With a string of hit TV shows to his name, and now the UK’s biggest book series, Richard Osman towers above mainstream culture. He tells us it’s a way to sneak some kindness and decency into public life
On the set of Richard Osman’s House of Games. Image: BBC Pictures
As we’ve waded through Brexit, partygate and culture wars, it’s sometimes been hard to remember there was once a vision of English decency. The loudest voices have too frequently been bullish, boorish or both. But as the tributes to Queen Elizabeth showed, there are a huge number of people who still aspire to those old-fashioned values. For those looking to celebrate the better side of the English national character, Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series has been a boon. Sure, there are some violent deaths in there, but they happen in a world where politeness is valued, intelligence respected, people are treated as human beings no matter their age or background, and there’s still a real sense of community. There’s also a great deal of cake.
“We live in a culture that is rewarding loudness and stupidity,” Osman acknowledges with a resigned sigh. “Social media has done something to our culture, which I don’t think will endure but, at the moment, we’re right at the heart of it. The people who shout loudest are getting the most attention because that’s the way that social media works. Someone hating what you say is just as valid as someone loving what you say.
“There are certain contrarians on Twitter and on Facebook who say something outrageous because they know that you’ll reply. And when they’ve had 1,000 replies, the person who’s in charge of their newspaper will be happy because that’s 1,000 clicks on a link to that newspaper. I think that’s the business model of newspapers today. So all you can do is ignore it.”
If you take your head out of the social media pit, though, Osman still has faith in the vast majority. “When you look out the train window or you’re walking down the streets, most people are pretty decent,” he insists.
It’s those people that he wants to capture in his books. A crew of septuagenarians living together in a rural retirement village inspired by Osman’s mum’s community, the heroes of TheThursday Murder Club are unexpected sleuths. Friendly chatterbox Joyce is a retired nurse, steely Elizabeth has (at least in theory) left behind life as a spy, blokeish Ron is a former trade union boss and intellectual Ibrahim was a university professor. “You wouldn’t want to mess with any of them,” says Osman. “But they’ve all come from a place of kindness and empathy.”
They’re a deliberate attempt, he adds, to “promote empathy, promote kindness, promote strength, promote looking after each other”. They also strike a blow against the invisibility of older people in our society.
“It’s important to put people over 70 at the heart of our culture, because they’re not at the heart of our culture. Everyone’s obsessed with young people, which I get because they’re the ones who you can persuade to buy things,” says Osman. “But as a crime writer, if you have detectives who are invisible, but wise? I mean, that’s perfect. They can open any door, they can open any mind. They can question any suspect because everyone thinks they’re harmless. In terms of being a detective, being invisible but wise is the perfect combination.”
It’s an ethos that hundreds of thousands of people were waiting for, it seems. The books have catapulted the 51-year-old former Pointless quizmaster to become the country’s most popular author. From its vantage point at every supermarket entrance around the land, The Thursday Murder Club, the novel that started it all, has now sold more than a million copies. People shout story ideas at Osman in the street. Steven Spielberg is working on the film adaptation. Ahead of its release this month, The Bullet That Missed, the third in the series, overtook Barack Obama’s memoir to become Penguin Random House’s most pre-ordered audiobook ever.
Affably towering over mainstream entertainment – he’s 6ft 7in – Osman makes it all look effortless. This is a man who not only came up with the concept for Pointless, he also produced Deal or No Deal, 8 Out of 10 Cats and 10 O’Clock Live.
Yet he insists: “A mainstream hit is the hardest thing to have in the world. Having a critical hit is sort of easy – well, it is easier. But having a proper big mainstream hit is very, very, very difficult. You have to care about the audience. But then you have to give them something special as well. You must give them something that makes them feel better about themselves when they finish watching or reading than when they started.”
We have more in common than that sets us apart. But we do live in a society where the dice are very, very loaded still
There are two things people get wrong about him, says Osman. First that he’s posh, and second that he’s especially clever. In fact, he says, neither is true. And that’s the core of his superpower in generating big hits.
“I didn’t grow up in a household where there was opera and ballet and difficult literature and all these things. I grew up in a big working-class family and a low-income family,” he explains. “Now, I could not be more middle class. It means there isn’t a part of society that I can’t really access.
“When you move through the class system, obviously the working class is full of amazing people and full of idiots, and the middle class is full of amazing people and full of idiots. But you can usually see both sides of the fence. I think that’s quite useful for writing. In The Thursday Murder Club there are two middle-class characters and two working-class characters, and I love to switch between them. We have much more in common than that sets us apart. But we do live in a society where the dice are very, very loaded still. Hopefully I have a perspective on that.”
Osman’s dad walked out on the family when he was nine, leaving him with his mum Brenda, who went on to train as a teacher, and his big brother Mat – now the bassist in Suede. Osman looks back fondly on the early days of the band, whose ninth studio album Autofiction came out the day after The Bullet That Missed. “I remember Brett [Anderson, Suede singer] and Mat at 16 years old. Long before they were Suede. It was so exciting for me because I’m not a rock star type at all. It’s been a lovely story to watch from the sidelines.”
While Osman insists he’s “not that clever”, he says his big brother is something else. “He will always be the senior brother in every possible way. He’s much cleverer than me. I bow to no one in my admiration of my brother. He’s the best brother, very much.”
As Mat’s star rose through the pages of NME, Richard also found his place in popular culture, working behind the scenes as a television executive. From the age of 29, he was at Big Brother creators Endemol, leaving in 2020 after over 20 years with the company. It was while he was there that he came up with the idea for Pointless, and accidentally found himself on presenting duties after standing in as the assistant in a demonstration. His onscreen chemistry with close friend and Cambridge University buddy Alexander Armstrong has elevated the show above the competition.
Osman broke news of his departure from the show in April and his final episode was screened in July, prompting an outburst of affection from fans on social media. But on the day it was filmed only Armstrong and he knew it was goodbye. It was an emotional day.
“Xander is very dear to me, and the team is very dear to me,” says Osman. “I just don’t have time to do it because of the books and you do have to move on in life sometimes. But it’s an immense privilege to have done that show for 12 years. And for it to get the reaction it has. In life, if you’re lucky enough to work with talented, kind people, whenever it ends, you just have to kind of stick it in your back pocket, don’t you, and carry it around with you. It’s something that I’m very, very glad came into my life.”
As well as big changes in his professional life, Osman is also about to marry his girlfriend, actor Ingrid Oliver, best known as Petronella Osgood in Doctor Who. “We’re one of the few couples who both have dolls made of us,” he laughs. “You know, I’ve got House of Games dolls of me, she’s got Osgood dolls.”
Perfect for the top of the wedding cake, then? “It would save us some money on getting them made out of fondant, wouldn’t it?”
As the couple gets ready to settle into marital bliss, Osman is already planning the fourth Thursday Murder Club story. Though he’s keen to explore some other sorts of crime fiction in the future (“much as I’d like to write something gritty and serial killer-y, I think there’s always going to be some humour at the heart of it”), he says Joyce and the crew will never be far away.
“I love these characters. I love the world they’re in. And I love the reaction to them. So I’m going to do [book] four, then maybe do something else for a year, but they will definitely be coming back,” he says. “They’re not going anywhere, anytime soon. So for anyone who loves The Thursday Murder Club, they’ll be sticking around for some time.
“I’m hoping I’m going to be writing for the next 30 years, so hopefully there’s lots of fun things ahead.”