Old Wine, Not Very New Bottles



Everything old is new again; I can’t read another novel set in the Blitz unless somebody brings something new to the party, and I’m getting tired of books set in the mid-19th century. And yet there are still many stories to be told.

I saw Gurinder Chadha’s ‘Viceroy’s House’ yesterday, about how India’s partition came about, with a few tartly-scripted dialogue nods to the Brexit line of thinking. Yes, it’s a bit of a soap opera and not exactly David Lean, but at least it was from a personally-invested Indian director (although I wish she had told us more of that story) and it’s a tale with which I was fairly unfamiliar.

Enjoying something original and not entirely vacuous is what separates a thinking person from, say, Zoella, but we live in a time of trigger warnings and fan service, which all point to a deepening faultline of old-school conservatism running through society.

After a certain age you expect to things to repeat themselves, although we’ve never seen a politician as frighteningly stupid as Donald Trump holding a major office. So I’m reading novels on too many over-familiar subjects, but the UK market is surprisingly buoyant and there are a lot of highly original books around.

I still believe that Bryant & May are originals – I can’t think of anything with similar characters except perhaps Charters & Caldicott, Launder & Gilliat’s cricket-obsessed detectives who started out in ‘The Lady Vanishes’. But that might just be my prejudice.¬†Charters & Caldicott appeared in a number of films, including ‘Dead of Night’, and even had a brief run as a TV series.

So why don’t the Bryant & May books get made for TV? They’ve just been turned down for the seventh or eighth time, I forget which.

I think they pose an unusual problem. On the page they’re left-field and well, peculiar, but when scriptwriters get their hands on them they become more procedural and flattened out. Their quirkiness is constrained. What I need is a writer who thinks as laterally as I do, and is prepared to be more daring and experimental on the screen. Now that’s something I’d like to see.


16 comments on “Old Wine, Not Very New Bottles”

  1. Jo W says:


  2. Sam Burns says:

    It’s a shame that we haven’t been able to see Bryant and May on TV, I watch very little on the whole, but that would be one series I’d avidly tune in to! Although it’s true that when they transition from page to TV screen, characters from crime novels always seem to loose a big part of their unique characteristics, they seem to get toned down and all rough edges smoothed out. A couple of examples (baring in mind it’s been a while since I’ve read either books) are Inspector Jack Frost, in the books by R D Wingfield, he’s much more, well rude and almost comes over as being a bit of a sex pest! Decidedly different from David Jason’s portrayal in the ITV series.The other example is the Midsummer Murder novels by Caroline Graham, in the early books the character of Sargent Gavin Troy is pretty unlikeable yet in the TV series he’s merely a bit dopey and wet behind the ears. I’d like to think that the company who, if it did happen, came to film a series about Bryant and May wouldn’t make any major changes, but if it gets taken out of Admins hands, who knows what changes they could make? Unless Chris is involved in the process, however that didn’t stop the makers of Grantchester from making big changes to the character of Sidney Chambers, must be very frustrating to authors to see their characters turned into different people from their initial creations?

  3. Jan says:

    Put ’em on the radio.

    No I’m not trying to be clever good radio scripting could include the quirkiness and would play well to the listeners imagination. The “Agatha Raisin” series which is very comical appeared on the radio about 10 years back narrated by Penelope Keith ..which was a bit wrong really as Agatha is supposed to be a polished up Brummie not upper class plummy voice. Agatha has now made her way onto Sky tv.

    I used to listen to “Miranda” on the radio which was a bit weird cos the live audience obviously sussed all the height jokes on which Miranda is heavily reliant. When you listened you were left wondering what the joke was was this woman round as a football, very small /tall what wos happening? Transferred perfectly to telly though as we all know now.

    I think radio could be the ideal practice pitch for B+M to transfer practically as is to broadcast perhaps as a series of Afternoon plays 1415 just after the Archers!!
    If that works maybe think about telly then

  4. Chris Webb says:

    My pennyworth on possible casting:

    Arthur – Toby Jones
    John – Bill Nighy
    Janice – Sarah Lancashire
    Maggie – Miriam Margolyes
    Crippen – few strays round my way, might be able to tempt one with a tin of sardines or something

  5. Brian Evans says:

    Jan, the late, great Joyce Grenfell said she preferred radio-or the wireless as he called it-to television as “the pictures are nicer”

  6. Roger says:

    You only have to compare the radio and TV versions of H2G2 to see (and hear) the superiority of radio.

  7. Jan says:

    That’s lovely Brian – (I might have a face for radio )

    I always loved that bit in ‘Educating Rita” when Rita has to write an essay it might be about Peer Gynt or ‘under milk wood’ or some play which is subtitled a play for voices. Goodness knows massive gaps in my secondary modern education. Anyway Rita’s essay reads “Do it on the radio”
    That essay sums ups what I WAS taught about radio transmission

  8. Chris Webb says:

    I am sure you are right about Bryant & May being original, but fans of them might also like Malcolm Pryce’s Louie Knight books. They are a sort of spoof of the old-style American detective novels like Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer (think neon signs seen through the blinds of a shabby office) but set in a seedy and surreal version of Aberystwyth.

    Surprisingly obscure, I could easily believe I’m the only person to have even heard of them.

  9. David says:

    As a teen in the 60’s I was required to spend my summer holidays in a caravan in Aberystwyth so the Malcom Price books are a real treat for me – Welsh surreal melancholia at its finest. I think they must sell quite well as they are all still in print.

    If the money can be found to make guff like “The Sweeney in Paris” you’d think someone, perhaps Amazon or Netflix, would jump at the chance to make a Bryant & May series given the continued success of the likes of the Whitechapel series.

  10. Brian Evans says:

    I tried one of the Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth novels recently, but gave up on it before the end of the 1st chapter.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Radio would be perfect for our heroes as I agree about the pictures on radio being better. The voices should be fairly easy to match but you don’t have to worry about faces (or the oversize dentures.)

  12. Martin Tolley says:

    Chris, you are certainly not alone in reading about Louis Knight and his moll, the delightful Myfanwy Montez. When a private detective has an amnesiac barrel-organ man with a monkey who’s an ex-astronaut as a client, things just happen… you have to read on.
    Brian – I understand the difficulty with Malcolm Price. I think you do have to have spent some bad time of your life in Aberystwyth to fully get where he’s coming from.

  13. Joel says:

    The problem with going from page to screen (or even talking-type-wireless) is ‘time’. A novel is as long as it takes, from first line of chapter 1 to ‘howdunnit’. On any broadcast media (except film, which just tests will to live), performance is time-driven. Just listen to ‘Today’ on Radio 4 and scream at fascinating items cut short because ‘we’ve run out of time’ so that someone annoying sheep in Gruinard gets fifteen seconds of fame.
    Complexity, neatly layered in books, where you can go back pages for a ‘hang on a moment’ thought, don’t work on tv/radio. Maybe the internet might achieve that? But knitting in cliff-hangers and solving a Bryant & May problem in neat half-hours isn’t plausible. Then I think of my favourites, ‘Edge of Darkness’ and ‘Singing Detective’ – they were quality. It can be done but needs a hard-case producer who will tell bosses to ****-off…

  14. Mike Pitcher says:

    Chris the problem is you are ahead of your time I am noticing more and more Bryant and May books coming through to my library and bookshops, keep plugging away the media will catch up

  15. John Griffin says:

    You lived in Wales for any length of time, as I did, Price’s Louie Knight books are barely surreal, just as the film ‘Twin Town’ was disturbingly like the Swansea I knew well – including having my daughter as an extra on Mumbles pier for the climactic scene.
    BTW watched ‘The Lady Vanishes’ just last weekend, as part of a cache of B&W movies I bought my wife for Xmas. Excellent fun.

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