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Rebus review – Richard Rankin is the most irresistible incarnation yet
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Rebus review – Richard Rankin is the most irresistible incarnation yet

It starts promisingly, with a cigarette in Rebus’s mouth. In Ian Rankin’s noirish crime novels, Detective Sergeant John Rebus is an antihero to whom booze, fags and violence are key. Within a few minutes of the new BBC One dramatisation, the Edinburgh copper – played by Richard Rankin, no relation – has ticked off two of those three old-fashioned vices, flicking his tab to the tarmac before seriously assaulting a suspect. That the wrong’un whose skull is cracked is Rebus’s gangster nemesis Ger Cafferty (Stuart Bowman) suggests that this Rebus will please fans of the seamy books.

This, however, is a younger Rebus, still just a sergeant, but operating in the present day: screenwriter Gregory Burke plucks themes and characters from the literary timeline, as the fancy takes him. Gill Templer (Caroline Lee-Johnson) is Rebus’s boss, and so far she’s a by-numbers chief superintendent, urging our man to “find out what happened here, and nip it in the bud!” when gangsters stab a guy in the city centre in broad daylight. Rebus’s sidekick Siobhan (Lucie Shorthouse) is a new arrival from England, fast-tracked into the detective ranks with her fancy degree in anthropology, not receptive to Rebus’s wisdom about how things work in Edinburgh. Internal affairs stickybeak Malcolm Fox (Thoren Ferguson) is prowling suavely in Rebus’s peripheral vision.

Rebus’s almost estranged brother, Michael (Brian Ferguson), is the loudest signifier of where this version of the story positions itself. In Ian Rankin’s written universe he is a strange creation, sketched then swiftly dropped: a stage hypnotist and drug dealer who clings to the status symbols of his unconventionally obtained bougie lifestyle. Here, Michael’s deadly sin is still pride, but he’s re-imagined as a resentful armed forces veteran, in precarious employment delivering parcels, enslaved by his forever pinging phone. He angrily dismisses his exhausted wife’s suggestion that they visit a food bank. Then he digs out his old gun and does something rash.

John Rebus with his daughter Sammy (Mia Mackenzie)View image in fullscreen

Michael’s mounting desperation in a dour domestic setting rings a bell. He could be a Happy Valley character. The show’s theme music – a British singer imitating cowboy blues – underlines that this new television Rebus exists in a post-Happy Valley world, prosperous on the surface but lawless and cruel in places only just out of sight, with economic divisions pushing more and more people to the edge. Another significant judgment Burke makes is to maintain John Rebus as an unreliable Weekend Dad to his 12-year-old daughter Sammy, but to have her brought up in a mansion owned by his ex-wife’s distastefully rich new husband. Feeling which way the wind is blowing, Rebus diagnoses a widening wealth gap as modern Edinburgh’s chief malaise.

That’s not to say he can’t be an amusing curmudgeon. “Toon’s a theme park these days,” he says to Siobhan, surveying the crowd in a chi-chi town-centre coffee shop. “Fuckin’ Instagrammers … cycling about the place like they’re in Denmark.” The script has fun where it can, with a meta joke about Richard Rankin previously being best known for Outlander, and a cheeky nod to the mild fracas a few years back over whether Rebus would have voted for Scottish independence. Wryly and a little cryptically, episode one settles the argument.

Richard Rankin, meanwhile, looks set to be the strongest screen Rebus. John Hannah was a baffling choice, too smooth and wan; Ken Stott was better but probably not a bold enough decision, ending up generically shambolic and irascible. Richard Rankin’s Rebus is physical, forceful and irresistible, his eyes twinkling by default yet capable of glazing over with regret or being suddenly clouded by crimson mist.

But in a TV series that can’t and won’t replicate the novels’ auxiliary function of documenting social changes in Scotland over time, a lot rests on Rebus being uniquely roguish – and it’s hard to differentiate this troubled, rule-breaking maverick from all the others. When Rebus sits in a deserted pub in the afternoon, staring at a pint and a whisky chaser on the table in front of him and daring himself (not) to drink them, Rankin could be channelling Dougray Scott in ITV’s Crime, which itself was the result of Irvine Welsh devouring the Rebus novels then projectile-vomiting them on to the screen. The twist in the subplot where Rebus visits a disabled ex-colleague, who confides in his old friend that he thinks his wife is having an affair and prevails upon Rebus to find the mystery man, is the stuff of a hundred damaged-hero stories.

This new Rebus sets out to reinvent the beloved stereotype of the addicted, conflicted lawman, but that’s probably an impossible task – the best recent crime shows have moved on. Even a modernised John Rebus is a man out of time.

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Source: theguardian.com