Brighton writer Bethan Roberts talks Rebecca Pitcairn about seeing her 2012 novel, My Policeman, played out on the big screen, with Harry Styles in the title role
When Bethan Roberts first found out Harry Styles was interested in playing one of the leads in the adaptation of her 2012 novel, My Policeman, her reaction was somewhat subdued.
“To be honest I didn’t really have a clear picture of what that meant – I mean I’m a middle-aged bookish type, so although I knew who Harry Styles was, I was a little hazy on the details,” she tells me of a meeting with the film’s producers three or four years ago.
Back then, while Harry had been cast by Christopher Nolan in the 2017 film, Dunkirk, he was still better known as being one fifth of boyband, One Direction. Fast forward to 2022, however, and with hype surrounding another of the teen heartthrob’s films, Don’t Worry Darling, bubbling away, things are a little different. “I mean Harry Styles is playing the lead in the movie of my novel so that is incredible to me, it’s astonishing really,” Bethan smiles.
We’re chatting in the week leading up to My Policeman’s UK premiere at Festival Hall in London, which Bethan is attending with her mum – “obviously neither of us have been on a red carpet so it’s really exciting,” she beams.
It’s not, however, the first time Bethan has seen the Michael Grandage-directed movie, in which Harry plays policeman Tom, who marries teacher Marion (played by Emma Corrin) despite being in love with a museum curator called Patrick (David Dawson). At a time when being gay was still illegal, Tom introduces Patrick to Marion and the three share an intimate bond with the illicit love triangle playing out against the backdrop of 1950s Brighton.
“The performances are really good,” says Bethan, adding she was particularly pleased with the casting of David Dawson as Patrick. “Harry also fits the role [of Tom] really well because he is this sort of fantasy figure, incredibly handsome, everyone feels like they know him but he’s mysterious, so he brings that to it, which I think is a really good thing. And Emma…. I love Emma, she was fantastic in The Crown. I think what they all bring to it is this kind of flintiness but also this vulnerability. They give a really powerful performance.”
Bethan, who sold the film options to the book a couple of years after it was first published in the UK, hasn’t had any official involvement with the making of the movie, but says she has been ‘kept in the loop’ by the producers.
“I didn’t really believe it would get made,” she admits. “My agent told me one per cent of novels that have film options get made. Occasionally I would day dream, obviously, but I didn’t really believe it. I didn’t allow myself to believe it because I didn’t want to be hugely disappointed that it didn’t happen.”
Despite never letting herself imagine the film as a movie, Bethan is pleased with the way it has played out on screen – particularly in the way her beloved Brighton is depicted. “I’m really pleased that the film has been made and it looks amazing – it’s a beautifully shot film, the colours are gorgeous and Brighton looks fantastic,” says the mother-of-one who has lived in Brighton since she was a student. “It’s quite understated in a way that is true to the novel, but it’s a completely different thing obviously because it’s a movie, it’s got to be condensed. It is different to the novel, as it has to be.”
Bethan was inspired by the life of celebrated author EM Forster, who had a long, loving gay relationship with a married policeman called Bob Buckingham. “I often find historical research, particularly into the lives of real people, is really a fruitful area for me for producing fiction,” says Bethan, who has also written a book loosely based on Peggy Guggenheim’s life in Sussex, as well as a novel about Elvis Presley and the singer’s relationship with his mum, Gladys. “At the end of Forster’s life, it was Bob’s wife, May, who was there holding his hand when he died, so I was interested in the complications of how you get to be holding the hand of your husband’s lover on his deathbed. That’s where the idea came from – me writing my way to that ending and trying to work out what that was about.”
Bethan tells me she had always wanted to set a novel in her adopted hometown and in My Policeman, she uses the contrast between the more open, cosmopolitan city of Brighton, where the characters live when they are younger, and the suburban, more inward-looking retirement community of Peacehaven, where they live out their later lives. The beachfront plays a key role with Tom teaching Marion how to swim in the sea, as does Brighton Museum, where Patrick is a curator.
“I lived in the Hanover area of Brighton just before I wrote the book, so that appears a lot too, that’s where Marion lives,” adds Bethan. “I actually often get people on Instagram sending me pictures of them on the beach in Brighton with the book or going around the various locations, which is so lovely.”
I ask if she thinks the release of the movie will boost sales of the book. “I certainly hope so,” she says. “Plus, the 10th anniversary edition has Harry Styles on the front cover, so that’s not bad is it?”
My Policeman 10th anniversary edition by Bethan Roberts is published in paperback by Vintage, RRP £8.99. My Policeman the movie is in cinemas now, certificate 15