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7 Questions with… Grace author Peter James: ‘I had the worst 30 minutes of my life’ while researching for ITV drama
Peter James speaks exclusively to BT.com about the differences between his bestselling books and the new TV adaptation Grace, and his terrifying research methods…
Roy Grace is the fictional cop who’s known by millions of avid readers around the world, with sales of more than 18 million copies.
And those in the UK will be thrilled to see the determined detective come to ITV in the form of high-end drama Grace. The adaptation of his first Roy Grace novel, Dead Simple, is the first of two films commissioned by the broadcaster.
In a BT.com exclusive, Peter James – who’s also an executive producer on the adaptation – tells us about the role of Brighton in the story, the diversity of the cast and a frankly terrifying piece of research…
1. Did you ever think your books would make great TV?
No, never. I worked in film and television before I wrote full-time, and it’s a very different style of writing. We had great interest right from the start of the series with Dead Simple.
I had three previous novels before Dead Simple, not Roy Grace, and I was never very happy with any of them. I was always determined that if Roy Grace and Dead Simple was ever brought to television, it would be done in a way in which I had some level of control and try and keep my original kind of vision.
2. How important was it to capture the essence of Brighton in Grace?
Massively important. I think in crime, the location is as much a part of it as the characters. I think Oxford [and] Morse, Iain Rankin’s Edinburgh, Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles and for me, Brighton.
Brighton - on the one hand it’s a stunningly beautiful place… you’ve got this beautiful city yet this incredibly dark underbelly which it’s always had.
Brighton goes right back to being a smuggling village in the 1400s. It was a dirty weekend resort for the Regencies. When they built the railway line in 1840 all the villains in London poured down because it was a much nicer place and there were rich pickings, and they stayed.
Growing up there as a kid in the 1950s and 60s, it was a very dark, seedy place. There were gangs, nasty people, pub fights all the time. It was quite a scary and quite a seedy place.
I remember people saying "Where are you from?" and I’d say "Sussex" because if you said ‘Brighton’ people would go "No, really?".
Whereas now it’s completely flipped and Brighton has become probably the coolest city in the UK. But it’s still got this wonderful criminal underbelly.
3. Were you as meticulous as a producer as you are with your books? Did you pull the production team up on anything?
Yes. There were a few details that I noticed when I saw the rushes - unfortunately I wasn’t able to be with them on set because of Covid.
For instance, there’s a scene in which a character is arrested and they get into the back of a police car and they just hold the door for her them and they just climb in. That doesn’t happen – they always push the person’s head down to make sure they don’t bash themselves and then they make a claim for assault.
So they actually cut around that, so you just see them going towards the car and then they’re in it.
And there was another scene where they were wearing their badges too much outside and we stopped that. What I always hope is that any police officer who watches this will go: “Yep – they got this right.” Not shout at the screen going: “No, I bloody wouldn’t do that!”
4. Do you now see John Simm when you’re writing about Grace?
A lot of people have said to me that once you have somebody cast as Grace, you won’t get them out of your head - but the remarkable thing is that John Simm is so close to how I imagined Grace looking that it’s not a big stretch.
And Glenn Branson is based on a police officer back in 1997 and Richie [Campbell] is almost his double. It’s very easy.
I am now writing thinking… I’ve got John exactly, but it’s quite helpful because I’ve now got John’s mannerisms, Richie Campbell’s mannerisms… I actually find it in a way quite helpful that I’ve got these real-life characters in front of me now.
I have to say I’m blessed. You couldn’t have nicer people to work with. John is just a lovely guy as is Richie and all the rest of the cast I communicated with.
John Simm and I were in touch constantly. John was lovely – I loved his attention to detail. There’s a scene fairly early on when he goes on this blind date that Branson set him up on, and it’s his first date in the years since Sandy [his wife] vanished.
John emailed me and said: “I’m about to do the scene where I go in the pub to meet this girl, do you think I should wear my wedding ring or should I take it off?”
I love that he thought about that detail.
5. How important is the cast's diversity?
Very important. I wrote the first Roy Grace, Dead Simple, back in 2003. The world is quite different now in 2021.
I think it’s wonderful – the casting has really reflected that in a brilliant way. I think it reflects both the diverse nature of the world and it reflects the culture and diversity of Brighton as well. It feels very natural to me.
Every member of that cast encapsulates the character traits that I had put in them originally. It’s difficult because I’m sure that some of my readers will go ‘oh well that’s not how we imagined that person or that person’.
But, crucially, the messages on social media about John Simm have been 99.99% positive. There have been a few negatives but like one in 100,000 saying: “Oh well I imagined Sean Bean.” And you think ‘What book did you read?!’
I do think that people will hopefully really take to him and to Glenn and Craig who plays Norman – he’s a younger version of Norman but I think he’s going to be wonderful.
6. Was it a challenge to adapt the screenplay for an 8pm timeslot when some of the plot is so gruesome?
Yes, very much so. Russ Lewis, the writer, worked incredibly closely with me to keep the original spirit and some of the darkness in the book but make it palpable to an 8 o’clock on a Sunday evening audience.
*Warning: Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t yet seen the first Grace film, we recommend scrolling to the bottom of the page*
I’m a great believer in research and I try to do pretty much everything that my characters go through in the novel – short of dying!
A key part of the story revolves around the guy who’s buried alive as a stag-like prank and is then stuck in a coffin with all his friends dead.
I asked a local firm of undertakers if they would put me in a coffin – I wanted to know what it actually felt like to be locked in a coffin. And I had the worst 30 minutes of my life!
I’m deeply claustrophobic anyway, I don’t even like sitting in the back of a two-door car.
I rocked up at this undertakers - it was a family firm in Haywards Heath. They’d all gone out to attend funerals and there was just this elderly great grandad, who was about 90, left.
He said: “Oh yes, Mr James – you’ve come to be put in a coffin, haven’t you?” And they had this one laid out for me, and he sort of helped me in and I wanted them to screw the lid on and leave me for 30 minutes to get the sense.
He said: “Are you really sure about this?”
I remember the lid shutting and I heard the screws, and I thought, "What have I done?".
I’d spoken to a coroner and I’d said: “How long do you have in a coffin?” And he said: “Well, if it’s well-made and it’s reasonably air-tight you’ve probably got three to four hours if you breathe normally. If you hyperventilate you could knock that down to 30 to 40 minutes.”
And the moment he walks off I think, "What if he drops dead? What if he goes across the road to get a coffee and gets run over?". Then I started to think there’s a spider in here.
I was absolutely terrified. But I think it helped me get a sense of what Michael Harrison feels when he’s trapped in there.
7. This prank is revealed slightly later in the film than in the book – were you happy for this and other changes to be made?
I think it’s very different when you are adapting – and I’ve done adaptations in the past myself.
Russell and I did talk them through quite a bit and I could see the sense in it.
What was important in the novel was I wanted to propel the reader straight into the drama, whereas with this series, what ITV wanted and what Russ wanted was to initially project Roy Grace, John Simm, right at the very start and the audience to be with him, which is why it starts on a scene with him and then we come to the real drama later.
But I feel it works. I was initially unsure when we were discussing it in the early days, but Russell convinced me and I completely trust his judgement and I think it works.
The second film will be aired at a later date.