Mark Billingham on why country music isn’t all Dolly Parton and ten gallon hats

Val McDermid and Mark Billingham hosting the quiz at the annual Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate.
Val McDermid and Mark Billingham hosting the quiz at the annual Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate.
  • He’s a bestselling crime writer, stand-up comedian and actor. Now Mark Billingham tells Sarah Freeman why for his latest venture he’s teaming up with a country and western duo.
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Ask Mark Billingham to name his favourite country and western song of all time and he doesn’t hesitate.

“Easy,” he says. “George Jones, He Stopped Loving Her Today. It is what every country and western song should be, deeply miserable, a little bit cheesey, but with a really clever twist.”

Mark Billingham will hit the stage with My Darling Clementine

Mark Billingham will hit the stage with My Darling Clementine

Billingham is the bestselling author behind the Tom Thorne series of detective novels, but he’s also a bit of a country and western nut, which goes some way to explain why he has just embarked on a tour with Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish, otherwise known as British country duo My Darling Clementine.

“Don’t worry, I don’t sing, I leave that to Michael and Lou,” says Billingham of The Other Half. “It’s hard to describe what we do, but essentially it’s storytelling interweaved with music. I came to country music quite late listening to Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue album which he recorded out in Nashville. Of course I knew about Johnny Cash, but I pretty much thought country music was all Dolly Parton and big ten gallon hats. Suddenly a whole new world opened up, one where I found the likes of Gram Parsons, Hank Williams and of course Jones.

“A little while ago someone I know said you need to check out My Darling Clementine. I bought their album, loved it, went to one of their concerts and basically became a bit of a fanboy. What I love about them is like the best country and music songs, they tell a story, one which is very modern, but which channels the melancholic spirit of Tammy Wynette.”

The Other Half sees Billingham read a short story inspired by half a dozen songs from My Darling Clementine’s first two albums, which the duo then play along with two new tracks.

“It’s set in a run-down bar in Memphis and tells the tale of the various couples who frequent it,” says Billingham, who will bring the show to a number of Yorkshire venues, beginning with the Beverley Folk Festival next weekend. “It’s told through the eyes of the aging, washed-up barmaid called Marcia and while I realise that all sounds faintly depressing, we first tried it out last year and I think the audience left feeling entertained... at least that’s what they told us.”

Over the next few months, Billingham will be spending quite a bit of time in Yorkshire and as well as bringing The Other Half to York, Northallerton and Leeds, come mid-July he will be back in Harrogate at Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. He’s a regular at the event, but this year instead of talking about his own books he will be in conversation with Eddie Izzard, who he first met as a fledgling comedian on the stand-up circuit 25 years ago.

“Without realising it, a bit of a comedy theme has developed at this year’s festival,” says Billingham, who is still a regular at London’s Comedy Store. “Rory Bremner will be there interviewing Lee Child and Fred McCaulay will be talking to MC Beaton, the author of the much-loved Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth books.

“I’ve always said that I think there is an overlap between comedy and crime, particularly in terms of the timing. In one you get the big reveal, the whodunit and in the other the story has to be carefully crafted to ensure the punchline has as much power as possible. Writing a novel is as much a performance as stand-up comedy, you have to keep the reader entertained.

“Having said all that, I honestly have no idea what will happen when we get Eddie on stage. Recently he’s had a recurring role in the TV series Hannibal, playing Dr Abel Gideon, a surgeon institutionalised for killing his family, so I suspect we will talk about that. But clearly there is no point planning an interview with someone like Eddie Izzard – we could as easily end up talking about fish and penguins as we could crime.

“Staging these different sort of events is good for the festival because no-one wants to hear the same old authors talking about the same old themes. Of course you have to have some serious events, but when the comedian Sarah Millican interviewed Lee Child the other year there was something really refreshing about hearing her ask: ‘So who would win in a fight between Jack Reacher and a shark’.

“The audience at Harrogate are very loyal. They come year in, year out and the last thing you want is for them to see the programme and think: ‘Well, that’s all a bit po-faced’.”

In 2005, Billingham won the first ever Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award for Lazy Bones. Back then, the event was little more than an add-on to the main Harrogate International Festival programme, but it quickly grew into an event in its own right and one with an international reputation.

“It has been a huge success and it’s been great to have been a part of. You now have these big American crime writers arranging their diary around when they can appear in Harrogate.

“Honestly, getting a spot in the programme is like getting on the Olympic team, it really is that big a deal. But you know what? The best thing is that it’s fun. It’s a weekend where we can all catch up, have a drink and sometimes we even go to a few events.”

While it wasn’t until the late 1990s that Billingham began entertaining ideas about becoming a crime writer, the genre was one that he had been interested in ever since he was a child growing up in Solihull in the 1970s. “I am a huge fan of Columbo,” he says. “That changed everything in terms of television crime dramas and it made a huge impression on me.

“I was lucky enough to interview Peter Falk a few years before he died for a documentary I did on Columbo for Radio 4. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for one of his very first films, Murder Inc, and everyone knew what a great actor he was. Could his career have been more varied? Well, probably, but he didn’t mind that his life had become defined by one role. Let’s face it, it was quite a role and even now I can watch one of those episodes and just admire the genius of the script and the direction.”

Billingham’s own early career was focused on the small screen and for a certain generation he will always be known as Gary, the dimwitted employee of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the children’s series Maid Marian and herMerry Men. He may well have continued combining work as a jobbing actor with the stand-up circuit had it not been for a holiday in Corfu.

“I’d always written something whether it be stand-up routines or scripts for television, but I honestly never thought I could write a novel. It just seemed like far, far too many words. However, I went to Greece one year and every night I would sit down with a notepad and a cold beer and started to write. By the end of the holiday I had 30,000 words and I thought: ‘Well, that’s a third of a novel done and it wasn’t so bad’.” It actually turned out to be pretty good. On the basis of those 30,000 words, Billingham managed to secure a book 
deal and his first book, Sleepyhead, introduced readers to DI Thorne. Since then, he has written another dozen books in the series, alongside various stand-alone novels. “I know that before you get a book published you’re supposed to have a pile of rejection letters and be gripped by years of angst, but for me it didn’t work out that way. People often ask ‘how do I get published?’, but all I can say is work hard and be lucky. I got very lucky.”

The two halves of Billingham’s career will come together shortly, with two of his novels currently being adapted for the BBC. It follows an earlier adaptation for ITV where David Morrissey played DI Thorne, but when Time of Death and In the Dark hit the television screen Billingham’s detective will be conspicuous only by his absence.

“Ah yes, Thorne is not going to be in this latest adaptation, which takes some explaining. It’s all very complicated, but it’s to do with having sold the earlier rights, so instead the focus will be on Thorne’s partner Helen Weeks.

“When it comes to TV adaptations, as an author you pretty much just have to hand the book over and let them get on with it. That’s a slightly strange feeling when you are used to being a master of your own destiny, but it also has its advantages. If it turns out to be a terrible flop, then you can say: ‘Well it was nothing to do with me’ and if it’s a great success then of course you share in the reflected glory.”

• The Other Half, Beverley Folk Festival, June 21; Selby Town Hall, September 26; The Carriageworks, Leeds, October 1; Forum, Northallerton, October 2; City Screen, York, October 3. In Conversation with Eddie Izzard, Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, July 16.