It’s a chilly overcast Sunday morning in the City of London, and I’m about to meet a man who has been dead since 1948.
Threading through a crowd of Londoners wearing masks ito protect against the Spanish flu, I see him suddenly; someone who embodies a curious mixture of fact and fraud, the scourge of every spiritualist medium with something to hide. He strides towards me in his coat and hat, mysteriously self-possessed, and I read the expression on his face – thoughtful, vulnerable and yet commanding.
Harry Price: Ghost Hunter. Immediately I think this is an inspired piece of casting.
No, I haven’t just encountered a spirit from “the other side”. I’m not in 1920s war-torn London. In a life-changing experience that feels almost miraculous, I am thrilled and – still faintly disbelieving – to be visiting the set of the television adaptation of my debut novel, The Ghost Hunters.
The drama, which will go out on ITV this Christmas, has been in development by Bentley Productions since before my novel was published by Quercus in 2013.
I have not written the intense, vivid script; I have not had any input into the splendidly judged casting decisions; in fact, my involvement as “creative consultant” has been fairly limited. Nevertheless, in full understanding of the fact that ghost stories are as much about the living as they are the dead, I am about to commit the egotistical sin of immortalising myself by making a silent cameo appearance in the opening scene.
How do I feel about this drama to which my name will be permanently attached? Everyone I meet on the set wants to know. Is the production as I envisaged? Does it meet my approval? My expectations?
I have no expectations, partly because this is a genuine first for me, but mostly because I believe that, as a novelist, once you have sold the dramatic rights to your work, it is your professional duty to stand back and let the producers, directors and actors do their work.
I look around me and take in the set: a London choked with grief and longing for hope; lost faces remembering lost loves. The story world I created is right here, in front of me. No longer in my readers’ heads or just existing on the page, but inhabited by my characters – the clever and determined assistant, Sarah Grey so beautifully portrayed by Cara Theobold; the ambitious journalist Vernon Wall; and of course, Harry.
The actor cast in the title role is Rafe Spall. We share a moment between takes and he tells me of a bizarre coincidence: that he and the real Harry Price went to the same school. Their names even appear next to each other on the school website’s list of notable alumni.
“What are the chances of that?” someone asks. And I wonder: what are the chances? Not just of that bizarre concurrence, but the chances of this happening now, to me, to my first book? I think: I’m lucky. This moment is special. Some authors wait their whole career for this.
“But you must be worried that they have deviated from your plot?” one supporting artist asks.
And that, of course, is completely natural. As the author of the original work you hope the screen adaptation will reflect some of your ideas.
However, as anyone in the business will attest, transforming a book into a script is not easy. Often there are tremendous and necessary differences; characters and plotlines are dropped and combined. There’s nothing wrong with deviation if the original material is honoured.
I pick up and read a copy of Jack Lothian’s script. No doubt: the essence of The Ghost Hunters has been faithfully preserved. This drama is loyal to the spirit of my work, and I’m delighted.
I’m excited as well; because there are mutterings that Harry and Sarah could return to ITV next year in a full series of investigations – an idea that has its roots in the opening pages of my novel. I can’t help thinking the showman in the real Harry Price would approve of this idea.
“Would you possibly sign a copy of the book?” I ask Spall. He is such a warm and friendly man so I have no idea why I feel awkward asking this. I needn’t. He graciously takes the novel from me and thoughtfully inscribes a personal message.
Watching him, I wonder what the future holds. Whether there will be more episodes of Harry Price: Ghost Hunter remains to be seen. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: Harry and Sarah’s journey will continue on the page because I have just been commissioned by my publisher to write a sequel to The Ghost Hunters.
I tell Spall this as he hands me back my book. The cameras are about to roll again. Just before walking back into shot, back into my story world, Spall promises to keep my character safe. I believe he will.
Orginally published in The Guardian 14/12/15