George Baker with Ruth Rendell and Christopher Ravenscroft..

Profiling Ruth Rendell

A documentary series from Cactus TV featuring profiles of Britain’s finest contemporary crime writers.


Introduction

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To introduce you to Reg Wexford is a little bit difficult because I would really have to introduce you to Ruth Rendell because she takes so much of life and puts it into Wexford.

George Baker

I decided that he should be less tough, less in that rather old fashion tradition of a tough cop and become more sensitive, more liberal.

Ruth Rendell

I think if you’re pitching Wexford to a TV company these days, it would be, it’s an old-fashioned copper who’s out of touch and he’s desperately trying to deal with the modern world.

Ian Hyland

He finds himself knowing that he’s going to have to change, but saying, I’m a little too old to change.

George Baker

I didn’t know that he would become a series character and in fact, become a popular detective.

Ruth Rendell

[Scene from Simisola 1996]

Wexford:
We have two murder victims, one attempted murder victim, one girl missing who could be dead by now. So we have a potential murderer at large.

It’s always very difficult when you try and typecast an individual of a senior role as to how much hands-on you give them, because of course, the more senior you become, the less hands-on you become. And she managed to create that by having more of a specialist team that he would work around.

Mark Billingham

He is very much about bringing back order into the world. That’s the motif that comes back again and again in her books. He is the one who will restore the order which is missing. That single act of crime has ripped the fabric of society. He will—in the fictional town of Kingsmarkham—he will re-establish it.

Barry Forshaw

[Scenes from Simisola 1996]

Ingrid Pamber:
Mr Wexford!
Wexford:
Oh god.
Dora Wexford:
Who was that?
Wexford:
I’ll tell you later. Miss Pamber …
Ingrid Pamber:
Come and share our table.

Wexford’s not glamorous, but then that was my idea. I didn’t want him to be I wanted him to be the kind of man that men would identify with and women would fall in love with. And that has happened. One woman wrote to me—this is quite a long time ago—I won’t say she was mad, but it was very odd and asked me if I would kill Wexford’s wife so that she could marry him. And that, you’ve got to admit, is a very strange attitude.

Ruth Rendell
Dora Wexford:
That girl, she was flirting with you.
Wexford:
Well, I have no rational explanation.
Dora Wexford:
Who is she?
Wexford:
She’s a murder suspect.

Wexford is unusual among coppers, literary coppers, and the TV adaptations. Inasmuch as he’s not troubled. He has a supportive wife.

Barry Forshaw

It’s a nice touch in Wexford that you actually see Dora and see that he’s got a nice wife who supports him.

Ian Hyland

I also decided that he should not be in that grand tradition of detectives and have a very unhappy marriage and a divorce impending and rather unattractive, boring girlfriends, but that he should be married and remain married.

Ruth Rendell
Wexford:
If I was having an affair, how long would it take you to guess?
Dora Wexford:
Ten minutes? Fifteen if you were very clever, let’s say ten.

I always felt that she was his strength in the background. She was always there. She was always calm. You never had a scene with Dora getting upset.

Louie Ramsay
Wexford:
I’ve been riddling like a fish on a hook in front of the whole team. Frightening. Partly because I made a mistake. A mistake which contributed to her death. A murder…
Dora Wexford:
Reg, you can’t blame…
Wexford:
And partly because of the breakup of the family.

Dora hasn’t got a very great deal to do with solving the crime or the mysteries, but what she has got to do with is being there and holding the family together.

George Baker

I never felt that Dora was contributing a huge amount, but she listened. And quite a good role to be a good listener, I think.

Louie Ramsay

[Sound of Wexford channel-hopping]

Dora Wexford:
Penny for them?

George and his wife, who is his wife, of course, Dora in the series are good friends of mine.

Ruth Rendell

Ruth was very careful about which scenes were set in the bedroom and why. They made sense a man and wife would have those scenes.

George Baker

Yes, it was just a time for them to be quiet and not with people and not with family.

Louie Ramsay

[Scene from Harm Done 2000]

Wexford:
I very often feel sorry for murderers when they show remorse. I can imagine being one being one of them, being a murderer. What must it be like to be a paedophile?

The lovely thing was that as Ruth started to write the new Wexfords, Dora got more and more from Ruth.

Louie Ramsay

In the book, which is called Road Rage, in which Dora is kidnapped, I think readers see a side of Wexford that they perhaps haven’t seen before. That is his passionate devotion to his wife. He is horrified by what has happened to her and well, I’m rather proud of his rescue of her and the scene between them when she comes home.

Ruth Rendell

Burden

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[Scenes from Simisola 1996]

Wexford:
Where’s your friend today?
Gary:
Go on, slip your kit off. I wouldn’t mind giving her one.
Burden:
We’re talking to you too.
Gary:
Is that right?
Wexford:
Chief Inspector Wexford.
Gary:
Who’s he, Dr Watson?

As a writer you need characters and you need characters who are contrasting. And Wexford and his sidekick are perfect like that. I mean, it is the old, old story. It’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. It’s Morse and Lewis.

Gyles Brandreth

As Wexford is tolerant and liberal, so Burden was rather prudish and prim.

Ruth Rendell

Burden is buttoned up. Hasn’t really much horizon.

George Baker

The discussions or arguments he has with Burden sometimes involve that. Because Burden is very much more right-wing than Wexford. And I think he is far more old-fashioned than Wexford, though younger.

Ruth Rendell

What’s interesting now is I think she’s using the detective format to say things that she thinks are important.

P.D. James

Wexford is my mouthpiece for social issues.

Ruth Rendell
Burden:
Dr Akand telephoned.
Wexford:
A-K-A-N-D-E.
Burden:
I liked doctors best when they were called Finley and Cameron.
Wexford:
Did he say what it was about?
Burden:
Personal between you and him he said.
Wexford:
I think that may be racist.
Burden:
What?
Wexford:
Preferring you’re doctor Scottish to Nigerian.
Burden:
I’m not racist. All Scotsmen look the same to me.

This is the marvellous thing about Ruth Rendell. Because while they are on different sides of politics, each one respects the other’s ideas. And quite frankly, if that went on a little bit more in life, we would be much better off.

George Baker

Kingsmarkham

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I created a fictional town because I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought that that book From Doon with Death with Wexford in it would be a one-off.

Ruth Rendell

Kingsmarkham is any market town, really.

George Baker

She took Kingsmarkham, which you would think is part of that pastoral English setting you sometimes get in crime or used to get in a traditional English crime novel. But she allowed Kingsmarkham to grow and to change and to evolve as the 20th century and the 21st century evolved.

Ian Rankin

The town of Kingsmarkham has grown and developed and is, I think, like a contemporary town. It has large housing estates that have sprung up around it. Its petty crime has increased.

Ruth Rendell

[Scene from Simisola 1996]

Wexford:
Half of them are empty. The council is saving up to blow this lot up.
Burden:
If Mrs Khoori gets elected they can have an explosion sponsored by the Crescent supermarkets
Wexford:
If the BNP get in, they’re going to leave the people in and then blow it up.

I picked this place in Sussex and I really don’t know why anymore. But now, of course, it does give me the opportunity to describe a town as I think it would have developed. It would be like that now, as far as I can tell.

Ruth Rendell

London

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She not only changed Kingsmarkham to make it a sort of dormitory town for a bigger city nearby and to tackle things like immigration policy or to tackle new roads being built and what that can do to a town. But then also when she writes about London she writes very well about London and about the changes that what London does to people who live there and about the dispossessed who live there.

Ian Rankin

I’ve been walking around London since forever. I walk about London every day, even in the rain. I love to go and look at new places, new alleyways, new little lanes, new mewses. And I also like to look up at the roofs because, you know, people don’t. When I’m asked don’t you long to be in the country? Aren’t you waiting for the weekend? I’m not. I want to be in London. I like it.

Ruth Rendell

Writing Strands

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I think writing has got more difficult for me partly because with each book you write, you hope it will be better than the last.

Ruth Rendell

Ruth blazed a trail that said you can write different kinds of book and still take your readers with you. She made it possible, in a way, for me to have the career that I’ve had by writing different kinds of books.

Val McDermid

She’s actually three writers in one. She writes a series of police procedurals with her copper Wexford, which are extremely good. But her best work, most people feel her best work are those books which don’t have a detective as a protagonist. They’re about ordinary people caught up in guilt, and destruction. And she also writes as Barbara Vine.

Barry Forshaw

I like having the three kinds the Barbara Vines, the Ruth Rendells that are not Wexford and the Wexfords. I wouldn’t want to write one kind all the time.

Ruth Rendell

What I like about Ruth is that she is restless. You never quite know what you’re going to get.

Ian Rankin

I don’t think the Wexfords are the reason why she’ll be remembered. I think probably her the reason for that are the stand-alone novels.

Andrew Taylor

I’ve always liked the way that she writes. I think she’s got a real grip on what makes people do things that may seem superficially perverse to the rest of us.

Val McDermid

They can be quite harrowing, but I think to be intellectually honest, as a crime writer, you have to look into some of the heinous crimes that she’s written about, but more than that, you have to explain them, which is what she does. She gets into the mind not only of the hero but gets into the mind of the villain.

Jeffery Deaver

Some of us there knew that Jamie would set Vera on the road to disaster, but he wasn’t a beautiful happy ending, but the beginning of the despair and violence that would overtake our family.

A Dark-Adapted Eye, 1986.

I’m not very interested in the murder at all. I’m interested in the psyche of the murderer and also the psyche of the victim. But as for murder methods and that sort of thing, not particularly, probably not as much as I should be.

Ruth Rendell

Ruth has always written really well about the pathology of difference if you like, people who don’t fit into society, who don’t quite perform according to the expectations that the world lays down for them.

Val McDermid

I am very interested in the mind of the murderer and why he or she does it. Because although I have been writing about murders for 44 years, I still don’t know why anybody would want to murder anybody else.

Ruth Rendell

I don’t think a writer would now have to do this. But she felt 20-30 years ago that she had to become two writers, who wrote the Wexford series and some other books as Ruth Rendell. And then she decided she had to become Barbara Vine in order to write psychological fiction.

Mark Lawson

I think she came to a conclusion that for certain things she wanted to say that she couldn’t say in the form of the classical detective story. And that may have been one of the reasons why she began writing as Barbara Vine. I think there are two distinct voices with Ruth.

P.D. James

It is interesting that she’s felt the need to have a separate identity, another alter ego to write because she was already writing very dark books. And when Barbara Vine appeared, the first response was, why? Why is she bothering now? People can’t wait for the new Barbara Vine, and some of those books are very grim territory indeed.

Barry Forshaw

It is Barbara Vine’s creations. Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine that have truly inspired my sick and twisted writing.

Jeffrey Deaver

The first time I read Barbara Vine, I thought, this is a split personality totally.

George Baker

I don’t feel any different when I’m writing the Barbara Vine. They’re all me. I’ve often been asked if I’ve got a split personality, which of course would be nonsense. No, it’s just that when I begin to write a Barbara Vine, I’m writing a different kind of —I think I’m writing a different kind of prose, I’m writing a different kind of style, and I have other things in mind.

Ruth Rendell

I think A Dark Adapted Eye is a very, very impressive and original novel. And to me, she often feels happier in that area of psychology, and particularly the psychotic mind and the relationships between women, mothers and daughters.

Mark Lawson

I think people sometimes make the mistake in thinking if they’ve not read a Ruth Rendell, that Ruth Rendell is kind of a cosy writer. She’s Ruth Rendell, she’s kind of like Agatha Christie. Is she hell. These books are really, really dark.

Mark Billingham

I think many people would say that the Barbara Vine books are the better, but it’s very much a matter of taste.

P.D. James

I have a whole body of readers who only want to read me as Wexford, and a similar, though not quite so large number of readers who only want to read me as Barbara Vine. And then you get people in the middle who read the Ruth Rendells that are not Wexfords.

Ruth Rendell

My favourite of her work has to be the Barbara Vine novels, which tend to investigate crimes that took place in the past.

Andrew Taylor

[Scenes From A Dark-Adapted Eye, BBC 1994]

Eden
Look After Jamie, Vera. Promise me. Look after Jamie.
Vera:
Jamie!

I don’t think the Barbara Vine are crime novels at all. It suits people to call them crime novels partly because it sells books and then people know it’s me, but I don’t think they are.

Ruth Rendell
Mrs Marsh:
Where’s Kathleen? Where’s my baby? I want to see you and Vera. Where’s your Vera? What has she done with my baby?

I want my readers to know it’s me, but it will be different.

Ruth Rendell

I should ask her, really, when she decides to change, when she suddenly says to herself, “oh, this is a Barbara Vine.” Or does she wake up one morning and says, “oh, I’m Barbara Vine this morning?” I don’t know but they are extraordinary.

George Baker

Social Justice

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There’s a great sense of social justice in her books. She deals quite seamlessly with important social issues. She deals with the things that concern us as a society.

Val McDermid

Road Rage is, I suppose, largely about the environment. Harm Done about domestic violence.

Ruth Rendell

[Scene from Harm Done 2000]

Wexford:
Weren’t you surprised that he left without even saying goodbye?
Fay Devenish:
Would you be surprised if someone didn’t say goodbye to you? And they’d done this the night before. And this. And this.

In Simisola, I dealt with racism not in the cities, but in a country town.

Ruth Rendell

Wexford is pretty complacent about how liberal he is in his thinking and his easy way with racism.

George Baker

[Scenes from Simisola 1996]

Dr Akande:
That’s not my daughter. That’s not Melanie.
Wexford:
Are you sure, Dr Akande? Please look again.
Dr Akande:
Of course, I’m sure. Do you think a man doesn’t know his own child?

Reg Wexford suddenly realizes, in fact, that he is unknowingly a racist and that he should have followed the procedures that he would have followed if it had been a white girl.

George Baker
Mrs Akande:
We gave you a photograph of Melanie.
Wexford:
I know
Mrs Akande:
This dead girl, she’s black?
Wexford:
Yes.
Mrs Akande:
Is she like Melanie?
Dr Akande:
No.
Mrs Akande:
Coming to our house? The great white liberal detective, so gentle, so magnanimous.
Dr Akande:
Letty please don’t.
Wexford:
I deeply regret that this has happened.
Mrs Akande:
You deeply regret being caught out because you find a dead black girl, It’s got to be our girl because we’re black and we all look alike, don’t we?

To me it’s an interesting issue and something that must be faced in contemporary fiction of all kinds.

Ruth Rendell

She is very good too, at recording social change and political change. If you go back to the first of the Wexfords Doon with Death, which is what, 40 years ago, something like that, it’s another world she’s writing about. But if you read the latest, she’s bang up to the minute.
Andrew Taylor


I don't want to be writing a polemic and I hope that I may write this sort of thing without my reader's view clearly being too aware of what I'm doing, but that it entertains them and gives them some insight into character rather than they should feel that I'm preaching to them. That I would not like at all.
Ruth Rendell