BBC Radio 4

    Foreign Bodies - The Martin Beck Killings

    Editors note: This week Radio 4 begins The Foreign Bodies series on Radio 4 and the dramatisation of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's 10-book series featuring detective Martin Beck and his colleagues in the National Police Homicide Department in Stockholm starts on Saturday 27th October 2012. Here producers Sara Davies and Mary Peate blog on bringing the characters to life.

    Ah, another Scandinavian detective series: just what the world needs, you might be forgiven for thinking. And, before discovering Martin Beck, we would probably have lined up on that side of the fence. But when two experienced radio writers independently approach two drama producers, raving about a 10-book series written nearly 50 years ago, then it's probably worth taking a look. When Katie Hims and Jennifer Howarth brought their Martin Beck proposals to us, neither of us knew the series, other than for its appearances on those literary lists of 'Best Police Procedurals' or '10 Most Influential European Detective Series'.

    So we each started reading, and each became more and more intrigued by Martin Beck and his team of flawed, overworked, generally well-intentioned and all-too-human detectives at police HQ, Stockholm. At which point the then new Controller of Radio 4 (Gwyneth Williams) announced her passion for European crime fiction, the network put its two writers and producers together, and a small but undeniably perfectly formed team was created.

    We quickly realised that we were dealing with the basis, not only of much Scandinavian detective fiction, but a good deal of British crime writing as well. The ten books came with introductions by writers at the top of their game: Val McDermid, Henning Mankell, Nicci French, Colin Dexter, all acknowledging their debt to these two deadpan Swedish Marxists.

    Once the series of ten was commissioned, we knew we had to find the right Martin Beck, someone who would understand odd, slightly flat, understated power of the character. He's not a flash operator, or a particularly tough nut. He's dogged and taciturn, and quite anti-social and often has a cold. He's sympathetic to the underdog, and a harsh judge of humbug and hypocrisy. Steven Mackintosh was exactly the right actor.

    We often do our casting quite close to the recording in Radio Drama; actors can't commit very far in advance to what is usually a short period of work in case a more substantial, more lucrative job comes up which would make them unavailable. Agents are rarely keen to book their clients up far in advance. So, convinced that Steven Mackintosh was our perfect Beck, we offered him the part only a few weeks before our studio dates and then had to wait a tense couple of days, praying that Steven would agree to do it, which after an anxious phone call to check we weren't doing it in Swedish accents, he did. It may seem crazy that we get so far in the process, with everything set up - studio and crew booked, scripts ready, transmission date fixed - without having our leading actor in place, and it can be quite hairy, but in this case we were blessed with the Martin Beck of our dreams.

    And so it went on: Neil Pearson was to be Kollberg, perfect apart from one major flaw - too thin - doesn't matter on radio. And on: Ralph Ineson, Adrian Scarborough, Russell Boulter for the rest of the murder squad, great guest leads like Justin Salinger and Beth Goddard all ably supported by the enormously talented Radio Drama Company actors. All of them made our job very easy and extremely pleasurable. It didn't feel like work at-all.

    Now we're gearing up to record the next 5 books in the Martin Beck series in the New Year and we're looking forward to seeing what listeners make of the first 5 dramatisations. Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on using #bbcforeignbodies.

    • Dramatisation of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's 10-book series featuring detective Martin Beck and his colleagues in the National Police Homicide Department in Stockholm starts on Saturday 27th October 2012.
    • Listen to the opening moments of Roseanna, the first Martin Beck novel - here.
    • Take a journey through Beck's Sweden.
    • Mark Lawson presents a history of modern Europe through literary detectives in Foreign Bodies which is also available as a free download.
    • Listen to recent and archive interviews of Crime Writers from Front Row.
    • Watch the television trail for the Martin Beck Killings series.

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