David Morrissey teams up with author for new TV drama

IT IS no accident that David Morrissey ended up playing Mark Billingham’s fictional detective Tom Thorne in a new TV drama.

Over the years, whenever readers asked the inevitable question about which actor Billingham wanted to play his troubled Kentish Town copper, he gave Morrissey’s name.

“I had seen David being fantastic in many things, like Blackpool and State of Play and I started thinking he was the actor I wanted, not because he physically resembled my idea of Thorne but because he was such a great actor,” says the actor turned crime author, who has lived in Camden for 20-odd years.

All that name dropping paid off when interviewers started asking Morrissey whether he was slated to take the role.

“I thought he would find out about it eventually,” chuckles Billingham. “Soon people started to say; ‘aren’t you playing Tom Thorne?’ And then he read the books and liked them.”

Sometime afterwards the TV option on Billingham’s books expired without any production in the offing. After buying back the rights he approached Morrissey. The pair hit it off instantly and formed a production company, making a successful pitch to broadcaster Sky which has now made a six-part series based on two Billingham books, Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat.

“When the books were first optioned, like most writers, I was out of the loop.

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“The writer is rarely consulted and I used to think that was the best way. That way you couldn’t lose, if it was rubbish you’d say, ‘it was nothing to do with me’ and if it was good you could say ‘that’s my book’”.

But he has thoroughly enjoyed getting involved with casting, scripts, directors and locations and wants to repeat the experience.

“Actors and writers aren’t normally involved in this way but David is also a writer and director and wanted creative input in all aspects of it.

He is very used to these jobs where you just turn up on set and the director says ‘this is your wife, now you are doing a sex scene’ but he prefers to get involved.”

Morrissey, who lives in Highgate with the writer Esther Freud and their three children, says the pair got on from the moment they met.

“We became mates really, it gave us a sort of camaraderie and made it a smooth journey. I had picked one of Mark’s books off the shelf when I was in New Zealand and really liked it. I did a bit of research, I googled Mark and it mentioned something about him having been an actor and I read the quote that he wanted me to play the part.

“I thought the premise [for Sleepyhead] was amazing, the book is a great story, a dark thriller about Thorne having to deal with something from his past before he can move on.”

Billingham never wanted to do the screenplay, describing it as “a world of pain for a novelist to write 25 drafts of a script based on a book I had written 10 years ago when I would rather be writing a new book.”

But finding other writers made it easier to make the major changes needed to successfully translate from page to screen.

“It’s much easier to let someone else decide to lose a character or subplot,” says Billingham, who warns diehard fans there has been a lot of chopping and changing.

“I’m probably not brave enough to do that myself although I am fully prepared that things have to change because TV isn’t the same as a book, it’s not the book, it can’t be the book, it’s different.

“You can’t turn 400 pages into three hours of TV if you are too slavish to the book, and there are things you can do in a book – like being in the killer’s head – that you can’t do on screen. I can spend a whole chapter describing Thorne’s feelings and David has to convey the inner life of a character in one look.”

Morrissey says it was that complex inner life, which attracted him to the part.

“There is something about Thorne, he has great empathy with certain victims, he absolutely connects with them and suddenly the case slips over into the personal, that’s what interested me, suddenly finding the personal face of this man.”

Morrissey believes Thorne is a product of his city, his job and his time.

“Some of my mates are policemen, if you are a detective working stupid hours, not getting a lot of thanks, you have to build a place where you carry the darker stuff.”

Like any successful British actor, he has played his fair share of policemen, most recently in the acclaimed Red Riding series, and the TV drama Five Days.

“I do get sent policemen roles because it’s the mainstay of drama and I wouldn’t want to play too many, but the thing for me is always the story.

“Five Days involved a very personal journey as well as an ongoing investigation and Red Riding wasn’t just about the police but about a society that’s dying and a closed group of men whose world is being dismantled in front of them as they try to hold onto power.

“Sometimes their job is the least interesting thing about them. Thorne is very much a policeman, it’s an investigative thriller drama and you have to be respectful of a genre people have enjoyed since the Victorian novel, but we also want this to be a bit different. What’s interesting is how Thorne goes about his job but they are not easy watches, they are quite brutal.”

Billingham says his fictional detective didn’t spring “fully formed onto the page” but evolved over the novels.

“I never had a note saying where he’d been to school. For me it’s about seeing where he goes as he develops book by book. He is not always a nice man, he makes mistakes, he does all the things any other human being does. I put him through all sorts of horrific stuff year after year, unbearable pain, grief and violence, it’s disingenuous to pretend he wouldn’t be affected by these horrible things he has to deal with.”

In the course of researching the books, Billingham has met policemen who are well adjusted, happily married and cope with their job. “But I don’t want to write about those people and I don’t think readers want to read about them,” he laughs. “It’s part of a tradition that goes back more than 100 years to Sherlock Holmes sitting in his flat in Baker Street shooting holes in the wall. Thorne is honouring that genre of drug taking, listening to music and being unable to form relationships.”

Although the books make much of the Kentish Town setting, the films are set in east London and trade on the clash between old London’s disused wharfs and the gleaming edifices of the Olympic site and Thames Barrier.

“It uses London in an unusual way,” says Morrissey, “as a teeming metropolis where people can hide. The city plays a big part in the stories.”

That was always Billingham’s intention. When writing the books, he “recces” his locations like a film director.

“It makes the writing much richer than just sitting at your desk and making stuff up. You go down to the streets and see where you are writing about.

“London has always been a major character in the books, it has a hidden side and a dark history, beneath the surface there’s all manner of things going on and that’s a rich seam to mine. I’m also interested in Thorne and London the relationship between the two, how he changes with living in this city. I have discovered that plot – and genuine suspense – comes from character.

“I distrust writers who say the characters take them over, as if they are channelling voices, I sit there and make stuff up, sometimes it takes me off in interesting directions I didn’t think I would go.”

Billingham has all the more respect for Morrissey’s ability to create intense screen performances because he tried and failed at the business himself.

Frustrated that acting was “based on what you look like” he took up comedy because “no-one gives a stuff what a stand up looks like”.

Between jobs, he started writing crime fiction because it was the kind of book he’d like to read himself. He was so successful he quickly gave up stand up altogether.

These days he gets his “performance kicks” from doing book events and readings, and being on the set of Sleepyhead only reminded him how boring being a screen actor is.

“I know what the job involves, a lot of hanging around, so I know David puts an awful lot of work into it and is a very clever actor with so many wonderful little moments to convey things in small movements with his eyes.”

Morrissey admits that before he started to direct and produce, he was “constantly frustrated” with the limitations of acting.

But he has rediscovered his love of the job since gaining more creative freedom in other projects. (His debut feature film Don’t Worry About Me came out last year.)

“Before I felt I always came into a production late as an actor. Work had been done on the script. The house your character lived in had been chosen and the car he drove, people made decisions for you who didn’t know the character you were playing, then you left the job early and they edited it and it was frustrating watching the final cut thinking, why have they lost this or that section?”

“Now I have done the director’s and producer’s job I have started to enjoy the day job more. When I get an acting gig it fires me up and now that I understand the responsibility of being a director, I am happier to think ‘it’s up to him or her to make those choices, not me.’”

Morrissey says he will always be a director who acts but directing is hugely time consuming for the father of three young children.

“You can disappear through a tunnel sometimes and you are not around (at home) as much as you would like to be. Films take a long, long time to set up. To find the finance, plan it, script it, but you see the whole picture when you are involved in casting, scripts, crewing, location, finance, there’s more responsibility but it’s more satisfying and a greater sense of achievement once it’s done.”

He’s far too grounded to sound like a moaning luvvie, but despite being in demand, he’s constantly aware he’s involved in “a precarious profession”.

“I know brilliant directors who have reached an age where they are working less, they are still really great but the industry is not using them. There are actresses who come to a certain age, and even though they are brilliant or the right age for parts, it’s not happening like it did before, the industry does that to people.”

But the 46-year-old shrugs, that growing up in Liverpool in the late 70s, “every profession was precarious”.

“Actors always worry it’s going to stop tomorrow, no matter how well known. If you are brave enough you can use that fear and anxiety to motivate yourself, but ultimately your career is determined by the order in which scripts come through your letterbox.”

o Mark Billingham and David Morrissey appear together at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival on September 21. Bookings on 020-8511 7900 or visit www.hamhighlitfest.com.