The Martin Edwards Column: Robert Banks Stewart
Martin Edwards interviews legendary screen writer Robert Banks Stewart.
The name of Robert Banks Stewart is familiar to millions of crime fiction fans, but many of them may not know why. It’s because Stewart’s name has appeared on the credits of some of the most enjoyable crime thriller shows to have appeared on the small screen in the past half-century. Now, at a time in life when many would be contemplating retirement, he is embarking on a new career as a crime novelist, and his thriller The Hurricane’s Tail was recently published by Kaleidoscope.
Oddly enough, although novels have featured two of his most famous detective characters, Eddie Shoestring and Jim Bergerac, they were not written by Stewart himself. “In the past,” he explained to me recently, “I was always too busy creating, setting up and producing TV series, I didn't have the time (or the talent, I felt) to do a novelisation.” As it happens, five books about Bergerac were written by Andrew Saville, a little-known pseudonym that concealed the identity of one of today’s leading crime novelists, Andrew Taylor. But Stewart did have a hankering to try his luck as a novelist, and after retiring from television writing and producing, at last he found the time to write a book of his own.
“I wrote the novel, The Hurricane's Tail, because I thought it was a good thriller, and some years ago tried to set it up as a two-part TV drama, but got no takers…I needed something to do. You never really stop being a writer, do you? This seemed the one intended - but never made - TV drama that would make a decent novel… it would be an irony if some company picked up the film or TV rights!” Although his idea for the novel pre-dated Murder in Paradise, there are one or two points of similarity between that series and the novel: “There is, though, a main difference ..my Yard man, Harper Buchanan, is West Indian by descent, who's never been to the Caribbean; the French woman cop is a white beke, from an aristocratic family owning a huge plantation in Martinique. He first meets her in Paris. Perhaps when that TV series is over… there might be some action over Hurricane.”
As regards television, he says, “The one thing I believe that's paramount is to try - and try desperately - for originality of ideas. People (characters) are people in any situation, but it's the difference of the story and the situation of the characters, that counts. There's no place for things like cop, hospital, whatever, procedural any more. It's the human side of the story that will sell.”
He started out writing for the theatre: “My first stage play was a one-acter called The Shadow at the Bar, about an advocate (Scottish Bar) defending a man accused of murder - is he guilty or not? A question always asked, even today.” He was 22 at the time, and the play paved the way for a high profile writing career, “though it didn't come till after I'd been a journalist in Scotland, then around the world as a magazine feature writer for Illustrated. Then I was a re-write guy at Rank's Story department of various scenes in sometimes major films where the original writer of the screenplay wasn't available (or didn't want to do a rewrite), and I did that at Pinewood Studios, until they made their one and only all-film TV series, Interpol Calling, and I finished up being story editor and writer of countless episodes.”
After that, it was pretty much success all the way, as Stewart went on to be a writer on Danger Man, The Saint, The Avengers, Jason King, and then Callan, Public Eye, and Van der Valk, Adam Adamant Lives! and Armchair Thriller as story editor. These were series that defined the Sixties in terms of television thrillers.
Inevitably, not all of his shows were huge hits, and I asked him about Moon and Son, a show from the Nineties which seemed to me to be much under-rated. Stewart explained: “Long before Jonathan Creek, I visualised Gladys Moon, a talentless, misguided lady who ran a mobile (shop/clairvoyant consulting room) business with her son, who was the one who actually possessed the clairvoyance gift. We filmed in the market-places of the South of England and North of France just before the Channel Tunnel was completed.” Unfortunately, the BBC decided to schedule Moon and Son on a Saturday night, rather than Sunday night, the original aim, pitting it against the first-ever repeats of Inspector Morse, meant the series never got the ratings it deserved: “Just imagine...it was between 6 and 7 million viewers, which today would be great, but not then, alas. So it was pulled.”
Stewart, like many people, has fond memories of Shoestring: “it was a smash-hit, a really golden moment for me… (but) Trevor Eve didn't want to do a third series, and that was that. No long-term options in those days. So once again, I was invited to produce another replacement series. Shoestring was probably a more singular idea…than Bergerac, although the setting of the latter was part of its great success and longevity. But I did still insist on there being a good, strong human story in each episode. And John Nettles, like Trevor Eve, was a vital element.”
So how different are the crafts of writing for TV and writing a novel? “The thing you learn as a screenwriter, whether for film or TV,” says Stewart, “is that economy is important. The picture tells the underlying story, well, to a certain extent. I think that dialogue came easily to me in Hurricane, for obvious reasons, but I had to work much harder to make everything else convincing. Funny, isn't it, on screen you don't leave a lot to the imagination. In a book, huge chunks are down to the imagination of the reader.” The satisfaction of publishing The Hurricane’s Tail has persuaded him to start work on a second crime novel, and it may just be that before long people associate his name not just with TV credits but with entertaining and action-packed novels.
Martin Edwards is an award-winning crime writer, whose fifth and most recent Lake District Mystery, featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind, is The Hanging Wood. Earlier books in the series are The Coffin Trail (short-listed for the Theakston’s prize for best British crime novel of 2006), The Cipher Garden, The Arsenic Labyrinth (short-listed for the Lakeland Book of the Year award in 2008) and The Serpent Pool. He has written eight novels about lawyer Harry Devlin, the first of which, All the Lonely People, was short-listed for the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger for the best first crime novel of the year. Six of the Devlin books have just been produced in special editions as ebooks, with a range of brand new features, including introductions from leading writers such as Andrew Taylor and Val McDermid.
In addition, Martin has written a stand-alone novel of psychological suspense, Take My Breath Away, and a much acclaimed novel featuring Dr Crippen, Dancing for the Hangman. He completed Bill Knox’s last book, The Lazarus Widow. He has published a collection of short stories, Where Do You Find Your Ideas? and other stories; ‘Test Drive’ was short-listed for the CWA Short Story Dagger in 2006, while ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ won the same Dagger in 2008. A well-known commentator on crime fiction, he has edited 20 anthologies and published eight non-fiction books, including a study of homicide investigation, Urge to Kill. He is archivist for both the Crime Writers’ Association and the Detection Club. In his spare time he is a partner in a national law firm.