From the studio to the morgue and back again

 

THREE OF the Benjamin Black crime novels are to be adapted for television for the BBC, and Gabriel Byrne is to play the central character of Quirke, chief pathologist and amateur sleuth in 1950s Dublin. Filming starts in November.

TV watchers won’t be surprised. There’s an insatiable screen appetite for clever, well-written crime dramas set in the grim and violent present and past. The latter chimes with the current popularity of period dramas.

Readers of the atmospheric novels, written by John Banville under the pen name of Benjamin Black, won’t be too surprised either. There have been five books so far and they’re good yarns – highly visual and atmospheric, full of complex personal relationships and clever plot twists, and with a central character that’s strong enough to propel any number of 90-minute TV episodes along.

However, readers who are only now embarking on the novels, starting with the first, Christine Falls, might be more than a little taken aback by the casting of Byrne. It’s not quite the shocker for crime fans of seeing Tom Cruise take on the role of Lee Child’s crime-busting hero. In Child’s books, Jack Reacher is famously 6ft 4in and built like a brick outhouse, and Cruise, well, isn’t.

Gabriel Byrne is dark-haired and not particularly tall, quite unlike the Quirke in Christine Falls, but Banville does point out that his alcoholic, emotionally complex loner has changed over the course of the novels.

“At the start, Quirke was a very large, blond fellow, with a huge torso dwindling to incongruously dainty feet. Then a reader, a woman, wrote asking me if I would please stop referring to Quirke’s blond hair as it was perfectly obvious that his hair is brown. I realised she was right, and Quirke’s colouring has been darkening ever since. So that’s the hair colour taken care of, and also, I keep reducing his stature – about all that’s left of his original shape are those ballet dancer’s feet. So I suppose by now, happily, he looks in general at least a bit like Gabriel.”

Quirke is a huge hit with the women, and Byrne hasn’t been left short-changed in the sex-appeal department. Then there is the fact that Gabriel Byrne’s name can help projects get the green light.

The stories started out as a television script in a three-part series written by Banville and commissioned by RTÉ and ABC Australia. Filming never got off the ground and years later the writer reworked the scripts into novels. Tyrone Productions bought the rights to the books and, working with another major Irish production company Element Pictures, which is involved in production and editorial development, Quirke – as the dramas are now called – finally got moving when the BBC came on board.

Ed Guiney, executive producer for Element Pictures, says the BBC’s involvement gave the project considerable heft: “Having the BBC behind you means you can attract writers such as Andrew Davies, who is adapting Christine Falls and The Silver Swan, and Conor McPherson, who is adapting Elegy for April.”

All three films will be directed by John Alexander (White Heat, Exiles and Zen) while Davies’s TV credits include a long list of enormously successful TV adaptations of classic and much-loved books, including Little Dorrit, Tipping the Velvet, Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch. “I’m very happy to have Andrew Davies do the first two, he’s one of the very best script-writers at work now,” said Banville. “Conor McPherson is another marvellous catch for the series.”

Location scouting for the filming has begun and the novels name-check several streets and neighbourhoods around Dublin, from Stoneybatter to Merrion Square. “The novels are set in the 1950s but so many of the locations are still there and mostly unchanged,” says Guiney. Casting is on-going – Phoebe, Quirke’s daughter and a key figure in all the novels, has yet to be named. Each 90-minute episode takes around five weeks to film and Quirke will be broadcast on BBC1 in 2013.

BBC drama is currently mining a rich seam of adaptations of best-selling novels. Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End is on air, adapted in five parts by Tom Stoppard. War of the Roses, a very lavish-looking series based on Philippa Gregory’s historical novels, is in the works, as is an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall, along with its follow-up, Bring Up the Bodies. A drama based on The Ice Cream Girls by Dorothy Koomson has been commissioned for broadcast on ITV.

Banville is enjoying the quirky symmetry of the imminent appearance of his Benjamin Black novels on the small screen. “Quirke sprang fully armed, one might say, out of the television screen, and I like the irony that now the series is going back from the novel form on to television.”

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