is an English
writer whose series of "Tom Thorne" crime novels
are considered bestsellers in that particular genre. He is also a TV scriptwriter
and has become a familiar face as an actor and stand-up comic
Mark Billingham was born in Birmingham
and grew up in the city's suburb of Moseley
. He attended grammar school
in nearby King's Heath
, and lived in that general area "right the way through university". After graduating with a degree in drama, he stayed in Birmingham and helped form a community theatre company which toured with a number of shows around schools and colleges. In mid-1980s he moved from Birmingham to London
as a "jobbing actor", taking minor roles in episodes of TV shows Dempsey & Makepeace
, Juliet Bravo
, and The Bill
. After finding himself playing a variety of "bad guy roles such as a soccer hooligan, drug addict, a nasty copper, a racist copper, or a bent copper", he became somewhat disenfranchised with acting, perceiving that the emphasis was not on talent, but on looks.
Around 1987 he decided to pursue a career in comedy, in part because:
- "[The] one great advantage of stand-up comedy [is that] nobody gives a stuff on what you look like - as long as you're funny, and if you can do it, and people laugh, then you'll get bookings.
At the time, breaking into stand-up was not as difficult as it would later become, nor was there the modern infrastructure and chain businesses. Billingham cites his own route as a simple progression from 5-minute, unpaid "try-out" spots to (if one was deemed worthy) 10-, 20- and 30-minute paid slots. As he stated, "within a year, you could be playing The Comedy Store
". Indeed, Billingham has headlined at The Comedy Store on several occasions, where he also appears regularly as a Master of Ceremonies
Despite feeling rather ambivalent towards "serious" roles, Billingham still found considerable success by merging his careers as actor and comic to work in comedy shows. He was the human face on the puppet-representation-of-celebrities series Spitting Image, and "the taller half" of top double act "The Tracy Brothers", appearing regularly on the radio version of The Mary Whitehouse Experience. In 1988, he was seen on the children's comedy series News at Twelve, in which the central character "broadcasts his own (imaginary) TV news bulletin every evening". In 1989, a new role in a children's series written by Blackadder's Tony Robinson, would have a lasting impact, both on the nations' children and on Billingham himself.
Maid Marian and her Merry Men
Maid Marian and her Merry Men
saw Billingham cast as Gary, a dim-but-lovable guard in the employ of the Sheriff of Nottingham
, charged with keeping the peace (or causing the violence) in the village of Worksop, and hunting down Maid Marian
) and her band of "freedom fighters". As part of a double-act with Graeme (David Lloyd
), Billingham was ostensibly one of the "baddies", but was nonetheless deeply sympathetic and well-liked.
After three successful award-winning series, both Billingham and Lloyd were helping creator-writer Robinson with plot and script ideas, both gaining co-writer credits on the first episode of series 4 - "Tunnel Vision" - arguably the best-known and most popular episode. "Tunnel Vision", (as did the whole series) produced spot-on spoofs of a number of then-exceptionally-well-known cultural icons, including passing references to Chronic the Hedgehog and Dungeons & Dragons, before the coup-de-grace of Richard O'Brien stand-in "Robin O'Hood" leading Gary and Graeme through the Merry Men's version of The Crystal Maze.
Tony Robinson, David Lloyd and Mark Billingham (in particular) remain friends, after having worked so closely together for four-to-five years, and Robinson can be seen taking partial credit for Billingham's literary career on the DVD release of Maid Marian (Series 3), in which the three discuss writing, both for the series and in general.
As he has stated in a number of interviews, Billingham treats comedy - and his stand-up in particular - and writing as parts of a whole, seeing the two as complementary, using as they do:
- "..the same 'Tricks'... [in particular] a strong opening. When you do stand-up, you walk out on stage and you have a minute - 60 seconds to hook them or they'll start booing. A late show at the Comedy Store is not easy, ditto with a book. As a writer you again have the duty to deliver - a reader has not got time to say, I'll give him 50 pages as its not very good yet, but I hope it'll get better.
He also cites the big ending, and "pullback and reveal", whereby the audience (readership) is led along a specific path and lulled into thinking that they can guess the twist, before: "boom! it hits them from over there." In comedy, he says, it is a punchline; in crime "something a whole lot darker... [but] essentially it's a similar kind of [misdirection] technique.
It is no surprise then, that Billingham turned his hand to writing comedy scripts for television, as well as continuing to act and appear in front of the camera at various points. He joined with David Lloyd to write episodes and act in the children's TV series Harry's Mad (based on the book by Dick King-Smith), and "has serenaded Gordon the Gopher and Ed the Duck; given away his appendix on Live and Kicking, and written and presented two series of BBC's What's That Noise. Between 1997 and 1998, he (and friend Peter Cocks) wrote and co-starred in Granada TV's Knight School, for which the two also produced a novelisation.
He is however, clearly less enamoured by scriptwriting than by novel-writing, noting that:
- "I can write a six part TV series or whatever, and put my heart and soul in crafting it, and when it's done, it's jumped upon by a dozen people and torn to pieces and rewritten and messed about. Of those dozen people, perhaps two are qualified to do that.
In 2002, he was "in the middle of writing a screenplay for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and about to write a screenplay for a cult children's show," an original sci-fi drama for the BBC, but his prime consideration turned to writing novels.
In 2001, Billingham's first crime novel, Sleepyhead
, was published in the UK by Little, Brown and Company
. He is a self-confessed fan of crime fiction
, "as well as a really serious collector and has alleged that the expense of collecting books inspired him to get into interviewing and reviewing books, partly for the complimentary copies! Starting with a local newspaper, he progressed to providing reviews/interviews for SHOTS
, and then to magazines, including Time Out
, where he found himself interviewing people such as Mike Connelly
, talking and learning from other writers.
From an early age, Billingham can remember writing, often "funny" stories for purposes of popularity and enjoyment. As he grew older, and his interests moved towards crime fiction, he began to skew his writing that way, setting an early novel (the as-yet unpublished The Mechanic
) in his native Birmingham. Inspired by the comic-crime work of Carl Hiaasen
and other authors, he attempted to use his experience as a stand-up comedian and crime fan to write a similarly comic novel. Ultimately, after attending the seminar "Does Comedy Hurt Your Sales Figures?" at the Deansgate
crime convention, he abandoned his unfinished novel and the comic-crime genre to focus on his other idea—a book that would become Sleepyhead
Billingham created Detective Inspector Tom Thorne for his 2001 debut novel Sleepyhead
, where a case of "Locked-in Syndrome
" reveals the dark depths of a twisted mind, as adept at toying with the DI
as with the victims. This central character has since featured in the vast majority of his works, except In the Dark
, scheduled for release in August 2008, in which Thorne has only a very minor role. The author writes that, "if writers want their readers to care about a character, they have to care themselves" and, as such, has imbued Thorne with a lot of his personal characteristics. The two share a birthday, a locale (London) and musical interests (a "love of country music both alt and cheesy" - although Billingham implies that it is Thorne
's fictional musical tastes that have grown on the author).
In talking about the creation and development of his central character, Billingham notes the difficulty and worry involved in trying to create a personality different from those in other existing, familiar and popular works:
- "[You] worry that you will be entering that world of the strange cliche-ed cop, but you soon realise that you have to get comfortable in that world. You think 'Hang on, some of the clichés are part of that territory'. It would like writing a Western and going 'Oh no I've given him a horse! What a terrible cliché!' It's not a cliché - It's part and parcel of the genre - cowboys have six-guns, horses and stetsons and detectives have [a] past... problems [and] flaws, because if they don't, then there is nothing to read about.
Billingham's own website says that the underlying determination of Tom Thorne's character was that he would evolve as the series progressed, and remain unpredictable. While noting that many authors compile "thick dossiers" and "complex biographies" about their characters, noting every quirk and minor detail, Billingham shies away from such minutiae, calling it "limiting"—preferring instead to discover something anew about his own hero with each book, and to pass that novelty on to the reader:
- "The day a character becomes predictable is the day a writer should think about moving on, because the reader certainly will.
Thorne's internal continuity is important to his author—it is important that the events in his past affect who is in the present, although this very aspect of his character causes Billingham great difficulty in describing him without giving away plot twists! Suffice to say that "[h]e works on the Metropolitan Police Murder Squad [and at] the time of the first book, he is forty-one years old. Thorne's surname comes from fellow Comedy Store stand-up Paul Thorne
, and the (sur)names of other comics and comedians are liberally peppered throughout the series.
Sleepyhead was released in August 2001, and made it onto the Sunday Times "Top Ten Bestseller" list, becoming "the biggest selling debut novel of that Summer".
Scaredy Cat inspiration
In 1997, Billingham was the victim of a bizarre and nasty crime, as he and his writing partner Peter Cocks were kidnapped and held hostage in a Manchester
hotel room. Turning the event into inspiration for his second Thorne novel, Scaredy Cat
, he wrote:
- "The general theme of Scaredy Cat is really the power of fear, and that fear is a very powerful weapon, and if you are prepared to instill it, you have a very powerful weapon that is every bit as dangerous as a gun or a knife. Also what happened to me in that hotel room feed directly as a sub-plot in Scaredy Cat as the very nasty crimes that are carried out in hotel-rooms.
The two were kept bound and gagged in their hotel room by a trio of masked men who stole items and credit cards from them. Billingham recalls being terrified by the sheer audacity of the criminals, who managed to instill a feeling of menace and fear into their victims, a theme which was later fed into his novels–"that if one person is able to scare someone so much, they can make them do anything". The Scaredy Cat
storyline thus presents the scenario of tandem serial killers, two individuals ostensibly working together, creating an added air of terror and expectation whenever one of them strikes.
On the heels of 2001's Sleepyhead
and 2002's Scaredy Cat
, Thorne returns in 2003's Lazybones
, investigating the killing of a convicted rapist, and finding it difficult to become involved in the case, since he has little real sympathy for the victim. A messy contract killer and the past cases of a former colleague blur together in The Burning Girl
as the past meets the present in a symphony of violence. Thorne's involvement in a previous case affects his ability to investigate an increasing death toll among the homeless of London in Lifeless
, while a kidnapping case forms the backbone of 2006's Buried
. Death Message
, the Thorne novel published in August 2007 sees him haunted by a psychopath he has already put behind bars, but who is reaching out from prison to manipulate the world outside.
The first chapter of each of Billingham's Tom Thorne books can be downloaded from his website
Awards and nominations
Billingham has received nominations and awards related to all aspects of his various careers. What's That Noise
, (which he wrote and presented) won the 1995 Royal Television Society
award for "Best Entertainment Programme", while Knight School
was nominated for the RTS's "Best Children's Drama" award two years running.
(2002) won the Sherlock Award
for "Best Detective Novel Created by a UK Author", and was also nominated for the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger
for "Best Crime Novel of the Year".
(2005) was nominated for BCA "Crime Thriller of the Year" Award
In-between writing, acting and stand-up, Billingham finds time to support Wolverhampton Wanderers
, although his protagonist Thorne supports Tottenham FC
As "Will Peterson" (with Peter Cocks)
- Triskellion (Walker Books Ltd [Feb 2008] ISBN 1406307092
- In the Dark (Little, Brown & Company [Aug 2008]) ISBN 1408700697
- "Dancing Towards The Blade" in Men From Boys by John Harvey (ed.) (Arrow Books [Sep 2004]) ISBN 0099461528
- "Stroke of Luck" in Like A Charm by Karin Slaughter (ed.) (Century [Feb 2004]) ISBN 1844133737
- in The Eye of the Leopard (2007)
- "Introduction" in The High Window by Raymond Chandler (Penguin)