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Interview with Nicholas Rhea

Nicholas Rhea, YorkshiremanNicholas Rhea is just the sort of refreshing, down to earth Yorkshireman you'd expect to meet propping up the bar in the Aidensfield Arms. It's hard to believe he is also the man who inspired the most successful drama series to have hit TV screens in recent times. In the UK alone, around 16.5 million people a week tune in to watch Heartbeat on a Sunday evening.

Susie Holland interviewed him in February and June 1998:

Success didn't come easy

It was Rhea's series of Constable books which inspired Yorkshire Television to create the popular TV series, bringing to life his now so familiar characters, Constable Nick Rowan, (who in the books is Nick Rhea himself), Sergeant Blaketon and, of course, the infamous Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. With such a resounding success on his hands, it would be reasonable to expect Rhea to be living in the lap of luxury. But that's not the case.

"I'm certainly not in the millionaire category, far from it," explains Rhea, "Very few authors actually make it there, and I'd need to sell an awful lot of books to get there. What Heartbeat has given me, though, is a sense of security which I never could have envisaged when I first began writing in the 1960s." Little did he know when that first novel was published on 10th December 1967 that 25 years of hard labour lay ahead before he'd hit the big time.

"Despite the success I've had since, having my first book published is by far the proudest moment of my writing career. It was called Carnaby and the Hijackers and, strangely enough, is about a young policeman who comes up from London to work in Yorkshire." His pride is understandable. Before Carnaby, he'd had 13 different novels rejected...

"At the time, kitchen sink dramas were all the rage, so I tried to write those. Obviously, I was no good at it and it was only when a friend pointed out that I'd be better writing about what I knew that I thought maybe they had a point."

The origins of the Heartbeat bobby

So Rhea began to write about what he knew - policing. He'd joined the force as a young cadet in 1952 and was posted as a constable to Whitby in 1956. Later, he became a village bobby, which inspired many of the scenes we see in Heartbeat today. He finished his policing career as press officer for the North Yorkshire constabulary with the rank of Inspector, and retired to concentrate on his writing full time in 1982.

Early press cover - the Yorkshire Evening Press in 1970His initial publishing successes were all crime novels, but Rhea believed there was a gap in the market for a new kind of police novel, one which concentrated on the gentler, more quirky, and often amusing life of a country bobby. But his first attempts were rejected with the explanation that there was no demand for that kind of fiction.

"In my local pub one day, the barman introduced me a friend of his who'd just had his first book published," recalls Rhea, "He thought I might pass on some advice. When he told me his book was a humorous one about his life as a country vet I said, in all my superior wisdom, 'Oh, it'll never catch on. There's no demand for it.' Anyway, he turned out to be James Herriot."

The subsequent success of his local vet served to inspire Rhea, and finally, on 24th May 1979, his persistence paid off and Constable on the Hill was published by Robert Hale. It was his most successful novel so far, and soon more Constable books followed. There have been 18 to date [at the time of this interview], the latest being Constable at the Dam, published in November 1997. Television companies showed interest in the books as far back as 1982, but it wasn't until the early 1990s that Yorkshire Television actually started filming.

"It was some time before I knew for certain a TV series was going ahead," explains Rhea, "No-one would confirm it, even though YTV kept phoning and asking me questions about being a policeman in the 1960s. Later, I happened to be on the set of another TV programme, Emmerdale Farm as it was then, to write a tie-in book. I got chatting to a chap sitting next to me who explained he was a Yorkshire TV producer. He happened to be working on a TV series about a country policeman based on the books by this bloke Nicholas Rhea. It was the first I knew that something was definitely happening."

Rhea uses his police and writing experience

It was the local paper which finally confirmed it with a front page splash declaring actor Nick Berry was going to play the lead in a new TV series called Heartbeat. "It's every author's dream to see his work on the screen and it's still quite daunting to think I'm part of it. I'm heavily involved in the production which I really enjoy, reading all the scripts and attending storyline meetings at the beginning of each series where coming plots are discussed with producers, editors and scriptwriters."

"I also advise on aspects of 1960s policing. For example, in a recent episode shown in the UK, new constable Mike Bradley is on night duty guarding some prisoners and has to fill in a specific form. I personally provided the form, and am there to check key details like that are correct for the period."

Rhea regularly visits the set when Heartbeat is being filmed at its stunning location, Goathland, in the heart of the North York moors. He knows all the actors well. "I think they all are superb in their respective roles, and Derek Fowlds' portrayal of Blaketon is particularly good. I've been asked whether he was based on anyone in particular, but he's not. He's just an amalgamation of many tough sergeants I served under over the years.

"And, of course, Bill (Maynard) has made Claude Greengrass his own. He's perfect for the role. Although when I first put Greengrass into my Constable books, my image of him was slightly different. But now, whenever I write a scene involving Greengrass, it's Bill I have in mind."

Fans of the series will be pleased to know that there are many Constable books to come. "Even if the series comes to an end, my books will go on. I can put more in them about what goes on in Aidensfield than can be seen on TV each week. Claude and the rest get up to much more!" says Rhea.

[Part two, June 98]

Constable Peter Walker in 1958Although retired from the North Yorkshire Police since 1982, Nicholas Rhea can still recall the most nerve-wracking moment of his 30-year career. It occurred on the streets of the small moors town of Loftus in 1952.

"It was the moment I stepped on to the streets wearing my uniform for the very first time. I was 16 and had to ask the way to the police station!"

He also recalls some invaluable advice given to him by his first sergeant.

"He said that if ever I came across trouble on the street, I had to walk towards it rather than run, for a couple of very good reasons. Firstly, it would give me time to think so I could decide what I was going to do when I got there, and secondly, the situation may have diffused by the time I reached it - and Heartbeat's officers use that advice too."

Much of his life as a copper in the 1960s is relived through Heartbeat and Rhea believes the Nick Rowan role really does reflect his own.

"Much of our police work revolved around our rapport with the public. We spent a lot of time talking to the locals - in a rural area, police work was as much a social duty as crime prevention. I did things like light old people's fires, collect bits of shopping and help them fill in tax forms. It was all part and parcel of being a rural bobby. That's what I show in my Constable books - I illustrate the bobby's work without focussing on crime in particular."

Peter Walker in 1957He recalls one incident which could have come straight from the TV show: "A colleague of mine was on night duty patrolling the A1 motorway when he came across a family of four whose car had broken down. He discovered they were on their way to London to catch a plane. Rather than leave them to an inevitable fate of a missed plane and ruined holiday, he called in to the station, signed off duty and collected his own car to drive them all the way to London - nearly 250 miles away."

During his career, Rhea progressed though the ranks of constable, sergeant and inspector, becoming responsible for press and public relations for the North Yorkshire force in 1976, a job he kept until retirement. It was during this time that he played a vital role in what became England's largest manhunt.

In the early hours of a June morning in 1982, 29-year-old PC David Haigh was on duty. By 7.30am, he'd been shot dead at a lonely beauty spot, Warren Point near Harrogate. He was still clutching his clipboard upon which he'd written the details Clive Jones, NFA (no fixed address), 18.10.44.

"Although we didn't know it then," explains Rhea, "in taking those details, poor David in fact solved his own murder."

Immediately, a major investigation was launched, with Rhea handling all media enquiries, although a full week would pass before the scale of the operation became apparent. Meanwhile, 70 miles away, a Lincolnshire pensioner was also shot dead, though at first police did not link it to the Warren Point incident.

Rhea continues, "An eagle-eyed officer in Wakefield was sorting through his outstanding warrants - that's when a warrant is issued for an arrest, but the culprit hasn't been caught. He came across one for electrician Barry Peter Prudom, wanted for attacking a motorist with an iron bar. The officer noticed his date of birth: 18.10.44 - the same as the elusive Mr Clive Jones. He quickly put two and two together and notified us."

Although Prudom gave false details when he was unexpectedly disturbed by PC Haigh, he couldn't instantly come up with a false date of birth, a fact which trips up many criminals and one which is well known to the police. Prudom had made a major error.

"By then, we'd also compared the bullets which had killed both PC Haigh and the Lincolnshire pensioner and found they came from the same gun, so Barry Prudom became our prime suspect and the most wanted man in Britain."

Prudom, meanwhile, stole a car in Lincolnshire to return to the North York Moors where he went on the run, hiding in the expansive and impenetrable Dalby Forest.

"He was an expert in outdoor survival, but even so, hunger forced him into the small market town of Malton where he killed another policeman, Sgt David Winter. We set up an incident room there, from where I handled the huge amount of press, TV and radio enquiries.The story was now international."

It was the first time a police PR man spoke to the media directly from the crime scene and set a precedent for the way police deal with the media during major investigations.

"I knew we had to keep the media on our side and the best way to do that was to give them regular updates. We knew Prudom was still in Malton; in fact he was holding an elderly couple hostage in their home, but we wanted him to believe we were seeking him elsewhere. The safety of the public was uppermost in our minds. The media reports were invaluable because they led Prudom to believe that the hunt was concentrated outside the town in Dalby Forest. There he'd earlier shot and injured another policeman. If he'd known we were getting close to him, he could well have harmed his hostages."

Believing the immediate pressure was off him, Prudom fled the house leaving his hostages unharmed. Minutes later, police cornered him on Malton tennis courts where, faced with imminent capture, he shot himself.

Rhea received a commendation for his rôle during the murder hunt, and the experience is now used as a training model on how police should deal with the media. Soon afterwards, Scotland Yard's press officers began to report direct from the scene of major incidents, and TV police shows began to reflect this method.

Although Rhea talks about the episode freely, it's clear the experience affected him deeply. After all, he'd taught both murdered officers at police training school and Sgt Winter was a personal friend whose wife had attended the same moors primary school as Rhea.

"I'm very proud of the commendation, and proud that I was part of the investigation, but at the same time, it's tragic that two young family men had to lose their lives while carrying out their duty. The sad thing is, we'll never know why Prudom set out on his killing spree."

Thankfully, the majority of incidents which called upon Rhea's PR skills were more pleasurable, such as countless Royal Visits to the county, the Pope's memorable visit to York in 1982 (the first visit to England by a reigning pontiff), and a huge volume of routine police work.

"As these experiences show, my real life moved far on from that of the young bobby everyone sees in the Constable books and on Heartbeat, but it's a bygone era. Nonetheless, I like to keep it alive through my writing. I know things won't be the same again, but at least the happy memories of policing in the 1960s will never be lost."

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