Back for a fifth series, DCI Banks is the Yorkshire-based cop who just gets on with the job. Crime Scene meets Stephen Tompkinson to discover how his nononsense detective became a global hit.
Stephen Tompkinson and Peter Robinson on the nononsense Yorkshire cop.
WHILE crime drama has its roll call of quirky cops and dysfunctional detectives – from anti-social Saga Norén in The Bridge to out-ofcontrol John Luther – the real-life harassed detective is someone like DCI Alan Banks. Professional, unshowy and with a bit of a temper, the Yorkshirebased copper created by author Peter Robinson is hugely popular on the page and screen. Returning for a fifth series of DCI Banks on ITV1, Stephen Tompkinson agrees that his detective’s appeal is largely down to that everyman quality.
“You know, Peter Robinson said [that] what makes him extraordinary is his ordinariness, and every policeman that Peter spoke to, he said there’s a real mundane quality to what they do,” Tompkinson tells Crime Scene. “Banks, unlike most of the TV cops, doesn’t have frills and quirks, he just gets on with his job, and it’s almost like it takes a little piece of him away every time. But he does that because he has this faith in justice, and when a crime has been committed he wants to get it solved for the ramifications of all the other people involved.”
Driven, unlucky in love and a little dour, Banks is very different from the man who plays him. Under office lights at the police station in Leeds, Banks has a pouchy, pasty appearance and dresses in a drab suit that screams overworked, divorced detective. But Tompkinson is an animated and easygoing 50-year-old in a flowery shirt, partly unbuttoned for the summer. As Crime Scene takes in the view from the 14th floor of ITV’S London TV Centre, the actor makes small talk about opting for family life outside of the capital in Surrey. “People acknowledge each other in the street,” he says, approvingly, in his familiar Lancashire accent.
He is affable and relaxed, his chunky, expensive watch perhaps the only obvious hint of his star power and bankability for ITV. His performance as Banks has been a consistent ratings hit since it launched
in 2010. “People have responded to Banks very well – they can identify with his ordinariness and his flaws,” suggests Tompkinson. “It’s difficult for critics and reviewers to get a handle on it, because it’s hard to celebrate ordinariness.”
There’s a weary authenticity to Alan Banks that means the series has sometimes been too easily written off as a sort of sub- Prime Suspect. But while buzzy shows such as True Detective and Broadchurch stumbled with second season plotlines that confounded some viewers, DCI Banks stuck to solidly authentic stories given breathing space over two episodes. “You’re always very aware that he’s got a uniformed boss as well as budget restraints, so it’s very much the modern police procedural,” explains Tompkinson. “A lot of his team are very strong females, so there’s a really nice dynamic in that.”
That gender mix of detectives makes for an effective unit, despite the simmering romance between Banks and DS Annie Cabbot (Andrea Lowe). “If they ever did get together, it would be disastrous,” laughs Tompkinson. The latest series introduces DC Vince Grady (Samuel Anderson), a cocksure detective who manages to rub Banks up the wrong way. DI Helen Morton (Caroline Catz), his scarily efficient colleague, is probably the closest the show comes to a quirky cop. “She’s never knowingly under-prepared and is going for DCI herself this year,” says Tompkinson.
A major villain has also been cast as Banks’ nemesis for a story arc that will run across all six episodes – a first for the series. Yorkshireman Shaun Dooley ( Broadchurch) stars as Steve Richards, a dodgy property developer who has somehow avoided jail for murder – an affront to a copper like Banks. “That’s been wonderful and it’s much more personal to Banks that there’s been a sort of ‘Teflon Don’ figure that they’ve never been able to pin anything on,” Tompkinson tells Crime Scene. “To the public he’s a very philanthropic
People identify with his ordinariness and flaws
property developer, who creates a lot of jobs in the area and mixes on the golf circuit with judges. But Banks knows that he was guilty of a double murder a long time ago. They couldn’t prove that he tampered with the jury and they’ve never been able to get him near a courtroom since, so Banks is in danger of it almost clouding his judgement.”
Banks is a detective with no time for spivvy businessmen (“You got all this through hard graft?” sneers the incredulous cop). Tompkinson and Dooley make a compelling screen pairing in scenes that crackle with tension. “I’ve known Shaun for ages and we’ve never worked together before, so it was lovely,” says Tompkinson. “The interview scenes are always my favourite – they’re like mini games of chess. By the end, the audience is really gunning for a showdown between them. Hopefully we don’t disappoint.”
Richards is a villain who “brings out the worst” in Banks – including his famous angry face – according to the actor, though the detective is also capable of a more considered approach thanks to the characterisation and concepts from Robinson’s original novels. “Peter has always created these sort of morally grey areas where you can end up having sympathy for the perpetrators, because more often than not they’re people that never thought they would be involved in crime – it’s a survival instinct to protect their family,” says Tompkinson. This series opens with the brutal murder of a drug dealer in a creepy woodland clearing, followed by a disturbing case of self-harm and a kidnapping within the Chinese community in Leeds.
While the cases are undoubtedly gritty – DCI Banks has previously featured child abduction, a middle-class parent who rapes his son’s girlfriend, and a live burial – it’s the Yorkshire landscape of bleakly beautiful moorland, rocky ravines and wind turbines that affords the DCI Banks directors a location to rival Scandinavian crime shows. “Oh, it’s gorgeous, and we’re spoilt for choice being in Leeds, where you can do very metropolitan stories, but then within half an hour you’re practically in the middle of nowhere,” says Tompkinson. “It’s where Banks goes to do his thinking time.”
Nordic Noir has been making an impact since the launch of DCI Banks, but it’s worth noting the appeal of Tompkinson’s detective in places like Sweden, the US and Holland. “There’s a beautiful art deco cinema in Amsterdam, and about 800 people turned up to watch the first in last year’s series,” says Tompkinson, “It was only a few days before it came on their TV anyway and the place was packed – it was lovely to find out how celebrated it is.”
NO MAN IS AN ISLAND
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Banks books are already a global success. Peter Robinson has continued as a consultant on the series since he was first persuaded that Tompkinson was right for the role. “I just read everything there was and tried to convince Peter that although I’m too tall and have the wrong colour eyes, I was going to get as close to the spirit of the character that he created,” he says.
The actor’s method extends to keeping the character’s favourite piece of poetry in his drawer and wearing a scar by his eye, as described in the books. “I put the scar on every day,” he explains. “When Banks gets a breakthrough, it’s a bit like Harry Potter – there’s something about the scar. People might see it or might miss it, but I know it’s there. And the quote that Banks keeps in his drawer by the poet John Donne: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’. It should be a t-shirt for every detective out there.”
And as for a sixth series? Well, you can almost bank on it. “As long as there’s an audience there that are still enjoying it, I really enjoy playing the character and I think there’s a lot more mileage [in Banks],” Tompkinson tells Crime Scene. “The way I look at it is that Banks is 15 years from retirement, Peter’s still writing the books, so I would like to keep going for as long as I can.”
DCI Banks is on ITV1 in September.
And this one’s our last holiday in Scarborough.
Oh, just give him the piece of paper. The fell-walking club could barely contain their excitement.
Few actors do grumpy Yorkshireman so well.