I was very happy to find out yesterday that a new series of McLevy is on Radio 4. For those of you not familiar with the radio detective, he is based on a real Victorian detective, who gained notoriety and fame patrolling Edinburgh, and who’s diary was published in 1860 and is still in print today. The diary gives us a genuine glimpse of Victorian Edinburgh, and the mind of a man who is more compassionate and understanding of the circumstances surrounding crimes of poverty, than you would necessarily expect him to be.
The original diary has been adapted by David Ashton, who you may be more familiar with from his film and TV work, and published by Berlinn. I once meet David when I was volunteering at Bloody Scotland and I found him more than willing to spend time with a fan talking enthusiasticly about the radio adaptation. He came across as a genuine, authentic man who loved his work.
For me, radio has always been a powerful medium and McLevy is one example where radio and drama work together so well. The main strength of the series is Ashton’s superbly drawn characters. There is gruff, but tender McLevy, his well meaning but bungling partner Mullholland, his pompous boss Lieutenant Roach. However, the most important supporting character is McLevy’s foil, the elegant, sharp and savvy Madam, Jean Brash.
It is in the interplay between Brash and McLevy where much of the delight of the series comes from. They are natural enemies, Brash runs the most popular brothel in Edinburgh and is knee deep in criminality. McLevy has dedicated his life to the opposition of crime. Yet Brash, is the only person in Edinburgh who could be called McLevy’s equal. They are both intelligent and compassionate, and most of all savvy, like chess masters they plan their game several moves ahead. For a lonely and complex man Brash is a strong pull and the will-they won’t-they question in the centre of their relationship is compelling.
Of course, you can’t talk about McLevy and Brash without talking about the actors. It is almost impossible to imagine them without the skill of Brian Cox and Siobhan Redmond, who bring the nuance and humanity of the characters, and Ashton’s writing into full view.
Two years ago I heard Ashton talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. One audience member asked the question which so many McLevy fan’s ask again and again, “Why has there been no TV adaptation yet?” Ashton replied that he didn’t know. So we still ask.
In an age which is obsessed with both Victoriana and crime fiction, with proven writing and big acting names behind it – it would be bound to be a hit. Perhaps downtrodden McLevy, his intelligence overlooked by superiors, his compassion for lower classes distancing himself from “polite society”, and his position distancing himself from the woman he cares about – will always be too overshadowed in TV by another, better known Victorian detective. And this is what is at the heart of McLevy, wherever he lands, he will always be an outsider.