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17 May 2024

The BBC’s younger, sharper Rebus

This new adaptation – the bastard child of early Taggart and Happy Valley – reimagines Ian Rankin’s detective.

By Rachel Cooke

I’m all over the BBC’s Rebus: three episodes in and I can’t wait to see more. OK, it doesn’t feel necessary, exactly. Every morning brings sheeting rain and another new police drama, and Ian Rankin’s novels have been well-adapted before (between 2000 and 2007 there were four ITV series, also called Rebus, starring first John Hannah and then Ken Stott). But this outing, written by Gregory Burke, the playwright best known for Black Watch, is shaping up to be a keeper. Think of it as the bastard child of early Taggart (how I miss it, still) and Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley.

People will doubtless say, as they often do when talking about Rankin’s novels, that Edinburgh itself is one of Rebus’s most important characters, and it’s true: there’s no getting away from the city in this telling. In the first episode, a gangster is stabbed in the Old Town, the castle watching over this violent ballet like some sandstone and mortar godfather. But really it’s a more general and all-pervasive kind of Scottishness that makes the scripts so singular and good: the scathing jokes about independence and Gaelic, about posh types called Lachlan and English invaders who ride around on bicycles – “like they’re in Denmark”, as Rebus puts it (his name, of course, is John). It’s all pitch perfect: music to the ears.

And then there’s Richard Rankin (no relation), who plays Rebus. Burke has reimagined the character: in his version, Rebus is younger, and still only a detective sergeant. I worried about this at first; I wanted craggy, not callow. But I hope Rankin, who’s 41, won’t mind if I say that he’s on the way there. You can’t fake a certain kind of Scottish pastiness. Rankin is good at delivering the deadpan lines that sharpen the script like whisky chasers – “my wee shrink… I feel a deep sense of obligation to her”, he says of the counsellor to whom he delivers a full dose of designed-to-please half-truths. But the bigger thing is that he manages to combine the role’s morning-after-the-night-before skank with an ornery charm that is stealth-sexy (what I mean is that you notice the hotness with some bewilderment, because his jeans are as bad as you imagine his breath to be).

The plot, Jacobean of flavour, is about drug dealers and their sanguinary revenge dramas; everything, in the underworld, is connected. But the tattoos and the torture are nicely rounded out by the other stuff that’s going on: Rebus’s rows with his struggling brother, Michael (Brian Ferguson); his ongoing feelings for his ex-wife Rhona (Amy Manson); his disdain for her wealthy new husband, a Lachlan who styles himself Locky (Nick Rhys).

Rebus’s tyro sidekick, DC Siobhan Clarke, is nicely played by Lucie Shorthouse. I remember being a young Englishwoman in a realm of Scottish blokes (as a junior reporter, I worked in Glasgow), and trying so hard, just as she does, not to show I minded about things – it was important to know when to stay quiet, and when to give someone the finger – and the part is written well enough to reveal all this without tediously labouring the point. At one point, Rebus asks her what she studied at university, and his smile when she replies (reluctantly) “anthropology” is unbeatable, like he’s won a bet.

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I could have done without the scene where Rebus, who’s on the wagon, buys himself a pint of heavy and a chaser, but doesn’t drink them (the hands trembled, but then he was saved by his phone). Oh, for just one cop show in which our troubled hero doesn’t empty all his bottles into the kitchen sink. But the feeling overall is of a man being sorely tested by absolutely everything – he is Job by any other name – and this feels right to me. As he tells Siobhan when she moans about climbing a set of stone stairs: “You’re in the city of John Knox. Life’s supposed to be difficult.”

Part of what makes this Rebus so alluring is down to the beautifully concise manner in which the actor who plays him conveys his haphazard competence, his stoicism and feral endurance. He is so believable. “I’ll sort it,” he says, and no sooner are the words spoken than you forgive absolutely the greasy-looking jeans.


[See also: Caspar David Friedrich and the mystery of eternity]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024