'We like a bad boy, don’t we?' Ian Rankin on the rebirth of a dark and gritty Rebus (2024)

Rebus is back. Yet, this is not Rebus, the gruff, tough Edinburgh police detective as many of us know him from the pages of Sir Ian Rankin’s much-beloved crime novels or through the myriad TV, radio and stage adaptations over the years.

This is an entirely different incarnation of Rebus. A bold reimagining of the character who first graced Rankin’s books in the late-1980s. One set in a contemporary Scotland awash with social issues, inequality and class wars. This is Rebus: 2024 edition. Buckle up …

It’s a Monday lunchtime in late April and over Zoom, Rankin and the writer Gregory Burke are talking me through the premise of Rebus, a new six-part series due to begin on BBC Scotland this week.

Outlander star Richard Rankin follows in the footsteps of John Hannah and Ken Stott to play the titular detective in the TV reboot. Filmed in Scotland last year, its cast includes Stuart Bowman, Lucie Shorthouse, Brian Ferguson, Sean Buchanan, Caroline Lee-Johnson and Amy Manson.

The gritty drama will lay bare Rebus’s formative years as a younger detective sergeant and the key events that shaped him as he is “drawn into a violent criminal conflict that turns personal when his brother Michael, a former soldier, crosses the line into criminality”.


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As the author Rankin, 64, himself puts it, this is “a Rebus who is younger, fitter and tougher, who doesn’t have the health issues that my guy has got in the books now. So, in a way, we have the Rebus from the early books who is quite macho, tough and physical.”

Burke, 55, whose past work includes the seminal National Theatre of Scotland play Black Watch, as well as the pacey thrillers ’71 and Six Four, is the man tasked with bringing the complex and curmudgeon John Rebus to life for a contemporary TV audience.

When the project was announced in late 2022, there was an initial misconception that it might be a period piece set in the 1980s, in keeping with the timeline of Rankin’s books (Rebus was 40 when he first appeared in the 1987 debut Knots and Crosses).

That was never the intention, clarifies Burke. “There was some erroneous press about it being ‘young Rebus’ as if it was a leap back,” he says. “When I got approached to do it, for me, it was always about writing about Scotland now.

“Finding a way of taking the iconic character of Rebus and placing him in contemporary Scotland. Using the books, the characters and the world Ian has created - using as many elements as possible from that - but at the same time finding a contemporary way of doing it.”

Rankin takes up the thread. “We have set it in contemporary times so we can talk about social issues,” he explains. “To talk about the fact that a lot of people are struggling, why they are struggling and what ends they will sometimes go to put some food on the table.

“Also in the early books, when Gregory and I went back and looked at them, I started to feel I had gotten rid of Rebus’s brother Michael too cheaply. I had let him vanish from the picture when there is so much more I could have done with their relationship and with him as a character.

'We like a bad boy, don’t we?' Ian Rankin on the rebirth of a dark and gritty Rebus (1)Gregory Burke and Richard Rankin (Image: free)

“We locked onto that quite early on,” says Rankin. “This is a story of family and a story of brothers who love each other but could end up destroying each other. Set in this contemporary world, one living in Fife and one living in Edinburgh.

“There is almost a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on between the pair of them. The sense that Rebus’s life and his brother’s life were very close at one point, then they shot in different directions and fate has conspired to bring them back together again.”

Rankin and Burke are a gregarious double act, hugely comfortable in each other’s company. There is a strong mutual respect, something they both touch on as stemming partly from their common ground as fellow Fifers from similar backgrounds.

Asked about their working relationship - both are executive producers on the series - Rankin swiftly quips, “What I do is I hand everything over to Gregory, then I sit back and let him do all the hard work …”, prompting Burke to burst out laughing.

It is a conversation packed with wry humour, sage insight and unflinching commentary on modern-day Scotland. So, what can we expect? Here is everything you need to know about Rebus, its characters, plotline and a sneak peek at what went on behind-the-scenes.


Burke speaks frankly when asked whether he felt any pressure bringing such a popular Scots literary character to a TV audience in a way we haven’t seen before. “It is quite nerve-racking,” he admits. “Because there are a lot of people to disappoint. I understand that.

“The real key to it for me, though, is what Ian has mentioned; Rebus is a literary character and he stands in a continuum of not just Scottish, but Edinburgh literature. That Edinburgh literature is all about duality. It is about ‘public probity and private vice.’”

This, says Burke, brought to mind 19th-century gothic tales, such as the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson or The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg.

“I think Ian writes in that continuum,” he asserts. “I realised this had to be something about duality - that Caledonian Antisyzygy.”

In this vein, says Burke, he believes that within Rebus the most powerful duality is “inequality, particularly in a city like Edinburgh which is a very prosperous place and has almost shrugged off the last 20 years.

“It is a boom town. Even now, everywhere is getting rebuilt. It is one of those places that just seems to sail on, but there is also terrible inequality as well. There is terrible poverty and lots of people are struggling, particularly in the last few years.

“[Rebus’s brother] Michael is at the sharp end of that, while Rebus’s ex-wife Rhona has crossed to the other side, where she is in a very privileged space. Then we have the policeman, Rebus, in the middle.”

'We like a bad boy, don’t we?' Ian Rankin on the rebirth of a dark and gritty Rebus (2)Rankin and Buke on set of the new Rebus (Image: free)


Rebus is a character that Rankin has lived with for almost 40 years. It was a premise that the author coined in 1985, with his debut novel published two years later. How does it feel when someone else is writing about the world of Rebus?

“I have done it before, I guess,” he muses. “There have been TV and radio adaptations. I’m not so precious that I don’t think other people can have a kick of the ball.

“Gregory, I have known for years. I smiled when I encountered his first play, Gagarin Way, because my bus to school in the morning went past Gagarin Way. It is a street in Lumphinnans in Fife. The school bus from Cardenden to Cowdenbeath used to go by Gagarin Way.

“It tickled me that there is a street in Lumphinnans named after a Russian cosmonaut. So, when I saw the title of that play, I went, ‘No way, this guy must be from Fife …’ I was expecting a play about astronauts, obviously, but that wasn’t quite what I got.”

Burke laughs. “Lots of people were,” he says, referring to his 2001 work about the Fife former mining village’s history as a hotbed of radical socialism. Rankin grins, a twinkle in his eye. “You mis-sold it to me, you bugger,” he jokes.

The author returns to his earlier train of thought. “I’m a long-time fan of Gregory’s writing and he writes very well about this facade of tough guy, macho Scottish masculinity,” continues Rankin.

“The fact it is a facade and once you get past it, there are all kinds of interesting complexities waiting to be explored. It is a very simple face that many men of that generation and that class present to the world in the hope that they won’t be found out and it is enough.”

That rings true, he says, for John Rebus and his brother Michael, as well as characters such as “Big Ger” Cafferty, a notorious Edinburgh gangster, and Malcolm Fox, a police professional standards investigator with Rebus in his crosshairs.

But, while the TV show puts a fresh spin on the story of Rebus, Rankin promises there is still much that will remain familiar for long-time aficionados of his best-selling novels.

“I think fans at first might go, ‘Oh, okay, young Rebus in the present day …’ but then they will meet Cafferty, they will meet Malcolm Fox, they will see [rookie police detective] Siobhan Clarke and go, ‘It’s the same world, with just a slight twist on it.’”

'We like a bad boy, don’t we?' Ian Rankin on the rebirth of a dark and gritty Rebus (3)Richard Rankin plays the eponymous role as Rebus (Image: free)


The Glasgow-born actor Richard Rankin, who previously worked with Burke on Black Watch and has since gone on to garner global fame thanks to a long-running stint in the hit historical drama Outlander, plays the eponymous role as Rebus.

“I always had Richard in my head when I was writing,” reveals Burke. “Obviously, he had been in Black Watch, so I knew he was a good actor. He was in it for quite a while, and he played several parts. He was really good at humour.

“He can play the drama of it, but he can also be humorous. I always try to write quite a bit of humour. So, I had that idea of Richard as being someone who fitted the mould. He is a leading man-type guy; he has that look and the physicality.

“His performance has been terrific. Absolutely brilliant. In every way, he lived up to that, which was great. He just fitted it perfectly. He also knows my writing and I knew he would get that and when I’m trying to be funny.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Rebus creator Sir Ian Rankin. “Having watched a few of the episodes, I can’t take my eyes off him. I think Richard has an incredibly charismatic screen presence. He is, as Greg has said, a leading man. He is superb.

“And, of course, it helps that he’s my nephew.” Rankin is only jesting, of course. “He’s not really,” he hastily clarifies, referring to the fact they share a surname. “This is something that started because we were following each other on Twitter, as it used to be called.

“People began asking, ‘Are you related?’ Richard would say, ‘Yeah, he’s my uncle’ and I’d go, ‘Yeah, he is my nephew.’ We kept it going. Maybe we should have stopped it at that point because people are now crying nepotism and ‘nepo baby’. But he’s no relation whatsoever.”


I’m curious how closely Rankin and Burke worked together on the TV drama: was there a lot of bouncing ideas off each other?

“One of the amazing things was that Ian basically said to me at the beginning, just do what you want,” says Burke. “Obviously, it was very dangerous to say that to me. Because I will do what I want, but at the same time, Ian was always very open to whatever I wanted to try.

“We would check in, I would send him scripts, he would read them and come back to me. But there was never somebody leaning over my shoulder. It was very liberating. There are a lot of authors who have characters like this who are exactly the opposite, so I feel very lucky.”

It was a process that Rankin clearly felt at ease with too. “We didn’t really have that many meetings just the two of us,” he recounts. “There were a few times where we sat down for a few hours and batted stuff around.

“But I know that writing for the screen and the written word for a novel are very, very different processes and mindsets. And I’m not a great collaborator. So, I was very happy, having given Greg a few steers along the way, to leave him to it because I trusted him. And still do.”

'We like a bad boy, don’t we?' Ian Rankin on the rebirth of a dark and gritty Rebus (4)Ken Stott with Claire Price and John Hannah with Michelle Gomez (Image: free)


Rebus is set to air on the BBC, but was originally commissioned by Viaplay, the Nordic streaming service. With news last summer that Viaplay was set to exit the UK market, there came swirling uncertainty about whether the series might make it to Scottish screens.

Was that a worrying time until the BBC stepped in, or did they always have confidence the project would find a new home?

“They [Viaplay] had committed to making it, they had put the money in, it was nearly done, so that was all good,” says Rankin. “But you want to make sure it goes to the biggest possible audience and the producers had some hard work to do to make sure they got the right deal.”

The pair appear content with how things have panned out. “The BBC is a great place for it,” adds Burke. “We have landed on our feet. But we were always getting to finish it. There was never any danger of that.”


On paper, Rebus shouldn’t be a likeable protagonist. He is a flawed, pessimistic and brooding anti-hero. A maverick and loner who is work-obsessed and frequently blurs the lines with his unorthodox methods. Yet equally, he is humane, exuding heart and good humour.

“We like a bad boy, don’t we?” says Rankin. “Life on Mars. Everybody was supposed to be attracted to the young, modern-day cop [Sam Tyler] who was thrown back to the atavistic 1970s, but we all fell for Gene Hunt, the guy who would give you a punch in the guts, then go home and eat his spaghetti hoops.


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“The thing about Rebus is that I think we always know he is on the side of the angels. He is maybe doing bad things, but he is mostly doing them for the right reasons. As opposed to doing the right things for the wrong reasons.

“He wants results. He wants closure. He is trying to make sense of the world. It is what all novelists and writers do: they try to make sense of the world. Detectives do that in their day-to-day life, so he was the perfect character for me to light upon because he is a projection of me.

“Any questions I have about the way the world is, the way Scotland is, the way human beings are - morality, good and evil, I can give all those big questions to Rebus as a means of investigating them and sometimes even getting a few answers.”


The new TV show features a younger Rebus, yet at the other end of the spectrum we have the character as he appears in the most recent books, now in his seventies.

Rankin’s latest instalment Midnight and Blue, which marks the 25th Inspector Rebus novel, is out in October. People have often asked the author if he would kill Rebus off. Is there potentially scope to wrap up his story as an older detective, yet for a younger version to live on?

“I have tried killing him off,” says Rankin. “At least twice I’ve tried killing him off and he refuses to die. I killed him off at the end of the first draft of the first novel and then he was suddenly back in the second draft.

“When he got to 60, I thought that was the end of him as a character as he can’t be a cop anymore. So, when I retired him at the end of Exit Music, I thought that was it. And yet, he just keeps on going. He is one of these characters who seems to be indestructible.

“I think what I’m doing is hanging on hoping I can get him a happy ending. I’m scrabbling around trying to find him a happy ending, so that I can go on my merry way and leave him in a good place. I don’t want to leave him in a bad place.”

Is Rankin any closer to figuring out how that big send-off for Rebus might look? “A happy ending for him is sitting in the Oxford Bar with a whisky and a pint,” he says. “It’s not exactly the Reichenbach Falls, is it?”

Rebus begins on BBC Scotland, Friday (May 17), 10pm, and on BBC One, next Saturday (May 18), 9.25pm. All episodes available to watch on BBC iPlayer from Friday (May 17) at 6am

'We like a bad boy, don’t we?' Ian Rankin on the rebirth of a dark and gritty Rebus (2024)


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