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Prolific radio and screenwriter, Simon Brett - celebrity interview

PUBLISHED: 12:26 21 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:35 20 February 2013

Prolific radio and screenwriter, Simon Brett - celebrity interview

Prolific radio and screenwriter, Simon Brett - celebrity interview

Simon Brett has devised and produced some of our best-loved radio and television shows and is a prolific radio and screenwriter. But he is best known as the master of the whodunnit, who created one of the genre's most loved detectives...

Simon Brett has devised and produced some of our best-loved radio and television shows and is a prolific radio and screenwriter. But he is best known as the master of the whodunnit, who created one of the genres most loved detectives, Charles Paris. His latest crime series, the Fethering mysteries, is set squarely in our home county. Angela Wintle meets him at his Sussex home.

IF YOU thought that Morses Oxford or Barnabys Midsomer were the archetypal hotbeds of crime, think again. The West Sussex coast is positively awash with sinister goings on with bodies on the beach, deaths on the Downs and, heavens above, even murders in the museum.
I am referring, of course, to the popular Fethering mysteries by Sussex-based crime writer Simon Brett, which feature two middle-aged female amateur sleuths who live cheek by jowl in a sleepy West Sussex village.


The village in question, Fethering, is fictitious, but its not so very dissimilar from the West Sussex village of Tarring, from which Simon took inspiration. He looks sheepish when I ask how he came up with the name. Well, tarring and feathering used to be a popular village pastime, he says. I just looked at Worthing, Goring, Ferring, Tarring and Angmering, and thought it had to be an ing.


When I started the Fetherings, Id been living in Sussex for about 20 years and thought Id take advantage of this rich setting. I was also intrigued by the idea of having two women protagonists in their 50s, at an age when women are supposed to become invisible though none of the ones Ive met ever have. But Im a writer, so I change things. The River Fether doesnt exist and Fedburgh, a large town, has qualities of Arundel, but Ive given it a ruined castle because the actual castle has a presence it affects people and I thought that would be too complicated.


Simon is chatting in his cosy living room, sipping tea from a Penguin mug, his half-moon glasses perched low on his nose. His home, parts of which date back to the late 18th century, befits a man best known for writing British cosies. Its all low-beamed ceilings, fine china and good pictures. Theres a grand piano bedecked with family photographs and a handsome clock in the hall. His three cats, Geoffrey, Castor and Pollux, cause merry mayhem, jumping on the tea things and paddling the sofa. I expect Miss Marple to put her key in the lock at any moment.
Best known for television and radio series such as After Henry, Smelling of Roses and No Commitments, Simon has also produced a cavalcade of crime novels, mostly in the Golden Age tradition of detective fiction, entertaining the reader through humour, eccentric characters and intricate plot twists.


You may know his Mrs Pargeter series, about a widow able to solve mysteries with a little help from her late husbands friends. But his best-known detective is one Charles Paris, a middle-aged actor resting more often than working with a hopeless private life but the kind of cunning that solves crime. Simon has written no fewer than 17 Paris novels and they have been given a new lease of life on Radio 4, with Bill Nighy in the title role.
When Bill exploded into the stratosphere after winning BAFTAs for Love Actually and State of Play, the BBC asked if there was anything hed like to do. He said that he rather liked the Paris books, and a series was born.


There are big differences between the novels and radio series, and sometimes I do think: Thats a pity. The adaptor, Jeremy Front, has had Paris doing Soduku, when hes strictly a crossword person, and smoking at some point. But he has kept the integrity of the character, which is what matters. And hopefully it brings people back to the novels. One lives in hope that they might progress to television eventually, but Ive been down this road so many times Im not holding my breath.
Simon took up crime writing at 28, deciding, after surveying his small pile of unpublished manuscripts, that hed try his hand at something people might actually want to read. Until then, hed been terrified of crime fiction, assuming you needed a computerised brain to work out the plotting. But working on a radio adaptation of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels gave him the confidence to have a go.


The first Paris novel was published in 1975, but there hasnt been a new one in 12 years. Why the long silence? My agent did suggest an 18th, but the advance was so paltry it put me off, he says. Also, Id always prided myself, with those books, that I had my finger on the pulse of showbiz and I was getting slightly out of touch.


Crime novels outsell their literary equivalents by a ratio of six to one and Sussex boasts a large number of practitioners Peter James, Peter Lovesey, SJ Sansom and Sue Walker (as well as Simon, of course). I ask Simon, who is president of the Detection Club and a former chair of the Crime Writers Association, how he accounts for this insatiable appetite for blood and gore.


As the world becomes increasingly fragmented, theres a comfort in the fact that there is someone with a sense of justice setting things right, he says. I also think people are intrigued by evil.


He says the golden age of crime fiction was the Twenties and Thirties, when novels featured polymathic sleuths running rings round the local constabulary. The best of Agatha Christies novels were like clockwork toys she did it brilliantly. But nobody writes that stuff now. There are only so many times you can write a book in which the policeman turns out to be the murderer.


Instead, we now have legal and forensic thrillers that specialise in gritty realism. And yet writers have come up with a new string of clichs the maverick policeman, who stands out against the system; the sexy forensic scientist, juggling the awkward demands of her hormones with her job. I quite like poking fun at the genre, he grins. Ive invented a new Scandinavian crime novelist called Turgid Glumsdottir.


He is often dubbed old-fashioned, but doesnt mind the tag. I do write whodunnits and not so many people are doing that. And the crime novel has never stopped me writing what I want to write. You can put in whatever ingredients you choose.


Simon has worked in many fields besides crime, however. He has collated anthologies and written humorous books and one-off novels, such as A Shock to the System, which was made into a movie starring Michael Caine. He has also penned plays and long-running series, notably After Henry, which transferred from Radio 4 to become a popular ITV sitcom starring Prunella Scales as long-suffering widow Sarah France and Joan Sanderson as her meddlesome mother.
Yet, despite this torrent of words, Simon has no idea from whence his muse springs. He grew up in Surrey, the youngest of three children. His father was a chartered surveyor; his mother a teacher. We were lower middle class; always aspiring.


Learning came easily and he won a major scholarship to read history at Wadham College, Oxford. Later, he switched to English and got a first class honours degree. But he didnt spend all his time hunched over a desk. He became president of the Oxford University Dramatic Society and wrote, directed and performed in revues appearing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the late Sixties.


But he was too scared and middle class to pursue acting professionally. So he ended up in BBC Radio light entertainment, producing landmark shows such as Late Night Extra, Week Ending, The News Huddlines, The Burkiss Way, Just A Minute, Im Sorry, I Havent A Clue and Frank Muir Goes Into...
It was a vintage era, but also a time of enormous change. John Peel once said that when he joined the BBC it was run by ex-fighter pilots. You had these very talented, mature gentlemen, often with moustaches, who wore tweeds and had had good wars. And then, suddenly, there was a great influx of peacocks from the pirate radio stations Emperor Rosko, Pete Myers and Tony Blackburn.


He remembers Week Ending, the satirical current affairs sketch show he devised with David Hatch, with particular affection. It ran for 28 years and featured a talented cast which included David Jason, Bill Wallis and Nigel Rees. It also launched the careers of gifted young writers such as Andy Hamilton, David Renwick and Andrew Marshall.


Simon also commissioned Douglas Adams seminal science fiction comedy, A Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, which began on Radio 4. Initially, I tried to get Douglas to write sketches for Week Ending, but 30-second quickies about Margaret Thatcher werent his way of working. Then he presented me with three ideas, one of which was Hitch-Hikers. I knew that was the one we should go with it was so clear in his head and very different from anything else.
But Simon had only worked on the pilot episode when he accepted a job on London Weekend Television. It wasnt one of the high spots of his career. Though he produced a television version of The Glums, an offshoot of the popular radio series Take it from Here, he missed the bustle of radio. And by then, his writing career had started to take off, so he quit to pursue writing full-time.


Nowadays, he works from the home he shares with his wife, Lucy, with whom he has three grown-up children. But Simon isnt always closeted in his study. Patron of the West Sussex Writers Club, the Chichester Literary Society and the Uckfield Writers Circle, he also writes a play each year for Arundel Festivals theatre trail in August, when eight plays are staged on the hour at different venues around the town for eight days.
Ive staged mine at the football club in recent years, but Im moving to the parish hall this year, he says. Ive even written one for a familys kitchen and back garden. Its become increasingly popular and four plays have gone on to have a life on radio.


But though he lives on Arundels doorstep, he prefers to keep his distance. Town life can be a bit incestuous. We have lots of friends in Arundel, but I know nothing about what happens there.


He may be the master of the detective genre, but Miss Marple who made it her business to know the minutiae of parish life might have taken a dim view of that.


But though he lives on Arundels doorstep, he prefers to keep his distance. Town life can be a bit incestuous. We have lots of friends in Arundel, but I know nothing about what happens there.


He may be the master of the detective genre, but Miss Marple who made it her business to know the minutiae of parish life might have taken a dim view of that.


He remembers Week Ending, the satirical current affairs sketch show he devised with David Hatch, with particular affection. It ran for 28 years and featured a talented cast which included David Jason, Bill Wallis and Nigel Rees. It also launched the careers of gifted young writers such as Andy Hamilton, David Renwick and Andrew Marshall.


Simon also commissioned Douglas Adams seminal science fiction comedy, A Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, which began on Radio 4. Initially, I tried to get Douglas to write sketches for Week Ending, but 30-second quickies about Margaret Thatcher werent his way of working. Then he presented me with three ideas, one of which was Hitch-Hikers. I knew that was the one we should go with it was so clear in his head and very different from anything else.


But Simon had only worked on the pilot episode when he accepted a job on London Weekend Television. It wasnt one of the high spots of his career. Though he produced a television version of The Glums, an offshoot of the popular radio series Take it from Here, he missed the bustle of radio. And by then, his writing career had started to take off, so he quit to pursue writing full-time.


Nowadays, he works from the home he shares with his wife, Lucy, with whom he has three grown-up children. But Simon isnt always closeted in his study. Patron of the West Sussex Writers Club, the Chichester Literary Society and the Uckfield Writers Circle, he also writes a play each year for Arundel Festivals theatre trail in August, when eight plays are staged on the hour at different venues around the town for eight days.
Ive staged mine at the football club in recent years, but Im moving to the parish hall this year, he says. Ive even written one for a familys kitchen and back garden. Its become increasingly popular and four plays have gone on to have a life on radio.


But though he lives on Arundels doorstep, he prefers to keep his distance. Town life can be a bit incestuous. We have lots of friends in Arundel, but I know nothing about what happens there.


He may be the master of the detective genre, but Miss Marple who made it her business to know the minutiae of parish life might have taken a dim view of that.

Ive staged mine at the football club in recent years, but Im moving to the parish hall this year, he says. Ive even written one for a familys kitchen and back garden. Its become increasingly popular and four plays have gone on to have a life on radio.


But though he lives on Arundels doorstep, he prefers to keep his distance. Town life can be a bit incestuous. We have lots of friends in Arundel, but I know nothing about what happens there.

He may be the master of the detective genre, but Miss Marple who made it her business to know the minutiae of parish life might have taken a dim view of that.

The first Paris novel was published in 1975, but there hasnt been a new one in 12 years. Why the long silence? My agent did suggest an 18th, but the advance was so paltry it put me off, he says. Also, Id always prided myself, with those books, that I had my finger on the pulse of showbiz and I was getting slightly out of touch.


Crime novels outsell their literary equivalents by a ratio of six to one and Sussex boasts a large number of practitioners Peter James, Peter Lovesey, SJ Sansom and Sue Walker (as well as Simon, of course). I ask Simon, who is president of the Detection Club and a former chair of the Crime Writers Association, how he accounts for this insatiable appetite for blood and gore.


As the world becomes increasingly fragmented, theres a comfort in the fact that there is someone with a sense of justice setting things right, he says. I also think people are intrigued by evil.


He says the golden age of crime fiction was the Twenties and Thirties, when novels featured polymathic sleuths running rings round the local constabulary. The best of Agatha Christies novels were like clockwork toys she did it brilliantly. But nobody writes that stuff now. There are only so many times you can write a book in which the policeman turns out to be the murderer.


Instead, we now have legal and forensic thrillers that specialise in gritty realism. And yet writers have come up with a new string of clichs the maverick policeman, who stands out against the system; the sexy forensic scientist, juggling the awkward demands of her hormones with her job. I quite like poking fun at the genre, he grins. Ive invented a new Scandinavian crime novelist called Turgid Glumsdottir.


He is often dubbed old-fashioned, but doesnt mind the tag. I do write whodunnits and not so many people are doing that. And the crime novel has never stopped me writing what I want to write. You can put in whatever ingredients you choose.

Simon has worked in many fields besides crime, however. He has collated anthologies and written humorous books and one-off novels, such as A Shock to the System, which was made into a movie starring Michael Caine. He has also penned plays and long-running series, notably After Henry, which transferred from Radio 4 to become a popular ITV sitcom starring Prunella Scales as long-suffering widow Sarah France and Joan Sanderson as her meddlesome mother.


Yet, despite this torrent of words, Simon has no idea from whence his muse springs. He grew up in Surrey, the youngest of three children. His father was a chartered surveyor; his mother a teacher. We were lower middle class; always aspiring.


Learning came easily and he won a major scholarship to read history at Wadham College, Oxford. Later, he switched to English and got a first class honours degree. But he didnt spend all his time hunched over a desk. He became president of the Oxford University Dramatic Society and wrote, directed and performed in revues appearing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the late Sixties.


But he was too scared and middle class to pursue acting professionally. So he ended up in BBC Radio light entertainment, producing landmark shows such as Late Night Extra, Week Ending, The News Huddlines, The Burkiss Way, Just A Minute, Im Sorry, I Havent A Clue and Frank Muir Goes Into...


It was a vintage era, but also a time of enormous change. John Peel once said that when he joined the BBC it was run by ex-fighter pilots. You had these very talented, mature gentlemen, often with moustaches, who wore tweeds and had had good wars. And then, suddenly, there was a great influx of peacocks from the pirate radio stations Emperor Rosko, Pete Myers and Tony Blackburn.


He remembers Week Ending, the satirical current affairs sketch show he devised with David Hatch, with particular affection. It ran for 28 years and featured a talented cast which included David Jason, Bill Wallis and Nigel Rees. It also launched the careers of gifted young writers such as Andy Hamilton, David Renwick and Andrew Marshall.

Simon also commissioned Douglas Adams seminal science fiction comedy, A Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, which began on Radio 4. Initially, I tried to get Douglas to write sketches for Week Ending, but 30-second quickies about Margaret Thatcher werent his way of working. Then he presented me with three ideas, one of which was Hitch-Hikers. I knew that was the one we should go with it was so clear in his head and very different from anything else.


But Simon had only worked on the pilot episode when he accepted a job on London Weekend Television. It wasnt one of the high spots of his career. Though he produced a television version of The Glums, an offshoot of the popular radio series Take it from Here, he missed the bustle of radio. And by then, his writing career had started to take off, so he quit to pursue writing full-time.


Nowadays, he works from the home he shares with his wife, Lucy, with whom he has three grown-up children. But Simon isnt always closeted in his study. Patron of the West Sussex Writers Club, the Chichester Literary Society and the Uckfield Writers Circle, he also writes a play each year for Arundel Festivals theatre trail in August, when eight plays are staged on the hour at different venues around the town for eight days.


Ive staged mine at the football club in recent years, but Im moving to the parish hall this year, he says. Ive even written one for a familys kitchen and back garden. Its become increasingly popular and four plays have gone on to have a life on radio.


But though he lives on Arundels doorstep, he prefers to keep his distance. Town life can be a bit incestuous. We have lots of friends in Arundel, but I know nothing about what happens there.


He may be the master of the detective genre, but Miss Marple who made it her business to know the minutiae of parish life might have taken a dim view of that.

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