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Back to basics

One of the few professional stand-up comics I’ve met who wasn’t bitter, twisted, malign, graceless, grumpy, chippy, egomaniacal and slightly to the left of Stalin is Mark Billingham.

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

One of the few professional stand-up comics I’ve met who wasn’t bitter, twisted, malign, graceless, grumpy, chippy, egomaniacal and slightly to the left of Stalin is Mark Billingham.

One of the few professional stand-up comics I’ve met who wasn’t bitter, twisted, malign, graceless, grumpy, chippy, egomaniacal and slightly to the left of Stalin is Mark Billingham. We bonded at the Dubai literary festival earlier this year, and I liked him so much that I very nearly bought one of his bestselling crime thrillers.

The reason I didn’t in the end was that I decided a) if I liked it, it would make me jealous and hate him, b) if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye and c) I don’t really do bestselling crime thrillers because when you’ve read one series about a detective with a rackety personal life investigating a serial killer with an unusually vile and pervy modus operandi you’ve pretty much read them all, haven’t you?

So, imagine my surprise when I watched the first episode of Thorne: Sleepyhead (Sunday, Sky 1), starring Billingham’s creation DCI Thorne and discovered that, for a change, it was about a detective with a rackety personal life investigating a serial killer with an unusually vile and pervy modus operandi. Actually, putting aside sarcasm for a moment, there really was one major difference between this and most of the others: it wasn’t incredibly annoying.


I blame Inspector bloody Morse. The problem with Inspector bloody Morse was that he was such a character, his quirks started taking over the entire programme. So by the time you’d done with the foaming pint of ale in Oxfordshire pub stuff and the ‘Morse drives classic Jag through agreeable countryside’ stuff and the ‘Morse is really into his opera’ stuff and ‘Morse’s sidekick is dogged, loyal and thick’ stuff and the ‘Morse always makes mistakes and fingers the wrong culprit’ stuff, all you were left with was a strong urge to hang yourself — probably from a bell rope in a picturesque church like the pretty classical violinist daughter who had secretly been abused by the stuffy don with the fruity wife whom Morse half-fancied but only in a wistful, late-middle-aged way for nothing would ever come of it.

I also blame Prime Suspect, which would insist that TV detective dramas had to be about issues. In this case, the issue was: ‘Ooh, look. Have you noticed she’s a woman in charge in a man’s world? Can you imagine the sexism she’s going to have to put up with? It’s OK, no need to imagine — I’m going to show you with the help of my magic sledgehammer. Oh, and just in case the sexual politics get a bit heavy for any of you men viewers, here’s Jane getting her kit off. And here’s a juicy murder or three.’

And Cracker. I’m not pretending I didn’t like Cracker — it was great — but from then on, everyone seemed to take it as a challenge to see just how unbelievably messed-up and larger-than-life they could make their investigating heroes. ‘Hey, I know: I’ll call him Inspector Quirke — the quadriplegic, heroin-addicted whale breeder who is a grandmaster at Go and flies around in his gyrocopter spotting serial killers by the effect they have on cloud formations.’

Anyway, what I really liked about Billingham’s Sleepyhead is that it’s very much back to basics. DCI Thorne (David Morrissey) has his inevitable traits — drinks too much, can chop onions at least as well as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File, etc. — but you’re not asked to waste any of your time trying to grapple with whether you like him or not. You do, because he’s popular with his colleagues, he’s almost supernaturally good at his job, he gets the girl and he’s more or less indestructible: the kind of ’tec, in other words, that they don’t make any more.

Same with his sidekicks, who again provide just the right amount of superficial colour without your ever feeling you’re having too much art ground in your face: there’s DI Dickensian — the actor with the slightly odd phiz perfect for Dickens adaptations, whose special feature seems to be that he’s a fastidious dresser; there’s Not Annoying Detective Woman who, though a Woman and a Detective, is amazingly not annoying; there’s whacko, tattoo-loving Queer as Folk pathologist who, though gay, whacko and tattoo-loving, never quite outwears his welcome.

It could be partly down to casting, of course. Besides Morrissey they’ve got Natascha McElhone, Aidan Gillen, Eddie Marsan, as well as top-notch director Stephen Hopkins — Sky has gone to town on this and wants to make it work. But I suspect a lot of credit for it ought to be Billingham’s. When I went to hear him speak (and read extracts from his books) in Dubai, he struck me as that very unusual thing — a writer who is totally happy in his skin. And I think that easy fluency comes through in his writing. As a stand-up, he has paid his dues and he knows what an audience wants: it doesn’t want its intelligence insulted but it does want to be entertained. He’s also, it goes without saying, very funny. His evil hospital consultant is one of the most glorious wankers I’ve ever seen on screen.


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