Roger Simpson has made a career specializing in detective writing, but the veteran screenwriter and producer rarely portrays violence against women. “I don’t like female victims, it makes me cringe,” he says. “Women have enough problems without being entertained by their suffering and it’s a long-standing attitude, which goes back a long way. But the men I seem to get rid of without too much trouble,” he adds in laughing.
“I don’t like the easy gun solution and I don’t like meaningless violence. We live in violent times; that violence must be questioned and understood. I don’t do it just for the shock value. I want to know why the character got to this point in the story.
Simpson has created 17 series for television, including the long Halifax fp, and its recent sequel, Halifax: Retribution, aired in 2020. Starring Rebecca Gibney as forensic detective Jane Halifax, the seven-episode sequel was more successful than the original series, drawing a million viewers each episode; it has since been sold to the American network PBS.
After five decades in the business, Simpson has just published her first novel. Despite an award-winning career – he has nine Australian Writers Guild AWGIE awards to his name, plus several more for writing and producing – his name is not well known outside of the industry.
He credits Simon & Schuster’s Cassandra Di Bello with making the book happen: she approached him and offered him a three-book deal, which was “a bit compelling, if a bit terrifying”.
Now 70, Simpson has made the transition from screen to screen seamlessly. The freshly released Halifax Transgression – yes, there’s Jane Halifax front and center – is a nail-biter, with graphic, shocking visuals and a fast pace that’s no doubt a legacy of her work in film and TV.
The plan is to write one novel a year and he’s clearly relishing the challenge of a new medium. “You get the chance to write the inner world, which you never get to do with film and TV,” Simpson says. “It’s very difficult to get inside her head and explain what she’s thinking and what drives her and the larger reaction to events that affect her personally…you can’t really do that on TV.”
The characters are skillfully drawn and fleshed out, nuanced and human. People appreciate Halifax because it’s interesting, complex and flawed, he says, struggling with his humanity and trying to make sense of the world around him. “The reality of the central character is what gives a show its longevity; if they exist properly, are grounded in reality, and you can sense them quickly, everyone they come into contact with is equally well developed. On both sides of the law. »
He wanted “a female cop or crime fighter and a central character who didn’t have a gun”. This is what led to forensic psychiatry. Part of what makes Halifax fascinating is her analysis, as she tries to get inside the mind of the abuser. The series is still led by Jane, he says: how will she hold on to her humanity amid these horrific crimes, and what is the purpose of these crimes. “I write them to give a full understanding of human nature, even at its worst, and to try to put her in the context that she is as human as any of the other characters in the story.”
The perpetrators of extreme crimes are sometimes portrayed in a one-dimensional way, but that is not his experience. “I’ve been writing crime shows and legal shows all my life and that’s how it feels to me. They are not monsters, they are transgressors; as Jane likes to say, we are all more or less transgressors.
At the end of the novel, Simpson pays tribute to his four children and his late wife and soul mate of 33 years, Sally Irwin, who passed away last year. “There’s a lot of her in Jane Halifax,” he says. “She is one of those strong women that I had the chance to meet.”
Born in Dunedin, he studied law at the University of Auckland but became more interested in writing student journals; it was then that he decided he wanted to write theatre. In New Zealand at the time, there were a total of eight hours of made-for-TV drama a year, prompting him to decamp to Australia.
Thanks to these student review days, the theater remains a strong interest; he wrote a play that has yet to be staged (which has long been on the National Playwrights Conference list). It is about the interaction between the artists Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, focusing on the nine hours they spent together before Van Gogh cut off his ear. “My first love for writing was for acting, and then I kind of got kidnapped by television,” he says. “It remains my first love, I love the place and the interaction of the actors, the audacity of the performers, each performance is never quite the same.”
TAKE 7: ANSWERS ACCORDING TO ROGER SIMPSON
- Worst habit? Stay up late.
- Biggest fear? Sleep.
- The line that stayed with you? “The very week our poultry was stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat slit.” opening sentence of the scarecrow by Ronald Hugh Morrison.
- Biggest regret? Not writing books earlier in my career.
- Favorite room? Wherever it is, I write.
- The artwork/song you wish was yours? The Dog (El Perro) by Goya, where a dog continues to swim in a sea that threatens to overwhelm him. I have a copy on top of my coffee machine which I toast every morning with a strong flat white. If I can also have a song – Romeo and Juliet by Mark Knopfler.
- If I could solve one thing… My second serve in tennis.
TV was the main game, however, with credits including The good guys, the bad guys(1996–1998); crime drama Stingerswith Peter Phelps (1998-2004); rural series something in the air(2000–2002); teenage sci-fisilver sun(2004–2005); andSatisfaction(2007-2010), set in a high class brothel. He also wrote the children’s classic hunter’s gold and several others for New Zealand television early in his career.
As half of Simpson Le Mesurier, he produced a movie, Squizzy Taylorand series including Nancy Wakeabout the hero of the Second World War, the Vietnamese honor sword, and answered with fire, on East Timor. Writing has always been his favorite field, while his partner Roger Le Mesurier has assumed production responsibilities.
Describing himself as “a bit of a gypsy”, Simpson says Australia is his home now, although he spends a lot of time in New Zealand, at his home by Lake Hawea in the South Island. “I guess I’m an Aussie – until it comes to the Bledisloe Cup; it helps that the Wallabies have a coach from New Zealand.
Shortly after moving here in the 1970s, he landed a writing gig with the legendary Crawford Productions, which created dramas including Matlock Font, Homicide and Division 4. Back then, it was not uncommon for him to jump in a squad car or van with police visiting crime scenes to see how they operated. “I’ve been around the cops and the courts all my professional life,” he says. “Actually, I love the cops, I know their job is next to impossible, I have huge respect for them. I love the milieu.”
Crime is one of TV’s most enduring genres, which makes perfect sense for Simpson, who sees it as “the perfect form.” Since it started, there have been massive changes in the industry, no more than the last decade with the revolution led by streaming. “The movie industry is the one that worries me. People have big screens in their homes and have access to such a variety of programming. These are the movies they don’t go to see; Australia is a reflection of industry globally,” he says.
“TV is in good shape and only getting better. The proliferation of streaming services is good for us – we’re not that worried about foreign countries coming in and stealing our time. This breakthrough has been done; it took a long time to get there.
Halifax Transgression is now available through Simon & Schuster.
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