Arts

Richard Osman on Spielberg film of his hit novel: I'd love Mum to have a cameo role

Pointless presenter Richard Osman tells Hannah Stephenson about the hype surrounding his first novel, why he won't be telling Steven Spielberg how to direct the forthcoming film adaptation and how he wishes he was cooler

Television presenter and author Richard Osman
Hannah Stephenson (PA)

BEST known as the genial co-host of Pointless, Richard Osman, all 6ft 7in of him, cannot quite believe the attention his debut novel has been receiving.

There’s been a huge buzz around The Thursday Murder Club, an engaging tale about four would-be sleuths in an old people’s retirement village who investigate the murder of a local property developer.

It has a touch of Miss Marple about it, with Osman’s wry observations, gentle wit and skilled characterisations making it a read which will cross all generations. It feels very English, with references to clematis cuttings, the doctor from Holby City and a vegan café called Anything With A Pulse.

Yet the Americans are lapping it up. He wrote the book in secret for 18 months and before he knew it, The Thursday Murder Club was acquired in one of the biggest debut novel deals of the decade and Steven Spielberg’s production company Amblin had bought the worldwide film rights.

“Suddenly, the Americans were saying, ‘Oh, we love this’ and then the Germans and Spanish and Taiwanese want to buy it,” he says, incredulously. “I thought, that’s interesting, when I’ve been banging on about Robert Dyas and Twixes.

“I haven’t met Steven Spielberg – well, for a number of reasons I haven’t been able to go to America and he hasn’t been able to come here. I haven’t even met him via Zoom. I don’t know what he’s playing at.”

The idea for the novel was sparked when Osman visited a retirement village to see the mother of a friend. He thought the secluded English countryside setting would be perfect for a murder.

“I spoke to residents and listened to some of the things they’d done in their careers and how much of a laugh they were having living there and I thought, I bet if there was a murder this lot would solve it – or commit it.”

He won’t be drawn on who could play the four protagonists – a former spy, a nurse, a trades union official and a psychiatrist – in the screen adaptation, but says there’s a plethora of brilliant older actors who could be cast.

“We live in a country of so many incredible older actors, so people who read it are telling me they want it to be Judi Dench or Julie Walters or Penelope Wilton or Art Malik. Everybody has their perfect casting.”

Creating different personalities who are in their 70s gave Osman plenty of scope with the writing, he explains, and he agrees old people are often dismissed in society.

“We are obsessed with young people, but people in their 70s have identical brains to those in their 50s or their 30s. Our circumstances change and our physicality changes and we have a great deal more experience, but we’re still as mischievous and interested and sparky as we always were.

“I didn’t write about them as older characters, I wrote about them as engaged human beings with some of the disadvantages – and advantages – that age has brought them. Basically, they can pretty much get away with anything.”

Given his height and distinctive appearance, he can’t see himself in a cameo role.

“It would be weird if I had a cameo role because I’m quite recognisable. Being 6ft 7 and wearing these glasses, I couldn’t just be working in a shop because everyone would go, ‘Oh my God, it’s Richard!’ But I’d love my mum [Brenda, to whom the book is dedicated] to have a cameo role.”

There is, he agrees, a parallel between himself and his fictional detective, Chris Hudson, a 51-year-old divorcee who lives alone. Osman turns 50 this year and has just moved house in Chiswick, west London, where he lives alone.

“Biographically he’s very similar to me. I think about times in my life when I’ve felt sad or low or things have gone wrong for me and that’s where he is in his life at the moment. We all have periods of life when things are not going our way and I was able to give him that stuff.”

Osman reportedly split up with from girlfriend, jazz singer Sumudu Jayatilaka, recently but is at pains to keep his private life out of the spotlight.

He has two children, Ruby and Sonny, from a relationship which ended more than a decade ago but remains tight-lipped about his personal life.

“It’s really important for me to keep my private life out of the media. I walk down the street and I’ll talk to people and I like that. That’s the deal I’ve made. However, the people around me didn’t choose it and don’t get the benefits of it. If people in my life wanted a higher profile I’d be happy to talk about them, but I tend not to hang around with anyone who does want a high profile.”

Raised in West Sussex by his working-class single mother, Osman gained a place at Cambridge on a full grant before securing a job in TV, working at Endemol behind the scenes before Pointless and Richard Osman’s House Of Games came along.

He became famous at 40 and has been presenting mainstream TV for 10 years now, although he points out that the most successful point in his career was behind the scenes as a TV executive and producer.

He said in a recent interview that he’d love to be cooler. His older brother, Mat Osman, is the bassist in rock band Suede, which is pretty cool, the TV presenter reflects.

“I’m very mainstream. I do very mainstream shows, but occasionally I just think, it would be nice to get a bit of kudos. My brother is very cool and I’ve always been slightly in awe of that, but if it’s not you it’s not you – and I can’t fake it.”

While he reckons his input into any forthcoming adaptation of his book may be minimal, he’s still receiving the title of executive producer.

“I’ve worked in television long enough to know what executive producer means,” he says, chuckling. “It means whatever you want it to mean. That’s just something they put in the contract.

“I’ve been an executive producer on shows where I’ve been running it and on shows where I’ve never turned up. It is very kind of them to let me be executive producer but I’m not going to be standing by the camera telling Steven Spielberg what should happen next.”

Ol Parker, who worked on Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, will write and direct.

Meanwhile, Osman remains busy with Richard Osman’s House Of Games, having just filmed 100 episodes, and says Pointless is due to resume in November with more than 200 episodes planned.

He’s already finished the first draft of his second book, which will see the return of all the characters who don’t get bumped off or sent to jail. He hopes to write a book a year for the next 20 years.

Before lockdown, he said he wanted to have a break from TV for six months to give himself more time to write.

“It just shows you have to be careful what you wish for,” he smiles.

:: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman is published by Viking, priced £14.99. Available now.

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