It is a truth universally accepted that a detective on TV must be in want of a divorce or a drinking problem – or both. Not so in New Blood, the BBC’s new crime drama. The main characters are younger than the norm: Stefan and Rash are just 25 and are only beginning to climb their career ladders. They’re not weary old-timers weighed down by emotional baggage such as ex-partners and booze. They’re kept awake by a whole new set of problems: House prices. Landlords. Employment.
It’s a departure from the norm that writer Anthony Horowitz was keen to make.
“I started with the idea of having two 25 year olds as the leads,” he tells us. “Wanting to writing about the Y generation, wanting to write about people who come to these adventures without too much baggage, too many problems of the sort of drunken, divorced, having some kind of breakdown type thing. People who are fresh and new and fun to be with. From that, it became clear that the crimes in our show would be conspiracies, industrial, white collar; they’d be big, because I wanted to look at the powerless and the powerful.”
The show’s first mystery, which spans three episodes, tackles the global drugs industry and a cover-ups that stems from a trial gone wrong. That subject feels unusual too: when was the last time you saw a crime procedural that started with drugs testing in India?
“Having done a bit of reading, what the big Pharma companies get up to can be construed as quite disturbing in some ways,” adds Horowitz. “Certainly, the amount of money that’s changing hands is insane, so it seemed like an interesting arena.”
It’s an introduction that feels more like a horror than a detective thriller. Horowitz has never been one to shy away from darker things in his young adult fiction – his Alex Rider series ran for 10 novels and all way to the big screen – so is an astute manipulator of tone. How intentional was setting the mood at the beginning of the show?
“Some of the horror is down to [director] Anthony Philipson, who decided to shoot it that way,” explains the write. “When I first saw it, I nearly jumped out of my seat, even though I knew what was coming and I’d written it myself! I think a lot of it’s down to him – I think the way he directed that, the close-ups of the feet and the hand and the body with music and all that really was smart and good.”
“I have two sons in their mid-twenties… I can see how difficult it is.”
Horowitz was aware from the start, though, that he wanted it to look generally “different” from the other crime dramas on the small screen.
“I was hoping all along it would look different. More cinematic, to slip more into a thriller genre and less people talking in rooms. As for whether the horror was entirely my idea, well, that’s how the opening scene turned out.”
Horowitz also has a knack for getting into other people’s shoes – not least in recent years, when he’s stepped into both those of Ian Fleming and Arthur Conan Doyle for official continuations of the 007 and Sherlock Holmes books. While he’s a veteran of the small screen, with work going all the way back to Crime Traveller in the 1990s, it’s no surprise that he should be tapping into the frustrations of younger generations.
“I have two sons in their mid-twenties, exactly the same age as Rash and Stefan, and I can see how difficult it is for them with short-term contracts and the impossibility of finding their own place and just the general precariousness of their lives,” he says. “The facts that them and their friends seem so positive and supporting, I think it’s a fantastic generation to be part of, but one with many difficulties – that’s part of it, it’s observation. The other, don’t forget, is that I have an Alex Rider audience that was reading my books in the mid-teens who are now in their late 20s going into their 30s and so, in a sense, I’m reconnecting with them too and I meet a lot of them in my general walk of life.”
How difficult is it to write in the style of another author?
“Well, I’ve done it now with Fleming and with Doyle. I enjoy it now, I feel I’m hiding behind them, basking in their reflected glory. It’s also a game-rater; in order to write in the style of Fleming or Doyle, you have to write so well to get anywhere near as good as they are, so I enjoy it.”
While drugs trials and big sums of money could come straight from the pages of the James Bond author, though, Horowitz conceived New Blood as something more ambiguous than that.
“The three stories are quite different in terms of the motivations of what these people are doing. The first story is really all about a cover-up. I didn’t want to characterise all wealthy people as necessarily bad, but it must be said, we live in the age of the BHS collapse, the Panama Papers being released, even some of the debate about the EU and senior people in the EU suggests we are living in a time when the wealthy are being tested in their morality and their world-view and I think that’s what I’m tapping into.”
For such a modern subjects and themes, it’s only fitting that New Blood should premiere its first three episodes on BBC iPlayer today, before it begins a weekly broadcast on BBC One from Thursday 9th June. How does Anthony feel about that?
“I’m very happy about it – I think young people’s television viewing has significantly changed from the way I used to watch TV. Even I tend to want to binge-view: I don’t want to sit down and watch one episode every Thursday, I want all three episodes now. And I don’t necessarily want to watch it in my living room; I want to watch it in bed, on my phone, or anywhere. And I think that’s how young people are watching and I think it’s really sharp of the BBC to decide to do this launch for the iPlayer, because that is the world we’re writing about.”
“Young people’s TV viewing has significantly changed from the way I used to watch TV.”
Does he have a Netflix account, or other on-demand services?
“Of course I have Netflix! I have Netflix, Amazon, of course I have all these things. I have a an e-reader… everything in my life is electronic these days. That’s the new world.”
What was the last thing he watched on Netflix?
“The last thing I saw was Ricky Gervais… [Special] Correspondents. And you know, I watch The Walking Dead generally on digital and, of course, Game of Thrones on Sky catch-up.”
With streaming services becoming more prominent in the world of TV, the traditional advert break is becoming increasingly rare for some younger viewers. The BBC, of course, is free of them anyway. But how much of a difference does it make as a writer to think of storytelling in such an environment?
“Certainly, it was nice to write without advert breaks,” comments Horowitz. “One of the great difficulties about writing for ITV, as much as I’ve enjoyed it, is having to break every 12 to 15 minutes for not just adverts, but messages from sponsors or a minute or two of tomorrow night’s programming. It’s very difficult to maintain narrative fluency or cohesion when you have so much getting in the way. That said, the BBC hour is a very long time to fill! The first three episodes of New Blood is longer than a feature film. It’s a lot of material, added to which you have the difficulty of how can you possibly afford to do as much action as it needs. So there are challenges involved, but I’ve enjoyed the experience.”
When ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde reboot aired last year, Charlie Higson told us that advert breaks were handy in terms of structuring a programme. Does Horowitz agree?
“Charlie’s right about that – it does help you to an extent, in the sense that you can structure your show around chunks, you know, a TV show that’s 46 minutes on ITV has four instalments, if you like, so it’s easier to shape them. But that said, particularly when I was writing Foyle’s War, I did find it quite, sometimes, quite hard to keep the threads together over that great gulf of advertising, etc.”
Having jumped between ITV and the BBC, not to mention the page and the screen, what draws Horowitz to a new project? “I think it’s story. Just having a story to tell that makes me smile – New Blood, for example, has been two years’ work. Why start in the first place? Because I thought I had a fun idea, because I wanted to write about the Y generation. YOu weigh up all these things and you think to yourself ‘Is this worth two years of my life?’ And if the answer is yes, you do it.”
We’re speaking shortly after the unveiling of the government’s white paper proposing plans for the BBC. Does he have a view on the broadcaster and its future?
“The white paper was less destructive and worrying than people had thought it would be, and had actually quite a few things I guess were probably quite sensible,” he observes, “but I wouldn’t want to comment about it specifically.”
“The BBC seems to be in very good health in its drama department,” he adds. “I can’t remember a time when there have been quite so many dramas, one after another, that have just quite simply gripped the nation. Happy Valley. Peaky Blinders. War and Peace. The Night Manager. They just keep going and they all seem to be rock solid and it’s been fantastic to part of that flow.”
We pause briefly to share our admiration of Line of Duty, in particular.
“Line of Duty’s my absolute favourite,” enthuses Horowitz. “Jed Mercurio’s just a fantastically clever writer.”
And what of Crime Traveller, the time-hopping crime drama starring Michael French that aired almost 20 years ago?
“Well, it was very sad, the Head of Drama left just after our first season and we fell into the abyss that then formed,” reveals Horowitz. “That’s just one of the things that happens in television – your commissioner goes and your show does to. I would’ve loved to have done more. It was a fun programme.”
Two decades on, and the writer’s latest show has lost none of that sense of entertainment. Horowitz, though, is typically generous, pushing the praise on to the show’s two young stars, Mark Strepan (Stefan) and Ben Tavassoli (Rash), for both of whom this marks a first BBC primetime role.
“So much rests on them. If people like them, then maybe they’ll like the show,” adds the writer.
New Blood is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photo: BBC/ 11TH HOUR FILMS / NICK HOROWITZ