IT'S been described as ''the biggest, boldest and most expensive musical theatre production ever created in Australia''. King Kong opens in Melbourne next year and looks set to be a monster hit. It certainly has all the ingredients: the story of how a giant ape is captured on a remote island and taken to New York where he escapes and causes havoc is a fantastic tale that has thrilled people ever since the first film version appeared in 1932.
Add the ''Beauty and the Beast'' romance, and it's easy to understand why the story has proved so popular down the years.
But less well-known, and almost as fantastic, is the story of the remarkable man who created the Kong legend, but tragically never lived to see his work in production.
Edgar Wallace was the illegitimate son of a travelling actress, who rose from poverty in Victorian London to become the most-read author in the world. He wrote more than 170 books and his work was translated into more than 30 languages. More films have been made from his books than from those of any other 20th century writer.
''Wallace brought the art of popular entertainment to a pitch which never before had been achieved by any other writer,'' wrote his biographer Margaret Lane.
Among his millions of fans were King George V, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin - and a certain Adolf Hitler, who, it is claimed, read every one of Wallace's books. Among his more contemporary fans is film director Quentin Tarantino who has cited Wallace as a major influence.
The covers of Wallace's books often carried the proud boast of the publisher: ''It is impossible not to be thrilled by Edgar Wallace.'' Indeed, it's impossible not to be thrilled by Wallace's incredible life story.
This ultimate rags-to-riches tale began in a small terraced house in south-east London on April 1, 1875, and nine days later, Wallace was adopted by a Billingsgate fish porter and his wife. They welcomed him, in the words of Titanic director James Cameron, who in 1976 presented a television documentary on Wallace, ''with the total generosity of the very poor''.
The young Dick Freeman, as he was then called, grew up in the dark, dingy, ''sombrely exciting'' backstreets of London's docklands - a location he was later to use in many of his books.
He left school at 12 and took on a variety of lowly jobs. He worked for a printer making paper bags. He delivered milk. He even, for a brief time, ran away to sea. But although he had no formal qualifications, it was clear that Wallace possessed a rare intelligence.
When he was selling newspapers at Ludgate Circus, the young devotee of William Shakespeare would distract himself by reciting scenes from Julius Caesar. Even at his darkest hour, he never lost that essential ingredient to success - self-belief.
''I'll be a great man one day,'' he predicted to his landlady when he was working as a plasterer's labourer.
Wallace enlisted in the army at 18 and while he was on night duty wrote verses for music hall productions. In 1896, his regiment was transferred to South Africa; it was to be Wallace's big break. In 1899, the year the Second Boer War started, he bought himself out of the army and became a war correspondent for Reuters and later for the London Daily Mail.
In 1902, Wallace displayed wonderful ingenuity to land a major scoop - becoming the first to break the news that a peace treaty had been signed between the Boers and the British.
The British camp and the South African town of Vereeniging were heavily fortified, with the fearsome British field marshal Lord Kitchener determined that no news of negotiations taking place there would be leaked to the press.
But Wallace had other ideas. A friend of his was one of the guards in the camp and Wallace arranged a code of signals. The guard would have three handkerchiefs: a red one meant ''nothing doing'', a blue signified ''making progress'' and a white handkerchief meant that a peace treaty had been signed.
Every day Wallace would take the train that passed by the camp and look out for the signal. ''I don't know how many journeys I made on that infernal railway,'' he later recalled.
''Then one morning when rumour was rife that negotiations had fallen through, I saw my friend standing at the end of the tent lines, and he was displaying a white handkerchief conspicuously. I did not wait to get back to Pretoria. Instead I sent a wire: 'Contract signed'.''
With the war over, Wallace became editor of the South African newspaper The Rand Daily Mail. He invested disastrously on the South African sharemarket, however, and returned to England with just three shillings to his name.
Fortunately, he was still in the good books of Alfred Harmsworth, proprietor of London's Daily Mail, who gave him a job as a reporter. Wallace covered criminal trials and also reported from Morocco and Spain, where he was the first to break news of the attempt by a bomb-throwing anarchist to assassinate the King and Queen of Spain.
By now, he had already written his first novel, The Four Just Men, a thrilling tale in which four vigilantes carry out their threat to kill the British Home Secretary on account of his support for an aliens extradition bill.
No publisher was interested in the story, so Wallace, never one to take no for an answer, published it himself. Not only that but he spent more than £1000 on advertising the book and challenged readers with £500 of rewards if they could work out the solution.
The book was a roaring success, but his expensive publicity campaign, and payouts to readers who had solved the puzzle, left him once again out of pocket. Harmsworth bailed Wallace out, but when he lost the Mail money in an expensive libel case, he was unceremoniously sacked. Such a blow would have broken lesser men -but not Wallace.
With the bailiffs knocking at the front door, he turned himself into a writing machine over the next 25 years. He wrote tipping columns for racing papers, reviews, verses and short stories. But he made his name with his Sanders of the River stories, set in imperial Africa, and his thrillers and detective stories.
Wallace took the mechanics of writing to a new level of efficiency, developing his very own assembly line production system. He would be at his desk by 5 or 6 every morning dictating words into dictaphone cylinders, which his secretaries would then collect, listen to and type up.
It's doubtful that there has ever been a writer who produced so much, so quickly. He began working on the novel The Devil Man late one Friday night and had, 60 hours later completed a 80,000-word book that would earn him £4000 in serial rights.
His thrillers and detective stories, with their fantastic plots and ingenious solutions were devoured by the public. His tales of threatened heiresses, secret dungeons and criminal masterminds took readers out of their monochrome lives into a colourful world full of glamour, excitement and danger.
The snootier critics were less impressed, claiming that Wallace wrote ''penny-dreadfuls''. How could anyone who churned out so much, so quickly, and who was so incredibly popular with the masses, be considered a ''great writer''?
But Wallace was a great writer and the best of his output, such as The Crimson Circle, The Missing Million and, of course, King Kong itself, stand the test of time.
By the mid-1920s, the illegitimate board school boy had become a household name. He cut a flamboyant figure, chain-smoking cigarettes from his trademark long cigarette holder and owning a yellow Rolls-Royce.
Success hardens many men, but not Wallace. Although he was earning a fortune, the money was going out just as quickly. His generosity knew no bounds. When he went on his annual holiday to Switzerland, he wouldn't just take his wife and children, but would also invite an entourage of friends, including the postman and his bookmaker.
A keen follower of the turf, he would tell guests in his private box at Royal Ascot that he'd put a bet of £10 on the winner of the next race for them and then he'd pay up -whatever the result. ''He belongs to the great company of good fellows, loveable, careless-reckless spendthrifts if you like; a company of popular, good-hearted, generous men whose name is legion,'' said his secretary, Bob Curtis.
Wallace was never one to rest on his laurels and there were always new fields to conquer. In six years he wrote no fewer than 16 plays and was the first playwright to have three plays running in London simultaneously. One of his most successful, On the Spot, was written in just 24 hours.
He then set his sights on being a movie mogul and became chairman of the British Lion Film Corporation, for whom he directed film versions of two of his books. He even tried - unsuccessfully - to embark on a political career and stood as an Independent Liberal candidate in Blackpool in the 1931 general election.
It was after this that Wallace decided to accept an offer of a lucrative two-month contract from the RKO studio in Hollywood. Wallace made his way to California and had just finished his scenario ''Kong'', when he fell ill. A cold soon turned to double pneumonia. Thousands of kilometres away from his family and loved ones, Wallace died on February 10, 1932. He was 56.
''To me it was like seeing a great steam engine, that had been stoked with wonderful fire and sparking away for years, on its side,'' was the reaction of the Welsh actor Emlyn Williams, when he heard the news.
After his death, there was an attempt to minimise Wallace's contribution to King Kong, with the film's director Merian C. Cooper, claiming that ''not one single scene or line of dialogue was contributed by him''.
But, fortunately, a copy of Wallace's scenario exists that gives lie to that assertion. The first half of Wallace's script does differ from the film, but the second half, which has Kong being captured, taken to America and ending up on the Empire State Building is all in Wallace's script. And it's Wallace who develops the beauty-and-the-beast theme that gives the film such pathos.
Neil Clark is a London-based journalist.