“I’m no longer trying to be Alexander the Great” – Rory Stewart gets real
Richard Osman loves his mum so much that he bought her a new home – but just like in The Thursday Murder Club, the first of his hugely popular series of murder mystery novels, this story has a massive plot twist.
“I made a bit of money and there was this quite upscale retirement village near where my mum lived,” he begins to explain in the deep, amiable tones we know so well from the quiz shows Pointless and House of Games.
“A few of her posh friends moved in so I said: ‘OK, Mum, you’ve given me your all, everything I’ve had in life I owe to you, so I’ll give you this. Let’s get you a place there.’”
That was an exceptionally generous thing for a son to do, but as we meet to discuss his latest book, The Last Devil To Die, it is clear that Richard, 52, is still full of gratitude towards his mother – and for good reason.
Schoolteacher Brenda Wright brought up her two sons on her own, after Richard’s father, David, walked out on the family. Richard was just nine at the time, his brother Mat was 12. The boys were never really reconciled with their father before his death seven years ago. Money was tight, but there was a lot of love in their house in Cuckfield, West Sussex, and both boys found success: Mat grew up to play bass in the band Suede and Richard went into television, where a gift for playing games allowed him to become the backstage genius behind massive shows such as Deal or No Deal and Survivor.
He was persuaded to step in front of the camera himself in 2009 while demonstrating how a dry, sardonic co-host holding all the answers would work well alongside his old university friend Alexander Armstrong on a quiz he had made up called Pointless.
This genial giant, who stands 6ft 7in in his socks, has learned to deal with his height – and the way everyone turns to look at him when he walks in a room – by developing a soothing, gentle manner that made him a hit with viewers. He looks and sounds like a natural on screen, partly because he’s often making it up on the spot – the eye condition nystagmus leaves everything in soft focus and makes an autocue a blur.
“The time of your life when you have the most wisdom and the most experience – and the most time on your hands – is when you’re a little bit older, right?”
Yet despite this TV success, Richard still credits being good to his mum as the moment that changed his life.
“She settled into her new home in a heartbeat – it’s really pretty, you can see the South Downs, there are lakes, there are birds overhead,” he says, returning to the story.
“With the sort of brain I have, I immediately thought: ‘Well, this would be an amazing place for a murder. It feels like you’re in an Agatha Christie book.’
“Then I met all the really interesting people who lived around her and they were chatting away and I thought: ‘Well, if there was a murder then I know you lot would solve it.’ So that’s where the idea for The Thursday Murder Club came from: a group of older people using their life experience to solve a killing.”
The novel became the first hardback in history to sell a million copies in its first year. So the twist in the tale is that having splashed out so lovingly, he was rewarded with a flash of inspiration for a series of books whose sales now rival those of JK Rowling and Dan Brown.
“That was quite an investment,” he jokes. “I bought the place and it paid off almost immediately – and many times over since!”
Steven Spielberg has secured the film rights to the book, but Richard reveals that strikes in Hollywood have slowed things down for now.
“It was going great,” he says. “They were due to start filming this autumn, but it’s not happening yet. It breaks your heart, the film-making process. It’s a rollercoaster, so I have learned my lesson, which is not to get involved. I’m trying not to invest any more emotional energy into worrying about when it will come out or who’s going to be in it.” Nobody has been cast yet, he confirms. “It’s a lovely parlour game; anyone who reads the books can immediately cast it in their head.”
The four main characters in all of his novels are former nurse Joyce, who keeps a diary; bolshy trade unionist Ron; thoughtful psychiatrist Ibrahim; and the bossy Elizabeth, who happens to have been a spy. “I thought I had invented that idea but a year later Mum said: ‘Yeah, we had a couple of spies here.’ So that was good to know.”
The Last Devil to Die begins with the brutal killing of an antiques dealer.
“So far the reviews have said it is the best yet, which is lovely because I’m always terrified,” Richard admits. “This is certainly the most emotional yet. There’s still wit and laughs in there but we dive deeper into the characters. I put them through the emotional wringer a bit.”
Dementia and grief touch their lives this time. “Please be assured, though, there are still plenty of murders,” he adds. “I can absolutely guarantee that – there’s heroin smuggling, there are forgers, there’s romance fraud, so enough crime to be getting on with.”
The retirement village in the books, called Cooper’s Chase, is in the fictitious village of Fairhaven in Kent. Understandably, Richard doesn’t want to reveal the exact location of his mum’s retirement village that inspired it but, as in fiction, it is a former convent with a bowling green, tennis courts and a restaurant on site. The residents meet to discuss books and art as opposed to murders.
“I saw that this was a generation who had become slightly invisible, so I wanted to do something about that,” he says. “But I also understood that being invisible is a great skill for a detective. These four characters can go anywhere and do anything without anyone paying them much attention.”
The Thursday Murder Club and its sequels highlight how valuable older people can be in society, even if it disregards them.
“The time of your life when you have the most wisdom and the most experience – and the most time on your hands – is when you’re a little bit older, right?” he says. “You’ve seen so many things, you’ve done so many things, you can give so much, but you’re also just at the point where people go: ‘Oh, we don’t need you any more.’ What a waste of talent and experience and mischief.”
He does see a change, though.
“People who are 80 now were teenagers in the 1960s,” he says. “This is a group of people who are used to thinking outside the box, they are not going to get locked away like previous generations. They are able to say: ‘We’re going to make our older age what we’d like it to be.’ If the books can help with that in any way, I will be delighted.”
So, is he mobbed by the residents when he goes back to see his mother? “They’re way too cool for that – the truth is, they pitch me murders,” he laughs. “‘There’s a concert hall in town being turned into flats, feels like a motive for murder there, Richard.’ It’s all fine. They know they are at the heart of this thing, but they are honestly too cool to go on about it.”
How about his mum’s status in the village? “There’s a phenomenon at university we used to call Big Name On Campus. She plays it cool, but people know who she is.”
As if all this wasn’t enough, there has been another huge change in Richard’s life lately, namely marriage. He met Ingrid Oliver – an actor best known for being in Doctor Who – on the set of House of Games in 2020.
“Our first date is all on camera,” he smiles. “I said in my wedding speech that sometimes you remember the first words you ever said to the person you love and in this case it was, ‘I’m looking for two words that rhyme. What is the capital of Venezuela? And what are wooden instruments played by shaking?’ And I remember she turned to me and she said, ‘Caracas and maracas.’”
They nearly didn’t get any further than that, though. “I never really go for drinks after filming House of Games but we’d had a great day and I was thinking: ‘How do I keep this conversation with Ingrid going?’” he recalls. “Sir Matthew Pinsent was another guest, and you know what rowers are like – as we were walking back to the hotel he just said: ‘Come on guys, we’re gonna have a drink outside, aren’t we?’ I was like [sighing with gratitude]: ‘Oh, thank you, Sir Matthew.’” Covid restrictions were in place. “We all sat socially distanced at a little table: me, Sir Matthew Pinsent, [comedian] Ed Byrne and Ingrid. And the rest is history.”
The couple married in December 2022 at Goodwood House in West Sussex, stately home of the Duke of Richmond. “I walked down the aisle to Lose Yourself by Eminem – ‘You only get one shot.’ Ingrid went down the aisle to The Long and Winding Road by The Beatles. There was not a dry eye in the house.”
How did he feel? “It was the best day of my life,” he says. “It was everything we dreamed of. We had friends there from school, university and every stage of our lives. It’s nice getting married later in life, because everyone trusts it. Everyone’s like: ‘Oh yeah, this is for real. This is gonna last.’”
Richard had been married before, but divorced in 2007. He has two children, Ruby and Sonny, who are in their twenties. “They both walked down the aisle with me, which was really lovely. My son was my best man. He made an absolute barnstormer of a speech. He was in a room full of comedians and comedy writers and actors, and he absolutely aced it.”
Despite being at the top of his game, has writing about older people made Richard think about the years to come? “Yeah, I definitely think about that,” he says. “I think the key point is how important it is to have new experiences when you are older in life, be around new people, to guard oneself from loneliness.” He checks himself for a moment. “If you’re the sort of person who’s happy shutting yourself away in your house then great, I get it, that’s 100% fine. But if you’re not, then I think finding a group of people to be around is really important.”
The man who is used to holding all the answers has worked out what he wants as he grows older: “Community is absolutely the heart of the thing. People, community, laughter, entertainments, game-playing, that’s what I would like to have.”
The Last Devil to Die (Viking, £22) is out now