Rebus: Ian Rankin and Gregory Burke lift the lid on the detective’s TV reinvention for new series

After five years in the planning, Ian Rankin and screenwriter Gregory Burke are finally lifting the lid on the project they have been plotting together – the reinvention of detective John Rebus for modern-day Scotland.

There is much about the TV drama that is still under wraps – not least who will be cast in the crucial lead role. But the two Fife-born writers have given tantalising insights into what will unfold on screen.

The ailing, but still-meddling long-retired officer from recent books is being sent back to his 30s in the “major reimagining” of the character. While the early novels were set in 1980s and ‘90s Edinburgh, the new incarnation will be set in today’s capital city – against the backdrop of the Scottish political landscape, a deeply divided society and a national police force where traditional methods of detective work are being overtaken by technology.

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The drama, which begins filming in the spring, will significantly expand on Rebus’s personal life, with a particular focus on a troubled relationship with his brother.

Fife-born writers Gregory Burke and Ian Rankin are joining forces to create the new TV adaptation of the Rebus novels. Picture: Robert Perry

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    While Rankin’s books saw Rebus swiftly win promotion to detective inspector, the new drama will see him coming to terms with a recent demotion.

    Rankin, from Cardenden in Fife, and Rosyth-born Burke have known each other for years.

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    But the new adaptation got off the ground thanks to Rankin’s friendship with fellow author Anthony Horowitz, whose wife, Jill Green, has her own TV production company and suggested Rebus could become a new long-form drama series – which has just been greenlit by Scandinavian streaming service Viaplay.

    Although fans of Rebus had approved of Ken Stott in the ITV series that ended 15 years ago, Rankin himself was unhappy that each story had less than an hour’s screen-time.

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    Screenwriter Gregory Burke is working on the new TV adaptation of Sir Ian Rankin's best-selling John Rebus novels. Picture: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

    When the reboot was announced, Rankin described Burke, whose plays Gagarin Way and Black Watch and feature film ‘71 had won him huge acclaim, as the “perfect match for Rebus”.

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    Rankin recalled: “Growing up in Fife, the school bus passed Gagarin Way every day in Lumphinnans. When Gagarin Way came out, I thought that it couldn't be a coincidence.

    “I was blown away. It had an authentic, angry, working-class voice and was about things that were happening at the time with industrial unrest, jobs getting lost and people starting to lose the rag. I’d seen friends and family members being made redundant and ending up on the scrapheap.”

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    Burke said: "There’s a lot more going on in Scotland now with TV and film, but I very rarely got offered projects that were Scottish. With a character from Fife and working in Edinburgh – the two places I’ve lived in most of my life – I was always going to be interested.

    Sir Ian Rankin and screenwriter Gregory Burke have been working together on a new TV adaptation of the John Rebus novels, which haa been greenlit by Swedish streaming platform Viaplay. Picture: Robert Perry
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    “When we met, Ian said to me 'just do whatever you want with it'. There was obviously a big responsibility, but at the same time there was the confidence of being told that.

    “The thing that appealed was that Police Scotland had recently come in. Detectives could be sent to any part of Scotland at any time. The opportunity to write about this character in contemporary Scotland, with the politics and everything else that’s going on, was there.”

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    Burke has drawn on several novels for the first storyline in what is already billed as a “returning series” by Viaplay.

    He said: “There’s always a temptation when you’re writing a pilot or first season to put everything into it. If you feel it may have another life, you can develop strands in a way that they can run for a while. It's been really freeing. It’s also really nice to write in your own voice and also have your own community's humour in it. But the thing I’ve really enjoyed is writing about Scotland.”

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    Ian Rankin and Gregory Burke have been working together on a new Rebus TV series. Picture: Robert Perry

    Rankin said: “The books have always had political elements to them. We’ll be keeping that going and look at the way society is changing, the way the police are changing and how crimes are investigated with the technology that’s available.

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    “At the same time, there’s that question about the way policing used to be. Rebus represents a way of policing that has almost no place in the modern police, yet we keep hearing about misdemeanors that hark back to different generations or cultures. All of that will be in the scripts.”

    Burke said: “It really interests me that the police are public service workers. They are going through the same kind of travails, whether it’s budget cuts, constantly increasing workloads or the cost-of-living crisis.

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    “I read recently that police corruption goes up during times of hardship. They're human beings who have to make ends meet. If they’re rubbing up against criminals all the time, the temptation is right there.

    “Scotland is in an interesting place right now, with identity politics and questions of independence. A police force has traditionally been seen as the state, in essence. It’ll be really interesting to see how that develops.

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    “You have to be very careful with politics, because you can make yourself out of date very quickly, but it’ll always be in the background.”

    Sir Ian Rankin is working with screenwriter Gregory Burke on the new Rebus TV series. Picture: Neil Hanna
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    As well as the previous TV series, the 24 novels and radio adaptations, Rebus was recently played by Brian Cox in a National Theatre of Scotland film and will next year be the focus of a new stage play.

    Rankin said: “They’re all different manifestations of this archetypal character. You can have any number of actors playing Poirot or Wallander. People are fine with it as long as there’s a strong story and there are characters you become passionate about or are interested in, or want to spend more time with them. People are very happy with the different versions of Rebus.

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    “It's lovely to see a young, vigorous Rebus again in Gregory’s scripts. The guy I write about is definitely past his sell-by date in terms of being able to chase suspects, get in fights and all the rest of it. We've now got a young, more physically-aggressive Rebus in the offing.”

    Rebus has been commissioned exclusively for Viaplay. Viewers can subscribe to Viaplay’s streaming service in the UK now by visiting: https://viaplay.com/gb-en/ to access exclusive film, series and live sports content

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    Sir Ian Rankin has just released his 24th John Rebus novel and confimed plans for a new TV adaptation. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
    Ken Stott previously played John Rebus in an ITV series.