I was born into the lower reaches of the middle class on the 28th October 1945.
The venue was a nursing home in Worcester Park, Surrey. My parents, older brother and sister lived in Ewell, where I spent the next four years of my life. After a year with my grandparents in Ealing we then moved to Banstead (also in Surrey), a quintessential outer suburb not far from Epsom Racecourse, and stayed there. My father worked as a Chartered Surveyor for a firm most of whose work seemed to involve sewerage systems. He was with the same company, quaintly called Lemon and Blizzard, from the age of nineteen till he was sixty–seven, when he still did a couple of days a week for them.
I was educated at the Beacon School in Banstead (where my mother taught the reception class), and then a boy’s prep school called Homefield in Sutton. Rather than staying there to do Common Entrance, I took the Eleven Plus and was fortunate enough to win a Direct Grant (i.e. free) place at Dulwich College. There I specialised in History and got very involved in drama, playing Richard II, Prospero and, at a younger age, Titania in school plays.
In 1963 I passed History A–Level and that autumn took the Oxford entrance examination. I was awarded a Major Scholarship in History at Wadham College, and left Dulwich the following term to teach in a primary school. As a result, I only have one A–Level (though I’ve never been asked about it in any job application).
After two terms at Oxford I changed subjects from History to English, in which I got a First Class Honours degree in 1967. I spent almost all of my spare time doing theatre. For the Oxford University Dramatic Society, of which I was President in my final year, I played Edgar in King Lear, Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale (‘callow and splenetic’ – Oxford Times). Contemporary luminaries of the university theatre scene included David Wood, Diana Quick, Nigel Rees, John Sergeant, Bruce Alexander, Nigel Williams and Alison Skilbeck.
I was also very involved in writing, directing and performing in revues. In 1966 and 1967 I was part of the Oxford late–night show on the Fringe of the Edinburgh Festival. The second year’s show, which I directed, raised sufficient interest for me to be offered a year’s contract as a Trainee Light Entertainment Producer for BBC Radio.
But that wasn’t my first job out of university. For seven weeks in 1967 I was employed as Father Christmas in the department store Shinners of Sutton. Just twenty–two and master of my own grotto! (It does look great on a cv too.)
Radio Light Entertainment at the time was a lively and varied department. I found myself producing music programmes (Late Night Extra), sketch shows (David Hatch and I started Week Ending in 1970, then The News Huddlines and The Burkiss Way), panel games (Just A Minute, I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue), anthologies (Frank Muir Goes Into..., for which I wrote over a hundred scripts) and light drama (Lord Peter Wimsey). It was after working on the last–named that I started thinking seriously about crime fiction. I had by then written three – or possibly four – very properly unpublished novels, but working with actors on Lord Peter Wimsey gave me the idea of creating an actor detective. My manuscript was picked up off the slush pile at Victor Gollancz and the first Charles Paris novel, Cast, In Order Of Disappearance, was published in 1975.
There were two significant high–spots of my career in radio. One was guiding through the BBC machinery and producing the pilot episode of The Hitch–Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams in 1977. It was practically the last programme I recorded as a BBC comedy producer, because I was shortly to take up a similar role in London Weekend Television, and so Geoffrey Perkins went on to produce the rest of the Hitch–Hiker series.
The other excellent thing about BBC Radio was that it was there I met my wife, Lucy. She worked as a Studio Manager on a lot of my programmes, and we got married in Leeds in 1971.We subsequently had three adorable children, Sophie (1974), Alastair (1977) and Jack (1981). Sophie and her husband Jeremy have now given us two equally adorablegrandchildren,Jake (2005) and Isla (2007). Jack is married to the lovely Lien and the adorable Max was born in September 2012. Alastair is now married to the equally lovely Sarah. (Too many ‘adorable’s and ‘lovely’s perhaps… but they are.)
My time at London Weekend was not one of the high–spots of my career. After the bustle of radio, where I’d be working on half a dozen projects at any given time, I found the television process painfully slow. Amongst programmes I produced there were Maggie And Her (Irene Handl and Julia McKenzie), End Of Part One (written by David Renwick and Andrew Marshall) and, showing my radio roots, a television version of The Glums from Take It From Here. I think the main problem with my time as a television producer was that the writing was starting to take off and I spent most of the two years I was at London Weekend poring over a calculator, trying to work out whether I could afford to write full time.
(There’s an interesting point – well, it interests me – about the correlation between my employment and my facial hair. Soon after I joined the BBC I grew a beard, because I wanted to look older than my years. When I went to London Weekend, I seemed to be surrounded by pushy whizz–kids, so I shaved it off to look younger. Now when I look at photographs of myself with a beard, I cannot imagine why I sported it for so long. I’ve come to the conclusion that beards are like baseball caps – almost everyone who wears one would look better without it. At the time of my wedding, incidentally, my facial hair was reduced to a moustache, which made me look like an unctuous Italian waiter trying to force parmesan on one of his diners.)
I did finally make the break from London Weekend in 1979 and since then I have never had another day–job. Series of crime novels (Charles Paris, Mrs Pargeter, Fethering and Blotto & Twinks) have been the continuity of my output, though I have also written one–offs like Dead Romantic, Singled Out and A Shock To The System, the last of which became a feature film starring Michael Caine.
My anthologising instinct has found expression in The Faber Books Of... Useful Verse, Parodies and Diaries. And I have written humorous books, including the best-selling How To Be A Little Sod (adapted for television with Rik Mayall as the Voice of the Baby).
I have kept writing for radio with series such as Foul Play, No Commitments, Smelling Of Roses and After Henry starring Prunella Scales, which was also successful on television.
There’s been some writing for the theatre too. My humorous stage thrillers, Murder In Play and Silhouette, still get produced regularly by amdrams, and five of my pantomimes have been performed at The Theatre, Chipping Norton. I also usually write a short play for the annual Arundel Festival.
Over the years I’ve been involved with various writers’ organisations. A former Chair of both the Crime Writers’ Association and The Society of Authors, I also chaired the Public Lending Right Advisory Committee from 2003 to 2008. I am on the committee of the Royal Literary Fund, as well as being Patron to both the West Sussex Writers’ Club and the Chichester Literary Society. Since 2001 I have been President of the Detection Club.
Way back in 1981 the Brett family (including three–month–old Jack) moved from East Sheen to a tiny West Sussex village on the foothills of the South Downs. It was quite a culture shock for someone like me who had always lived in the suburbs of London. But we’re still in the country, still in the house where the children grew up. The place is a bit too big, really, just for the two of us, but Lucy and I love it. We have the good fortune to live in one of those organic houses; the earliest parts date from 1783 and since then it’s been added to by various owners (including the writer John Cowper Powys – and us). A friend of ours once paid us the great compliment of describing the place as ‘like an old armchair’.
My main recreation, apart from reading, theatre–going and The Times crossword, is deeply incompetent Real Tennis, which I play on the court at Petworth House.
Lucy is very busy with her job as Head of Development at Chichester Festival Theatre, so I sit here most days writing, with only our cat (Pollux) for company.
And in common with the experience of most writers, I find that when the writing’s going well, there is nothing to compare with the feeling. And when it’s going badly, everything’s purgatory – and there’s no one to blame but myself. Heigh–ho, time for my nap...
After a long period of 'resting', life is looking up for Charles Paris, who has been cast as the Ghost of Hamlet's Father and First Gravedigger in a new production of Hamlet. But rehearsals are fraught. Ophelia is played by Katrina Selsey, who won the role through a television talent show. Hamlet himself is also played by a reality TV contestant, Jared Root - and the two young stars have rather different views of celebrity and the theatre than the more experienced members of the cast. But when the company reach the first staging post of their tour, the Grand Theatre Marlborough, matters get more serious, with one member of the company seriously injured in what appears to be an accident, and another dead. Once again, Charles Paris is forced to don the mantle of amateur detective to get to the bottom of the mystery.