Why Haven’t Bryant & May Made It To TV?



Morse got there. Vera did too, and Wallender and everyone from Lord Peter Whimsey to the wonderfully eccentric Mrs Bradley – they all ended up as TV series. You can’t move without falling over Sherlocks, and even Christie’s boring Tuppences had their own show. The question I get asked on a daily basis is ‘Why haven’t Bryant & May found their way to television?’

It’s not through lack of trying. The rights are almost continually under option, and the books sell well in the UK and America. But they don’t appear in translation anywhere, which reduces their desirability as a television series for international sales, and I suspect there’s another problem; they contain a comedic element that makes them specifically English.

TV cops are never funny. Nordic noir is brilliant – I’m addicted to the Icelandic thriller ‘Trapped’ at the moment and loved ‘The Bridge’, but while Saga’s rudeness takes your breath away in the latter you couldn’t exactly call her a barrel of laughs. I’m careful to keep comedy out of the crimes themselves otherwise the books wouldn’t work, and when you think about it only two of the characters, Arthur Bryant and Raymond Land, have any comedic elements really, but it’s enough to keep me off the screen. Although the books have started getting more popular, they’re still a minority taste.

Although I love Morse it’s fairly ludicrous when you think about it. Most cops get a handful of murder cases in a lifetime, and never all in one relatively quiet spot like Oxford, and never just by themselves. Cases involve dozens or even hundred of personnel. Then there’s the matter of perception; I’ve been put on panels about the supernatural (the books have no such element) and cosies (the murders are anything but).

The problem is that they straddle several quite complicated ideas. There’s a multi-racial cast but they don’t delve into ethnic crimes (except I do – see ‘Strange Tide’). There’s abstruse historical thinking about psychogeography. There’s slapstick. There’s darkness. And – the elephant in the room – there are two old white men. It’s a measure of the simplistic attitude of TV networks that the BBC wouldn’t consider the show while ‘New Tricks’ was running. Yet they seem quite happy to ‘borrow’ ideas.

Do I mind? Not a bit. I wanted to be a novelist, not a TV scriptwriter. My experience of that at the BBC was disastrous, as I watched executives rip up an edgy series I’d been commissioned to write and turn it into a bad soap opera, so I’m happy that my characters remain on the printed page. To be honest, after so many false starts I think I’d be unlikely now to offer them as a series to anyone. Bryant & May belong in a book.

(Keith Page did some lovely character sketches showing the duo ageing. One day I’ll post his excellent designs for a mooted film version of ‘Calabash’ that we couldn’t get off the ground.)

13 comments on “Why Haven’t Bryant & May Made It To TV?”

  1. Jo W says:

    Yes,I agree Chris. Leave B&M in the books along with all the other characters and the superb sets and scenery. TV could never get it just right. I shudder at what they did with Alan Hunter’s Gently books, moving their base from East Anglia to the North East. The soft Norfolk accents were lost. It would be unthinkable to set the stories anywhere else but London!

  2. Helen Martin says:

    There is no way the books could go away from London. The Water Room? hardly. Full Dark House? hah! The Burning Man? don’t think so. Rewrite them all through by changing motivation, supporting cast, and surrounding events? Well, yes, but then all you have left are the names and we would not watch, absolutely. I enjoyed New Tricks until my favourite character left and everything fell apart, but, yes, I recognized scenes and once a whole speech lifted from B & M. If we only have them in books we can have them as created. On a cost/benefit basis which is best, Admin? The income (including residuals, of course) versus stomach calming medication, stress, anxiety, and the hurt of nasty mail (there’s always some)? With luck you’ll have a choice, but in the meantime we’re happy and it’s all good.

  3. Steve says:

    It’s a risk, going to film. I think about Smith’s Child 44: remarkable book, rummagy film. Ergo, the best soviet cop since the other Smith’s Renko is lost to a new audience. And why didn’t Renko get a reprise?

    Hillerman’s Chee and Leaphorn are even more to the point: Great characters in print and fine actors on film, but it still didn’t work out nearly as well as I’d have hoped.

    Binge on the American version of The Bridge with Diane Kruger. Some of the same writers. Kruger takes a bit of getting used to, but the bridge as a motif takes one a dark and scary feel.

  4. keith page says:

    Television series seem to stick to very narrow formats nowadays with not much [if any] room for anything different.My wife is a great fan of the Scandinavian stuff but I find a couple of hours of subtitles way too much.I shall be interested to see what Rowan Atkinson does with Maigret; the trailer on youtube looks rather good.

  5. Ruth says:

    A couple of my favourite crime book series have been ruined by being made into a TV series. One fairly recent pilot annoyed me so much I haven’t been able to continue reading the books since – they actually removed the key elements that made the series special for me.

    I’m intrigued to know what Bryant and May would look like on a TV screen but on balance prefer them left between the pages of their books.

  6. Ken Mann says:

    I have chatted about TV police drama with serving police officers, and their main complaint was the consistency of tone across a series, with stories either being light-hearted comedy drama or doom-laden, rather than the mixture that real life presents. They couldn’t understand how dramatists didn’t get that, given that Shakespeare did.

    That and mysterious non-functional police staff standing around

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Interesting point about extraneous staff, Ken, but a tv series is one thing or another, not a life like mixture. Shakespeare was doing a bit of all-things-to-all-people with comedy inserted into dark drama and serious themes adorning comedy. Anything to prevent the throwing of rotten fruit and the loss of illustrious patronage. Tv doesn’t care that much about the non-audience.
    I agree about the Chee and Leaphorn productions. Somehow the books turned dry and dusty (more than just the surroundings) on film and the characters lost their life. Readers may have made them livelier than they were written, but suddenly we were looking at them from outside instead of from the inside.

  8. linda ayres says:

    I bow to my fellow readers more considered comments..(as above) my objections to a tv series is more simplistic…I have listened to some of the books on audio and Tim Goodman does such a brilliant job of bringing the characters to life that I have a very fixed idea in my mind of how they look and move etc….would therefore spend each episode in an indignant rage….

  9. Helen Martin says:

    There! Linda provides the last argument against the audio book form of electronics – a pre viewing set of images.What you do in your own head is just you, but an audio book has been chosen, provided and approved by others so the indignant rage would certainly be justified. (still battling electronics)

  10. Ken Mann says:

    I take the point that a tv series is not a life-like mixture, but one of the styles of police drama is supposed realism (which I understand to be a style rather than “real” realism). Perhaps this is why some of the more successful police dramas drift into soap – the amount of space available allows for variation in tone. “The Bill” in the style of “The Bridge” would rapidly have become either intolerable or hilarious. Personally I prefer my drama without the pretense of realism.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Since the realism isn’t (realistic that is), there’s no reason why a drama couldn’t go anywhere the writers want. The only limit would be what the audience is able to accept.

  12. John Griffin says:

    Some book characters transfer so well to TV/film that they become the image you visualise – Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock, Tom Wilkinson’s Charlie Resnick (until John Harvey went sour on the series IMO), Dalziel and Pascoe, Frost….however I admit that both in choice of actors and conveyance of the complexity I doubt that B&M onscreen would be a great success – though the Davids Jason and Warner could be quite tasty……….

  13. Debbie Rivero says:

    Bryant and May are far too good to be made into a television show. It could not do them, nor the author, justice.

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