IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Novelist Phil Rickman on ITV’S Midwinter Of The Spirit, Dr Dee and All Of A Winter’s Night, his 14th Merrily Watkins book
Inever wanted to write about a vicar who solves crimes – that’s what the police do, and crime is never cosy.
I did, however, want to deal as authentically as possible with the work of an exorcist. They do exist, in every diocese – the Anglican church just doesn’t advertise the service they provide and some elements in the Church would like to get rid of them. Merrily now gets on better with the cops than the C of E hierarchy, basically because they’re not in competition.
ITV’S Midwinter Of The Spirit went down much better with viewers who hadn’t read the novels.
Anna Maxwell Martin and David Threlfall were spot on as Merrily and her mentor, Huw Owen. It’s a fairly complex story and had to be simplified for three short episodes, with some characters lost and others squashed. This also seems to be the reason it didn’t get enough ‘overnight’ viewers for a second series.
I have no plans to dump Merrily.
Nobody else is doing a series like this one. All Of A Winter’s Night is full of mysteries, big and small, it has its dark and sinister moments and several murders but it isn’t really a whodunit. It’s set around one of the most mysterious churches in the country, Kilpeck in Herefordshire – famous for the weird imagery on its walls, its three Green Men and probably the most famous Sheela-na-gig, or female flasher, in the world.
The supernatural is really not an easy element to bring into a novel, especially the kind you want the reader to believe.
It’s crucially important to me to have realistic characters. Because they’re British, there has to be occasional humour. Because they’re crime novels, there has to be tension. An unconvincing supernatural experience can ruin everything. You have to handle it with care and restraint, which can be more insidiously scary than in-your-face horror.
The books are set in the Welsh Border countryside, which is a very mysterious, slightly brooding area with a rich population mix.
I’ve lived here most of my life and worked in the area as a radio and TV journalist, which is a licence to pry. I’m certainly not a pioneer of rural noir, which has always been a thread in crime fiction. The Hound of the Baskervilles, a not very good novel about animal abuse, is memorable mainly because of the hostile countryside.
The only historical character I’d ever wanted to write about was John Dee, who I always thought had been misrepresented in fiction as some kind of sinister sorcerer.
I saw him as inventive, well-intentioned, quite kind, a bit of a geek and often broke. He was a scientist, at a time when religion ruled. The big problem was developing language and dialogue that didn’t seem stilted, sub-shakespearean or offensively modern.
I don’t worry about Merrily ageing, but her daughter, Jane, wouldn’t be able to play the same maverick role at 30.
So time passes more slowly in Ledwardine than elsewhere. Readers have favourite characters, and if their favourites are missing from a novel, they tend to take it very badly.
All Of A Winter’s Night (Corvus) is out on 5 January.
“NOBODY ELSE IS DOING A SERIES LIKE THIS ONE”
Annamaxwellmartin as vicar and exorcist Merrily Watkins initv’s Midwinter Of The Spirit.