By my calculation, the BBC adapted 14 of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels, but this changed after On Beulah Height. The producers decided to write Ellie Pascoe out of the TV series (in the storyline, Pascoe and Ellie divorce, and she moves to the USA with daughter Rosie). If memory serves, Susannah Corbett’s other acting commitments were cited as an excuse for writing her out. It was a mistake, and my own feeling was that television at the time was nervous of complexity, and a strong woman in the teleplay was just too demanding. And Reg Hill did write wonderfully strong, vibrant women – even his apparently weak females are capable of whipping round and slapping you about the chops with your stereotypical notions. Susannah Corbett met Reg and Pat Hill at the press launch of Dalziel and Pascoe. ‘As I walked in,’ she told me, ‘two very normal and unassuming looking people (quite out of place for a press launch) accosted me, shouting “It’s Ellie – you’re just how we imagined you.” That remains the greatest compliment I have ever been paid.’ It was typical, too of Reg’s generosity of spirit.
When Arms and the Women was published in the USA, Random House had a Q&A on their website. Asked for his thoughts on the TV adaptations, Reg paid tribute to the skills of the actors, directors and scriptwriters, but added, ‘TV is too self-absorbed to enter into an equal partnership. You start close and cosy enough but soon you realize you’re not getting your fair share of the duvet and one day you wake to find you’re lying at the very edge of the bed, totally exposed to the chill morning air.’ I laughed when I read this, but I laughed harder at Reg’s response when he was asked at a conference how he felt about the loss of Ellie from the TV adaptations. The TV producers had made their decision: Ellie was gone, Rosie was gone, and there was nothing Reg could do about it. We would have forgiven him for raging – many of the audience were fuming on his behalf – but Reg made his point far more eloquently and decisively, and with his trademark wit. He said he decided to write his next novel centred firmly on Ellie. I remember the wicked gleam in his eye as Reg looked around the audience. ‘Adapt that!’ he said.
Adaptation was clearly impossible: in Arms and the Women, Peter Pascoe and ‘Fat Andy’ do investigate, but for once they play a relatively minor role in the drama. Instead, Hill surrounds Ellie Pascoe with a whole hoard of strong-minded women and packs them off to a Victorian mansion. Ellie and her daughter, their police minder, a close friend of Ellie’s, the mansion house owner and the cook, all women – even the border collie is a bitch. When they meet for the first time, Feenie, the mansion house owner, tells Rosie not to worry about keeping her (male) dog on the leash: ‘Carla will set him right if he misbehaves. That is one of the reasons God put bitches on the earth, to keep unruly dogs in order.’ Interspersed with the action is a female voice, nicknamed Sibyl – a prophetess in mythology – in the story, a collector of truths, instrument of an unpleasant and manipulative man, but Sibyl, too has power at her fingertips, and as with all of Reg’s female characters, should not be underestimated.
Reg Hill’s regard for Ellie Pascoe is evident in his writing, and in his pleasure at seeing her portrayed so well in the TV series, but reader opinion on Ellie Pascoe has always been divided. She is fiercely intelligent, political, stroppy, sexy, complicated, sometimes conflicted – and completely her own woman. Some readers hate that; some, like me, love it – and her – and Reg Hill for creating her.
Margaret Murphy is the author of nine psychological thrillers. She is the founder of Murder Squad, and was Chair of the CWA in 2009-10. Her story, The Message, has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Short Story Dagger 2012.