Fans of UK TV abroad can choose their preferred incarnation of Ian Rankin’s famous creation.
Asked what he thought of Hollywood’s treatment of his novels, James M. Cain used to point at his bookshelf. “They haven’t done anything to my books,” he would say. “They’re right there on the shelf”. Ian Rankin is reputedly less sanguine about ITV’s adaptations of his ‘Inspector Rebus’ novels, although the series have their fans.
To be absolutely precise, they have two distinct groups of fans. The episodes released before Rankin pulled the plug were made by two different production companies and used different actors, scripts, and milieux — although they both stayed in the author’s Edinburgh hinterland. This being ITV, both versions remained on heavy rotation, leaving viewers to grapple with a two-headed beast throughout the noughties. Unsurprisingly, contemporary critics never fully caught up with ‘Rebus’. Now the dust has settled, we can perhaps put the twin productions into proper context.
Version #1, from Clerkenwell Films, starred John Hannah. Hannah, who had personally optioned Rankin’s books, cast Peter Mullan (‘Tyrannosaur’, ‘Trainspotting’) in the title role but was obliged to step up himself after a network veto on his preferred actor. Version #2, a later, in-house production from STV, starred Ken Stott, Hannah’s diametric opposite in physical type and style.
Both versions faced an uphill struggle for acceptance from millions of literary fans. Rankin had conceived Rebus while still a student, and readers had already had the pleasure of the Inspector’s company through ten years, 12 novels and a bunch of short stories. Besides, Rankin was ambivalent about the adaptations from Day One. We might explain the impeccably liberal author’s protective feelings towards his tough, wily, defiantly un-PC creation in terms of Jungian shadows or dark fathers. However, a more prosaic account simply points out that the writer’s prolonged career has been built almost entirely on his aging Edinburgh cop. (Conan Doyle wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories over a longer period, but Rankin rivals him in productivity.)
Hannah made full use of his early adoption of the property. How? By commissioning well-developed scripts which show Rebus’ tangled relationships in all their complexity and ambivalence and take the time to explore the interlinking themes which are such a feature of the books. But Hannah — a talented sometimes UK TV and movie heartthrob whose star has faded over the last decade — never fully convinced in the role, even with extensive voiceovers to flesh out his interior life. By contrast, Stott’s resolutely non-A-list looks and feral intelligence are perfect for the role. However, we often have to watch him trying to wring subtlety and insight out of the half-realized dialogue.
The conclusion is obvious: transplant Stott into a Clerkenwell production, and you’d cover all bases. It’s now nearly ten years since Stott parted company with the STV team, so we can hope. But, meanwhile, you can renew your acquaintance with last decade’s account of some classic crime novels. With classic crime dramas like ‘Rebus’ featured regularly, TV Mucho is by far the best way for expats to enjoy prime UK TV abroad.