Grace author Peter James tells how Roy Grace came to BritBox

Richie Campbell (DS Glenn Branson)and John Simm (DSI Roy Grace) in Grace. Photo Credit: Courtesy of BritBox
Richie Campbell (DS Glenn Branson)and John Simm (DSI Roy Grace) in Grace. Photo Credit: Courtesy of BritBox /

Peter James’ hero DS Roy Grace is the latest character to make the leap from crime novels to TV crime drama. The second TV-movie, Grace: Looking Good Dead, had its world premiere on BritBox this week and it’s more than worth the watch.

Precinct TV connected with Peter to talk about the trend of TV crime dramas pulling from the pages of mystery series, how fantastic John Simm (Life on Mars) is in the title role, and what he’s taken away from Russell Lewis’ adaptation of his work.

You can stream Grace: Looking Good Dead now exclusively on BritBox; the first movie, Grace: Dead Simple, is also available on the streaming service so you can catch up now!

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Precinct TV: So many TV crime dramas nowadays are based on books. From an author’s point of view, what does it mean when someone wants to make your work into a series?

Peter James: it’s a combination of being, A) flattered, and B) extremely cautious, because if you have a bad adaptation it can actually damage your whole brand.I’ve had three previous adaptations and one was made in America, it was [an] ABC production back in 1988, of a novel I wrote called Host, and it was a four-part miniseries. I remember meeting a guy at a party, he was a builder. I said, “I’m an author.” He said, “Anything on television I might’ve seen?” I said, “Well, yeah, I’ve actually got this miniseries on at the moment.” And his face fell off a cliff and he says, “Oh, that.”

He says, “Don’t take this the wrong way. I saw the first episode and I thought it was so bad, I’ve never bothered to read the author.” That was a big lesson for me, that if it’s badly made it can actually hurt you. I think of all the 40-odd books I’ve written, the 17 Roy Grace novels are the ones most precious to me and my most successful books, so I was determined right from the very start to be involved with it as much as I possibly could.

PTV: John Simm plays the title role. What was your reaction to landing him as Roy Grace, as I’m sure you had a vision of the character in mind before he was cast, and he’s such a huge name in TV?

PJ: Something that was extraordinary is that the Roy Grace that I created in my imagination looked like John Simm. He is my mental image of Roy Grace. And not only does he look the part, he’s actually an incredibly nice actor to work with. Very, very thoughtful. The first thing he did was read almost all the books to kind of really understand the character, and he really thinks about detail.

Right at the beginning of the series, we see Roy going on this blind date. And the day they were filming that, John Simm emailed me early in the morning and said, “When I go into the pub to meet her, do you think I should have my wedding ring on or should I have taken it off?” and I loved that detail and just how much he thought about it.

PTV: The format of Grace really helps the project—doing two 90-minute films instead of a series. How was that decision made?

PJ: It was really a marketing decision by ITV, who felt that a 90 minute movie formula worked really well for a Sunday night (UK primetime) audience.  They also felt it was a popular format for around the world.

From my own personal perspective, I was thrilled because the structure of Dead Simple, as with all my novels, is to give constant twists and cliff-hangers, building up to a crescendo at the climax.  If it had been split into two 45-minute episodes, that build-up would not have been so strong and we would have lost some momentum.

PTV: You mentioned being more involved with this adaptation. What is that process like, especially when you’re working with your own source material?

PJ: I was blessed with the most amazing team, quite unlike any I’ve worked with before on adaptations of previous of my novels.  The first and key was the producer, Andrew O’Connor, both a long-term fan of my work as well as a personal friend, and someone I had worked with previously in television and whose judgement I completely trusted.  He was always going to ensure the adaptations were as faithful to my novels as possible.

Next and equally key was Russ Lewis, the writer.  Russ, Andrew and I really clicked right from the get-go.  Russ was so keen to learn about Roy Grace’s world that as part of his research he came out with me for a scary night shift in Brighton with a police response crew.  Russ is a brilliant communicator, who discussed any changes he needed to make, but even without that I always felt in safe, immensely talented hands with him.

The third element was getting John Simm.  It was an incredible moment when ITV asked how I would feel having him play Detective Superintendent Roy Grace.  I almost shouted for joy!  John is exactly how I had always imagined Roy Grace looking; it was just the most perfect possible casting.  Not only that, John’s father-in-law was a cop for 35 years who would always shout at the television screen whenever a cop show got a detail wrong, so John fully understood my desire to get all the policing aspects accurate—something I believe that has played a big part in the success of the novels.

PTV: Were there any moments that particularly resonated with you when you saw them on film?

PJ: I have so many! I love the opening scene [of Dead Simple] when we see Roy, this top homicide detective, tenderly feeding his goldfish, Marlon.  I thought the really cliff-hanger edge of your seat scenes were brilliantly handled—the first one being when we realize that Michael Harrison, the victim of a bachelor party prank gone badly wrong, is trapped in a coffin, buried in woodlands, with all his mates who put him there dead.  And I loved the scenes with Roy Grace and Michael’s duplicitious fiancee Ashley!

PTV: The BritBox series is a wonderful way for viewers to be introduced to the Roy Grace novels. Is there anything people who watch the TV-movies should know before diving into the books?

PJ: The introduction to Roy in the show is very similar to the introduction to him in the [first] novel. The first time we meet Roy we learn that his wife Sandy, who he loved and adored, had vanished off the face of the earth some years earlier.  He had literally come home on his birthday, ready to take her out to dinner, and she was gone…no note, nothing.  He has no idea whether she was murdered, had an accident, lost her memory, ran off with a lover, got kidnapped by some crazy or maybe even committed suicide.

For years following her disappearance, whilst he continues to function as a very effective homicide detective, his personal life is on hold, as he uses ever moment of his free time still looking for her, even going to mediums and clairvoyants in desperation. He is scared to enter a new relationship in case Sandy suddenly reappears.  But slowly during the course of the early books, he does find love again—in the form of Cleo, who runs the mortuary, and this relationship blossoms.

While this is happening, we the reader start to learn more about what really happened to Sandy, and that perhaps she wasn’t the entirely sweet, loving wife of his imagination or memory….and eventually, many books in, we get the first of several major shocks…!

PTV: As books have inspired TV shows, so have we seen authors be inspired to write because of the TV adaptations of their stories. Has the Grace series changed the way you think about the books, or given you ideas for the next novel?

PJ: It was amazing to see in the adaptation the world I had created for Roy so accurately portrayed, right down to his home close to the sea and his daily early morning jogs along the promenade.

But I guess the thing that has happened which has actually helped me writing the next one is that I no longer have an imaginary character in my head—I have a real, flesh and blood one in John Simm as my model! I know how he walks, talks, eats, drives, etc, and I find that really helpful. The same is true of Roy’s sidekick and best friend Glenn Branson (played by Richie Campbell); he too is uncannily similar looking to the real police officer Glenn Douglas on whom I modelled him.

Next. What else is new on BritBox in May?. dark

Both Grace films are streaming now exclusively on BritBox. Learn more about BritBox and start a free trial here.