MP Wright on adapting Callan and Heartman for TV

Mark WrightCRIMETIMEPREVIEW talks to writer MP Wright, who turns 50 next month and has just had his first crime novel, Heartman, published to wide acclaim. Not only is it in the running for four CWA Awards, but the BBC and World Productions are adapting his evocative, dark story – about a Barbadian former police sergeant turned private detective in 1960s Bristol – into a series. 

The hero of Heartman is JT Ellington, who we meet in the book when he’s virtually down and out during a bitter 1960s winter. He is approached by a wealthy Jamaican businessman in Bristol to find a missing girl, and embarks on a perilous search that takes him into privileged circles, where sexual depravity rides hand in hand with corruption.

Having previously worked as a roadie for the likes of Duran Duran, as a private investigator and in the youth offending and probation services, Mark harboured dreams of becoming a writer for many years. Now, famine has turned to feast and he is in demand, writing more Heartman stories, working on a reboot of classic late-1960s series Callan and even talking to Channel 4 about adapting a story set during the Spanish Civil War.

He lives in Leicestershire with his partner, a school teacher, and their two children.


Can you tell us a bit about Heartman and JT Ellington?

I’ve never been into police procedurals. A lot of my crime-writer friends write them, but I’ve never been into them. But because I’ve worked in that field [probation, youth offending], procedurals always felt dull and unreal to me. I’m looking at my bookshelves now and I can see Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler, and I’ve always loved those kinds of writers. Jim Burke and Walter Mosley. I love stories about the downtrodden and downbeat. When you meet Ellington he’s a broken man, and when you leave him, he’s doubly broken, but there is hope. The hope comes from Vic [his cousin, a budding criminal but loyal friend].

You are working on your next Heartman book, All Through the Night. What happens in that?

I was desperate to use real events, so All Through the Night involves corrupt orphanages, which was actually happening in the Sixties in Bristol, and the sale of children to members of US Air Force in based in Somerset. The children were moved out to wealthy childless couples in the US.

I liked the idea of Ellington going on the run with a white child in 1960s Bristol. And the only to do that is all through the night. The TV company loved it. The opening is that Ellington is asked to find a Jamaican doctor who is also an illegal abortionist. He’s run off with a number of death certificates for children who’ve apparently died at orphanages. The certificates are false and the doctor knows this. He’s agreed to sign the certificates for children that have been sold. The doctor takes the next child that is to be shipped out. I take the story to places like the Cheddar Gorge, and TV dictated that we’d end the next book at the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

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Crime series rule at 2015’s Baftas

Happy Valley series 1 BBC1

Siobhan Finneran and Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley

CRIME certainly pays on TV. Mysteries and thrillers dominate this year’s Bafta nominations, with Happy Valley, Line of Duty, The Missing, Peaky Blinders, Sherlock and The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies all featuring.

These were all engrossing, first-class dramas, with some of the actors involved giving the performances of their lives. Keeley Hawes and Sarah Lancashire were simply superb in Line of Duty – which was better in its second series – and Happy Valley, and both are nominated. Georgina Campbell also put in a stand-out performance in BBC3’s Murdered by My Boyfriend.

Benedict Cumberbatch will hope it is fifth-time lucky at Bafta as he steps onto the red carpet again for his performance as Sherlock. The BBC1 modern reboot of the consulting detective is a dazzlingly good drama, though not nominated this time. Cumberbatch is in the running, however, but he faces formidable competition from nominees James Nesbitt – another lifetime-best performance for The Missing – Toby Jones (Marvellous) and Jason Watkins (The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies).

The Missing series 1 BBC1

James Nesbitt in The Missing

Choosing the ‘best’ is a thankless task, but my personal faves this year are Sarah Lancashire (by a whisker over Keeley Hawes), James Nesbitt – an actor I don’t usually warm to, but this was a brave performance. Then there’s Ken Stott for the same reason in The Missing, and perhaps Charlotte Spencer for Glue.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Peaky Blinders, and in the International category I would probably go for True Detective, though I am slightly addicted to The Good Wife.

Who do you think should win? Post your comments above…

DRAMA SERIES

HAPPY VALLEY Sally Wainwright, Karen Lewis, Euros Lyn, Nicola Shindler, Red Production Company/BBC One; LINE OF DUTY Jed Mercurio, Simon Heath, Peter Norris, Douglas Mackinnon, World Productions/BBC Two; THE MISSING Charlie Pattinson, Willow Grylls, Jack Williams, Harry Williams, New Pictures/BBC One; PEAKY BLINDERS Production Team – Caryn Mandabach Productions/Tiger Aspect Productions/BBC Two

LEADING ACTOR

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH Sherlock, BBC One; TOBY JONES Marvellous, BBC Two; JAMES NESBITT The Missing, BBC One JASON WATKINS The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies ITV

LEADING ACTRESS

Keeley Hawes in Line of Duty 2

Keeley Hawes in Line of Duty 2

GEORGINA CAMPBELL Murdered by My Boyfriend, BBC Three; KEELEY HAWES Line of Duty, BBC Two; SARAH LANCASHIRE Happy Valley, BBC One; SHERIDAN SMITH Cilla, ITV

SUPPORTING ACTOR

ADEEL AKHTAR Utopia – Channel 4 JAMES NORTON Happy Valley, BBC One; STEPHEN REA The Honourable Woman, BBC Two; KEN STOTT The Missing – BBC One

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

GEMMA JONES Marvellous, BBC Two; VICKY MCCLURE Line of Duty, BBC Two; AMANDA REDMAN Tommy Cooper: Not like That, Like This, ITV; CHARLOTTE SPENCER Glue, E4

SINGLE DRAMA

A POET IN NEW YORK Aisling Walsh, Ruth Caleb, Andrew Davies, Griff Rhys Jones, Modern Television/BBC Two; COMMON Jimmy McGovern, David Blair, Colin McKeown, Donna Molloy, LA Productions/BBC One; MARVELLOUS Peter Bowker, Julian Farino, Katie Swinden, Patrick Spence, Fifty Fathoms/BBC Two; MURDERED BY MY BOYFRIEND Pier Wilkie, Regina Moriarty, Paul Andrew Williams, Darren Kemp – BBC/BBC Three

MINI-SERIES

Jason Watkins in The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies

Jason Watkins in The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies

CILLA Jeff Pope, Paul Whittington, Kwadjo Dajan, Robert Willis, ITV Studios/GroupM Entertainment/ITV; THE LOST HONOUR OF CHRISTOPHER JEFFERIES Gareth Neame, Peter Morgan, Roger Michell, Kevin Loader, Carnival Film & Television/ITV; OUR WORLD WAR Production Team – BBC Factual/BBC Three PREY Chris Lunt, Nicola Shindler, Tom Sherry, Nick Murphy, Red Production Company/ITV

INTERNATIONAL

THE GOOD WIFE CBS Television Studios in assoc. with Scott Free/King Size Prods/More4; HOUSE OF CARDS Beau Willimon, David Fincher, Joshua Donen, Kevin Spacey – Donen/Fincher/Roth and Trigger Street Productions, Inc. in assoc. with Media Rights Capital/Netflix; ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK Jenji Kohan, Lisa I.Vinnecour, Sara Hess, Sian Heder – Lionsgate Television/Netflix; TRUE DETECTIVE Nic Pizzolatto, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Scott Stephens, Steve Golin – HBO Entertainment in assoc. with Neon Black, Anonymous Content, Parliament of Owls and Passenger/ Sky Atlantic

No Offence, C4, Joanna Scanlan

Channel 4s No Offence with Joanna Scanlan

Top cop – Joanna Scanlan as Detective Inspector Vivienne Deering

Paul Abbott’s cop show is dark, outrageous and as subtle as a truncheon over the head. It could become addictive.

★★★ Channel 4, starts Tuesday, 5 May, 9pm

WRITER Paul Abbott cites Barney Miller as one of his all-time favourite top crime series. ‘I loved Barney Miller… a beautiful American series.’

And Barney was also cheerful and family-friendly, despite being set in a New York precinct.

DETECTIVE-CONSTABLE-DINAH-KOWALSKA-Elaine-Cassidy, No Offence

Elaine Cassidy as Kowalska

Well, as you’d expect from the man behind Shameless, when it comes to his own cop show, it ain’t nothing like Barney Miller. Victims who may have fellated their own dogs and vaginal deodorants never cropped up on Captain Miller’s watch.

And while No Offence can be blackly humorous, it’s not a comedy. It will shock viewers into a guffaw at some politically incorrect comment, then wince at the awfulness of the crimes and lifestyles on show.

Joanna Scanlan as the unhinged Deering

Detective Inspector Vivienne Deering, played by The Thick of It‘s Joanna Scanlan, could become the series’ stand-out character, taking her place alongside Shameless‘s Frank Gallagher in the Abbott hall of infamy. It’s Viv who uses the intimate deodorant while issuing orders to Will Mellor’s DC Tanner. She’s a super-capable chief, but ever so slightly unhinged.

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Heartman and Callan reboot in development for TV

Leicester author MP Wright sees his debut novel Heartman turned into new BBC1 series and is asked to script a modern update of 70s classic Callan.

Heartman HiRes CMYKYOU MAY not have heard of MP Wright, but in coming months you probably will. His first novel, Heartman, has just been released to acclaim from reviewers and is nominated for four Crime Writers’ Association awards. It’s a compelling tale about a Barbadian ex-policeman in 1960s Bristol and has created such a stir that it’s been snapped up by World Productions and has made a very busy man of Wright, 50, a former mental health and probation service worker.

Heartman is now in the hands of award-winning playwright and TV dramatist Tony Marchant, who was responsible for the excellent Garrow’s Law, and could be before the cameras before the end of the year, with a slot on BBC1 at the ready.

It’s a fascinating mystery focusing on JT Ellington, who has fled his home in the Caribbean after his life was ruined in a struggle against a powerful drug baron and corrupt police bosses. He winds up in Bristol, broke during a freezing 1965 winter, when he is approached by a rich Jamaican businessman in the city and asked to find a missing girl. This takes Ellington, an outsider in a hostile world of prejudice, into a dark conspiracy among the town’s elite. The TV project is rumoured to be attracting the attention of some major actors keen to get on board.

Further Heartman episodes planned

‘World Productions optioned Heartman before I had a book deal,’ the author tells me. ‘Producers, Simon Heath and Jake Lushington were eager to get the tone right and have worked tirelessly to bring in a great team. Our script is written by BAFTA
award-winning dramatist and playwright Tony Marchant, and we have a BBC 1 slot for the drama to be shown in two parts. World will be working on the other Ellington books – All Through The Night, The Restless Coffins and The Rivers Of Blood.’

Edward Woodward as Callan

Edward Woodward as Callan

As if working on writing and editing the proofs for all these stories, Mark Wright’s whirlwind success has also seen him offered another exciting opportunity – to develop a modern version of Callan, ITV’s gritty early 70s series about a government hitman played by Edward Woodward.

‘Last autumn I was approached by the James Mitchell estate [creator of When The Boat Comes In and Callan],’ Mark explains. ‘I have been asked to reboot Callan and I’m currently working on a pilot script called One Shot, One Kill, which will bring the self-hating, bolshy, British government assassin back out of the shadows.

‘All the series regulars are set to return – Hunter/Charlie, Toby Meres, Snell and of course, Lonely. All brought to life in a contemporary and gritty setting. It’s a challenge but its looking good, if I say so myself.’

CrimeTimePreview will post a full interview with MP Wright about these new series this weekend…

Murder in Successville, BBC3, coming soon

Murder in Successville - TX: n/a - Episode: Dr Death (No. 5): Kimberley Wyatt

Kimberly Wyatt in episode 5

The crime genre is about to get roughed up by BBC3’s new and barmy comedy six-parter Murder in Successville. It’s described as ‘genre-busting’, but is it side-splitting? Well, here’s the premise. Successville is a town populated by celebs, where there a lot of murders. Mary Berry runs the local strip club, ‘Soggy Bottoms’, and Gordon Ramsay is chief of police. Each week a celebrity – Dermot O’Leary, Deborah Meaden, Jamie Laing, Greg James, Kimberly Wyatt and Louis Smith – is enlisted to solve a killing. I’ve seen the first episode featuring Jamie Laing, which will probably go out on Monday, 27 April, and it didn’t split my sides. Jamie Laing, of Made in Chelsea ‘fame’, is like a giggling rabbit in the headlights, but Tom Davis as Detective Inspector Sleet is very good – silly, rude and terrific at putting our celebs on the spot. Here’s a taster…

Vera, series 5, ITV, Brenda Blethyn

BRENDA BLETHYN as  DCI Vera Stanhope and KENNY DOUGHTY as DS Aiden Healy.

Vera (Brenda Blethyn) and new deputy DS Healy (Kenny Doughty)

 

Vera is back, with a new sergeant in tow, Aiden Healy, who has his work cut out earning his boss’s respect

★★★ ITV, starts Sunday, 5 April, 8pm

VERA HAS since 2011 become a solid performer for ITV. It does not earn the plaudits or fuss in the papers of series such as Broadchurch or The Fall, but its beautiful setting and popular lead star in Brenda Blethyn has made it a mainstream success.

Changing Tides is the first of four new two-hour mysteries in this fifth season (the sixth starts shooting in June).

DCI Stanhope is investigating a suspicious fire that has destroyed three caravans at a holiday park, killing a woman. The park owner, Jim Viner, suspects the dead woman is his sister, Deena, though he has no idea why she was at the park and not at home.

Ann Cleeves’ novels

Anyone who enjoyed the previous four series of Vera will go for this latest series. It’s pretty much more of the same, but with Kenny Doughty joining the cast as Vera’s new surrogate son, DS Aiden Healy, replacing David Leon’s Jose Ashworth.

This is a like-for-like cast change, maintaining Vera’s grumpy mentor dynamic with a young male deputy. Clearly, the show’s producers don’t want to mess with the series’ formula.

BRENDA BLETHYN as  DCI Vera Stanhope, KENNY DOUGHTY as DS Aiden Riley,WAYNE FOSKETT as Jim Viner and KATHERINE ROSE MORLEY as Claire Viner

Vera and Aiden begin their investigation

With Ann Cleeves’ popular series of novels, ITV have done what producers often do with successful crime heroes/heroines and ignored much of the interesting character material to focus on plot plot plot. The first half hour of Changing Tides is the traditional opening of detective and sidekick turning up at a crime scene and quizzing witnesses and the pathologist. Without a murder, these characters couldn’t function.

Vera v The Good Wife

In the novels Vera has more depth, a lonely woman haunted by her childhood who can empathise with victims and who is very good at the job she relies to give her life meaning. The TV series glosses over most of this to focus on whodunit, much as ITV’s lacklustre adaptations of the Rebus novels did as well – another compelling character on the page turned into a plot chaser.

Standard ITV dramas such as Vera, Midsomer Murders, Lewis and DCI Banks are stuck in that 1980s police procedural mould. In contrast, top US dramas such as The Good Wife have mastered the multi-stranded narrative with sharp characterisation. Every episode about Alicia Florrick combines a terrific weekly plot with interesting protagonists.

The writing, acting and production values on Vera are very good, but the stories never linger with you beyond the final credits.

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