Sometimes, Richard Osman tells me, complete strangers shout the words “Helen Mirren” at him in the street. He is tickled, but wonders what other passersby make of it. If they have read one of the million-plus copies that Osman’s debut novel, The Thursday Murder Club, has sold, and if they are as good at lateral thinking as the book’s quartet of senior amateur detectives, they may work out that Mirren is a fantasy casting suggestion for Elizabeth, the ex-spook whose capacity for deductive logic takes centre stage in the next book in the series, The Man Who Died Twice.
Elizabeth is a corker of a character: mysterious, steely, aware not only of what’s going on around her, but uncannily tuned in to what’s about to happen too. In her crime-fighting exploits, she’s assisted by three neighbours in her retirement community in the Kent-Sussex borderlands: former rabble-rousing trade unionist Ron; his best pal Ibrahim, a psychiatrist; and Joyce, a cake-baking retired nurse on the constant lookout for love. Joyce’s diary entries – with a touch of Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett’s bathetic, quotidian humour about them – punctuate the novels’ third-person narration.
Whether or not Mirren will end up portraying Elizabeth is in the hands of Steven Spielberg, who has bought the rights to The Thursday Murder Club and, Osman thinks, will begin filming next year. The author is, he says, leaving the movie people to their business while he gets on with book number three. But his own commercial antennae must be twitching delightedly; as a TV producer, first for Hat Trick Productions and for two decades until the end of last year Endemol, he has been responsible for crowdpleasers such as Deal or No Deal, Total Wipeout, 8 Out of 10 Cats and Pointless – the BBC teatime quiz show he came up with and, alongside his university friend Alexander Armstrong, still presents. He is also behind and in front of the camera for Richard Osman’s House of Games, in which celebrities compete in ever more ridiculous challenges.
“My whole career is formats, really,” he explains, as he takes a break from signing a small mountain of inserts for copies of The Man Who Died Twice. “And the real key with the format is to make it familiar, but different, I think. Not cynically, but that’s where my heart always settles. My mum lives in this retirement community, and when I was there and chatting to everybody and hearing their life stories, I stumbled on this idea that there would be a murder, and that they would solve it – that to me felt familiar but different. It’s like a note on a piano. I thought: ‘Oh yeah, if I put that at the heart of what I’m doing, I can go anywhere.’”
As a childhood fan of The A-Team, he was thrilled to be assembling a gang, but it was the unusual attributes of this particular group that got his creative juices flowing: “I’ve got people for whom consequences don’t really matter that much. And I’ve got people who are consistently overlooked. And I’ve got people who are forming unlikely friendships. And if you’ve got all of those things, then you know you can put any crime story you want underneath it, and people are going to enjoy the ride.”
Readers certainly did – including those in the US where Osman, who is yet to become a familiar face there, has nonetheless entered the bestseller lists – but what about his mum and her pals? Did he conduct focus groups with them, or ask them to contribute storylines? “God, no,” he laughs, a touch anxiously. His mum is reading the new book, and told him that she’s finding it so much more relaxing than the first, which she consumed “in a blind panic” lest her son had drawn too closely from her and her friends’ lives. “She was literally just reading the whole thing thinking, ‘Is this going to get me into trouble?’ And obviously, when she realised it wasn’t, she was able to read it much more slowly. But the feedback and the reaction from that whole community has just been nothing but positive, I think because they’d worked out no one’s being patronised. And listen, I’m portraying them as drinkers and love cheats, and all these things, but you know, a lot of them are! I’m not just going, ‘Aren’t these old dears lovely?’ And I think that they recognise that they’ve been taken seriously and lightly at the same time. That’s a nice combination of ways to be taken.”
There is, indeed, plenty of seriousness alongside the often comic capers that befall the “murder club” and its associates, who include a pair of coppers drawn, sometimes reluctantly, into their circle, and a stalwart, intensely loyal builder called Bogdan. It is Bogdan whom Elizabeth calls in the middle of the night to soothe her husband, Stephen, whose mind is gradually fracturing as dementia encroaches; and while tiny vignettes in which Stephen and Bogdan play chess advance the books’ thriller plots not a jot, they contribute to a rounded, compassionate and affecting portrait of ageing and fellowship.
That didn’t happen by accident. Osman is very close to his mother, Brenda, who was a single parent to him and his elder brother Mat, the bass player in Suede, after the boys’ father left when they were young. Financially, life was tough, but Osman describes being brought up “in an environment with a very, very, very loving parent, which is worth its weight in gold”, and recalls the curious absence of feeling that accompanied meeting up with his father later in life. “We tried to reconnect and we couldn’t get any purchase on each other,” he says; when his father died, about five years ago, he went to the funeral and cried “for what was lost in terms of a relationship rather than for the man, because I didn’t know the man”.
For a while afterwards, he was aware that grief might suddenly ambush him, but it never did. “It’s never even touched the sides of me, you know, he was just a human being who I obviously had a connection to but there was no …” he pauses. “You know, grief is love, isn’t it? And so there wasn’t anything there, which I found fascinating. The last time [Mat and I] went to see my dad, nothing was said, really. I mean, we tried. But there was nothing he was going to give us. And I said to my brother, that’s the most emotionally unemotional couple of hours I’ve ever spent.”
Osman has recently taken part in that ritual of modern celebrity life, Who Do You Think You Are?, and told its makers that they could research his father’s family “until the cows come home, you would not get a tear, you wouldn’t get any reaction out of me because I don’t really care. I don’t feel like they’re part of me, you know, because they never were.” His mother’s family is a different matter. He is immensely proud of them even while, in common with many working-class families, he knows so little of their past – as he points out, “everybody posh knows their family tree. Because they’ve got chairs that belong to them.” He thinks of the programme as “my gift to them, essentially. Just to say let’s all find out a little bit, shall we, which is really nice”.
Osman grew up in Cuckfield, Sussex, a small town to which, he insists, he would return like a shot. Why doesn’t he? “Do you know what, I do question it sometimes,” he laughs, before rationalising that his work and his world are in London. He lives alone in Chiswick, and is close to his children from a previous relationship, Ruby and Sonny, both in their early 20s. His group of school friends are still in Sussex, and he loves the windswept, faded grandeur of the English coast off-season (Mat, he says, couldn’t wait to get to the big city). I ask whether he doesn’t mind the area’s occasional bleakness. “Love it,” he says.
When he did leave Cuckfield, it was for Cambridge University. He went there “fully expecting to have a chip on my shoulder the whole time, which I still sort of do”, but instead found a cohort of state school students and, contrary to his fears, some quite nice posh people from private schools. “And you think: ‘Oh no, that’s annoying.’” It has given him, he says, a lifelong understanding that “some posh people are really, really nice and talented” – his colleague Alexander Armstrong is “the perfect example” – but he still applies a more egalitarian rule of thumb.
“This is my measure: I think, ‘If you had gone to my school, would you be doing your job?’” Often, he says, the answer is yes. “But there are an awful lot of people as well that you just think: ‘Well, no, of course you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t be anywhere near this job if you’d been to my school’, and people still don’t see that. That’s still not recognised. And I get it: no one wants to think about that today, about where they’d be. But I think about it a lot. And I’ve always tried in my business dealings to make sure that I’ve opened up access to people. And if I had something to do over the next 10 to 20 years, it’d be hopefully to try and do a little bit more of that.”
Osman’s belief in increasing access is laudable as a general approach, but one of publishing’s scratchiest conversations is about the rise of the celebrity novel; the book that will command marketing budgets and column inches and front tables in bookshops because readers will immediately recognise the author. Did that give him pause for thought before he put pen to paper? “I get it,” he says, again. “And that was my worry in the UK, entirely. That’s why I wrote that book in secret.” He finished his first manuscript before his agent took it to publishers and says the scale of its success outside the UK has given him the confidence to carry on writing. “It’s tough being an author and it’s tough breaking through as an author. And, you know, I don’t underestimate that. But Val McDermid was a reporter, then became a crime writer, Mark Billingham was a standup, then became a crime writer; we all do something before. No one’s born a crime writer. And I write crime because I read it. And because I love to write, and because I love to write the sort of books I read. So I’m very proud of what I’ve done, and how I’ve done it.”
Evidently, there is something about the combination of the books themselves – their self-deprecating Englishness, entirely at odds with more bullish, insular incarnations of nationalism, their fondness for individual foibles and their emphasis on fairness – and their author’s owlish, kindly charm that has hit the spot. For a long time, he tells me, he was motivated not by ambition, precisely, but more by the fear of returning to the financial insecurity and worry of his upbringing. “I started on zero, or less than zero. And I’m aware of what that is, and I’m aware that I like it more where I am now … It’s very hard to realise when you pass the point where you’re not going to go back to it. And you know, it’s probably about five years after you do that, that you think OK, I can take care of myself now.”