MAGPIE MURDERS, the six-episode mystery series based on Anthony Horowitz’s best-selling 2016 novel, makes its U.S. debut on Sunday, October 16, on PBS MASTERPIECE. (The series premiered earlier this year in the U.K. on Britbox.)

In MAGPIE MURDERS, two worlds are intertwined. In the real present, London book editor Susan Ryeland (Lesley Manville, Oscar-nominated for her performance in 2017’s PHANTOM THREAD) is trying to find the missing last chapter of the latest murder mystery by famous writer Alan Conway (Conleth Hill), who has died under suspicious circumstances. And in Conway’s book, MAGPIE MURDERS, we’re inside the novel with the character of world-renowned detective Atticus Pünd [Tim McMullan], who is trying to get to the bottom of several killings in a small English village in 1955.

In the TV adaptation, although not in the novel, Susan finds herself having conversations about the case with Atticus, even though he’s fictional.

Horowitz wrote the scripts for all six episodes himself, and is an executive producer on the series, as is Jill Green, through Eleventh Hour Films.

Green and Horowitz have also worked together numerous times previously, with Horowitz as creator/writer and both him and Green executive-producing. Their collaborations include the 2002-2015 award-winning original FOYLE’S WAR, and ALEX RIDER, based on Horowitz’s YA spy novels.

Both English, Green and Horowitz have been married to one another since 1988. PBS arranges a Zoom conversation with both as part of the Television Critics Association press tour.

ASSIGNMENT X: How did you come to create MAGPIE MURDERS in the first place?

ANTHONY HOROWITZ: I had the idea about fifteen years ago, and I can prove it. If you watch [a specific] episode of MIDSOMER MURDERS [a still-running British series that Horowitz wrote for], you’ll see that one of the actors is actually reading MAGPIE MURDERS, the book which I had thought up at that time, which then took me fifteen years to work out.

I wanted to write a book about writing. That was always my goal. I was very much inspired by two books – Stephen King’s ON WRITING, and William Goldman’s ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE. I even began to write a [nonfiction] book about writing, but it was unfortunately very boring. So, I began to think, was there another way I could write about writing? And then it occurred to me, to kill a writer just before he finishes his novel was an interesting premise for a book, and then that would allow me to both do a murder mystery story, and to fulfill my ambition of trying to discuss some of the elements of whodunits and books in general.

AX: At what point in MAGPIE MURDERS’s creation was it decided that it should be a TV series?

JILL GREEN: Well, the book was very successful, although it was quite challenging to adapt. But Anthony and I had early conversations about the possibilities, and we started to develop it with ITV and Britbox, and Anthony was very clever at making some changes to the book in the way it unfolds on the screen.

And in tandem with that, he’d written maybe two scripts, and we decided then to approach Lesley Manville. She absolutely adored the piece. She was very, very much in demand, she was just about to start THE CROWN, and obviously internationally known, our first choice, she agreed that she would be in the show, and she became pivotal in the rest of the financing of the piece. I think it took about eighteen months then to raise [the rest of the budget].

AX: One of the big changes between the book and the series is that, in the series, Susan and Atticus interact …

HOROWITZ: Well, that was largely down to Jill. In the book, the first two hundred and eighty pages, approximately, are Atticus Pünd and his world, and the next two hundred and fifty pages, or whatever, are Susan Ryeland and her world. And when I began to adapt it, the first [drafts of] scripts followed that format. But Jill said to me, very sensibly, that if you did that, Lesley Manville, our major star and the biggest attraction in the piece in terms of casting, wouldn’t appear until Episode 3, which is unthinkable. By putting Lesley Manville in at the very beginning, she would be the guide through what was going to be a very complicated show, that having an editor who has a foot in both worlds would allow an audience to find its way through what was a complicated and lengthy maze.

So, having done that, I found myself forced to connect the two worlds, to slip from one to the other and back again. Therefore, Susan and Atticus would be driving down roads, and they would just pass each other, and it occurred to me that actually it was inevitable that they would meet. And so, with every episode that happens in this show, we see a little bit more of them together, until you get to the end, where they have large scenes together, but not in a way I think an audience would expect.

GREEN: And he is in her imagination to begin with. Is she going mad? Who is this person that she sees in the back mirror of her car? Or is he more than that? He begins to enter her life in an almost Hitchcockian way. And then she wants answers from him. Obviously, he can’t give her answers about the murder that exists in the contemporary world. He can only give her advice as the greatest crime detective in 1955. I think it’s very playful, and it really makes the show very distinctive, because it’s a big tonal note. And I think also the casting of Tim McMullan is pivotal there as well, because he’s a contrasting character to Lesley Manville, very much his own person, quite unusual as a detective. And I think we were able to play with that.

HOROWITZ: Since Jill mentioned Tim, I would like to say that we worked with him before. We did two seasons of FOYLE’S WAR with him [playing Arthur Valentine] toward the end of the run, and we loved working with him. What he brought to the part in FOYLE’S WAR, which I think he also brings brilliantly to MAGPIE MURDERS, is humanity. You really feel that this is a man who is gentle, who is kind, who has suffered in his life, who has an empathy with people, and Tim does that really wonderfully well. We couldn’t be happier with the casting.

AX: Do you as a writer ever interact with your characters? Do you ever have a character say to you, “I don’t think I’d say that”?

HOROWITZ: No. I’m in control of my characters, but they don’t talk to me. They talk to each other. Your question supposes that I live outside the books when I’m writing, but actually, I’m very much there. I always think of myself as a stenographer in the corner. When my characters talk, I have to write very quickly to catch what they’re saying, rather than to make up what they’re saying.

AX: In the scenes between editor Susan and writer Alan, do you empathize with either one? Have you ever had moments with your editor where you’ve said, “Look, this is just not what it’s about,” or do you empathize with her saying, “Look, you’re being impossible”?

HOROWITZ: No, no, no. All my editors and I have a very good relationship, and I have a great belief in the writer listening to their editor at all times. The moment the writer starts saying, “We’re going to do it my way,” or “I don’t trust what you’re saying,” I think there is a real danger that the book is going to get into trouble. I can think of one or two books that have had exactly that fault – famous writers who think themselves better than their editors. I have very little sympathy for [Alan Conway].

That said, he is slightly inspired by one of my great literary heroes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m fascinated by the fact that Doyle created the greatest detective in fiction in Sherlock Holmes, but always thought that he wasn’t good enough, that somehow that writing detective stories was beneath him. So, what does he do after just three books? He throws his greatest creation off a waterfall, the Reichenbach Falls. Ian Fleming is another writer who rather looked down on James Bond as being beneath him, as being children’s fiction. “Kiss, kiss, bang, bang,” he described that type of fiction. He was very embarrassed by Casino Royale; he didn’t even want to show it to a publisher. So, I find that sort of writer really interesting. But I am not that sort of writer. I love Alex Rider, for example, and I love everything I do. I don’t find Alan Conway a particularly attractive character to empathize with at the best of times.

GREEN: [Conleth Hill, who plays Alan, is] a great, eminent actor of the theatre. People know him [as Lord Varys] from GAME OF THRONES. Again, our first choice for that role, and Conleth does relish the idea of playing that very successful author who feels disappointed with putting out schlocky detective novels, when he’d prefer to be like a Salman Rushdie or an Ian McEwan, somebody much more literary, much more revered. So, I think we have a lot of fun, and he had a lot of fun, with playing with that idea, that you can be a successful writer, but you can still be incredibly unhappy and depressed, and are actually taking revenge on all the people in your life that you’ve crossed with.

HOROWITZ: What Conleth does so brilliantly is, he absolutely gets the tone of the piece right – half-humor, half-serious, but never, ever anything less than completely believable. Though, as Jill said, there’s a lovely mischievous quality in the way he plays the role, which is exactly what I wanted.

GREEN: Of course, that leads onto the story of, what does a writer do when he crosses with a lot of people, and very angry in general. He takes revenge by making them characters in his own book. That’s the brilliance of MAGPIE MURDERS, is that people in his real, contemporary world then turn up as fictional characters in his 1950s [book].

HOROWITZ: It allows us the opportunity for the actors to play two roles. For example, one of my favorites is [actor] Matthew Beard, who in the Atticus Pünd books is the dim sidekick Fraser, but in real life, in the twenty-first century, is [Conway’s] gay lover. So, you’ll see Matthew Beard walk down the stairs in 1955 as Fraser, and come out of the door in the twenty-first century [as Conway’s lover]. That gave the actors enormous fun and, I think, a unique opportunity. We got them, as it were, twice for the price of one.

GREEN: We certainly did, but also, the great scripts, and the chance to play two roles, was just a wonderful offer for these actors. So, we really did get absolutely everyone that we wanted, because it was delicious for them.

HOROWITZ: Nobody turned us down.

GREEN: Nobody. Daniel Mays, who plays lead detective characters in his own right, took a very small role.

HOROWITZ: He plays Chubb in 1955, the dim cop, and then Locke, the really aggressive, angry cop in the twenty-first century. Danny Mays, again, an actor I adored working with. This was probably the happiest experience I’ve ever had making a show, where everything went right. Every decision made was the right decision. We were shooting during COVID. Jill did absolute wonders just to steer this production through so many nightmarish scenarios. In particular, we couldn’t afford any of our actors to get ill, we couldn’t afford a week off. As it was, Jill had to invest a huge amount of the budget in masks and clinics and testing and all the rest of it. So, it was really up against it.

I mustn’t get to the end of the interview without saying, Peter Cattaneo [who directed all six episodes] was the director of my dreams. I have never worked with a director who came to the set with such perfectly interconnecting ideas, which is to say, the edit was already in his head. Everything was there, and when I saw it on the screen, I hardly believed I’d written it, because what he had brought out of the actors’ performances elevated the material. Even the character of Susan Ryeland, I knew her so well, but watching her on the screen, played by Lesley and directed by Peter, I feel I’m almost meeting her for the first time.

AX: How did you arrive at Peter Cattaneo to direct MAGPIE MURDERS? He’s best-known for THE FULL MONTY. Were you looking for that sort of blend of humor and drama?

GREEN: Yes, very much. I think that he’s mainly done features – I saw his feature MILITARY WIVES, he’s done a lot of straight comedy, but it’s very hard to find those directors that get that tone, which is, he puts a smile on everything. So, everything is played straight, he’s not playing for gags, he’s very, very good at performance, he is able to attract a great cast. But he just got that tone. I met a lot of directors for this, but I knew that he was definitely the one – again, our first-choice director. One reason we got him is that he had not done this murder mystery genre before. He was quite nervous of it, in fact. So, for him, he wanted to have a go at this very different genre from what he’d previously done.

The other thing that he did was all those what we call the crossovers [the editing cuts that move from the present to 1955 and vice-versa]. Not just the larger ones, which were the ’55 car crossing the lane with Susan Ryeland’s red MG, but also the very smallest sound crossovers, where someone would open a cork on a bottle of wine in 1955, and it would be popped in the kitchen where Susan Ryeland is with her Greek boyfriend [Alexandros Logothetis]. Or, as Anthony mentioned, a door will be opened in the twenty-first century, and it will open into 1955. We looked for all of those really fun crossover moments.

HOROWITZ: And the magpies proliferate, one in Episode 1, two in Episode 2, three in Episode 3, et cetera. This is a show that really enjoys having fun with the audience, and teasing the audience, and getting the audience to come for the ride.

GREEN: Yeah. So, I hope folk will watch it more than once, actually. It’s one of those shows that you can go back on it. In one case, a magpie takes off and flies up into the air in the present day, and lands in 1955. We loved doing that. It just makes the show smart. I can’t think of a murder mystery show on television that comes with such a big smile attached to it. And one of the things that I’ve noticed is that people who see it in Europe have loved the playfulness of it.

AX: In location terms, were you able to find something for the book sequences that looked like the 1950s in London, or near London, or did you have to sprint from twenty-first century London to 1955 somewhere way outside London?

GREEN: We actually filmed in three places. We filmed in Dublin, where there are a lot of [areas that look like] 1955, we experienced that from filming the 1940s there for FOYLE’S WAR, and there are some fantastic locations there, and that’s where we found Pye Hall. We actually closed completely a whole village in Suffolk called Kersey for 1955. That was three-and-a-half weeks of full cooperation with four hundred and fifty villagers, who couldn’t park their cars there, who couldn’t walk out of their front doors, who had to take their children to school at certain times of the day, who were extras in the show, whose own front doors were dressed as butchers’ and antique stores. So, that village is absolutely real. I mean, it wouldn’t be anything that anybody would do in America, of course [laughs], you would build it. But that is the real thing. And it looks exactly like that, it’s got the water going through the middle of the road. It’s an exquisite village.

HOROWITZ: Jill and I did a recce [location scout] for it, drove round ourselves, before we started shooting. We live in Suffolk some of the time, and Suffolk is a county we both love. It’s one of the friendliest and most beautiful counties in England. And I didn’t think there’s any village in England that could have been more hospitable or more forgiving. Because having a film crew is not always fun.

GREEN: Especially in COVID. We were lucky that the local pub, which is the one that features in the piece, was closed because of COVID, so we were able to use the parking facilities there, we used the pub inside there without having to actually close it down. We used a church there as well. All of the different funerals were filmed there, the real vicar actually appears in it, and also, Anthony makes a Hitchcockian appearance in it, in Episode 3. You have to look carefully to find him. But we could not have done that without huge cooperation of a lot of very patient villagers. We did a special screening for them afterwards, to thank them all. We showed them Episode 1 and 2.

AX: You’ve written a sequel to MAGPIE MURDERS called MOONFLOWER MURDERS, which I understand that you’re already discussing shooting …

HOROWITZ: Certainly, we hope to start shooting MOONFLOWER MURDERS next year. Obviously, it depends on Apart from anything else, the success of the show in America, and Lesley Manville’s availability, although she is very, very keen to continue working with us.

AX: Can there be more in the MAGPIE MURDERS universe beyond MOONFLOWER?

HOROWITZ: There is a third Susan Ryeland book on its way. I haven’t decided yet whether Atticus Pünd is going to appear in it, which may sound strange, but having done two of these cross-century novels within novels, I’m not sure if I’ve got it in me to do it a third time. I feel I’ve exhausted every trick. I have come up with an idea, which is set only in the present, but still does the book within a book, which is very different and very surprising, and has a clue in it that I can promise you has never been done in a book before.

AX: What would you most like people to know about MAGPIE MURDERS?

HOROWITZ: It got rave reviews here [in the U.K.].

GREEN: We have the most fantastic set of reviews we’ve ever had for a drama series.

HOROWITZ:  I not only make an appearance in the show, I’m tacked on at the end as well. There will be little mini-documentaries at the end of every episode, which has me talking about the scripts and the writing, and the world of whodunits. So, that’s a little added bonus, something I’ve never done before, shot by our son Nicholas.

GREEN: I think MAGPIE MURDERS is the most distinctive drama that I’ve seen for a while. I’ve never seen anything like it that also looks at the whole world of writing books as well, so it has that meta-fiction on top of it. And I think it’s Peter Cattaneo’s best work as well since THE FULL MONTY, the music is brilliant, by award-winning Murray Gold. There are just so many great things about it.

HOROWITZ: I would say that it’s my best work in television. Jill and I did FOYLE’S WAR together for sixteen years, and it’s important to mention that, because we’re married, and we work together, and our whole married life has largely been based on both a personal and a working relationship, and I certainly have never worked with a better producer. And that’s what I would like everyone to know, which is that this is sort of back to FOYLE’S WAR again for me, and it was, as I have said, the happiest production I’ve done.

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Article: Exclusive Interview with MAGPIE MURDERS creators and executive producer



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