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Richard Osman’s common people Britain's gerontocrats would rather live in a TV show

is he (Pointless)?


September 14, 2022   5 mins

In 1984, Clive James tabled the Barry Manilow Law: no-one you know likes Barry Manilow, while the rest of the world worships the ground on which he walks. This adage can now be updated. Until very recently, I didn’t know anyone who had read Richard Osman’s books; I didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone who had read them.

But everyone else in Britain must have. He’s now sold five million copies of them, and at moments has enjoyed an almost Beatles-esque literary ubiquity, topping the hardback and paperback bestseller charts simultaneously. And like the early Beatles’ albums, he’s cranked them out at a prolific (and commercially auspicious) rate. The first of The Thursday Murder Club mysteries came out in September 2020, and the second almost a year later to the day. Right on cue, the third, The Bullet that Missed is out this week. And like its predecessors, it is set to be one of the bestselling books in British history.

The famous novelist who is famous for being something else — a newscaster, cook, or dress-designer — is no great novelty. And though he’s clear that he didn’t want to be seen as having “dashed out a celebrity novel”, Osman is clearly not in the writing game for the garret and the overdraft: his first two books went for a seven-figure advance. But while Graham Norton, Jeremy Vine and Richard Coles bashed it out, took the cheque, and returned to the loftier heights of their primary career, Osman has refused to stop writing.

If you’ve been entertained in Britain over the last 25 years, you’ll be familiar with Osman, whether you realise it or not. If, in the Noughties, you saw a deal-broking, sombre-talking Noel Edmonds conjuring numbers out of red boxes — Osman was behind the camera, as a producer. Or, if you only caught the aquatic soft-play of Total Wipeout or the “anarchic” nastiness of 8 Out of 10 Cats, go back and check the credits. Executive producer: Richard Osman.

But this was all mere preludial before Osman’s imperial, front-of-house period. First, still behind a desk if not behind the scenes, as Pointless’s toothy sage of arcane trivia, before spinning off solo with Richard Osman’s House of Games. And in the past few years, the written word has also become an integrated province of Greater Osmania. If you can clamber past the cardboard Osman display set in the Waterstones window, the life-size Osman cut-out in the doorway, you’ll find only pyramids of Osman hardbacks, themselves overshadowed by the broader Teotihuacans of shiny Osman paperbacks.

He was already on television every single day. The face and the name, every night of the week just around teatime — flick on the old crystal bucket and there he is, in the slot of warm, cuddly, wisecracking nerd. Like Stephen Fry, a camera-loving Cantab whose intelligence is attractive rather than intimidating — indeed, Osman is seriously fanciable according to various samples of “which celebrity d’you wanna shag” psephology.

Heat magazine’s weirdest crush (2011) has also been aided by a campaign of epic salesmanship. First the Tube posters, the chat show slots, the free books given away to NHS workers, and the personal “brand manager” appointed to Osman by his publisher. And then the blurbing splurge and the endorsements from Britain’s popular intelligentsia which gush across the covers of Osman’s books. Adam Kay (“achingly British”), Marian Keyes (“VERY funny”) and this slightly scary recommendation from Philippa Perry: “I didn’t ever want to finish this book!” It would be too easy to envy such a spectacle, and several reviewers have given into the temptation. But Osman’s success has rippled overseas (number two in Japan). He can’t be written off as some self-inflating industry balloon.

So what of the books? Like the rest of Osman’s oeuvre, they’re very entertaining, and make smart use of the winning ingredients of British popular fiction. The setting, Osman’s Hogwarts or Malory Towers, is one of Britain’s few remaining growth industries: an old-age home in Kent called Coopers Chase. Living there are Osman’s Famous Five — Ron, Joyce, Elizabeth and Ibrahim — who set up the Thursday Murder Club, an extra-curricular group dedicated to solving cold murder cases. They have help from local bobbies Chris and Donna, and shadowy figures from their own pasts. The result is something like a cross between The Archers and Spooks, with Elizabeth, a kind of female James Bond in retirement, lending proceedings a touch of Cold War, gun-in-the-handbag glamour.

Osman isn’t a multifaceted or complex writer. His villains stalk the night-terrors of the middle-class imagination: a drug baroness, teenage hoodlums, tax-avoiders and, most horrifying of all, a gauche property developer. And in the background lurk the clichĂ©s of broader thrillerdom: Colombian drug smugglers, the New York mafia, dodgy Albanians. This is all smoothed under a tone of relentless comic bathos, raising the stakes of a murder before dropping you back down to quaint, twee, pensioner earth. So, meet this fearsome former Russian spy, sometime head of the Leningrad KGB, who is on the phone to a call centre trying to get Virgin Media to show this week’s Bake Off. Or: on the road, racing after our perp — but can’t we please stop for the loo, my bladder’s really not what it used to be.

These deflationary gags, honed on the panel show, are good for a half-hour, not for 400 pages. It has been labelled “cosy crime”, godless and largely un-romantic. When sex rears its head, it keeps its hat on (all of Osman’s oldsters are rather horny, but only in the manner of a wistful dotage). Even his criminals hardly swear. In place of such grandiosity or indelicacy are jokes, daytime telly references, warmth, and a steady, mellow banality.

You can’t attain such heights of popularity without trouble. And while Osman would always face aesthetic attack (most crime novelists do), some suppose his popularity comes with political responsibilities. One notable attack from the Left accused him of a kind of bourgeois sentimentality, projecting a too-tranquil provincial England where the police aren’t corrupt or violent enough and which neglects the “cruel and authoritarian” truth of Conservative rule.

Whether or not the Kent police really need defunding, the Thursday Murder Club series is certainly not politically radical. From Agatha Christie onwards, as the historian Alison Light has argued, English crime has always contained a strand of deep conservatism, suspending a cyclical, domestic space of puzzles and resolutions at a safe remove from the anxieties of modernity. With Osman, this can be even more robustly applied. His pensioner-vigilantes are literally bubbled away from the threats of the contemporary world, even more so than Christie’s middle-class assassins. His goal is entertainment, not critique or attack. The “whip-smart” millennial novelist can angrily deconstruct online sexual politics as much as they like; in Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice, one of the inconsequential running gags is Joyce’s new Instagram account, @GreatJoy69, and the slew of unsolicited messages and pictures it attracts.

The truth is that Osman’s characters, readers and viewers are the same constituency: Britain’s comfortable gerontocrats. Everything that I associate with being and feeling modern — atomisation, digital culture, urban space, irony — is absent from these books. They’re not for me; they’re for the shrinking number of people who still reliably get their laughs and news from television. And Osman knows this is his gift. “My whole career is formats, really,” he told the Guardian, from Deal or No Deal to The Bullet that Missed.

The scale of his success tells us some things we know already: we’re getting older, we’re retelling the same stories, rehashing the same jokes. But it’s also a reminder that for the vast swell of people, a good time looks a bit like an endless panel show: inconsequential, cringey and hopelessly trite; but good-natured, and conscious of a collective national mesh of humour and sympathies which we are sometimes of in danger of forgetting.

That’s no reason to head out to mourn Western civilisation. The great hope for Osman’s books may be the news that broke soon after his first started breaking records: Steven Spielberg is to adapt it for the screen (producer: Richard Osman). In the hands of Spielberg — a technical master of his medium in a way that Osman will unfortunately never be — the true role of stories like this will become plain. Not to sermonise or uncover the economic basis of society, but to move and thrill the common heart.


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Mat G
Mat G
1 year ago

Pointless article

Last edited 1 year ago by Mat G
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

Everything that I associate with being and feeling modern — atomisation, digital culture, urban space, irony
Irony? Really? A modern concept? Have you every seen or heard a modern “progressive” being ironic? Unless, of course, I just haven’t understood it all and the whole kit and caboodle is meant to be ironic.

Scraps deSelby-Bowen
Scraps deSelby-Bowen
1 year ago

He rolls his eyes at Tristram Shandy.

Mark Eltringham
Mark Eltringham
1 year ago
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

Exactly.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

I can’t help but think the writer is reading too much into these books. They aren’t written to be deep and meaningful masterpieces, they’re a bit of light entertainment the same as Osmans other work, and at that they’re done quite well

Richard Barnes
Richard Barnes
1 year ago

Richard Osman’s books are a little bit of fun to lighten our dark days. No need for an exegesis.

em gee
em gee
1 year ago

I love his books. Just take them for what they are, entertaining and lighthearted. Speaking as one who knows, the descriptions of the elderly residents of the complex are pretty accurate!

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
1 year ago

I’m puzzled as to the main point of this article. Is the writer motivated by envy? The implication throughout is that Richard Osman is somehow a lightweight, who’s just pushed his way into the various fields in which he’s been successful; but anyone who’s followed him for some time must know that he is extremely intelligent, and (quite obviously) very hard-working. There’s a certain amount of spite in the article as well: why the continual references to Osman’s teeth?

mark revelle
mark revelle
1 year ago

Has Mr Harris ever written a successful novel? Or, especially, a light, comic novel? His scattergun arguments supporting his case – which amount to what: Osman’s books are lightweight? – are feeble and unfocused.The article is a waste of space. But Mr Harris should be specifically corrected on one point. Osman can write (hard) he can write comedy (very hard) and he can write a comic novel which succeeds at every level.(Very rare).
Osman’s works might not be to Mr Harris’ taste – so much the worse for him, but really, who cares?

Scraps deSelby-Bowen
Scraps deSelby-Bowen
1 year ago

They’re not for me”
Apparently. So why review? If it’s for you, and it’s not up to snuff, that’s interesting. If it’s just not for you, and you denigrate it anyway, you’re really reviewing the people who like it: not interesting, and telling, about you.

David Croll
David Croll
1 year ago

You need to do better research. Graham Norton has written five novels with the latest out this month.

Mark Goodge
Mark Goodge
1 year ago

I can’t help hearing an undercurrent of the green-eyed monster in this article. Yes, Richard Osman’s work is, essentially, at the lighter end of the entertainment spectrum. But it works. I enjoy a lot of his output (both as producer, presenter and, now, author), and I’m not eligible for the gerousia yet.
I don’t necessarily enjoy all of it equally; I think that House of Games is better than Wipeout and, if the second book in the series is anything to go by, I think he’ll struggle to make the Thursday Murder Club a long-running series – the big reveal of the first book, Elizabeth’s past (which has already been spoiled by the article above, so I don’t feel the need to put in a warning here), is, obviously, up-front in the second and that changes the dynamic considerably.
But Osman has, nonetheless, been phenomenally sucessful at, it seems, nearly everything he has tried his hand at. And it’s easy to see how that can arouse a certain amount of professional resentment among those who have not attained a similar level. But maybe anyone writing about Osman should do a better job of concealing it.

Thorunn Sleight
Thorunn Sleight
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Goodge

Osman has already announced that he intends the Thursday Murder Club to be a four book series, so you needn’t worry. Having read all three of the series so far, I think his judgement is sound, and that the concept has exactly that much in it. Which isn’t a diss by any means; too many novelists draw their series out long after they should have dued a natural death.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

I’m not ashamed to admit that the moment Osman’s face pops up on screen as i turn on the telly around “early evening news” time, i react quicker than a world-class sprinter out of the blocks in pressing the Guide feature on the remote to remove his visage, which i frankly find myself unable to look at. What that would tell a psychologist i’ve no idea and i don’t care!

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Mark Goodge
Mark Goodge
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Why don’t you just start on a different channel?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Goodge

It’s not the last thing i think of when switching off, plus it’d deny me the chance to retain trigger finger skills, which come in handy for when the adverts start on commercial channels.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Chris Parkins
Chris Parkins
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

You watch television live? Wow

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

I was in the same boat as the author until last month, when Mrs U became an Osman reader. She saw it at our daughter in law’s and borrowed it. (Confirming the article’s theme, d-i-l hadn’t actually read it herself.)
Mrs U, a retired English teacher, said it was good.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Thanks for the inadvertently good review! Just ordered The Man Who Died Twice.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Which of Osman’s books is being adapted by Spielberg?

Scraps deSelby-Bowen
Scraps deSelby-Bowen
1 year ago

Condescend much? To the world?

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

I have absolutely no idea who this man is.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

At 5’10”, if I stood on a pile of his three books would I be able to look him in the eye to tell him I like the tv show House of Games?

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

where the book is set, says it all: Kent, the veritable epicentre of petit bourgeois Pooterism!