Ian Rankin is a happy man. We are in one of his favourite pubs. From our position in the snug of Bennets Bar in Tollcross we are watching the filming of Doors Open, ITV’s adaptation of his bestseller of the same name, which stars Douglas Henshall and Stephen Fry.
It’s a hugely atmospheric boozer – all warming log fires, giant gilded mirrors, elegant wooden tracery, extensive single-malt whisky menus and tables inlaid with maps of Edinburgh. We are stationed next to a bookcase, where the first novel to catch my eye is – you’ve guessed it – Doors Open.
Looking dreamily into the middle distance, Rankin remembers how he found this place. “This was the first Edinburgh pub I drank in. I was sharing a flat with a mate from school who was studying architecture. His first project was about this pub. So we’d move in here every night and do research.”
As content as he is today, Rankin, 52, won’t be rushing to spend a lot more time on film sets. He is used to the solitary, but fairly straightforward process of writing – where it’s just one man and his word processor. So he has been taken aback by the sheer complexity of a big film production – which is more like a hundred people and a million gadgets.
Rankin, best known for his Rebus novels, says the filming process is a mystery to him. “Writing a book, I get no sense of just how difficult it is to organise a shoot. I did my first individual cameo yesterday. I played a man at an auction house chatting to Stephen Fry. I had to wear a suit. Luckily I have one that I wear to weddings and funerals, but it was still odd.
“Initially, the filming was quite exciting. But we ended up doing my scene about 15 times – and they never told us why we had to redo it. It was like being Charlie Watts who once said that being in the Rolling Stones was a case of playing for five years and hanging around for 45 years.”
Hanging around aside, Rankin is delighted that ITV have turned his novel into a TV drama, which will be broadcast on Boxing Day. His Rebus novels have already been made into a series of memorable TV films, starring John Hannah and then Ken Stott. So what is it about Rankin’s writing that lends itself so well to the small screen? Gina Carter, the executive producer of Doors Open, says plot has a lot to do with it. “Ian writes incredibly entertaining books. They’re real page-turners. You get completely engrossed in them. Also, Doors Open is about a victimless crime that doesn’t require any blood or death, which is a great part of its charm.”
Jon Finn, the producer of Doors Open, which is scripted by James Mavor and Sandi Toksvig, chimes in, “Ian’s work is a gift for any screenwriter. He has that quality that all great thriller writers have: you endlessly want to keep turning the pages. Reading his novels is like visiting an old friend.”
Doors Open tells the story of Mike Mackenzie (Henshall), a self-made millionaire who is bored by his cosseted lifestyle. When he learns that the love of his life, Laura Stanton (Lenora Critchlow from Being Human) – an art expert who ditched him five years ago - has returned to Edinburgh, he hatches a plot to win her back.
After a night drinking in their local – stand up Bennets Bar – Mike and his close friends, disgruntled art academic Professor Gissing (Fry) and disillusioned banker Allan Cruickshank (Kenneth Collard, The Borgias), plot and scheme how they will pull off an audacious crime.
They aim to con one of the most high-value targets in the country – a national bank’s priceless art collection which is hidden away from public view in a high-security vault.
The idea is to replace the invaluable works of art with undetectably exact forgeries. They intend to execute this fiendishly clever conceit on the one day of the year Edinburgh’s buildings of special interest are open, thanks to the “Doors Open” scheme. What could possibly go wrong?
Finn reveals that the production created its own counterfeit paintings for the drama. “In making the fakes, we stole bits from all over the place – in the style of Picasso. He had a saying that good art is a copy, great art is a steal. So we knocked off a genius.”
The conspirators in Doors Open view their act as “freeing” timeless works from their private seclusion. In the pub, Gissing rationalises their plan to his collaborators: “We’re not stealing. We’d be liberating them.”
“You mean like a heist?” Allan ripostes. “Like The Italian Job?”
“Yes, sort of,” Gissing rejoins. “But less Italian. And less jobby.”
Finn explains, “Most national galleries only display three per cent of their collection at any one time. They have so many spare Warhols lying around. The depositories are in inconspicuous suburban areas, so no one knows this stuff is just lying around there.”
So is there some moral justification for the plan? Rankin adds, “Gissing is exasperated by the way in which art is treated as a commodity by these institutions. They do not display these great works of art, but keep them as collateral.
“Banks own huge collections that are kept locked away out of public view. And the National Galleries north and south of the Border have more art than they can ever show. It’s very frustrating because it’s ours!”
It is not an entirely black and white issue, though. As Rankin says, “It’s quite complex. Are they freeing these works or are they greedy sods who just want to hold onto these works for themselves?”
Joining our table at Bennets Bar, Henshall takes up the theme.
“There’s not a great deal of logic to Mike’s plan. In a sober moment, you would say that it is illogical and stupid, but at that moment in the pub, it makes complete sense.
“It may be stupid, but there’s also a lot of nobility in his quest. So much of the best art is hidden away in cellars and not shown to the public. It’s not bought by people who love art – it’s merely purchased as an investment. But great art should be for the people and seen by the people. I hope that viewers will be rooting for Mike. He’s a very sympathetic character.”
Henshall says the cast had a great time getting dressed up for the heist.
“We went for retro disguises. So I looked like someone from a 1970s Norwegian rock band, and Kenneth looked like the Portuguese rep for Nandos.”
Of course the other major character in Doors Open is Edinburgh. 47-year-old Henshall, dapper with his swept-back blond hair, white shirt and immaculately cut black overcoat, says, “The producers were determined to shoot here – they didn’t want to film anywhere else.
“Edinburgh is so specific looking, and it’s such a photogenic place. 2000 years of history have gone into this city. If you’re a director of photography, Edinburgh is a dream because the light is amazing and everywhere you look, there is a great shot. I’m not nationalistic in any way, shape or form, but I’m absolutely delighted it’s being filmed here. I can’t imagine it being shot anywhere else.”
The actor, well-known for his roles in Primeval, Collision, The Silence and The Secret of Crickley Hall, adds that Bennets Bar is the ideal location for the drama’s crucial planning scene. “There are so few bars like this nowadays. Everything is an O’B*llocks fake Irish pub. It’s nice to find somewhere like this with genuine character.”
Finn agrees, “Edinburgh is the most distinctive city in the UK.
“You can’t fling a camera at it without it looking fantastic. It’s a city built around monuments. The buildings are spectacular, and the hills give it layers. In places, it’s like an Escher drawing – one road going this way and one road going that way.”
Carter adds, “Edinburgh is so filmic. It’s a very rare combination of elements. You have both a massive castle and rolling hills in the city centre. You don’t get that in Oxford Street in London. Also, Ian writes about Edinburgh so beautifully.”
In his novels, Rankin has certainly always been fascinated by the duality of Edinburgh, and Doors Open gives him another chance to explore that. “In the crime novels, I’m always talking about the underbelly of Edinburgh,” he says. “This book allowed me to talk about the other Edinburgh, the Edinburgh in which self-made millionaires go to auction houses for something to do. There are not many self-made millionaires in my crime novels.”
Expanding on the concept of the city’s ambiguity, he says, “Structurally, Edinburgh is Jekyll and Hyde. It’s a city of haves and have-nots. Are the tourists seeing the real Edinburgh or what the city fathers want them to see?”
He believes that Edinburgh is a constant source of inspiration to writers, “The city continues to surprise. So many authors are writing about it because it shows so many different facets to us all. If I’d made sense of Edinburgh, I’d have stopped writing about it by now.
“But I’m always finding new things to talk about. Every time you think you’ve done it, something else comes along like the Parliament, the financial crisis or the trams. I have a love-hate thing with Edinburgh. But I have no interest in writing about London. I’ve never found a place I want to write about more than Edinburgh.”
Another element that makes Doors Open so watchable is that it pivots on a heist. Carter says, “There is a certain caper-ish element to a heist that we all enjoy. Look at films like The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven or The Ladykillers.
“Also, you can’t do a heist on your own because that’s just robbery.
So a heist will inevitably involve lots of different people. That makes it engaging because you’re following all these different characters. It’s a terrific ensemble vehicle. Heist dramas are thrillers, chases, ‘will they, won’t they?’s and big set pieces all rolled into one. They tick all the boxes for great entertainment.”
Finn says that the characters have gelled so well in Doors Open that he could envisage a further life for them. “I’d love to do another drama with these characters. It would be great fun. What could they do next? How about breaking into Fort Knox like Goldfinger?”
Henshall lives in London these days, but he has relished working in Scotland on Doors Open. It has also given him the chance to catch up with his beloved St Mirren.
“We’re the only team that have ever sacked Sir Alex Ferguson,” he says. “That sums up our history in one easy sentence. Our victories are always hard won, and therefore much more enjoyed. It’s usually us and someone else very bad fighting relegation – which adds a certain drama to the season. That’s better than mid-table mediocrity. Who wants that?”
Doors Open used a real-life Glasgow repository to film the key heist sequence, a factor that invests the production with extra verisimilitude. Carter recalls, “We shot in the Museums Resource Centre, where three national collections are stored. Everything is there, from 19th century masterpieces to modern sculptures and African art. There are also racks and racks of great Scottish paintings. It’s stunning. But as you can imagine, there were a lot of security guards keeping their eyes on us all the time when we were filming there.”
Henshall says with genuine awe, “I didn’t know places like that existed. But great collections can’t show all their work all the time, and it has to be kept somewhere. These wonderful paintings just appeared from drawers. There was a wee Renoir in there that I was particularly fond of.”
A pause and a wry grin. “But I think they might have missed it.”
Doors Open is on STV on Boxing Day at 9pm.