Bryant & May Act Their Age
When I research a Bryant & May novel I don’t just source locations and history; I talk to people, and if I want to know how seniors cope now (my own parents and grandparents having gone) I find ones willing to chat. With 1 million seniors living alone in the UK and half of them alone at Christmas you’d think it would be easy to open up communication lines, but some are suspicious after having had bad experiences with strangers (my own father, probably the most cynical and private man who ever lived, managed to be bilked out of a small fortune by some strangers who knocked on the front door). Also, UK residents above the official retirement age spend over 80% of their time indoors. I didn’t believe this figure until I checked it out. One lady in a BBC interview said: ‘My family and friends are all gone, so I only go to the shops.’
As we age we form habits which become hard to break, but what if you’ve never been in the habit of going outside much? If you live in any northern country you think twice about leaving your warm home. In the south you’re never inside, even on Christmas Day…
I can’t blame the British for staying home. I’ve been happy in a Baltic park at -20 degrees, but the UK in misty rain at 9 degrees is infinitely worse. Trains turn into doctors’ waiting rooms, nothing dries out and colds progress to serious illnesses with ease.
My mother came from an era that did not place value on individual psychology (she was given a hysterectomy at 34 and only told about it afterwards by a disinterested male doctor). But she had expected to stay active, and was shocked when she came to realise that widowhood had left her in a comparatively isolated part of Kent with no friends.
So when it came to creating Bryant & May one of the first things I did was throw away the rulebook about what was then deemed possible for such characters. Yes, we age, we get aches and pains, we take pills, we complain – but let’s acknowledge that and then have fun with the idea. This peculiar gerontological determination began when I first invented the characters in my twenties.
It came at a price – I couldn’t sell the book. Just as film studios had wanted to change the lead character in my first novel, ‘Roofworld’ from a black female to a white male, people started suggesting that I should halve the ages of my detectives. I was told that younger people don’t want to read about older ones in fiction.
Luckily I found strong support from my new publisher, Transworld, who told me I didn’t have to change a thing. They never once tried to link the characters’ ages to reader demographics. It’s rubbish to think that the young won’t read about older characters. Besides, we have young stories pushed down our throats all the time. Usually Hollywood isn’t capable of making films with female characters over 35, or about actual adult males (although this year brought several valiant attempts) It’s insulting to link physical age with mentality – I know people in their 20s now with far more conservative mindsets than my mother.
One thing is sure; Bryant & May won’t get any younger. But they will continue to have all kinds of dangerous and disreputable adventures. As for acting your age – if ever there was a phrase that’s lost its meaning, that ‘s it.