Peter Robinson reveals the real life Yorkshire locations of Inspector Banks
PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 November 2016
Bestselling crime writer Peter Robinson appeared at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate last year Photo by Charlotte Graham/REX/Shutterstock
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Bestselling crime writer and author of the Inspector Banks series Peter Robinson, tells Tony Greenway why Yorkshire is a thriller of a location for his police detective hero.
Peter Robinson has bumped off quite a few people in the Yorkshire Dales. Not literally, you understand, only in print. As the best-selling author of the Inspector Banks novels — his award-winning Yorkshire-set crime series — he makes sure a dead body turns up sooner rather than later. To be fair, you’re not going to get Robinson’s books mixed up with ‘Midsomer Murders’, where there’s a grisly death every five minutes. But we’re not exactly in warm and cuddly Heartbeat territory here, either.
In Banks’s world, it seems that Yorkshire is a dangerous place to be. ‘I’ve thought about that,’ murmurs Robinson. ‘I’ve heard people say that Colin Dexter — the author of Morse — had murdered the entire population of Oxford in his novels, and that I’ve killed the entire population of the Yorkshire Dales in mine. But I don’t have a lot of killings in my books. If I write a book a year and there are maybe one or two murders in it, I’d say that’s pretty standard for North Yorkshire.’
When a corpse is discovered and a case is opened, Robinson’s hero, Detective Inspector Alan Banks, is called in to investigate. To date, 23 Banks novels and a couple of volumes of short stories have been published across the world, winning both acclaim from critics and numerous crime fiction awards. The latest adventure, When the Music’s Over, was published in the summer and immediately topped the bestseller list while the character has also made a successful transition to television in a series called DCI Banks, starring Stephen Tompkinson, which has become an award-winning ratings hit for ITV.
Robinson is always either working out a story in his head or is busy putting it down on paper, which means there’s roughly a new Banks novel every year (although he does write standalone, Banks-free books, too). So how has the character changed since his debut in 1987? ‘He’s older!’ says Robinson, who was born in Armley, Leeds 66 years ago. ‘And he’s been promoted to Detective Superintendent in this latest one. No-one ever though that would happen.’
In the early days, admits Robinson, the Banks character was very “unformed”. ‘I didn’t have a grasp on what sort of person he was,’ he says. ‘I had a few ideas: his love of music, his marital situation, etc. As time has gone on — and as he has dealt with some of the darker sides of human nature — he has changed and I’ve found out more about him in much the same way you get to know a friend. You don’t know what they’re really like at first, but the more you meet them, the more you talk with them, the more time you spend with them, the more you discover about them.’ Robinson likes Banks. In fact, he likes all his main characters. ‘The ones that keep recurring, at any rate,’ he says. ‘And if I find that I don’t take to a new member of the team, well... they can be transferred — or murdered.’ Which is handy.
On TV, Tompkinson doesn’t really fit the description of the Banks from the books, but Robinson is a fan nevertheless. ‘Stephen is the onscreen character,’ he says. ‘He knows him — and he’s good.’ Yet an author invariably has to make compromises when his creation transfers to the big or small screen, and Robinson is no exception. ‘When they were adapting my books for TV — which they’ve stopped doing now – I got to see the scripts a day or so before they started filming. But that wasn’t for my input. That was for politeness.’
Which means he can’t say to the producers ‘the character wouldn’t do that’ if he notices something he disagrees with in the screen treatments. ‘Well, I could say it,’ he says brightly. ‘But it wouldn’t make any difference! There have been a couple of times when I’ve thought Banks wouldn’t react that way or say that and I’ve mentioned it to them. Luckily Stephen has said that same thing, so they’ve changed it. But that was more because he said so than because I said so! They don’t really want the writer around interfering with things. Having said that, Left Bank Pictures (the production company that makes the show) has been very good to me. I’ve been on set several times and I’m going down to London tomorrow for a screening of the last few episodes of the latest series. I can’t fault them at all.’
After completing a BA honours degree in English literature at the University of Leeds, Robinson went to the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada for an MA in English and creative writing, and then studied a PhD in Toronto. ‘I was writing a dissertation in very academic prose on contemporary British poetry,’ he remembers. ‘So at night I let my hair down by working on a crime novel, which is a completely different kind of writing; much more liberating.’
He chose to set his story in Yorkshire partly because being in Canada made him feel homesick, and ‘it was a way of keeping me in touch when I was a long way away.’ He still has a connection to Canada, dividing his time between homes in Toronto and Richmond in North Yorkshire. ‘The weather is a factor for us, quite honestly,’ he says. ‘In Toronto the weather can be pretty bad, but at least they know how to deal with snow.’
When he completed his first Banks book — A Dedicated Man — he sent a couple of sample chapters and a plot summary to a crime fiction publisher. ‘By the time I heard that they liked it and wanted the whole manuscript, I’d finished my second Banks novel, Gallows View. So I sent them that, too. When I met them they said: “Do you mind if we publish Gallows View first? It’s got more sex and violence in it. It will make more of a splashy beginning”. When you’ve just heard you’re going to get published you say: “Sure!”’
Robinson is a sucker for crime stories, particularly Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels and Raymond Chandler’s pacey Philip Marlowe detective thrillers. As a writer, he would never try to imitate Simenon or Chandler he says (copying Chandler’s style would sound like a pastiche, anyway), but thinks there’s a little bit of Maigret in Banks. ‘I don’t try to imitate Maigret. But he’s a cop like Banks and he can relate to most other people. He’s interested and curious about them and Banks has a lot of those qualities, too.’ Robinson also points to PD James and Ruth Rendell as influences.
Yorkshire has always informed his writing. ‘My father was a photographer called Clifford Robinson,’ he says. ‘In fact he probably had plenty of his pictures published in Yorkshire Life. He used to take me into the Yorkshire Dales and wait for the right light. I’d wait with him, read books and take in the landscape. So my love of Yorkshire goes back to my childhood and teenage years. I decided that I wanted to set my books there as it was the place I felt most strongly about.’
Except, as fans will know, Inspector Banks’s Yorkshire is a tantalising concoction of the real and the imagined. He operates out of the made-up town of Eastvale, which is a blend of Richmond and Ripon. The surrounding countryside is based on several dales, particularly Wensleydale and Swaledale while, for example, the fictional towns of Helmthorpe and Gratly are based on Hawes and Gayle. ‘I do mix it up, so Banks will go to Leeds and York, too,’ says Robinson. ‘But I decided early on to invent my own dale and Eastvale, which gives me the freedom to import bits of various dales that inspire me in some way. I can mess around with the geography and distances. It makes life a bit easier.’
Coming back from Canada, he is frequently amazed at the changes to his hometown of Leeds. ‘We go to Leeds quite often and I still like it as a city, although I don’t think I’d want to live there. When I was growing up there, it wasn’t much of a place. Now it has really come into its own — and really trendy.’
When Robinson is back in UK, he can’t imagine basing himself anywhere other than Yorkshire. ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind living by the sea,’ he says, ‘but Yorkshire has a lovely coast if I ever wanted to move out there. I don’t know that I could handle a very remote, small village, though. For one thing, I don’t drive, so I’d never be able to get very far. And I like the pace of life in Richmond. I can walk to the supermarket, pub and restaurants. And it’s a beautiful view. We look out over Richmond Castle and the hills beyond — and I never get tired of that.’ Case closed.
When the Music’s Over is out now, published by Hodder & Stoughton.
GETTYBest-selling author Peter Robinson
Best-selling author Peter Robinson does not feel he has taken a risk by using the Jimmy Savile and Rotherham sex abuse scandals to inspire his latest novel featuring Yorkshire detective Alan Banks, although he admits some fans could be offended by the disturbing subject matter of When The Music’s Over.
When writing crime fiction I’m always very concerned about giving justice to the victims
It contains two story threads about historical child sex abuse by a fictional radio and TV star, called Danny Caxton, as well as a gang of Asian men grooming vulnerable white teenage girls for prostitution.
“There might be some people who think it is too fresh, that I should not be writing about this,” he admits, “but I hope the way I have done it is sensitive to the feelings of everyone involved. Well, the victims anyway, I don’t really care about the perpetrators.”
With the fifth series of the TV version of his fictional character DCI Banks set to return to ITV with Stephen Tompkinson in the lead role, some might say the 66-year-old author does not need to be taking on such a contentious subject at this stage of an illustrious career spanning three decades.
But he says he was inspired to produce his most contemporary novel to date because of Savile’s connection with Leeds, where he grew up in the 1960s. “Growing up in Leeds everybody thought Savile was a little weird but we had no idea of the extent of what went on.
“Savile used to run the Mecca Locarno Ballroom there and I used to go to it on Saturday mornings when I was in my early teens, and he was around sometimes DJing. “At that time Radio Luxembourg was the only place where you could listen to pop music so every night I was under the bed covers with my transistor radio listening to the Teen and Twenty Disc Club, which was Savile playing the hits.”
Robinson adds: “As far as the grooming thing goes, I never had any connection with what was going on, but I grew up on Leeds council estates and there were girls who could perhaps easily have been taken advantage of; have been exploited.
PHStephen Tompkinson as DCI Banks
“Certainly not all of them – there were some that were as sharp as anyone – but there were some who were vulnerable and I guess the people who groomed them knew how to cherry pick the vulnerable ones.”
Robinson initially planned to write two stories, one about the historical sex abuse and another about a grooming gang, but soon decided both scandals shared the same themes.
“They were both about exploiting and abusing underage girls and in both situations victims had been silenced, with collusion from other people or institutions who might have known what was going on but never said anything and did not follow up on allegations.
“So it became a two-pronged story with the same theme.” Yet even for such an accomplished writer, the 23rd instalment of the Alan Banks series was the hardest to research and finish due its subject matter. “I usually do a Banks novel every year but this one took two years to finish because it’s a hard world to live in when you are writing about that kind of behaviour,” Robinson says.
“Also, when writing crime fiction I’m always very concerned about giving justice to the victims. I don’t want to ever feel that by writing about crime I am exploiting anybody’s suffering. “You have to be very careful that you are not being gratuitous in any way, or that you are not using these terrible experiences that real people went through to titillate people.”
The fictional detective shares Robinson’s love of music, wine and Yorkshire ale and was born out of the author’s homesickness when studying creative writing at the University of Windsor in Ontario in the mid-1970s.
With a desire to write, travel around North America and be close to Detroit’s Motown music, he set off from Leeds to Canada, spending three days travelling as cheaply as possible.
GETTY'When writing crime fiction I’m always very concerned about giving justice to the victims'
After the two-year course he decided to try to write a detective series set in his native Yorkshire, and says: “It made sense to me that if I was going to write a crime novel then I should set it in Yorkshire, so I could indulge my fantasies of being there when I was in the middle of a Canadian winter
. That is how it came about, through that nostalgic longing for home.” The author ended up staying in nearby Toronto after meeting his wife Sheila there. They now divide their time between homes in Richmond, North Yorkshire, and the Canadian city.
From the outset Robinson wanted to make the then Inspector Banks an “ordinary everyman”, rather than a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. “Banks is tough, he can handle himself in most situations, but he also has these slightly eclectic interests,” he says.
“Music is the main one and I wanted to give him a very broad taste in music rather than being obsessed with jazz or Wagner, which I always admit is from my own taste. “I grew up on pop music, rock and jazz, and got into classical later, and Banks reflects that.” T
he author adds: “The main part of myself in Banks is the music. I don’t think I could do his job, be a policeman. I don’t like the sight of blood for a start and he could not do my job because he hates writing reports and hates the administrative side of the job.”
GETTY'I don’t want to ever feel that by writing about crime I am exploiting anybody’s suffering'
Unlike some writers, who struggle to see their creations changed for TV adaptations, Robinson has embraced the ITV drama DCI Banks. After using his novel Aftermath as the basis for its pilot the TV company has employed scriptwriters to create original stories better suited for its 90-minute episodes.
“To be faithful to the novels the TV drama would need to be as long as The Killing, but I think it’s a good TV crime drama as it is – but doing their own scripts,” he suggests. “The novels are very diffi cult to whittle down to 90 minutes of television, but they have considered using a couple of my more recent books, Children Of The Revolution and Watching The Dark.
“It would be interesting to see the new book used for TV. They could use the two story threads for two episodes, that could work but we’ll have to see.”
When The Music’s Over by Peter Robinson (Hodder & Stoughton, £20). Order P&P free in the UK from the Express Bookshop (01872 562310/expressbookshop.co.uk)