First published Friday 20 February 2015

by Duncan Hall

Duncan Hall speaks to Sussex-based author Peter James about the stage adaptation of his novel Dead Simple.

A STAG night prank gone wrong announced Brighton’s most famous detective to the wider world, and launched a series of books which has now sold in excess of 14 million copies.

Having made an appearance on stage as a young man in an adaptation of Peter James’s novella The Perfect Murder, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is returning to Theatre Royal Brighton in a form his fans may more readily recognise – the workaholic CID man with an interest in the occult and an unsolved mystery at the heart of his private life.

Dead Simple begins with future groom Michael Harrison being buried in a coffin somewhere in Ashdown Forest by his stag night buddies – only for the joke to turn sour when his pals are wiped out in a road accident.

His best man and business partner Mark Warren helped plan the prank, but missed out on the stag night itself after a delayed flight.

Rather than do the decent thing and dig his buddy out he decides to take advantage of the situation – feigning ignorance when Harrison’s beautiful fiancée Ashley calls in the police.

When Grace is handed the investigation he is prepared to use his own unorthodox methods to assist in the search and find out the truth behind Harrison’s disappearance.

It may be ten years since James first introduced the world to Grace, but the Sussex-based author hasn’t tired of his creation, as he prepares to release his 11th Roy Grace novel, You Are Dead, on Thursday, May 21.

“I’ve got no plans to push him over Beachy Head at the moment,” says James, who lives near Henfield. “Every time I start a new book it’s like sitting down with old mates.”

The same team behind The Perfect Murder – director Ian Talbot and writer Shaun McKenna – has adapted Dead Simple. And this homecoming run has already proved so popular an extra matinee performance has been added.

Playing the unfortunate Michael is former EastEnder Jamie Lomas, with Holby City’s Tina Hobley as his intended and Emmerdale’s Rik Makarem as the conniving Mark.

Taking the lead role is Gray O’Brien, who featured as Cockney wideboy taxi driver Don Kirk in The Perfect Murder, but is best known for his villainous role as Coronation Street’s ruthless businessman turned murderer Tony Gordon.

It was partly reactions from theatre audiences of The Perfect Murder which saw O’Brien land the coveted role.

“A lot of fans in the question and answer sessions after the performances said he would be a wonderful Roy Grace,” says James. “Towards the end of the run he approached me and said if there was a chance to play Grace on stage he would like to be considered. He’s doing a really good job.”

James encouraged him to spend time with Sussex’s finest in preparation for the role – hooking O’Brien up with the original inspiration for Grace, retired Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Gaylor, and organising work shadowing with several detectives working from Grace’s offices in Sussex House.

“I wanted him to get a sense of how they talk and act,” says James.

“The police have a different way of talking and standing, particularly when they are interviewing or questioning somebody.

“I think one of the qualifications for being a police officer which people don’t realise is you have to be bloody brave, with quite a strong personality. To be able to walk up to a stranger to stop and search them, or go through a door not knowing what’s on the other side takes bravery.

“No police officer ever knows what is around the corner.

“I’ve met hundreds, if not thousands of police officers, both here in Sussex and in countries around the world, and the question I always ask is whether at any point in their career they had their life on the line. Every copper has, although they often don’t think about it at the time.”

Policing is still one of the few careers where everyone starts at the bottom.

“People like [Chief Constable] Giles York and [Chief Superintendent] Nev Kemp all began as beat coppers – they have all been out on patrol, have got into bundles, and arrested people with their own hands. They know what it’s like to be a police officer out there.”

When it came to the portrayal of Brighton’s most famous copper on stage James had his say after seeing him for the first time in a dress rehearsal.

“O’Brien’s clothes made him look more like a pantomime clown,” says James. “They had him wearing cream shoes!

“I took him and the director aside and explained how Grace is a sharply dressed guy. I got him a whole new wardrobe so he looked smart. Major crimes detectives are sharply dressed – they never know when they are going to have to talk to somebody in authority, or to the family of somebody who has just died.”

He admits he wasn’t tempted to adapt his own novel.

“I prefer to invent and do new things,” he says. “It’s such a different process – I felt it would be better to let somebody who understands how it works do it. Shaun has adapted Lord Of The Rings and many other books prior to this – I don’t think I would have done as good a job as he has.”

There have been elements from the original novel which have been dropped – not least the first appearance of Grace’s future squeeze mortician Cleo Morey, who is set to appear in the next Roy Grace adaptation.

“Dead Simple ran to about 120,000 words,” says James. “A playscript is only 20,000, so that’s how much which has had to be taken out!”

Some plot points have also required creative thinking on McKenna’s part – not least the cross-county car chase which closed the original novel.

“We have changed the whole ending,” admits James. “It’s great for people who have read the book as there are quite a few different twists in the play.”

The stage design, by Michael Taylor who created the West End and touring versions of Graham Linehan’s take on The Ladykillers, combines a seafront flat with a mobile home and the glass-sided underground coffin space where the unfortunate Lomas spends the first act.

As part of his research for the original book James was locked into a coffin by a family firm of undertakers for 30 minutes – an experience he isn’t keen to repeat.

He told the Coventry Telegraph last month: “I arrived at 2am and there was this doddery old grandfather in his 80s.

“I’m claustrophobic and spent the whole 30 minutes trying to think calm thoughts. But I couldn’t help thinking ‘What if he drops dead?’ or ‘What if he forgets I‘m inside?’”

Research is one of the major differences between James’s career as a crime writer, and his previous passion as a horror novelist.

He is releasing his first ghost story in 20 years in October.

“You can be much more free with a ghost story,” he says. “In crime fiction it has to be right.

“You Are Dead is about Brighton’s first serial killer in 20 years. It starts with a dead body being found at Hove Lagoon, outside Norman Cook’s Big Beach Cafe during renovation work.

“It would be a major crime scene, but even with something like that there is so much research I have to do – what happens if a workman digging up an asphalt path finds skeletal remains, which police teams would be involved? Every step down the road needs detailed research.

“Doing the research I have learned so much about human nature. It’s part of my fascination with the police – nobody sees more of human nature in a 30-year career. A psychiatrist sees a lot, but not firsthand in one day.”

A day he spent shadowing Brighton and Hove’s duty inspector perhaps explains why Grace appears to be such a workaholic.

“It started at 7am with a cot death, in a situation where police have to give pastoral care and sympathy but be mindful it could be a potential crime scene,” he says.

“At 9am we got called to a case of domestic abuse, with a woman beaten up by a live-in boyfriend. At 11am an international student was hit by a bus and had to be helped as she couldn’t speak much English. And at 12.30pm we went to see an elderly couple who had their entire life savings taken by a guy who came to read the meter. It just went on…”

In the last ten years he has seen a lot of changes in the way the police work, particularly in terms of the high-tech equipment they use – something he has tried to incorporate in the stage version of Dead Simple.

“I don’t think any other organisation changes as fast as the police,” he says.

“I remember eight or nine years ago going to their morning meeting – or morning prayers – at the John Street Police Station where the divisional inspectors go through everything which has happened in the last 24 hours.

“I remember Chief Superintendent Kevin Moore turned to me and said it was the first time since records began that there hadn’t been an overnight burglary in the city of Brighton And Hove. The old style night-time creeper is gone – they can make more money as drug dealers or internet fraudsters. Criminals don’t need to be out late at night, and it is harder to sell stuff. I have seen the high tech crime unit expand and expand.

“Government budget changes have had an horrific impact. The police are a major part of the glue which holds civilised life together – and the budget cuts and border changes are reducing their operational abilities.”

James is already in talks with producers about future plays – with plans to either adapt another Roy Grace novel, or bring his forthcoming ghost story to the stage.

And there is good news on the long-mooted small screen debut of Grace.

“The television adaptation is moving forward slowly, but in the right direction,” says James – who says part of the reason for the delay is due to the BBC wanting to change a fundamental element of the story.

“They wanted to relocate the story to Scotland if you can believe it! That got a firm Foxtrot Oscar from me.

“It could end up being in production by the end of the year – I certainly think it’s going to happen for sure.”

James is looking forward to bringing his home city to a wider audience – and show the city how it is today.

“In the 1950s and 1960s Brighton was dirty, seedy and nasty,” he says. “There were quite a few gangster families around, and the young ones would hang out in the pubs and throw their weight around.

“When I was at [public school] Charterhouse I would tell people I was from Sussex rather than admit to Brighton. Now, although I live outside the city, I tell people I’m from Brighton – it has become a civilised place, and I think we owe part of that to a very good policing policy.

“There is relatively little knife or gun crime, we don’t have a lot of those problems. It has come through its dark heritage with a positive energy.”

He’s very much looking forward to Dead Simple coming to Brighton.

“My parents had regular seats at the Theatre Royal Brighton,” he says. “Every Thursday night they would be there three rows back from the stage. I would sit there and dream that one day something I wrote would be performed on there.

“When I went on stage after The Perfect Murder to say a few words I nearly cried – it was such a moment. To be recognised in your own home is a lovely feeling.”