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'Magpie Murders' star Lesley Manville: 'I’d make a brilliant detective'

Magpie Murders stars Lesley Manville as Sue Ryeland
'Magpie Murders' stars Lesley Manville as Sue Ryeland. (Image credit: Britbox)

As a fan of unconventional women of a certain age, when versatile actor Lesley Manville was cast as stylish and free-spirited book editor Susan Ryeland in Britbox drama Magpie Murders, she knew this was a character she not only liked but would also have a lot of fun playing. 

Based on the book by Foyle’s War creator Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders is an ingenious six-part whodunnit about the death of bestselling author Alan Conway (Conleth Hill), the creator of a fictional 1950s detective, Atticus Pund (Tim McMullan).

In 'Magpie Murders' Lesley Manville stars as book editor Susan Ryeland.

Sue (Lesley Manville) with fictional detective Atticus Pünd (Tim McMullan. (Image credit: ITV)

Susan is excited to receive the manuscript of Conway’s new crime novel Magpie Murders, in which Pund investigates suspected foul play in a sleepy English village.    

After discovering the last chapter is missing, she hears the shocking news that Conway has been found dead. Determined to retrieve the missing pages and learn the truth about what happened to him, Susan turns detective and discovers disturbing parallels between the fictional world of Magpie Murders, which also plays out on screen, and the real-life of its creator. 

Meanwhile, DS Locke (Danny Mays), who bears a striking resemblance to Magpie Murders’ 1950s detective Raymond Chubb, has his own theory about what happened to the bitter and vengeful Mr. Conway.

Da Mays in Magpie Murders.

Danny Mays (left) as 1950s detective DS Chubb. (Image credit: ITV)

We caught up with Lesley, the 65-year-old star of sitcom 'Mum' and Oscar-winning film 'Phantom Thread', to unpick this complex mystery…

Lesley, what’s your character Susan’s relationship to author Alan Conway?

"Susan is the chief editor of Clover Books, and Alan is their star writer. But they have a prickly relationship."

Conleth Hill as Alan Conway

Alan Conway (Conleth Hill) is Clover Books' star writer and the creator of 1950s detective Atticus Pünd. (Image credit: Britbox)

Can you set up the story for us? 

"When Alan sends Susan the manuscript of his latest book, it's missing the last chapter. Then he dies and, from that point on, the story flips between the circumstances surrounding Conway's death, and how it parallels with the deaths of characters in the book he has written. Susan stops being an editor and gets more interested in solving the murder – if it is murder…"

Lesley Manville as Sue Ryeland

Book editor Sue (Lesley Manville) is excited to read the manuscript of Alan Conway's latest book, Magpie Murders. (Image credit: Britbox)

What sort of woman is Susan? 

"She’s an Independent, spirited woman who lives by her own rules. She’s fabulous!"

What did you enjoy about playing this unconventional character?

"I really like her as a person. She's not done what most people would have expected a woman like her to have done. Emily Maitlis [the BBC newscaster] kept coming into my mind when I thought about Susan. I remember seeing her one morning at the BBC wearing really high heels. It's easy to imagine that these highly intelligent women with important jobs don't worry about clothes. So I have channelled Emily, and I hope she's pleased!"

Are we seeing more characters like Susan on TV these days?  

"There's an appetite for that, as women of my age want to see themselves represented in less conventional ways. My character Cathy in [TV sitcom] Mum is a different kind of unconventional woman. It’s similar to what Helen Mirren started doing years ago with [1991 TV crime drama] Prime Suspect. At the time, it was really unusual for a woman to front a series. Isn't that shocking?"

Lesley Manville as Sue Ryeland

The stylish Sue Ryeland (Lesley Manville) and her eye-catching open top red MG sports car. (Image credit: Britbox)

Do you like Susan’s style? 

"I've really enjoyed  driving her red, open-top sports car and wearing her leather jackets, sunglasses and headscarves. It’s been liberating!"

How does Magpie Murders’ ‘book within a book’ format work on TV?

"In the book, you get the novel that Alan Conway has written, set in the 1950s, and Susan and her publishing world, and they're very separate sections. For the TV series, Anthony [Horowitz, who adapted his own book], has very cleverly interwoven these two elements."

Would you make a good detective? 

"I'd have been a brilliant detective, because I have ex-boyfriends who to this day don't know how I worked out why they weren't in the place that they told me that they were! I think women generally make good detectives because we're good at multitasking! "

How do you relax at home?

"I do a bit of gardening, but I also spend a lot of time sitting at my desk preparing for work. I've got Princess Margaret rolling around in my head at the moment, as I’m playing her in the next series of The Crown. I only really need one day off work, and then I'm happy to get going again!"

Do you watch crime dramas? 

"I loved Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley. What an actress and what a piece of writing! And of course, Line of Duty. So let's hope that we can match that!"

Magpie Murders is available from Friday 10 February 2022 on Britbox. 

Ian MacEwan
Ian MacEwan

Ian writes about TV and film for TV Times, What’s on TV and TV & Satellite Week magazines. He co-hosts the weekly TV streaming podcast, Bingewatch.