Agatha Raisin Series 3: Barry Ryan & Matt McCooey Share Show Secrets

matt mccooey in agatha raisin

Back on October 28th, the British-loving subscription service Acorn TV dropped a Halloween-themed special of the beloved murder comedy series, Agatha Raisin. Despite technically being the first episode of the show’s latest season, fans have had to wait an arduous three months to proceed with their favorite homegrown PI.

Now that the drought is finally over, executive producer Barry Ryan stopped by the TCAs to promote the February 10 series premiere. He was joined by costar Matt McCooey, who plays the hapless and hopelessly besotted Bill Wong. They spoke to With An Accent about what viewers can expect now that Agatha (Ashley Jensen) has her own detective agency, how the show will proceed after the passing of the books’ author, and what titles they will be adapting next.

Can you give us an introduction to the series in general, for anyone who hasn’t watched yet?

Bill Ryan: If you have been on the moon, and you don’t know what Agatha Raisin is, Agatha Raisin is a crime-comedy drama that’s based on beautiful books written by an author called M.C. Beaton, who sadly passed away at Christmas. There are 30 books in the series.

It’s the story of a woman who, in the middle of her life, at a difficult age, gives up everything that she’s ever known to fulfill a childhood fantasy to live in beautiful, comfortable countryside. But having lived life under her own terms as an adult, the adjustment and the transition from the city to the country is not as smooth as it would be if it were anyone else other than Agatha Raisin.

So, in the beginning, she arrives and she finds it hard to meet people. And the people aren’t necessarily that welcoming, because she’s an incomer, so she enters a quiche baking competition with the idea that this will ingratiate her to the wider community. But not being of the cooking kind and being of the shop-buying kind and microwave meal kind, she buys a quiche in a posh London store and enters into the competition. And it turns out the her quiche poisons the judge and he dies. Not only is she a newcomer, an outsider, and an interloper – she’s also suspected of murder. She has to use her wits in episode one to clear her name.

In Episode One, she clears her name with the intention of clearing off back to London. That doesn’t happen. She stays and she becomes, for a time, an amateur sleuth. And then by the time you meet her in this series, series three, she has set up her own official detective agency. She’s no longer an amateur; she’s a bonafide, qualified PI. A gumshoe.

How is that going to change the series and the way she fits into the community, now that she’s gone legit?

Barry Ryan: We started the detective agency in this series, so she becomes official in the first episode of the series, “Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House.” So, she’s legit, but she’s still not. Because she’s not a cop. She’s still using her wiles and her intuition and her senses more than she’s using any kind of official techniques.

So, for all intents and purposes, she’s still undercover. She still has to do sneaky, covert, crazy schemes to get the evidence and the information that she needs. In the books, Agatha is quite a loner. Within our show, she’s part of a kind of wider ensemble of misfits; a band of Scooby Doo-type people who help her investigate. And they’ve all got their own strengths and weaknesses, and they’ve also all got their own different access points into the community.

Bill Wong’s a cop. Sarah is the vicar’s wife. James Lacey is proper posh and fits in; Charles Fraith is even posher. They’ve all got different weight. Then Mrs. Boggle is the nosy neighbor who’s part of the neighborhood watch, so she knows everyone and everything. All of them help her get different access points for information and evidence.

ashley jensen and matt mccooey in agatha raisin

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Matt, your character is an actual cop. Can you talk a little bit about his relationship with her? Because if she’s the one solving the crimes, that affects the police:

Matt McCooey: He is a cop, but he’s a useless cop. Agatha always solves the crime. And I think when she first moved to the village, Bill absolutely fell for her – as all the men did, actually. And so, she had this sort of power over him.

Throughout the series, she could rely on Bill to get her the information from the police that she needs as part of the jigsaw puzzle. That builds her way into the official side of it, and she would use and abuse him quite a lot about that. But he was always willing, you know. He’s very fond of her. He wants to protect her from evil, and he knows she’s not going to stop so he might as well help her. Sometimes – well, actually most of the time – to the annoyance of his superiors.

What’s been nice for this season was, with the opening of the detective agency, there’s sort of developed a friendly rivalry now between Agatha and Bill. She’s like, “You can’t solve murders without me.” Which he wants to change that fact and be a good cop in his own right. It’s a nice rivalry of who can solve who can solve the murder quicker. And, obviously, she does.

Does that mean they’re not working quite as closely together this series?

Matt McCooey: They are. I think Bill always will try and be official and not get involved, but Agatha’s just got this hold on him. And then he will quickly be drawn in to the chaos that surrounds Agatha.

There are a lot of like crime dramas out there, especially in the UK. But the nice thing about Agatha Raisin is that, as much as it’s crime-solving, it is incredibly lighthearted and comedic. How important was that to you in developing the series and standing out from the crowd?

Barry Ryan: It’s our USP [Unique Selling Point]. Comedy is our USP. Our very first partner was a bit scared of the comedy, which is why series one isn’t as funny as series two or three, because we worked with different partners on series two and three. They were very uncomfortable about making jokes around scenes where people had died.

We say our show is three genres. It’s crime, comedy and drama all wrapped in one. And when we were an hour long, we encountered a thing where, unless the balance is right, they can rip each other’s heads off and you don’t know what the show is. So, it was uneven. I think series one is strong, but some of the episodes are better than others and there’s an unevenness about it.

Whereas the people that we work for now, Acorn TV, allow us to fully execute our USP. We can be as funny as we want to be and embrace that side of us. I think that’s what makes us stand out. There are shows that are lighthearted and have a lighter touch; like Midsomer Murders can be dark, but it’s also got light moments in it. Generally, their domestic and a bit old-fashioned. But we have a very modern take on it, and ours is that we are pure comedy-drama.

Matt McCooey: Yeah, I know families that watch it together with 10-year olds because there is so much dark, gritty, bleak, murder mystery. Which is great, and there’s a place for it, and there’s obviously fans of it. But if you’re a fan that wants, instead of gripping your seat for two hours, to actually sort of relax and enjoy yourself and laugh? Then Agatha Raisin is the show to go and watch. And I know people who watch it with their families, because we don’t show anything too gruesome. There’s some quite comedy murders, you know, drowning in jam, poisoned quiches.

Barry Ryan: Buried upside, headfirst in your own potted plant. There’s a decapitation scene in one of the episodes in series three, where the person’s head is in a box and delivered to the house. But it’s still funny, and it’s still lighthearted.

And also, I think the thing we also do that makes us different is that we look different to all those other shows. We’re not dark. We make a purposeful effort to be as bright and as vivid. You can’t compare us to something like Vera or even Grantchester. The shows that we stand alongside better are things like Pushing Daisies and Northern Exposure, those kinds of shows. Pushing Daisies wasn’t procedural, but we embrace our serial and we embrace our vivid. Not everyone is dressed in country colors; we try to add a bit of style and a bit of color.

You mentioned Vera, which was here earlier this week. I’ve noticed that the UK seem to be doing better with actually showing women of a certain age, who aren’t 20-year-old models. Do you notice that difference? In the US, we’re pushing for more diversity, but that’s not the diversity anybody wants to be pushing for even though that’s still a huge part of the population. But I’ve noticed that the UK has always kind of been progressive on that front.

Barry Ryan: We’ve always been strong on our national treasures. Brenda Blethyn is a national treasure, and also one of our finest comedy performers. So, her being in a show like Vera is surreal in itself. She’s a comic genius.

20 years ago, she would have been on our list for people that we wanted. And that’s no disrespect to her. It’s great to see that she’s had the success she’s had with Vera, because they are fine books. And it’s a fun character. For me, I really wanted to reflect the books that we were based on. And that’s why Agatha is different.

I think it’s a joyous universe that we can have now, where we are generating characters where older actors, who in previous generations would have been ignored and discarded, can be celebrated. We can give them something purposeful to do, where they’re not just guest stars. There they are the thing of the show; the meat of the show. It kind of parallels what’s happening in the wider world, too.

I think there’s a thing now where people go, “Actually, why are they telling those stories? Why aren’t we looking at the lives of these women? Why is it you find it harder to embrace them?”

agatha raisin cast

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The series is based on books, and you did just lose the author. Can you talk a little bit about her role in the show? How involved was she when she was still with us?

Barry Ryan: Marion Chesney Gibbons is part-genius and part-maverick. She was one of the cleverest people I have ever met; one of the most entertaining and one of the most laugh-out-loud people. But if Marion didn’t like what you were doing, you knew it. She took no prisoners and she suffered no fools.

When we wanted to do the adaptation of Agatha Raisin, we were told no. The publisher said, “I’m not even gonna go there.” Because Marion hated the Hamish Macbeth series, the original, so much that she campaigned against it; went to the press launch and argued with Robert Carlyle, the star. “Who do you think you are, playing Hamish Macbeth?” They said, “It’s best left alone, Barry. It’s a hornet’s nest.” And I said, “Come on, how hard can it be? Let me meet her.”

Once I met Marion and knew what she was like, after an 11-hour lunch where was a lot of whiskey and a lot of smoking, she said, “Okay. But eff it up, and I’ll kill you.” When Hamish Macbeth stopped, the next Hamish Macbeth was called Death of a Screenwriter. It tells you a bit of the measure of Marion.

From day one, when we got the go-ahead to develop the show, Marion was involved. The changes we made, we made with her blessing. She was involved in casting decisions, she was involved in editorial decisions. She came to the set once in series one, and she said, “I don’t know how you do it. Tt’s the most boring day I’ve ever had.”

Matt McCooey: It was me on the phone. It took about two hours to film this bit on the phone, there was different angles. She just thought, “I’m off.”

Barry Ryan: She came forward to do… support stuff for series two, but she was bored by the actual day to days processes of how we did it. But all the way up until the shooting script occurred, Marion was involved. So, she’s a massive loss to our process, because we spoke a lot. Especially now, when we’re easing up to developing series four, you know not having that card is going to change our wheel.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but all the Agatha Raisin episodes so far have been based directly on the novels?

Barry Ryan: Yes. And they’ll continue to be until we run out with them. We did one episode in series one that was based on a short story, Hells Bells, where the writer then had a freehand kind of invent around the bones of Marion’s story. But I think we’re on 16 now…

Matt McCooey: We’ve got 14 left.

Barry Ryan: But also we’ve got a couple of short stories and two Christmas books that don’t fit into that pattern. And we’ve also got a new book that she’d finished before she died. Then we’ve got spin off rights, so if we want to originate material after that, we can.

So, you feel comfortable doing that? Because when you’re beholden to the book for so long, going off can be scary.

Barry Ryan: She wasn’t precious. She understood the process, and she understood the differences between telly and books. I think the big mistake the first Hamish producers made, which I would never do, is that they took the character but abandoned the stories. They also didn’t have some of the ensemble elements, and I think that’s a mistake. So, we wouldn’t do that.

Marion also trusted Free@Last with Hamish. So, we’re rebooting Hamish now.

Do you have a timeline for that?

Barry Ryan: Script’s being written, and we have interest from a broadcaster who would pay a healthy chunk, so I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do it January 2021. It’s Scotland. It’s the Highland. It needs that “it might snow and it’s freezing as hell” look. So, January 2021.

Matt McCooey: Can I be Hamish Macbeth?

Barry Ryan: Marion would have loved you to be Hamish.

ashley jensen in agatha raisin

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One thing I always like to ask, because our website is called With An Accent and we like to promote international works that maybe people haven’t heard of: is there anything you’re reading, listening to, or watching that we haven’t been exposed to here in the US and should be checking out?

Barry Ryan: A series of books, Never the Bride, written by Paul Magrs. He’s written Doctor Who spin-offs and all sorts of things. But this book, imagine, the Bride of Frankenstein is alive and well. Living in a seaside town in the north of England called Whitby. She owns a bed and breakfast called The Spare Parts.

And on the hill, is Mother Christmas. It’s Christmas Hill, where it’s Christmas all year round, and Mother Christmas lives there. There’s this big hole in the earth in Whitby, and it’s not an archaeological feat of wonder, it’s actually the gateway to Hell. At the end of the first book, Effie – who is the last in a long line of witches – and Brenda discover that their friendship is not accidental. It’s absolutely purposeful, and their job is to protect the world from whatever can come down… the gateway to Hell.

Matt McCooey: I want to read it.

Barry King: We’re adapting them.

Matt McCooey: Now I want to be Effie.

Barry King: There’s eight in the series and then novellas, so he went into the novella format after that.

Matt McCooey: I’m gonna recommend to read [The Lewis Trilogy]. There’s a writer called Peter May, and he’s got a trilogy of books set in the Outer Hebrides, basically. They are great murder mystery thrillers. Detective guy, three books set in the Isle of Lewis.

Agatha Raisin series 3 will continue on Acorn TV starting on February 10th, with “Agatha Raisin & the Deadly Dance.”