Reinventing Rebus

Reinventing Rebus

By James Rampton
May 17, 2024


Ian Rankin’s literary detective John Rebus returns to the screen as a young officer disenchanted by the police and his role in it. DQ visits the Edinburgh set to find out how Rebus tells the story of a man at a crossroads as his personal and professional lives implode.

Shut inside an ambulance, in a dark corner of Edinburgh, one enraged man is attempting to suffocate another, and the homicidal attack is only halted when someone inadvertently opens the ambulance door.

It quickly emerges, however, that the furious would-be murderer is in fact a police officer. DS John Rebus (played by Outlander star Richard Rankin) is trying to kill his arch enemy, the violent criminal mastermind Ger Cafferty (The Serpent’s Stuart Bowman).

Gregory Burke

But who is the real villain of the piece? How can you distinguish between police and thieves?

This is the theme that powers Rebus, a gritty and absorbing detective drama acquired by BBC One from distributor Viaplay Content Distribution after commissioning broadcaster Viaplay pulled out of the UK.

Produced by Eleventh Hour Films, this new adaptation of Ian Rankin’s bestselling novels follows in the footsteps of a previous Rebus series starring John Hannah and then Ken Stott that aired on ITV between 2000 and 2007. But here, in the hands of screenwriter Gregory Burke (Six Four), a young Rebus finds himself at a psychological crossroads.

Increasingly disenchanted with a job that is more and more controlled by corporate technocrats, Rebus feels he no longer has a place in the police service and, as his private and professional lives crumble, he begins to doubt the point of it all. Questioning if the law still has meaning, he starts to think that if everyone is now adhering to the criminals’ set of rules, why shouldn’t he live by them too?

Rebus outlines to his colleagues how the police must behave like criminals in order to defeat them. “There’s rules and there’s laws, right? The law’s whatever society says it is at any given point. The rules are the rules – blood is thicker than water, don’t grass on your friends, an eye for an eye. Criminals follow the rules. Sometimes they need a reminder that the police know the rules too.”

Set in Edinburgh, Rebus is based on Ian Rankin’s detective novels

Burke expands on the inner conflict within Rebus: “As a policeman, it is his job to uphold the law. But he’s also a person who is willing to go beyond the law and to do things where the end justifies the means.”

Rebus is a divided soul, then. And this idea of duality – both in the leading character and his city – runs through the drama like the letters in a stick of Edinburgh rock.

After filming has finished, author Rankin – no relation to series star Richard – tells DQ why the concept of this schism is so key to the series: “Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie tells us she is descended from a real character in 18th century Edinburgh called William Brodie.

Ian Rankin

“By day, he was a gentleman, a member of society, an alderman, a deacon of wrights and a carpenter, but by night he was a thief who would break into your house, usually having fitted the locks to that building. He would steal your valuables and hit you over the head. He was eventually hanged on a scaffold that he had built himself as a carpenter.”

The double life of Deacon Brodie – who has a pub named after him on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and was the subject of an eponymous 1997 BBC One drama starring Sir Billy Connolly – has proved enormously influential in Scottish literature.

Rankin, who is an Edinburgh resident, observes: “As a kid, Robert Louis Stevenson had a wardrobe in his bedroom that had been made by Brodie, and Stevenson’s nursemaid was constantly telling him the story of this guy who was good and evil contained in the same person. That may have been a big influence on Jekyll & Hyde.

“That takes us to Miss Jean Brodie, who informs us she is descended from this guy who is both good and evil. So there’s that thread running through all Scottish literature.”

Furthermore, Rankin argues that dualism is mirrored in the city itself. “Edinburgh structurally has that Jekyll & Hyde thing going on. All cities to an extent are Jekyll & Hyde cities. You find a darker world just beneath the glittering surface.

“But Edinburgh has it physically. The Old Town, which was the original city, got very quickly overcrowded and unsanitary ,so the wealthy decided to build the New Town to the north of what became Princes Street. They built it for themselves so they would be far away from the squalor of the Old Town.”

Played by Richard Rankin, the title character is an uncompromising police officer

Rankin continues: “Stevenson grew up in the New Town but, as a young man, he was very attracted to the fleshpots of the Old Town. He would sneak out of the house and tiptoe up there to consort with vagabonds and prostitutes and drunks.”

The city he lives in, then, presented Rankin with all the inspiration he needed for Rebus. “These two cities were staring me in the face. Edinburgh is still a city that people love to visit. It’s a city of great culture with wonderful buildings.

“But it’s also a city with deep-rooted problems. In the 1980s, when I started the series, we had the worst incidence of HIV in Western Europe. We had a huge heroin injection problem, which was not unconnected to the city’s pockets of deprivation. The first work Oxfam did in the UK was in Edinburgh.”

However, “nobody was talking about that. It was pre-Trainspotting. It was another area that nobody seemed to want to discuss.”

That means Rebus – both in literature and on screen – is the ideal figure to span these very contrasting worlds. “I thought, ‘If I’ve got a cop, he is the perfect fictional character to allow you to move between the different sides of a city.’ You can go from the very bottom to the very top.” He continues. “You can be interviewing drug addicts and prostitutes one minute, and you can be interviewing CEOs and bankers and politicians the next.

“So although I was not a fan of detective fiction – I didn’t read any until I invented Rebus – I decided a detective would be the best character to allow me to undertake this exploration of Edinburgh past and present.”

The series was initially commissioned by Scandi streamer Viaplay but will now debut on the BBC

That divide exists in everyone in the series. “It runs through all the characters,” Burke says. “I’ve tried to maintain that Edinburgh thing of ‘public probity, private vice.’ If you could describe Edinburgh in any way, that would probably be what it is.”

What is fascinating is that despite the fact the very aggressive Rebus frequently oversteps the mark and is a man out of time in this “woke” era, he is nonetheless a highly effective copper.

Burke reflects: “Rebus is the sort of character the institution of the police still needs, even though he’s become very old-fashioned now and a throwback to an older time.

“Rebus is probably a little bit of a dinosaur in his world, but the police still need the guy who criminals can be scared of. It’s not for his own gain. It’s not about corruption. It’s about his very moralistic view of corruption. He actually has a very Presbyterian worldview.”

More than anything else, this compelling new version of Rebus – which debuts on BBC Scotland and BBC iPlayer today before launching on BBC One tomorrow – evokes a very strong sense of place.

“One of the great strengths of the crime story, per se, is that sense of place,” says Rankin. “So if I want to know about any city or culture in the world, I will immediately go for the crime fiction set there.

The drama is produced by Eleventh Hour Films

“All the stories about the history of the place, the politics, the culture of the people, what dreams and ambitions they have, what they like to eat, where they go to drink – I’ll get all of that from the crime fiction. And on top of that, you usually get a very big, meaty moral conundrum that the reader tries to solve as the story progresses.”

So Edinburgh plays as big a part in Rebus as any human being. “Wherever you go in Edinburgh,” Burke adds, “you get these iconic locations. It is really cinematic and really dramatic. It’s beautiful and Gothic. You have the wonderful light on the Firth of Forth and the amazing skies.

“But it is also this divided city. The rationality of the New Town during the Enlightenment is right next to the medieval Old Town and all that debauchery and vice that went on there.”

Jekyll & Hyde to its very core.

tagged in: , , , , , ,