Ridley writer Paul Matthew Thompson on ITV’s new crime drama: ‘Adrian Dunbar is a national treasure’

Writer Paul Matthew Thompson introduces his new detective drama Ridley, exclusively for NationalWorld

Paul Matthew Thompson has written hundreds of hours of crime drama. From Vera to Shakespeare & Hathaway to Father Brown, Thompson is a prolific writer of crime drama - and his latest series, Ridley, is set to begin on ITV on Sunday 28 August.

Thompson recently sat down with Alex Moreland to discuss Ridley, which stars Adrian Dunbar as a recently retired detective returning to his old team as a consultant. He discussed how ideas for the series first developed, explained why the next Vera might never make it series 2 in the current television landscape, and detailed some of the challenges involved in creating a new detective character played by someone already famous for another iconic police officer.

So, just to set the scene a bit, can you tell us a little bit about your starting point with Ridley? Where did the development of this begin for you?

Well, Jonathan Fisher, the producer that came to me, he had a very nice idea about a detective show set around a police consultant – the guy who advises our show is a retired Detective Chief Inspector, and he does a lot of consultancy work. I thought it was a really interesting concept: most of the people in the police force retire in their mid to late 50s, and in this day and age, that’s no age at all. I imagine if you spent your life in homicides solving murders, and to then find that you’re on the scrapheap and your services are no longer required must be quite a hard life adjustment.

We also like the idea that if you are a consultant, you effectively work as a sideline – you don’t answer to anybody in the sense of being an employee. It gives you a really nice way for a maverick character to go off and do their own thing. That was the kind of character I perceived Ridley to be in my head: he’s an old-fashioned copper, never had much truck with paperwork, an instinctive gut feeling police officer whose approach to solving crime has gone out of fashion a bit. He’s a man out of time.

When he comes back, things are not quite the same. He had a protégé called Carol Farman who was promoted in his absence, from DS to DI, and he taught her everything she knows – then he come back and find out that he’s working for her, she’s the boss. So we’ve got a nice dynamic, they’re finding their feet and working out a new way of moving forward, both in the job and as a friendship.

When did Adrian come onboard? Obviously, it’s going to be quite a collaborative process, so how did he shape things when he joined the show?

Adrian came about early in the process. It soon became clear that he would be the perfect actor to play Ridley: he has that inscrutable kind of face, he’s a national treasure, he has real empathy for the character, and as soon as we mentioned his name, I couldn’t really see anyone else in the part.

Adrian bought this idea to the show that Ridley would be a jazz performer, and will perform in a jazz club. This club he runs with his friend Annie – he originally went into business with his late wife, the three of them were best friends – the club is the only place really can be himself, the only place he lets himself go. Music is a kind of a balm, you know, it helps him – but [when the series begins] he hasn’t actually performed for a while, so we opened with Annie gently nudging him and saying, you know, we’d love to hear you sing again. We have a nice journey across the series with that.

I think what’s lovely about the jazz is that it adds a real kind of melancholy minor chord to the whole show. It pervades the drama.

Adrian Dunbar as Alex Ridley and Bronagh Waugh as DI Carol Farman, wrapped up warm on a cobbled alleyway (Credit: ITV)

Yeah, it gave it quite a different feel to a lot of other detective dramas.

It’s dark, and it’s kind of reflective, isn’t it? We were probably quite lucky that we were filming during the winter – that landscape there is so bleak, but beautiful as well, it has a stark kind of beauty. It got dark very early, so we had short filming days – I think actually it snowed at one point, we had to stop filming because the weather was atrocious – but what it gives us when you bring the music and the performances is almost like a Scandi noir feel to the whole to the whole show, which I think it’s beautiful. I think it feels very distinctive as a package.

I’m sure you must’ve been asked this question before – probably by yourself during the production more than anyone else – but when you’ve got an actor like Adrian, who’s obviously already so well known for playing one iconic detective, do you have to make a conscious effort to put a distance between Ridley and Ted Hastings?

Yeah. I mean, [there are] obvious differences: this guy is not in uniform, he’s retired, he’s a maverick. But that was a huge note at the beginning – it can’t be Ted. I think there were two or three lines that I’d written, in the whole series, that Adrian said “that’s Ted, get rid of that”.

But I think you forget [about Ted Hastings] really, really soon. I think you kind of really buy Adrian as a new character – he’s a loner, he’s obviously grieving for the tragedy that’s happening in his life, he is empathetic. There was a concern that is Ted Hastings in retirement, but I think the show feels very different. That’s the hope anyway!

You’ve obviously written quite a lot of detective drama across your career – how do you approach them structurally? Twists and turns, building in clues – how do you keep that straight in your head? Especially working in this two-hour structure that you have on Ridley.

Well, two hours is hard, because you always think you’ve got a lot of time, but actually, you don’t. I find that there’s a formula to this, and when you know the formula, then you can kind of tweak it. But it’s difficult, because you want to have a plot with lots of twists and turns, so that the audience don’t have any idea who done it until the very end. I don’t like these cop shows where you find out who’s done it early, and then the last half hour is a chase. I like to keep people guessing. But at the same time, you do need a certain simplicity, you need a throughline that people can follow. So, it’s striking that balance, really.

I think I find the formula very mathematical, and it messes my head a bit. With that mathematical formula, it’s very easy to lose any kind of trace of character, because it becomes, a numbers game – so I think it’s an obvious answer, but I think it really has to be character driven. They have to start with character, and why are they doing it? I always think – it’s quite gruesome, I know – that every one of us is probably capable of murder. In extreme circumstances, murdering twice is a very different issue. We often call them accidental murderers. And they’re the ones that people seem to die, where, you know, something went wrong, someone lashed out, it’s clearly not premeditated. I think they are often the ones that are really character driven, the ones that audience relates to.

I’m always very conscious to ask myself what the characters are doing off screen. Even in an hour and a half, your guest character don’t get a huge amount of screen time, so you have to use them as much as possible. Once the detectives have talked to them, what they’re going off and doing – whether or not they’re the murderer, or the witness or the victim? I think they sometimes change off screen, and when they come back, what’s changed? I have to keep that in my head. But it can be tricky. I think it depends on the show as well. I mean, I know when writing Vera, we’re rarely ahead of Vera. Sometimes we can slip a little moment when we’re ahead of the police, and they make really nice adbreaks, but generally, we don’t want to be out of place. We want to discover things at the same time as Vera discovers them.

I think with the two-hour format, we don’t want to be ahead, we want to revel in our protagonist’s mind ticking over those lightbulb moments, see the cogs whirring. That’s what makes the great TV detectives, those little moments that go above and beyond.

Terence Maynard as DCI Paul Goodwin, Adrian Dunbar as Alex Ridley, Bronagh Waugh As DI Carol Farman, and George Bukhari as DC Darren Benton, desks and filing cabinets behind them (Credit: ITV)

So, do you think it’s more effective – or maybe do you just prefer – that the eventual conclusion be a shock twist, or would you rather it be something the audience can solve themselves as they go along? You were saying we don’t want to be ahead of the detective, do you think it diminishes seeing Vera or Ridley have a lightbulb moment if we’ve already put it together?

I think it should be a combination of the two. One thing that is actually quite easy to do is to change the person who did it. Obviously, every suspect should have a throughline, you know, they could all have been the murderer. It’s quite easy to tweak at the end.

I think the most interesting thing I find from doing a detective show is you’re bringing back someone from the dead. Especially with a show like Vera, you find a dead body at the very beginning of the show. You never see them alive. When you find a body, what I love is that you should want to know everything there is to know about this person – you have to learn who they were and who they are, in order to find out who might have killed them. I think that’s a really lovely exercise to do. The dead person, essentially, is a major character, as important as anyone else. I liked that you had to get into that head to be able to find out who they were, and how they ended up dead.

Something Adrian said at that press conference recently that I found interesting was that he’d wanted to do a Sunday night drama - do you think of the series in those terms when they’re being developed? This is a Sunday night show, it’d be radically different on a Monday night?

I think Sunday night TV does feel different. I mean, I hate the word cosy – and I really went out of my way to make sure this wasn’t cosy, as did Adrian – but it’s one of those rare moments that still exists in this day and age where people sit down together and watch television. It’s a school night, work the next day, might have been out on the weekend, it’s quiet, it’s dark outside. It’s one of those moments when TV can really, really bring everyone together. This two-hour format really fits the Sunday evening in a way it wouldn’t see anywhere else during the other distractions of the week. We didn’t conceive it as Sunday – I always assumed it would go on Sunday evening, but it wasn’t a given.

We’ve spoken a lot about the style and the feel of the show – the jazz music, Sunday nights – are you conscious ever of trying to make it feel distinct from any other given crime show?

Yeah, I mean, it’s hard enough to come up with an episode more distinct from the ones you’ve already written! I’ve written a lot of feature length detective shows – one hours are hard. Or I find them hard, some people really don’t. But yeah, I think people expect a certain identity in a certain field, and obviously with a new show it took us a while to find our feet. Now we’re up and running, I think we all know what we are and who we are, how we want it to feel.

But yes, the short answer is yeah, it’s really, it’s really tricky. We’ve got a great cast – Bronagh is fantastic as Carol, we’ve got George Bukhari, we’ve got fabulous Georgie Glen – and in the Bible we created, I know everything about [the characters]. There’s pages and pages about the people. If you just think it’s two dimensional, you don’t engage. The crimes are really important, but I think the reason people switch is that they want to go home with the police, they want to find out who they are, they want to keep switching on to find out how their personal line progress. The crimes are, if anything, you know, a bonus.

You’ve spoken a few times about what you think successful detective shows share. Now, obviously not everything runs for as long as Vera, but I was curious –

It’s funny you say that, because Vera took a while to take off. I think the first series got a decent audience, but [at first] people were kind of, you know, ‘I’m not sure about that’. But I think between Brenda’s performance and great writing – that was before I was on it! – that started to draw people in. It was a bit of a slow-burner, it wasn’t an instant hit. In this day and age, you have to hope that the channel has faith. It’s all very short and sweet these days, you’ve got one chance, and there aren’t so many “let’s see how it goes, let’s recommission it”. Sorry, I interrupted you.

Adrian Dunbar as Alex Ridley, stood on a cobbled street running through a field. Police ticker tape floats on the wind behind him. (Credit: ITV)

No, that’s more interesting than what I was going to ask! Do you think, because there’s less opportunity for things to get that second chance to go on and to develop, that we’re missing out on things? On what could be the next Vera, essentially?

Maybe. I mean, with Netflix and Apple and everything, there’s just so much competition, and they’ve got a lot of money, obviously. I think we really are moving a bit towards the American model, where you get a pilot and then it’s hit or miss.

I would like to think that ITV and BBC… I know they’ve got a lot of airtime to fill. So, they want things to come back, they want it to be a success. And I think they know, what an endeavour it is to put together a new show, and are very supportive, along the whole way from commissioning to editing. I think that they do give you, you know, a bit of a bit of leg room to get it right – but you owe people a responsibility to get it right [first time]. If they’re going to commission a series like this, then you have to come up with the goods.

On that note (!), is there much you can tell us about a potential second series of Ridley?

No idea! I’m as in the dark as you are. I think we just have to wait and see. Obviously, we’ve got plenty more story, and I’d love to see where Ridley and Carol go, I think we’ve got so much more we can play with Annie and the jazz club. But I don’t know, I’m not hiding any secrets.

When do you think you’ll know? I assume you’d find out long before it becomes public.

I guess so. I imagine they’ll have to look at their schedule. I mean, if it was going to come out [the same time next year], we’d have to start filming early next year, and write some scripts. So yeah, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Is there anything you’ve been watching recently that you’ve enjoyed? Any recommendations for our readers?

I’m looking forward to House of the Dragon. Totally different from crime! I watch a lot of US crime. I think a show like Mare of Easttown – how would I pitch it? It’s about a woman whose life is falling apart, trying to juggle a job with a previous breakdown and family issues, who just happens to be a copper. I think that that approach is a really good way forward. I just want to watch [her], and I think if she was running a fire station or nightclub, I still want to see it. I think that’s a crucial thing, I really love the way that American cop shows often do that. That has been a real change, over the past 10 years.

I do watch crime for work, and I’m trying to veer off [to] crime that doesn’t involve police. My favourite show of all time is The Sopranos. It’s crime from the other side – obviously, there are cops involved, but I could never write that because I don’t have that input, I don’t know enough about that Mafia family.

I just watched The Sandman last night, I watched five episodes of that. Just pure escapism, isn’t it? It’s fun to watch something without thinking.

Finally, just to draw everything together, what are you hoping the response to Ridley will be? Is there anything you’re hoping people will take from it?

The best result would be that people take Ridley to their heart and he becomes one of these iconic TV detectives. Maybe I’m jumping the gun! I mean, I would just like it to get received well, I want people to enjoy the episodes and to want it to come back. I don’t want to tempt fate by saying, you know, I can see it running. But that would be… you know, I want him to become the next Vera or Morse or Poirot, that would be a great outcome. I think with Adrian, we’re very lucky, because we’ve got a guy who people just want to watch. I think it’s a really good place for him to be – let’s hope he doesn’t get sidetracked by more Line of Duty!

Ridley begins on Sunday 28 August at 9pm on ITV. You can read more of our interviews with the writers, directors, and actors behind your favourite shows here.