Investigating the appeal of Capital's thief taker

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TOP PERFORMERS: Siobhan Redmond with Paul Bettany, and Brain Cox with Rose Byrne

HE is the original Edinburgh detective. The man who made the people of the Capital feel safe more than a century before Inspector Rebus trudged on to the pages of a crime novel.

Intelligent, determined and never suffering fools gladly, James McLevy had the reputation every detective craves – for always getting a conviction.

The Leith policeman, known as the thief taker, would long ago have been forgotten were it not for the memoirs he wrote after retiring from the force in the 1860s.

The Curiosities of Crime in Edinburgh, The Sliding Scale of Life and The Disclosures of a Detective inspired a series of novels which became a Victorian publishing sensation, and still sell today.

The enduring appeal of McLevy is perhaps nowhere clearer than in a radio studio in East Lothian where Hollywood star Brian Cox is bringing him to life. Cox and his co-star Siobhan Redmond have just finished recording another instalment of McLevy for Radio Four. It is the softer side behind the no-nonsense exterior of the Victorian policeman which has Cox hooked.

The hard-bitten detective it turns out is a quiet romantic at heart, enjoying an enduring love-hate relationship with whore-house madam Jean Brash.

"They have a platonic love relationship together," explains Brian. "They never do anything but they are kind of enamoured as well as angry with one another. It's a great banter they've got."

A veteran of more than 50 films, he has every reason to enjoy McLevy – the policeman's radio persona is not unlike his own, having been created especially for him by his friend, the writer David Ashton.

"David wrote it with me in mind so a lot of it plays to the same character traits I have, such as his intolerance for certain things," says Brian. "It's a great role, a very rich character who just gives you so much. He's incredibly well read, very smart and self taught – and I suppose, in that sense, we're very similar because I'm self taught."

The 62-year-old actor – whose first job after leaving drama school in 1965 was at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre – says it is roles like this that still inspire him today, rather than the blockbuster appearances in, among others, the three Bourne films and X-Men 2.

That is why he's happy to have spent the last 16 days in a studio in Pencaitland, once again immersing himself in McLevy.

"I just look for scripts that are going to be challenging and that have an original sensibility," says Brian. "I balance it with doing the epic films that keep the wolf away from the door. I love doing work which is of a high quality, is well written and is much smaller."

McLevy producer Patrick Rayner, the head of radio drama at BBC Scotland, says it has certainly been challenging getting the cast together once more. Indeed, having secured New York-based Brian, Siobhan and their regular co-stars, it was decided to record series five and six at the same time. The next instalment is scheduled to go out in December, while it will be another year before series six goes out on the airwaves.

To Patrick, the continuing appeal of McLevy – the "original Edinburgh detective" – is a no-brainer and he believes it will remain a Radio Four staple for years to come.

"It's a very Edinburgh story," says Patrick. "People love the Victoriana of it. A lot of the incidents and the topography of Leith and the stories of the time are meticulously researched from newspapers and a lot of it is rooted in the real city."

In the coming two series, as disasters, tragedies and mysteries unfold, listeners can expect the tension between Jean and McLevy to continue. Emotions also run high as McLevy, a man who likes to be in control at all times, becomes infatuated with someone unexpected.

"I think they are very good stories of detection," adds Patrick, explaining why he believes the show regularly attracts 750,000 listeners. "The characters are beautifully designed. McLevy is very interesting and then you've got a very glamorous whore mistress and the rest of the colourful low and upper life characters."

Siobhan, who plays the glamorous whore mistress, agrees and says she loves getting to grips with feisty Jean, who just can't resist becoming embroiled in the thick of it.

"I like Jean, I like her cheek and I like the fact that she's made a success of herself," enthuses Siobhan. "I like how she annoys McLevy and I love David's writing and working with this core group of actors.

"As long as David wants to carry on writing it and the BBC wants to carry on making it, I'll be very happy to go on being Jean."

Siobhan is also delighted to be spending time in her New Town flat as she takes a break from playing Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Globe theatre in London.

Recording McLevy so near Edinburgh – many of the previous shows were made at the Maida Vale Studios in London – has also helped when it has come to getting into character.

"It's always preferable to be here as you feel that you're going back to the places where the stories are set of an evening," says Siobhan, who is known as Red to her friends.

While the 48-year-old is a regular on prime time TV – she has appeared in Holby City, Between The Lines and New Tricks to name just a few – she admits people find it difficult to place her.

"For some reason they always think they recognise me from Taggart which I did one episode of in its first incarnation and haven't done again," laughs Siobhan.

"I think maybe a lot of people think I'm their cousin or that I've sat next to them on a bus before but I'm quite happy with that."

Now that McLevy has finished recording, Siobhan plans to spend some time enjoying festival shows before returning to the bustle of London.

Although she is currently single, if past form has anything to go by, if Siobhan spends long enough in the Capital, that might change.

"I seem to have fallen in love in Edinburgh rather than in other places," she jokes. "I did worry that if I were ever to live here that would take away the special feeling that I have about it – but it hasn't so far."

Brian too is enjoying being in Scotland and is looking forward to a holiday here after what has been a punishing film schedule.

In recent weeks, while making his latest movie The Good Heart, he has visited Ireland, Iceland and the Dominican Republic.

Not having the heart to destroy an illusion, he now plans to take his sons Orson, six, and four-year-old Torin to Loch Ness where they will go searching for the monster.

In last year's blockbuster The Water Horse, Brian played the narrator who told how, as a child, he explored the deep while riding on the back of a sea monster.

"My sons are desperate to see the Loch Ness monster," he says. "They were completely blown away by the film and they said 'daddy, did you really ride that thing when you were young' and, well I just told them that I got very wet."


THE son of an Irish farmer, when the real James McLevy first moved to Edinburgh he was a builder's labourer before becoming a Leith policeman in 1830.

Three years later, he achieved the rank of detective and in his 30 year career he handled more than 2200 cases.

Renowned for his high success rate – it was said he always secured a conviction – McLevy eventually rose to the rank of detective inspector.

After he retired in the 1860s, McLevy wrote his memoirs which he called Curiosities of Crime in Edinburgh, The Sliding Scale of Life and The Disclosures of a Detective.

The stories were later published as a series of novels that were popular in Victorian times and are thought to have inspired Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

BBC Radio Four broadcast its first 45-minute James McLevy radio play in 1999 and the programmes were so successful that over the next three years a further 12 episodes were broadcast.

McLevy, who also goes by the nickname the Thief Taker, was last brought to life by Brian Cox in 2003.