Barbaric Genius



Paul Duane’s critically acclaimed documentary telling the remarkable true story of John Healy’s rise from homeless wino and thief to chess prodigy and award-winning author.

“Enthralling” The Guardian
“Absorbing” Sunday Times
“A Must-See” Evening Standard
“Stunning” Hot Press

Barbaric Genius

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In the early ‘90s, writer John Healy was a star, on international TV, in the national press, constantly being interviewed about his first book, The Grass Arena.

There was much about him that made him appealing to the media, not least a sense of danger. John Healy wasn’t just another award-winning author. He had a history of violence. And it seemed destined to follow him.

The son of Irish immigrants, Healy lived rough on the streets of London for fifteen years, fighting and stealing to survive; a slave to alcohol, any alcohol – wine, strong cider, surgical spirits.

“His life, were it not for an astonishing turn of events, seemed predestined to be a short one.” Daniel Day-Lewis, August 2008.

Then he discovered chess. This became his new addiction. Alcohol was left behind. He became a rated chess player and a famous writer, for a time the darling of the British media.

Then John Healy disappeared.

Stories emerged to fill the vacuum, dark stories; he’d made threats of awful violence towards his publishers – he was mentally ill – a psychopath.

Filmmaker Paul Duane avidly followed these rumours. Healy’s book had made an enormous impression on him when it was originally published. It seemed extraordinary that its author could disappear. What happened to silence this man so soon after he discovered his literary voice?

In 2006, Paul Duane found John Healy.

Far from the feral, potentially violent savant he’d been lead to expect, Healy turned out to be an articulate, angry, often hilarious raconteur, but also a man whose intense paranoia seemed always on the verge of devouring everything around him.

Healy claimed he’d been silenced by a whispering campaign led by his own publishers.
His books had been purposely allowed to go out of print, some of them pulped. He said there was a conspiracy to portray him as a street psycho, a drunk with a grudge against those more successful than him.

How true could this be? Surely a successful author, no matter how complicated his personal life, would never suffer this kind of persecution?

The truth turned out to be a fascinating mesh of class, money, art and fiction, a clash of cultures, defining the Irish immigrant experience in Britain as something that the country’s ruling classes still haven’t quite managed to absorb.

During the years that Duane filmed with John Healy, his life started to change. This forgotten man was rediscovered.

The Grass Arena came back into print, rescued by an American editor who knew nothing of and cared less about the insidious way the system conspired to pretend the book had never existed.

Academy-Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis volunteered to write a new introduction to a book he’d loved for many years.

A new generation got a chance to discover John’s dark narrative and experience his ambiguous redemption through chess and meditation.

Barbaric Genius is the first film to tell the story of a man whose journey has dragged him down to the greatest depths imaginable. A man whose strength of will enabled him to escape the fate his poverty and his class had prepared for him. A man who still struggles to understand his own extraordinary life, whose daily practice of Buddhist meditation is sometimes all that protects him from a crushing despair at the way his promising literary career was stolen from him.

With access to John’s archive, we have pieced together the evidence that shows his paranoia is based on something very real – a subtle conspiracy of class and education against a man whose aura of danger made him briefly fashionable. But in the end, John Healy just wasn’t ‘one of us’, and his fate was to be shrugged off – thrown back into the oblivion he’d struggled so hard to escape.



““Paul Duane has created an enthralling documentary…Healy is a lonely, haunted, brilliant man… a gripping study.” ****”

Peter Bradshaw – The Guardian

“John Healy’s an extraordinary character… a fascinating story… reminded me of Searching for Bobby Fischer.”

Mark Kermode, Radio 5 Live

“John Healy has a story worth telling… an absorbing film.” ****

Sunday Times

This documentary about author John Healy is a must-see if you like dark revisionist tales…” ****

London Evening Standard

“Fascinating documentary… his story deserves this sensitive telling.”

Guardian Guide

“This documentary is fascinating.”

Philip French, The Observer

“a compelling documentary”

Matthew Sweet, BBC Radio 3

“a fascinating and emotionally engaging documentary that’s by turns heart-breaking, sobering and inspirational.” ****

Matthew Turner, ViewLondon

Where to Buy

Barbaric Genius is available to buy on DVD in stores throughout Ireland, here on the Wildcard website, on the Barbaric Genius website and on Amazon.  It can also be downloaded from the Wildcard site, the Barbaric Genius website and can be purchased on  iTunes in the UK and Ireland.