The complex essence of Brighton is brilliantly captured throughout best-selling Peter James’ series of Roy Grace novels, and he has been equally successful in creating a memorable senior detective with a complicated personal life and a compulsive commitment to pursuing justice for victims.
Peter’s excellent writing skills, allied with his determination to bring authenticity to every element of his books, have gained an enormous following for Detective Superintendent Roy Grace.
Now that character, whose unorthodox and intuitive methods constantly bring him into conflict with his superiors, has been brought to life on television with the first feature-length ‘Grace’ screened in mid-March to widespread acclaim.
True to the elaborate twists and turns of the Roy Grace book Dead Simple, it will be followed later this year by a TV interpretation of Looking Good Dead, and it’s hoped that some more will be filmed for TV in the near future.
It’s no surprise that the debut of Grace proved so popular, keeping viewers enthralled throughout the sometimes gruesome action and glued to their screens until the unexpected denouement. It’s the result of extremely close collaboration at every stage between the production team and Peter himself, who has had a long and highly successful career writing for TV and movies.
Brilliant casting has resulted in tremendous interaction between Grace (played by John Simm) and Richie Campbell as his police partner, Glenn Branson, together with the other main characters.
Brighton, of course, is the other star of the show. Peter was born and grew up there, so he knows the town intimately.
“It’s very much a changed place from when I was growing up there – it was quite dark and seedy then,” he says. “My recollection is in our late teens, my friends and I were very careful about which pubs we went into. We kept well clear of some.
“Now, it is much more of a tourist town, but there is still a dark edge to it. I’ve always believed in writing what you know about, and I’ve always been immersed in Brighton.
“When I was 14, I read that great book Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. That made me think that one day I would write a crime novel to capture the seediness of the town, as he had. Brighton and Hove have stunning beauty, but there’s still a dark heart.”
Writing has been Peter’s passion since he was a schoolboy. He was educated at Charterhouse School in Surrey, where he won the poetry prize in 1967. In London, he attended the Ravensbourne Film School, set on acquiring the skills to tell stories via the silver screen.
After graduating, Peter moved to Canada and got his first job as a writer on Polka Dot Door, a daily TV show for pre-school children. He started as a gopher but was asked to write a script one day when the primary writer hadn’t delivered. It was a success, and Peter was promoted to writer immediately afterwards, winning his first professional writing credit.
He then made an early career in the movie world, working as a producer and/or writer on over 25 features and creating television shows for Channel 4 and ITV.
His high point was the BAFTA-nominated A Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. Three of his novels, Prophecy, Alchemist and Host, have been filmed for television, and ITV television produced the documentary, Babes In The Woods, inspired by the non-fiction book Death Comes Knocking that Peter co-wrote with former Chief Superintendent Graham Bartlett.
While still working in the film industry, Peter started to write novels, the first of which, Dead Letter Drop, was published in the UK in 1981.
“I was thrilled when I first got published, but the spy books didn’t sell well. I poured my heart out to a friend at Penguin who asked why I was writing spy thrillers. People were intelligent and could tell very quickly if you knew about the world you’re writing about, he told me.
“About two weeks later, we were burgled, and I met a young man from CID. We became friendly, and I was invited to a barbecue at his house. The other guests were all coppers, including homicide detectives and police divers.
“I told them their work was terrific, that they saw so much in their 30 years’ service—everything from domestic abuse to elderly couples who had their life savings stolen to nasty crime scenes. Yet, they would go home and put their kids to bed.
“I built up an excellent relationship with Sussex police. They have been great to me. They realised I wanted to write about what a police officer’s life is really like. They started to trust me. It got to a point where they took me on a couple of drugs busts.
“In 1997, I met a young detective inspector, David Gaylor, who suggested I might find a particular character fascinating. We started talking about how a detective would react in various situations.
“This man has a creative brain and could not only tell me about police procedures but also give me a lot of emotional insights into the work of a detective. I’m very methodical to the point of being anal. He has both sides to his personality, so we worked well together and still do.
“He asked me if I had thought about a crime series with a senior detective as the central character. I came up with the idea of the Roy Grace character, and he just loved it.
“Each Grace book has a real human image of him, a man who is obsessive and determined to find closure and justice for victims of crime.
“David and I have worked together a lot over the years. We had this tradition that whenever I started a new book, we would get together at the Silver Fox pub and plot out the story. Then he would read the first 100 pages and say how Grace would have acted. He’s a great stickler for accuracy.
“I’m always looking a long way ahead, always planning about five books in advance. I have so many ideas in my head all the time. Something will crop up that I think might work, but I always get things as accurate as possible in terms of police work and procedure.”
With his background of successfully writing for film and TV, it was a natural progression for Roy Grace to appear on our screens, but Peter was determined to be extremely selective over how this might be achieved.
“With a book, you reach half a million, a million readers. With a TV show, you reach five or six million. But I have seen so many TV adaptations that have made me cringe. I was determined that Grace would be done well.”
He was inundated with lucrative offers, but some suggestions were so implausible that he did not consider them for a moment.
“In 2008, I had an approach saying BBC Scotland wanted to put the money up to film a Grace series. But it would have to be set in Aberdeen. I told them to Foxtrot Oscar.
“Four years later, another script got accepted, then I got a telephone call from the company saying they thought the key was having a female central character. They asked me, ‘what about Roy Grace as a female?’ I gave them the same answer.
Peter’s caution over how the Roy Grace stories could be successfully adapted for TV and his determination to handle it accurately and sensitively meant that Grace was seven years in the making.
“The first thing I wanted to ensure before agreeing to any offer was that even once production had begun, if I thought it was rubbish, didn’t like the way it was going; I could take the rights back.
“In 2014, I went to Los Angeles on a book tour and met a producer I knew was a fan of the books. I asked if he was interested in bringing Roy Grace to the screen. He agreed, and we both knew that getting the right scriptwriter was the key.
“We wanted Ross Lewis, but he was committed for the next two years on Endeavour, so we had to wait for him. It was worth the wait.
“Ross assured me he wouldn’t change a word, and he was true to his word – he just sprinkled stardust on it. As a result, Grace is fabulous, really faithful to the books.”
The next challenge was finding the right character to play Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. John Simm, well-known for his role in Life on Mars, has proved the perfect choice.
“He is almost exactly how I imagined Roy Grace when I first created the character in 2003,” Peter says.
“His father-in-law was a copper for 30 years, and when he watches detective stories on TV, he is constantly criticising the lack of accuracy. When John was researching for the Grace role, his father-in-law was able to help him be as accurate as possible in terms of police work and procedure.
“John is obsessive about the role. There’s a scene where Grace, who has been grieving for seven years over the unsolved mystery of his wife’s disappearance, is trying to move forward with his social life and goes out on a blind date. John asked me if he should take off his wedding ring for that scene.
“In 1995, I went out with a response crew to an incident, and among them was a very tall black guy with a big smile. I asked him why he was still a constable, and he told me it was his first week out of probation. He had previously been a nightclub bouncer but decided he wanted to do a job that would make his children proud of the work he did, so he joined the police.
“The Glenn Branson character, Grace’s colleague and a friend are based on him. It’s critical on the box for the main two characters to have genuine warmth and friendship, and when you watch the film, you can see that comes over.
“I knew how easy it was for a screen adaptation of a book to go wrong – I’d had three of my novels adapted and didn’t like any of them. One of the directors hadn’t even read the book beforehand.
“With Grace, I have the most fantastic relationship with ITV and the whole crew.”
Peter now divides his time between homes in Jersey and Hove and does most of his writing in the latter.
“People sometimes ask me if I get writer’s block,” he says. “I don’t. I am a writer, and I get on with it. I can write anywhere – in the back of a taxi, on a long-haul flight. I like writing in hotel rooms where I am completely away from any distractions.
“My best writing time is in the evenings at my Hove flat, with a vodka martini and music playing in the background.”
A self-confessed ‘petrol head’, Peter races classic cars at circuits around the country and has been a regular at the Goodwood Revival for several years. His enthusiasm remains undimmed after surviving a horrendous high-speed crash at Brands Hatch in 2013.
He has a new Roy Grace thriller being published later this year, which features major developments with his arch-enemy. There will also be a Roy Grace novella and a Grace stage play at the Theatre Royal in Brighton, which is sure to be a magnet for fans of the famous fictional detective.