Murder He Wrote
Taggart creator Glenn Chandler talks to Liz Vercoe
At a first cursory glance, the plot of The Lamplighters opening at The Tabard theatre on 19 March, sounds a bit like The Mousetrap. A group of people stranded in a lonely moorland house talking about a murder. And then the police arrive…
The obvious difference here, though, is that in The Lamplighters the people inside are the police, revisiting the scene of a terrible unsolved murder for the 10th year running. And who knows what is outside.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that the play’s writer and director Glenn Chandler, the Bafta-winning creator the 100-plus episode TV detective series, Taggart, is simply offering another whodunit, but this time for the stage. “The discovery of who actually did kill the mother and her two children 10 years earlier is not the key thing,” he says. “It’s really a story about obsession, not least the three ex-cops glued to this case. I’m really interested in obsession and what it can lead to.”
We are talking in a pub in Camden, above which he’s spent the day rehearsing. Born in Edinburgh he still has a light Scottish accent, plus a ready smile and self-effacing manner: I notice we both keep saying “sorry” to each other: about where we sit, about passing a glass, about misunderstanding what the other’s said. With his easy laugh and cheerful bantering it’s hard to imagine that his head is full of murders and crimes past and present and cops good and bad.
“I’m glad you caught some of the rehearsal,” he says, cheerily pleased with his actors and the way things are going. And I was glad too. It’s only day four, scripts are still in hand, but already I could see two former policemen with massive emotional problems. One, Frank, played by Mark Forester-Evans, has turned to drink; the other, John, played by Shane Armstrong, to anger. Coming between them with a story to tell is a strange and difficult young man Billy (Scott Oswald). As I arrive, during this particularly tense scene, Glenn is sitting in the front row, leaning forward, his head almost in the set, as rage and fear flare up on stage.
Moments later it’s the end of the day, they all shake off their characters, and with relaxed “goodbyes” and “see you tomorrows”, and head off home. Remarkable.
The other characters in The Lamplighters are played by Tara Howard, as a woman who apparently arrives at the door with a disturbing message for the three unravelling cops, and Stewart Marquis, as Alan, who completes the ’tec trio.
“The idea for the plot came to me on holiday in Cumbria, near Appleby, about two and a half years ago,” says Glenn over a pint or two of Old Speckled Hen. “The remote house surrounded by mist – I actually drove into thick mist – and the unsolved crime...” He conjures up the atmosphere as he speaks: “I can’t write unless I can imagine what it looks like.
“Yes, it could have been a book, but writing a novel is a long, lonely process,” says this author of Dead Sight and Savage Tide the two DI Steve Madden mysteries. “It takes six months to write a novel” (which some authors might think not long at all) “and I’d never written a crime story for the stage.
“I just love writing for the theatre. You get to work directly with actors, it’s hands on, and it’s much more exciting.”
Although he has continued to write for television post-Taggart, in recent years he’s been on a voyage of discovery in the theatre taking on producing and directing as well as writing.
It took off when he and director Patrick Wilde decided to share a cast for their respective productions at the Edinburgh Festival. “I’d written Boys of the Empire after I’d bought a volume of old comics. They were full of terms like ‘what ho’ and ‘spiffing’ and I thought it would be fun to spoof the 1920s. When Patrick said he’d direct both plays, I said I’d produce them. He said ‘you do realise that means you have to put up the money?’ It was the start of teach-yourself-producing for me. If I break even that’s a success!” The corners of his mouth and eyes all head upwards in a grin.
“Some while after that I thought, ‘I’ve never written a musical’. Not many people have, but in his can-do case that thought resulted in Cleveland Street the Musical.” This is based on real-life events where teenage boys were exploited in a Victorian brothel that was visited by police-protected high and mighty. “You can get away with more in a musical,” reflects Glenn, before adding, “although there is one song in it that’s not allowed on You Tube.”
But alongside his theatrical experiments – Scouts in Bondage, The Custard Boys – his fascination with all things criminal had not gone away. This walking expert on murders has been thinking about the effects on everyone concerned of high-profile murders such as those of Rachel Nickell and Jill Dando. He also bought some letters of the serial killers Ian Brady, Dennis Nilsen and Peter Sutcliffe: “It’s hard to believe, but people write to killers in prison and they write back. Almost like fan mail,” he explains. This has resulted in Killers, a show which is going to the Brighton, then Edinburgh, festivals.
But first there is The Lamplighters: “my straightest play so far,” says Glenn, amused, meaning in all its senses. For this he has been updating his knowledge of changes in forensics, and even details such as what crime scene photographs looked like 10 years ago. But most significantly he’s delved through his 30 years of knowledge of the subject.
“I’ve met policemen who are still obsessing over a case years and years later. In this play the wrong person was arrested and I want to look at who pays when the police lock up the wrong man.”
More about Glenn Chandler productions at www.boteproductions.co.uk/glenn Chandler productions at www.boteproductions.co.uk/
Copyright 2013 Liz Vercoe
March 7, 2013