Killer instinct

Killer instinct

By Michael Pickard
March 5, 2024

The Writers Room

Death in Paradise creator Robert Thorogood transports DQ to a town in Buckinghamshire for his latest crime drama, The Marlow Murder Club, which is finally hitting the small screen almost a decade after he first tried to sell the idea.

When Robert Thorogood first pitched the idea behind The Marlow Murder Club, it was roundly rejected by broadcasters. The Death in Paradise creator has enjoyed sustained success with the Caribbean-set series, which has aired on BBC One since 2011, but he couldn’t find a buyer for his latest project set in the picturesque English riverside town of its title.

That was in 2015. But so convinced that his idea could be a hit, Thorogood turned to his book publisher – he was also writing Death in Paradise novels at the time – and pitched The Marlow Murder Club to them instead.

The first Marlow Murder Club book was published in 2021 – two more have since been released – and once the idea was a proven success in the book charts, Thorogood found he was able to partner with London production company Monumental (Harlots, Ghosts) and sell a television treatment to UKTV network Drama. The two-part story will now air tomorrow and Thursday, while coproducer Masterpiece in the US will air a four-part version. ITV Studios is handling international distribution.

Samantha Bond (Downton Abbey) stars as Judith Potts, a retired archaeologist who lives alone in a faded mansion in the peaceful town of Marlow, filling her time by setting crosswords for the local paper.

Robert Thorogood with Samantha Bond

During one of her regular wild swims in the River Thames, Judith hears a gunshot coming from a neighbour’s garden and believes a brutal murder has taken place. But when the police are reluctant to believe her story, Judith finds herself forming an unlikely friendship with local dog-walker and empty-nester Suzie (Doctor Who’s Jo Martin) and unfulfilled vicar’s wife Becks (The Sandman star Cara Horgan) as they start an investigation of their own.

Eventually asked to assist with the official police investigation, headed by newly promoted Tanika (Sandyland’s Natalie Dew), the women must piece together clues, grill suspect witnesses and face down real danger as they work against the clock to stop the killer in their tracks.

Describing the show as a “modern-day Miss Marple” thriller, Thorogood says the ambition for The Marlow Murder Club is to feature a murder-of-the-week story in each episode. But for this opening instalment, one feature-length story plays out over four hours of television.

“The way the first book is structured, it starts off with the three women not knowing each other and it takes three murders to bring them together,” he tells DQ. “I couldn’t see a way of actually serving the story without saying, just for this first season, we’re going to have to do one story so we have time to get to know the women and learn why they meet and how they meet.

“Then by the time they’re together and they’re a gang, it’s real and grounded in a type of reality, because all murder-mystery shows are a bit of a house of cards anyway, and I just wanted to have a bit of truthfulness in how they meet, so at least you get it rather than going, ‘Hang on, they’ve got nothing in common with each other. What are they doing solving crime every week?’”

UKTV initially wanted Thorogood to dive straight into a more traditional episodic format. But he praises the broadcaster for “taking a punt” on his idea for how best to establish the series and its characters.

“I’m just so grateful they broke their rules on what they would commission in order to serve the novel, the story and some of the actors, because the actors get so much more to do than if they were falsely together right from the start,” the writer continues. “They do actually get to know each other. They don’t always get on immediately. It takes some time to realise each other’s strengths and why they’re a brilliant team. Hopefully, fingers crossed, we come back and do it as a series.”

The series stars Bond (centre), Jo Martin (left) and Cara Horgan

Thorogood describes the trio of female leads as a tribute the women who helped to raise him, as he would spend nights at home during his childhood with his mother and her friends. “They’d smoke and I’d play the piano in the corner and I’d be earwigging, and they seemed so significantly more intelligent, sparky and funny than their husbands – the husbands who had the status, the jobs and the suits. This is the 1970s.

“But these women had so much more to offer, and they were just so much warmer and richer. So I wanted to do a story where they were the central characters.”

Judith, he notes, is based on his grandmother Betty, “who every night at 6pm would have a single glass of scotch, and she kept travel sweets in the glove compartment of her car.” Bex is a “Home Counties” woman who is defined by other people – as a mother, a vicar’s wife – and sets out on a journey to build her own identity.

“Then there’s Suzie, who’s a single mum, and when we were raising our kids, the single mums I knew were just phenomenal people who were able to attend all of the hockey matches and parents evenings’ and also hold down a job and raise their kids,” he says. “When I saw how hard they worked, I thought, ‘I want these people to be heroes of a murder mystery.’ And the fourth person is Tanika, who’s basically my wife and me – the ‘sandwich generation’ raising kids, trying to hold down jobs, looking after our parents and trying to find time for ourselves, to which the answer is there is no time for yourselves.”

When he was creating the story, Thorogood wanted to find a way the amateur sleuths could integrate themselves with Tanika’s official police investigation, rather than having them butt heads as the trio conduct their own enquiries. “I get frustrated when any kind of amateurs are fighting against the police,” he says.

The action unfolds in the titular town of Marlow, where Thorogood himself lives

The answer came in the role of civilian advisers, which some police forces have taken to employing to support their work on particular cases. “And I just thought, well, there’s my fig leaf. So once Tanika begins to realise how effective these women are because they know the town, they know what really makes people tick and they know where the bodies are buried, metaphorically, she brings them in.

“Our amateur sleuths are part of the police force, so you don’t have that awful bit where the police find stuff out, the amateur sleuths find stuff out, and then they talk to each other to share the information – and that’s like the third time the audience has heard that information. Hopefully if you can suspend disbelief enough, it’s three amateur women with the police catching multiple murderers all around Marlow, where in reality there’s never been a murder. The whole thing, hopefully, is one big confection.”

As a resident of Marlow himself, Thorogood found the town to be the perfect setting for the series, and he says residents there were hugely welcoming to director Steve Barron (The Durrells, Mrs Sidhu Investigates), the cast and the production team when filming took place.

It also meant the series could utilise real locations, such as the church and the town council building, which doubled for a solicitor’s office. Marlow is also synonymous with rowing – notable members of Marlow Rowing Club include Olympic champions Steve Redgrave, Katherine Grainger and Paralympic gold medallist Naomi Riches – so some scenes were recorded during the Marlow Town Regatta.

“They had to take a big leap of faith to trust us to film the regatta, and we came along, we filmed and they couldn’t have been more welcoming. It went really well,” Thorogood says. “Now the regatta is very briefly in the TV show and adds such authenticity to it all.

Many of the town’s real locations feature in the series

“Everything was filmed in Marlow or within a mile up the road. That is the church, that is the regatta, that is the high street. There’s Naomi Riches’ gold post box from when she won gold at the Paralympics. So the town of Marlow, when they see the finished version, I hope will see that the whole thing was a love letter to Marlow right from the start.”

Having written The Marlow Murder Club book on his own, Thorogood admits he was “shocked” at the number of plot holes he discovered while pulling the story apart with Monumental executives as they got to work on the adaptation. But their discussions led to new story beats being added to the show, such as a whole backstory attributed to one particular murder weapon.

“It takes them [Judith, Suzie and Bex] to a really excellent, dark and very funny place. None of that would have happened without Monumental actually pushing and poking at the idea and forcing me to be better than I was on my own,” he says.

But having seen so many murders solved in Death in Paradise over 13 seasons (and counting), how can the genre continue to draw in viewers with so many different detectives on television?

“That’s what keeps me up at night,” the writer jokes. “I have found the way it works most successfully over the years is to think of the world of that story, and then you can come up with a murder within it. For example, I remember doing a Death in Paradise episode where I thought, ‘Let’s do a Caribbean radio station’ – it gives you the world and it gives you the characters and the sorts of people you’d imagine there. And that’s where you hope to generate the story and the murders.

The Marlow Murder Club will air on Drama in the UK and Masterpiece in the US

“With The Marlow Murder Club, I very wilfully wanted to have three murders so we could travel around Marlow and introduce a character and a different part of the town per murder. The idea is that by the end of the whole process, you finally get to know these women, you’ve finally been everywhere you need to go in Marlow and everything is locked into place.”

Then when it comes to writing, whether it’s a new book or his latest television script, “I get up really early, like at half five in the morning, and I try to start writing before anyone, myself included, would expect me to have started.

“In TV Land, no one starts ringing you until 10, so if I feel ahead of the curve by seven, eight, nine then I can have a nice day writing. If I get to 9am and I have not written anything, I get into such a panic and funk that I can’t do anything. Another thing that really helps is just deadlines – money and deadlines – but the best thing for a writer is to have a pram in the hallway. When there’s a pram in the hallway, the stakes are really high and I will hit this deadline or we will die. No one eats and the baby dies.”

When you are writing something because you want to watch it on television, however, it’s a considerably easier task. And that’s all Thorogood, a self-declared Agatha Christie fan, says he has ever aimed for.

“This is my jam,” he says. “All I’ve ever tried to do, whether it’s Death in Paradise or anything else, is write the perfect murder mystery. It can’t be done. I know it can’t be done. I’m tilting at windmills, to say the least. But you’re aspiring to make it as fun as possible, as fiendishly clever as possible, as funny as possible, as truthful.”

If viewers respond to The Marlow Murder Club like Thorogood hopes they will, there’s every chance he’ll be plotting more episodes with Judith, Suzie and Bex. And if the series can follow the success of Death in Paradise, there will also be spin-offs (Beyond Paradise), Christmas specials and an Australian adaptation (the upcoming Return to Paradise) in the future.

“I find it overwhelming and humbling in the sense that I genuinely do not feel qualified to have that level of success,” he adds. “For many years I was very unsuccessful. I didn’t have anything on telly until I was 37, and I carry that sense of failure with me in everything I do. So when objectively there appear to be signs of success, I cannot get my head around it, and I have to learn to accept that they are successful. But it feels very un-English.”

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