. Omar, himself, had been fired from the studio just prior to me joining – accused of theft, embezzling and mishandling of company funds. These siblings claimed copyright of the English translation of the beautiful Sufi philosophical tales featuring the character, Nasruddin, and denied any use of the character. They also wanted 50% of the profits resulting from box office returns… hence, the film changed direction, never to be fully realized.
Following the above death threat, there was a telephone call warning that a bomb would blow up the studio at 13h00. Everyone was evacuated into Soho Square while I sat with a policeman in my office. He insisted that I leave too, but I believed that it was a hoax. When the clock on the wall got to 12h50, the cop spotted some booze on a shelf – and nervously asked whether he could have a drink. I poured him a whisky as we watched the clock reach one o’clock – and shortly afterwards the staff returned to their desks.
Peter Western I remember having a conversation with Howard Blake (composer of “Walking in the Air” and an early London friend of Dick) one night in The Star & Garter (I think you were party to this, Carl). Howard claimed the Shah brothers hailed from Liverpool prior to getting involved with the RWA Studio and were well-known and feared thugs up there.
Ravi Swami I’m slightly incredulous that the Shah Brothers had this reputation – Idries was always portrayed in the media as this Oxbridge educated Sufi intellectual and I remember my dad holding him in high esteem for his authoritative books on Sufism / philosophy. Looking at his Wiki page he dabbled in occultism and magic. As for his brother, apart from some rumours about embezzlement and that brief clip in the B/W doc on the studio, he seems a shadowy figure and possibly had links to Saudi money?
I guess Williams had little choice if no one in the UK or elsewhere was prepared to finance the film, given the subject matter.
Peter Western Ravi – that sounds like a far more credible version of the truth of the matter. After all, it was one of those Soho pub tales, as told to me. But the note exists. How serious the threat was, probably no-one can say. Dick later took a great deal of Saudi money to finance the ‘Death Machine’ sequence, but that is a whole other story. Having now read the Wikipedia page on Idries Shah, it looks like he conned a good number of Westerners (including the writers, Robert Graves and Doris Lessing) into giving him property, money and an intellectual and philosophical reputation he might not have deserved.
The 1970 BBC documentary, Dreamwalkers, about Idries Shah includes the clip below with Richard Williams talking about the Nasruddin! project.