Harrogate Dispatches #2: Sara Peretsky, Eddie Izzard, MC Beaton and the Arctic

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1936814_123273397829_7279687_nAs I’ve already mentioned, this year’s Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at The Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, chaired by Ann Cleeves, was quite a weekend, full of interesting people talking about interesting things. It’s a bit like Glastonbury for crime fiction fans, except you don’t have to go to the toilet in a field. Although the emphasis was very much on crime fiction, strewn across the weekend were bits and bobs that were extremely relevant to this site. I’ve tried to break them down into easily digestible morsels after the jump.

So, from my diminished, slightly post-festival fug of a memory (and barely distinguishable notes), here’s what I’ve taken away from the festival:

1. Sara Paretsky is one of the coolest people ever
The first session of the weekend was given over to the American author Sara Paretsky, the woman behind the best-selling VI Warshawski series. Even though we had the excellent 1991 film starring Kathleen Turner, I’ve always felt this passionate, no-nonsense character was ripe for a TV adaptation.

Paretsky was interviewed by the equally excellent Val McDermid, and revealed herself to be an extraordinary woman who has lived an incredible life. The one thing I took from her interview was that she’s incredibly humble and just, well, normal. Even after 19 novels she still suffers from that special kind of writer insecurity.

But it was how she described her upbringing in 1960s Chicago, the city that she fell in love with after moving there from Kansas, that was really interesting. She told us how she was involved in the civil rights movement and how at that time the city and country was so full of possibilities. During her youth and reading the big (male) names in crime fiction, she realised female characters were at best periphery, often seen as dangerous and living in restrictive and steadfast gender roles. She wanted to create a female character that “existed outside of a domestic world” and in possession of sex life that didn’t define her.

“At her heart, like me,” Paretsky said, “she’s really a pitdog… saying things about the rich and powerful that they don’t always want to hear. She was always going to speak in a way I was always too intimidated to speak.”

2. MC Beaton and Fred Macauley 
Often the best panel sessions and interviews feature two people that already know each other, dispense with the formal questions and just have a natter.

Comedian Fred MacAulay and veteran author MC Beaton (the woman behind Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth) were two such people, and their hour together on Saturday morning was one of the most entertaining of the whole weekend. It was like watching two friends regale each other with stories, and Beaton frequently recalled gems from her years as a journalist in Glasgow and her time covering the city’s music halls and theatres, seeing as she did legends like Stanley Baxter and Chic Murray.

She also spoke about working with Sky on Agatha Raisin (“They’re terribly nice to me!”), and that Ashley Jenson does a good job playing the Agatha Raisin that’s depicted in the book. Asked if Penelope Keith, who played Agatha in the radio dramas, was ever considered for the role, she said no because she might be a bit too old for the character now.

Beaton went on to describe Agatha as someone who “you may not like but want to win through in the end” and that she was an amalgamation of some PR people she’s known throughout her life. “I could never be that rude,” she chuckled. As much as she was comfortable talking about Agatha Raisin – which gets a full eight-episode series from Sky next year – she was less enthusiastic about her other TV adaptation, Hamish Macbeth. Contractual reasons means that she does not get paid for repeats.

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Eddie Izzard and Mark Billingham

3. Eddie Izzard is terrified of Hannibal
A replacement for the originally billed David Morrissey, Izzard, who numbers Hannibal as one of his many straight acting roles, was in conversation with old friend and best-selling crime writer Mark Billingham.

The two nattered away in highly amusing fashion, sharing stories from their early stand-up days (Billingham was on the circuit before he took up the quill), and there were some interesting nuggets that sprung up from their chat.

Billingham revealed that he had had a telephone conversation with Izzard about taking the role of gay forensics man, Phil Hendricks (originally played by Aidan Gillen in Sky1’s Sleepyhead in 2010) for Billingham’s two BBC adaptations next year. Izzard turned the offer down and explained that he thought playing a gay character might complicate the audience perception of him, many of who still don’t quite understand his transgenderism. He did, however, say that he’d be more than open to playing a transgender character onscreen in the future. Izzard also admitted he can’t watch Hannibal (even though he appeared as serial killer, Dr Abel Gideon, during a six-episode story arc) because the truth of show utterly terrifies him.

He then went onto talk about squirrels playing banjos.

4. Brenda Blethyn showed up.
Not because she had anything to sell, but because she wanted to support her friend and this year’s chair, Ann Cleeves. Respect.

5. Sarah Hilary and Patricia Highsmith
Novelist Sarah Hilary (who I’ve spoken to on this site before), won the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel Of The Year for her superb Someone Else’s Skin and then popped up on the panel to discuss the life and work of Patricia Highsmith. During this excellent session (also featuring Martin Edwards, Peter James, Andrew Taylor and Peter Swanson), she relayed some news she’d heard – that there was going to be a TV series made from Highsmith’s Ripley novels. Television 360, Endemol Shine Studios and publisher Diogenes are teaming to bring the celebrated quintet of novels to the small screen.

6. MJ McGrath’s description of The Arctic
The Strange Places panel session, hosted by Mark Lawson and featuring the likes of Craig Robertson, Michael Robotham, Håkan Nesser, MJ McGrath and Louise Welch talked about how extreme landscapes have influenced their work. MJ McGrath, who sets her stories in the Arctic, described the unforgiving landscape beautifully, saying that this kind of frozen, barren landscape was psychopathic in its nature. “Beautiful, alluring but absolutely deadly with no moral code,” she said. Although this doesn’t have much to do with crime drama, it struck me that this description could well be applied to the landscapes of Fargo.

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