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Foreign Bodies - The Martin Beck Killings

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Fiona Hodge 09:00, Thursday, 25 October 2012

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.

The Martin Beck Killings - behind the scenes

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 twitter.com 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Really looking forward to this series, first read them back in the 70's, still
    have the first 2 hardbacks I bought in the series.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm listening to The Martin Beck Killings right now. I had to stop doing everything to listen as it's riveting. Even the phone's turned off! The actors are superb, it's better than TV. Well done everyone involved in this.

  • Comment number 3.

    Having just listened to the first Martin Beck I can honestly say that it is the best of it's genre currently on the radio. I am a Radiohead; an avowed fan of radio in an age of visual entertainment - not a fan of the band (although I do appreciate their music too). My preference has somewhat rubbed off on my husband, but he's still a Tellyhead. Yet, even he was gripped by your Martin Beck. We sat together listening. He said he enjoyed the detailed, methodical treatment. I enjoyed its stark linear iteration. Free of embellishment. A thick slice of quality detective fiction. Bravo.

  • Comment number 4.

    Very good! Some quiet and seemingly decent types can be struggling to contain the demon within. An apparent chance encounter with the police woman in a tight top unleashed the demon. Alcohol and a peculiar walk - like a zombie - a changed man. Good direct questioning by the American cop, Kafka. The large stash of pornography and the cut up pictures of woman tells us something about this type of sex criminal. Looking forward to exercising my little grey cells on the next one: "Close your eyes my friend instead of opening them wide. Use the eyes of the brain not of the body."

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm sorry, I've been moved to register so I can comment on the first episode: it was awful. The knowing double-person narrative in the present tense is patronising and excruciating to listen to. It’s true the ‘knowingness’ is in the original, but it could either have been dramatised with far more sophistication or left out. Moreover, while the originals are definitely dated, your dramatist(s) have created the most banal, the most ordinary of texts from them. Therefore, very unfortunately, the listener is now bored witless by the wooden Martin Beck character (which never happens in the books). It’s the inadequate quality of writing that is letting down so many many BBC radio productions these days.


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