Marrisse Whittaker on Doing Makeup for the Stars and her New Crime Novel
What links make-up expertise, celebrities Ant and Dec, and a crime novel based in the North East?
We’ve just turned over the final page of The Magpie as we begin writing this feature, and it was quite the whirlwind ending (we promise no spoilers though). It’s the first book in a series of psychological crime fiction stories set in the North East, and the plot follows Billie Wilde, a feisty female detective, along with her diverse team. ‘It also features Newcastle United and Sunderland supporters, mentioned together in the same book – might that be a first?’ author Marrisse Whittaker adds.
‘Lots of iconic locations, well-known to readers of Living North, turn out to be the scenes of a series of shocking murders. As the hunt moves forward to stop further horrific events, Billie Wilde discovers that her own history is not all that she had believed it to be. All the core characters seem to hold secrets – hidden skeletons that come tumbling out during the investigation. However, the book is not simply a tale of killings for no reason. The theme of the story is early childhood and how events experienced as a child can have a surprising impact on adulthood. If the story gives readers an entertaining experience and also a few moments pause for thought on the subject, then I will be very happy indeed.’
To understand how such a thrilling story came about, we must first find out a bit more about Marrisse. She was born in Boldon and went to Boldon Comprehensive School, in the days when she says ‘voicing a dream to work in the glamorous world of showbiz was considered to be getting a bit too big for one’s boots’. But that fired up her determination to succeed. So she moved to London to work in opera and theatre, firstly as a wig mistress and make-up artist in London’s West End. She then trained as a TV make-up artist with the BBC. Throughout her 20 years in film and TV, she was make-up designer for Byker Grove and feature film Purely Belter and worked on coastal series Grafters, with Robson Green. She was also one of a huge team working on the film Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett, filmed in Alnwick, Durham and Barnard Castle. Quite an impressive CV.
After hanging up her make-up brushes, she got into writing, beginning with drama scripts for TV, and launched a factual TV production company, called Orion TV, with her husband Bob Whittaker. ‘I met Bob when he was a TV news presenter and producer at Tyne Tees TV and he came in for a make-up session before going on camera,’ Marrisse reveals. ‘You could say that our eyes met over a crowded make-up station.’
While it was lots of fun, this lifestyle wasn’t easy. ‘Like all so-called glamorous careers, success in TV and film requires hard work and dedication,’ Marrisse says. ‘That might mean standing in rain and snow for 18 hours a day, trying to keep actors in period wigs looking exactly as they had done three weeks earlier in full sunshine, for continuity purposes, or wading through rivers and climbing trees, make-up kit strapped on, to make sure that made-up cuts and bruises stay in place while actors stuff sausage sarnies down their throats or dangle upside down pretending to be dead.
‘I once had to chase a wayward sideburn out of a theatre and up the street when an opera singer split up with his lover in the interval of a performance and she slapped his face, storming off with the sideburn stuck to her hand. It’s a fascinating career that, of course, takes you behind the scenes and up close and personal with famous pop stars, actors, and politicians, seeing them at their most vulnerable just before they face the camera – sometimes live. On Byker Grove it was a joy to work with the young actors including Ant and Dec, Jill Halfpenny, Donna Air and others who have gone on to do so well in their media careers.’
Moving on from her days in TV, Marrisse has now become an author, and says it feels ‘wonderful’ to finally have a book published. ‘I am lucky, not to say astonished, that I have been offered the opportunity to write three new novels this year alone,’ she tells us. ‘I had attempted to write novels in quieter periods before, but the world of publishing is entirely different to the world of TV and films and there is no easy crossover from one to the other. I didn’t just get my submissions rejected – I hardly ever heard a word back. It seemed like a completely closed world, with all sorts of rules and regulations that can seem quite intimidating.’
Bob and Marrisse had decided to wind down TV production, to spend more time in our region, enjoying the surf and turf surroundings of their home in Northumberland. The opportunity to have one last go at writing a novel came when Marrisse picked up a leaflet in Alnwick library, outlining The Lindisfarne Prize for Outstanding Debut Crime Fiction, sponsored by local author and Living North contributor, LJ Ross, as part of Newcastle Noir.
‘Who knows if I would have acted on the idea to enter the competition, had the UK not gone into lockdown?’ Marrisse reflects. ‘I decided that to concentrate on a project would be the best way to switch off from pandemic worries and completed the required two chapters and synopsis on the final day that entry into the competition was open. Soon after, I discovered that I had been shortlisted. I went on to finish the novel and Bloodhound Books offered me the contract, so I’m absolutely thrilled to be setting off on a new adventure whilst being able to stay here in the North East to do it.
‘It felt amazing to be shortlisted for the Lindisfarne Prize. I will be forever grateful to Louise Ross for sponsoring it. I am in awe of her outstanding success as a self-published author – no mean feat – but, in the middle of that vast amount of work, to think of other writers trying to break through, shows what a truly dazzling star she is.’
As a former scriptwriter, Marrisse has always written with the thought that novels can be very easily adapted for TV, with short scenes, fast-moving action and lots of dialogue. So we have to ask her if she has hopes for a TV adaptation. ‘I very much hope so. There can never be too many ways to tell a new story and some people prefer to see or hear stories, rather than read them. My first ever written drama, oddly enough, was Byker Grove, which I had been head of make-up on years earlier. It would be wonderful to walk on to location on the first day of The Magpie and other novels becoming a TV series – but you would probably still find me tucked away in the make-up trailer, cuppa in hand, catching up on the latest hot gossip with the actors, as they get into their roles.’
As always, when speaking to local authors, we want to find out what inspires Marrisse – and heartwarmingly, she says it’s her loved ones. ‘My husband Bob who is amazing at all things telly and journalistic and big sis Denise who I nickname Cindy after the doll, because she has a different outfit for every activity she does, and expects to be capable of doing everything – and she is. Also my little brother Daryn who was born with cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user, but doesn’t let those things stand in the way of him doing a vast range of activities, from DJ-ing to journalism. He has inspired one of the characters in my book, Boo, a wheelchair-using police officer, who will feature particularly strongly in book two.
‘Funnily enough, one of the Byker Grove child actors, Gemma Graham, who is now grown up, living in Sunderland and is a teacher, coined a phrase which I still use to this day, “shy kids get nowt". She wrote a letter to that effect to Byker Grove’s producer when she was a background extra on the TV show, but desperately wanted to be a star. The result was that she got a major role. I think of her words every time I take a deep breath and leap into something new. It’s stood me in good stead.’
What do you love most about Northumberland?
‘I love so many things about Northumberland. The people first: funny and feisty and down to earth. The scenery of course. I’m lucky to live both by the sea and also in deepest countryside, yet only half an hour’s drive away from a vibrant and beautiful city. York and Edinburgh are also just over an hour and a bit away by train.
‘I also love the diversity of shops and restaurants, both in the city and way out in the countryside. We have the best produce from sea and land and I love coming across little pop-up eateries everywhere, such as Scotts Deli in Alnmouth and the pop-up fish shack across the road. A few short miles away lies Amble, which suffered badly from job losses in the past, but it is now a colourful and vibrant community with people from the UK and abroad flocking to visit. Almost every time I walk down the high street another new shop or eatery has popped up. These are micro businesses, created by locals who are coming up with fantastic new ideas whilst trying to make a living, with little help. Some of the businesses have thrived and some disappear after a year or so, when another self-starter pops up in its place. All of these venues celebrate the spirit of the North East and its people, full of life and that have-a-go “shy kids get nowt” attitude.’
What advice can you give aspiring authors?
‘The advice I would give to aspiring authors living in the North East, or writing about the North East, is first and foremost, enter The Lindisfarne Prize! But other than that, write every day. Just like cleaning your teeth, it then becomes a habit. Also don’t get bogged down with too many “how to write” sites on the internet or similar books. You can end up completely confused and intimidated by it all. Just write the way that feels right to you. Publishers are looking for unique voices. So just be yourself.’
Hopes for the future?
‘I’m in my happy place now, creating stories and enjoying all of the wonderful things that the North East has to offer. I simply want to continue on this fantastic new adventure.’
We look forward to delving into book two soon. But you can get stuck into The Magpie, published by Bloodhound Books, out now.