‘He’s my own Dark Knight’: TV’s new sleuth, invented by a Bradford pharmacist

It took Amit Dhand years to create the British Asian detective Harry Virdee. Now he’s coming to the small screen

When he was a child growing up in Bradford, Amit Dhand used to sneak VHS videos from the corner shop his parents ran and watch them when everyone was in bed.

Aged about 10 or 11, he first watched The Silence of the Lambs. During the film’s tense finale, when Jodie Foster’s FBI agent Clarice Starling is stalking through the pitch-black home of serial killer Buffalo Bill, butterflies are released into the room.

“Right at that moment, a fly flew past my vision,” says Dhand, now 44. “I screamed really loud because I thought it was a butterfly – I thought Buffalo Bill was in the room with me. I ran into my mother’s bedroom, woke her up and confessed what I’d been watching.”

He didn’t get to see the end of the film, and his covert video-watching activities were summarily banned. But the following weekend, Dhand was with his parents at Bradford’s central library and, bored with reading children’s books, he wandered into the adult section.

He says: “My eyes fell on a book called The Silence of the Lambs. I thought: ‘I’ve just watched a film with that name.’ So I took it out – because unlike the videos, my parents weren’t concerned about my reading matter; they were just glad I was reading – and read it straight through. I think at that moment my obsession with crime fiction was born. And I’d never realised before that books could become movies.”

Fast-forward 30-odd years, and Dhand is keenly aware that books can translate to the screen because the BBC is adapting his crime novels – written under the name of AA Dhand – featuring the British Asian detective Harry Virdee.

Sacha Dhawan, who played The Master in Doctor Who and most recently starred in the psychological thriller Wolf, will portray the title character, a Bradford cop at loggerheads with his Sikh family over his marriage to a Muslim woman. He must navigate his domestic strife at the same time as tracking down a killer targeting the city’s Asian population.

Harry Virdee debuted in 2016’s Streets of Darkness, and Dhand has had a further three Virdee novels published and is currently working on his fifth. The six-episode series, which will be titled Virdee, will adapt the first novel.

Sacha Dhawan, with a slight beard and upswept hair, slightly smiles
Sacha Dhawan, best known for playing The Master in Doctor Who and starring in Wolf, will take on the title role in the upcoming BBC series Virdee. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

The Silence of the Lambs set Dhand on the track of being a voracious reader. While his classmates were still reading Enid Blyton, Dhand was ploughing through the works of Stephen King.

By his own admission, he was terrible at English at school. But that didn’t stop him trying to write his own stories. He says: “I was advised very strongly against studying English at A-level. My teachers said: ‘Look, he’s terrible – he can’t spell; his grammar is awful; he’s got this crazy, over-vivid imagination; he gets carried away with himself, writing these stories that are just so obscene and ridiculous.’”

So Dhand didn’t pursue English. With the encouragement of his parents, he instead became a pharmacist, studying the subject at Bradford University and embarking on a career in the field that lasted until just earlier this year.

“We grew up in a corner shop and we weren’t affluent,” Dhand says. “It was quite hard – it was tough – and I went to train as a pharmacist because that’s what my parents told me to do.

“It didn’t really enter my mind back in the day to not do it. You did what you got told to do, and I wanted to earn good money but I didn’t want to be a corner shopkeeper.”

Cover of the book Streets of Darkness by AA Dhanda
The first book to feature the British Asian detective Harry Virdee. Photograph: PR

While studying at university, and then working at his first pharmacy jobs, Dhand forgot about the joy of reading. He worked initially in Essex and London before returning to his native Yorkshire. Then, in 2004, someone gave him a copy of Tess Gerritsen’s novel The Surgeon, published in 2001, about a serial killer employing medical techniques to dispatch his victims.

“I hadn’t read a book for six or seven years at that point. I’d just forgotten about reading, I was so busy. I sat down with The Surgeon on a Friday night and finished it on Sunday. I was so freaked out, I kept going downstairs to check the doors and windows. And on the Monday morning, I sat down and started to write.”

It wasn’t wholly successful. Dhand decided to throw into his character all the detective cliches he could think of. He made Harry Virdee a womanising, alcoholic social misfit, “but brown”.

Cover of the book City of Sinners by AA Dhanda

He finished it in 2006 and got an agent in 2008. He says: “I thought: ‘This is cracking. I’ve signed with a literary agent; I’m going to publish a book; I’m going to be famous.’”

But it would take a further decade before Harry Virdee saw print. The book would go through several rewrites and then be shelved because Dhand couldn’t quite make it work. He wrote another book, Fields of Blood, a thriller set in India and the UK. But Harry Virdee kept niggling at him. And suddenly he knew what he had to do.

“I hadn’t owned the character,” he says. “I’d just made him a cliched cardboard cutout of all the white detectives I’d read and watched. I hadn’t given him any authenticity.

“And when I realised that, I rewrote Streets of Darkness in four weeks and wrote Harry as authentically as possible. And it worked.”

Cover of the book Girl Zero by AA Dhanda

The BBC will begin filming around Bradford later this year, with more cast announcements forthcoming. The portrayal of Dhand’s home city in the books and TV adaptation is almost as important as getting Harry Virdee right.

Dhand says: “I’ve always imagined Harry is my Dark Knight, out to save Bradford. I’ve always made Bradford an integral character in the books.

“People’s view of Bradford can be really cliched, and I get tired of it.

“I always wanted to produce a brand that would eventually get to the screen and showcase everything about my city – the light and the dark.”


David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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