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Casting couch travesties

May 30, 2020

Back in the mid-2000s I was chatting on the phone one day with a well known British character actress, who was a patron of the charity for which I was working at the time. She mentioned that she’d just come back from Edinburgh where she’d been filming a new series. I asked what it was and she told me: an adaptation of Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre. “I loved that book!” I said. So, it turned out, did she. “That must have been exciting,” I said. Her response was non-committal. “Who’s playing Parlabane?” I asked. “James Nesbitt,” the actress told me. “You’re kidding,” I said, although clearly she wasn’t. “That’s…” I started to say, but couldn’t think of an appropriately diplomatic word. “Unfortunate?” she suggested. I half-heartedly agreed that was the word. She sighed. As did Parlabane fans everywhere when the show aired. Unfortunate wasn’t the word. The word was travesty.

Nothing against James Nesbitt. He’s a perfectly adequate actor who’s given some perfectly adequate performances over the years, but let’s be honest: Parlabane, he ain’t. To start with, he isn’t even fucking Scottish. If there really was a God and he was in a good mood, it pretty much had to be Robert Carlyle, didn’t it? Of course it did.

I mean, had they ever actually read the book? Did they not see the postscript? Admittedly it was printed in invisible ink, but if I could decipher it, so could anyone else. It clearly said:

In case any television producer is every interested in this novel, I assume you’ve already figured out that the only person who should be cast as Jack Parlabane is Robert Carlyle. If he is not available, please choose another of the many fine Scottish actors. Under no circumstances should Parlabane be played by Sylvester Stallone, Danny Devito or James Bloody Nesbitt.”

I remembered that conversation with that actress this week when I read a feature in The Guardian about the top 10 Scottish crime novels. I was quite pleased to see Quite Ugly One Morning included. Not so pleased that they decided to use a photo of Nesbitt to illustrate. Honestly, that gigantic casting cock up should never, ever be acknowledged. Leave us alone to read Parlabane novels, when Brookmyre deigns to produce them (and not just as a sneaky guest appearance, Brookmyre, you enormous tease) with the image of Robert Carlyle planted firmly in our heads.

Of course Parlabane isn’t the only Scottish crime character to have been assaulted on the casting couch.

When I heard that my favourite detective, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus was coming to the telly, I was quite excited – until I found out who was going to be playing him. John Hannah? Are you fucking kidding me? Seriously, don’t get me wrong. I really like John Hannah as an actor. I’ve enjoyed his performances in many, many things. But as Rebus? Oh, no, no, no.

UK television’s first foray into the underworld of Edinburgh were, to be fair (if I must), faithful adaptations of the novels. If you’d never actually read any Rankin, I suppose it was possible to switch the telly off afterwards and say to your husband or wife, “That was quite good, wasn’t it, dear?” But if you had read any Rankin you knew: John Hannah as Rebus was just plain wrong.

Someone at STV obviously got the memo. Rebus-on-telly was retired for several years and when he returned John Hannah was nowhere in the picture.


I think most Rebus fans would agree that Ken Stott is a perfectly fine John Rebus. It’s just unfortunate that second time around the production company decided to squeeze entire novels into a ninety minute programme. So we went from faithful adaptation with the wrong actor to the right actor with at least half the plot missing. It’s true: You really can’t always get what you want.

Casting crimes are not, of course, limited to Scotland. Some of my favourite American detectives have also been pretty badly served.

Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlings? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Or take Harry Bosch, the LA detective created by Michael Connelly. I love Bosch. I was annoyed when I found out that the Bosch series was being made for Amazon prime, a streaming service I do not have (or want). I was less annoyed when I heard who was going to play Bosch: Titus Welliver. Again, fine actor, but, as proven when CTV ran the series as counter-programming to the Olympics on CBC a couple of years ago, not Bosch. Well, not my Bosch. I was trying to think the other day about who could play my Bosch. I was coming up short when I suddenly wondered: James Gandolfini? Too fat, really (Bosch had, after all, been a tunnel rat during the Vietnam war and probably wouldn’t have gone quite so much to seed), but with the right rough-around-the-edges qualities. Imagine my surprise at discovering, when I was Googling around the other day, that Gandolfini had actually been in discussions with Connelly about playing Bosch when the actor suddenly died in 2013. More of a loss than I’d realised at the time. Welliver’s Bosch can stay on Amazon where I never have to see it. I’ll settle for my Bosch in the novels.

And then there is the ultimate betrayal, the Reacher mystery. No, I’m not referring to the mystery I’ve previously discussed about why women are so captivated by Lee Child’s hero Jack Reacher. That mystery continues to baffle.

What do we know about Reacher? Amongst other things, he’s six foot five, built like a brick shithouse and travels around the US with nothing more than a toothbrush and a bank card (and the clothes on his back). Oh, and of course, irresistible to the ladies. Let’s see… Six foot five, built like a brick shithouse, irresistible to the ladies… Hmm. Who could/should play him on the silver screen? Liam Neeson? Maybe. Vito Mortensen? Yes, that would work. Who couldn’t/shouldn’t play him? Tom Thumb Cruise? No, never. That would be so wrong. It would actually be worse than James Nesbitt playing Jack Parlabane. And yet…

I’ve asked myself this before: Just how much money did Cruise’s production company pay Lee Child to secure the film rights for the Reacher novels? If I’d ever had any doubt that it was all about the money (honestly, what else could it be?) that went out the window earlier this year when I read that Child plans to hand over the writing of future Reacher novels to his brother. Say what? As another Reacher-loving friend commented at the time, that’s just pure bloody avarice. I’m not sure which is worse: putting a pint-sized Reacher on the silver screen or being too bloody lazy to write your own books. In either case, shame on you, Lee.

Okay, casting rant over. If anyone reading this can think of other tragically miscast screen detectives, feel free to use the comments section.

From → Blog

  1. Flavio Galtieri permalink

    Rowan Atkinson as Maigret? I couldn’t watch that for long. Also more recently Marc Warren as Van der Valk. Probably because I’m so old I remember the originals…I have, however, watched all 60 episodes of Bosch during the lockdown and thought they were great so I’m clearly confused!

    • Oddly enough, as skeptical as I was going in, I didn’t mind Atkinson as Maigret. Don’t know the Van Dar Balk books (should I?), so can’t comment on casting. If you’ve never read the Bosch series, I’m sure Titus was fine.

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