In the summer of 1992 they were all in the Crimea: Daniel Craig, his Bond days far ahead of him, Brian Cox, Paul McGann and David Ashton, the actor and writer, who is telling me about it over lunch in London. Sometimes your life changes without you knowing it, and filming the TV movie Sharpe’s Eagle was one of those times.
He’d known Cox before, but not well. Over six weeks in the Ukraine, that changed. They became friends. It helped that they were both Scots, and both non-smokers, and maybe it helped too that the six weeks became 12 when McGann, playing Sharpe, tore a ligament playing football in a tackle with a producer. They had to film it all again, this time with Sean Bean in the lead role as Bernard Cornwell’s eponymous swashbuckling rifleman from the Napoleonic wars.
Still, I say, 12 weeks working abroad. Can’t be too bad, can it? He looks up at me quizzically from a massive plateful of mussels. “Getting up at six, sometimes earlier. Travelling two hours to a location in a minibus that didn’t have any springs with drivers who had been at the vodka early on and used to cut off the engine as we went downhill to save petrol. Aye, it had its moments.” And if that makes him sound bleakly crabbit, let me add straight away that he’s just the opposite: great company, with bags of thespy anecdotes (the best, sadly, off the record).
Even two decades back, Ashton’s career had started to run on two tracks. There was the acting, of course, and he’d done well at it since leaving his native Greenock, where his father was a communist shipyard engineer and his mother a cinema usherette: his second house in France was proof enough of that. But though he’d continue to play a series of distinguished-looking coves (the First Sea Lord in Tomorrow Never Dies, the lawyer in House Of Mirth, Major Roddy in Hamish Macbeth, James McAvoy’s doctor father in The Last King Of Scotland), his second career as a writer was starting to take over.
He’d already won a Radio Times Drama Award for Two Ladies At The Zoo in 1985, his first ever play for Radio 4, and had broken into writing for television too (if you can remember Michelle and Lofty getting married in EastEnders or early episodes of Casualty, you will have been watching his work). In 1999, he was commissioned by BBC2 to write a play called The Other Side. And again, just like that summer in the Ukraine seven years earlier, his life started to change without him realising it.
The play starred Frank Finlay as Arthur Conan Doyle in old age and Richard E Grant as a young man who claimed that he was the real Sherlock Holmes, and that Doyle was his father. As part of Ashton’s research, he listened to interviews with Doyle (“a strangely pitched, not very credible and half-anglicised voice”) and looked up everything he could find on Holmes. He kept coming across mentions of a man called McLevy as being a possible influence on Conan Doyle’s creation of Holmes. It seemed well worth checking out. McLevy was, after all, the very first detective in the Edinburgh police force, where he started work in 1830. Better still, he had written two volumes of memoirs. Their titles alone would intrigue anyone: The Curiosity Of Crime In Edinburgh and The Sliding Scale Of Depravity. What playwright could possibly resist ordering up those from the British Library stacks?
“I waited ages,” he tells me, “and I’ll always remember the guy who brought them up. He had long, grey, lanky hair, rimless glasses and an incredibly thin face. And he was carrying these two books like they were a votive offering.”
He was slightly disappointed when he read them. There were murders, but not the kind you could twist into a plot: more like the ones real life actually produces: random acts of violence unmotivated by anything more than drunkenness. The other crimes McLevy investigated on Edinburgh’s streets seemed to be similarly narrow – pickpocketing, prostitution, pimping, fighting – and were easily solved. All McLevy, a farmer’s son from Armagh, seemed to be doing was keeping the streets safe for the city’s bourgeoisie.
“There was something there all the same. I saw the kernel of a character I could write about, someone who really fancied himself. And then I came across other references from the criminals of the time, how their greatest fear was that Jamie McLevy was after them. And I thought ‘I can do something with this.’”
He also knew exactly who he’d like to have in the lead role.
Before Cox came on board, the BBC weren’t particularly interested. After he did – and also when Siobhan Redmond took on the second most important role as Jean Brash, the owner of the Leith brothel who is also McLevy’s friend and confidante, they couldn’t get enough. The McLevy series has now been commissioned for the past ten years by Radio 4 – 27 hours, an almost unheard-of amount for a drama series – and there are still another two series to go.
Since 2005, the McLevy stories have also branched off into novels. Writing his first one, Ashton admits, was petrifying. “Somehow, up to that point, maybe I was an actor playing the part of a writer, but I realised when I took on this commission that I had to do it properly, and that if I didn’t I would be shown up.”
So far there have been four McLevy novels, and they’ve done reasonably well for him, especially as e-books, where he has topped Amazon’s historical fiction charts. In the first, Shadow Of The Serpent, Ashton admits: “I put in everything bar the kitchen sink – Queen Victoria, Disraeli, Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign of 1884 and an axe murderer on the loose. Fall From Grace had William Topaz McGonagall and the Tay Bridge Disaster. Trick Of The Light had a touring mesmerism show and Arthur Conan Doyle.”
Ashton’s new novel, Nor Will He Sleep, out next week, has rioting students and a double murder in which Robert Louis Stevenson, back in Edinburgh for his father’s funeral, is somehow involved.
At this point we should declare an interest. For four of the past five years, The Scotsman has commissioned a McLevy story to run over the Christmas holidays. Occasionally he has also sent in a summary of the intended plot to check that he is on the right lines: he works the same way on the novels too, with a 25-page plot précis before he begins writing, and it’s fascinating to see the inner workings of the short story before it gets properly fleshed out.
The key to the success of the McLevy series, however, is usually what’s not in the précis – the dialogue, which somehow sounds of its time even though it slips easily across the centuries. Because he spends so long getting it right, Ashton hates it when actors try to improve on his words.
“With dialogue, Brian will occasionally say ‘Wouldn’t it be better if I said…’, and then he’d see me. And he’d say ‘No, I’m not even going to say it. Just look at that long Greenock face! No, let’s just leave it as it is.”
The two men acted in John Byrne’s Scottish version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, titled Uncle Varick, at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum in 2004. Billy Connolly flew in to see the first night. Two years ago Ashton wrote The Quest For Donal Q, a Scottish updating of Don Quixote, for BBC Scotland. It was Connolly’s first radio play.
You should, I tell Ashton, write a TV version of McLevy in which Edinburgh’s No 1 detective finds himself investigating a crook played by Connolly. In fact, it’s already good enough for television, what with Cox, Redmond and Ashton himself as McLevy’s boss, Inspector Roach. Anyone who made it would surely sell it round the world. A historical drama with a smidgen of sex, a hint of violence, Britain’s most photogenic city, Scotland’s finest actors. What’s not to like?
When, nine years ago, Ashton and Cox were acting in Edinburgh together, they’d sometimes take a stroll round the city, looking at places they could imagine figuring in McLevy’s future small-screen adventures. Stockbridge was always his favourite part, though all of the city appeared far more important and alluring than Greenock ever could.
In his twenties, when he was still working as a bank clerk in the west of Scotland, it was Edinburgh that was always “my kind of place”. And even though he’s lived in London for four decades, it’s Edinburgh that still fills his imagination – a city of dark and light, Jekyll and Hyde, with one of the world’s first detectives sniffing out its hypocrisies, secrets and deepest, darkest desires.
• David Ashton will be talking about Stevenson – The Split Detective with Alanna Knight at the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival, Stirling Highland Hotel, next Sunday at 12.30pm. Tickets £7. Nor Will He Sleep, David Ashton’s new McLevy novel, is published this week by Polygon, £8.99