George Costigan on his debut novel and his love for Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 April 2017
© Ben Blackall 2014
Actor and director George Costigan talks to Tony Greenway about his debut novel, filming in Yorkshire and why working with Clint Eastwood was an experience he’ll never forget.
‘It’s bizarre,’ says George Costigan thoughtfully, sipping on a coffee in the York Theatre Royal. ‘I was born in Portsmouth, but I’ve done a lot of acting with a Yorkshire accent.’ Like his breakthrough screen role in Rita, Sue and Bob, Too (set in Bradford); or Calendar Girls (set in the Yorkshire Dales) or, more recently, Sally Wainwright’s lauded TV series Unforgiven (with Suranne Jones) and Happy Valley (with Sarah Lancashire). ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Lucky me.’
Luck may have something to do with it. Costigan, who is based in North Yorkshire when he isn’t at the family home in France, is one of our best and most gainfully employed character actors. Yet he hasn’t, he admits, always had the golden touch when it comes to choosing projects. Look through his CV and you’ll find a lot more hits: Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine; an episode of Dr Who by Russell T Davies; Alan Plater’s The Beiderbecke Connection, The Long Firm than misses. Although over the last few years he’s definitely been on a winning streak when it comes to picking plum television roles.
‘I’ve been very, very lucky,’ he agrees, ‘because there’s still the same amount of rubbish on TV that there ever was. So I look back and think this is a very good run. But now the children have left home, I can afford to be more choosey and say no, I’m not doing that, which is a privileged position to be in.’
Which presumably is how he came to star in the remake of The Secret Agent with Toby Jones and Ian Hart as well as Jed Mecurio’s brilliant and popular Line of Duty with Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar and the sparky Scott and Bailey with Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp but arguably best of all was his turn in Happy Valley as Nevison Gallagher, a local businessman whose daughter is kidnapped by drug-dealers.
Costigan is either being coy or genuinely doesn’t know if he’ll be asked back for a third series. ‘I think Sally (Wainwright) is planning another one, but it won’t happen in a mad rush,’ he says. ‘In the end, the only thing actors know is quality of writing. We can smell it straight away. So when you get a script from Sally, you go — he rubs his hands together — “hoorah!” People say to me: “You were marvellous in that!” And I reply: “It’s a piece of cake. It was written by Sally Wainwright.” It’s a privilege.’
Costigan is good company. He talks at length on various subjects, from arts funding in Yorkshire (he’s concerned about it), his recently discovered joy of novel writing (more of that later), Trump in the Whitehouse (‘You want to laugh, but it’s a lot more serious than that’) and being directed by Clint Eastwood in the 2010 Hollywood drama, Hereafter.
‘He was fascinating, obviously,’ says Costigan. ‘If you didn’t know he was Clint Eastwood — someone who’s richer, more successful and more famous than everyone in the room put together — you wouldn’t have recognised him. He was fabulously affable, with nothing left to prove. And the way he works is remarkable. He comes over and says: “Any problems with anything? No? Well, let’s have a go at it.” No one shouts “quiet!” or “action!” or “cut!” like they do on British TV and film sets. When he wants you to start acting you vaguely hear him say “OK, let’s try something...” The atmosphere he’s working in is unique – and very smart. You end up with more relaxed actors.’
For the last 15 years, Costigan has been combining his acting work with a big, personal writing project: an epic debut novel called The Single Soldier. It tells the story of ‘the life, death, resurrection and ultimate emotional redemption of a French farm-house’. It’s been a labour of love, so he’s thrilled it’s finally seen the light of day.
Costigan, who with his wife the writer Julia North moved to France 30 years ago, explains how the idea for the book came about. ‘One day we went mushrooming with two people we had met, Marcelle and Kevin. And suddenly Marcelle takes us off the path through a long wood, until she brushes a branch aside and suddenly there’s a house, perched on an impossibly sloping field. Beyond it there’s a fantastic view across the Cantal to the mountains.’
The house had originally stood in a nearby village but the owner had fallen out with his neighbour so dismantled it, moved it brick by brick in a cart, and rebuilt it in the field. It took him seven years in all. ‘No one is alive who can remember what happened between them but I was left with an image of this man moving his house and wondering why he did it. So that’s what the book is about,’ says Costigan. He has written three parts to the story, which begins in 1942 and ends in 1985. If the first book is a success he hopes the publisher will follow it up with the other two.
He’s written TV and stage scripts before — an episode of Birds of a Feather, for instance, and a one-man play about Lord Byron — but the epic The Single Soldier was a different beast altogether. ‘I wasn’t in any rush to complete it,’ he says. ‘I just wanted to be sure it was the story I wanted to tell.’ And he’s lucky enough to know some exceptional writers — Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell, Sally Wainwright and Julia, for example — who he could call on for advice or criticism. ‘It was thrilling to get an email from Willy because he was very enthusiastic about it.’ He shakes his head. ‘This is the first time I’ve talked about the book to a relative stranger, and that’s strange in itself because I have to take it seriously. Until now it was something I was just quietly proud of.’
Despite his TV success, Costigan remains a stage animal and is optimistic about the prospects for theatre in Yorkshire. He’s patron of The Square Chapel in Halifax and of Dark Horse Theatre in Huddersfield and tries to keep up with as many productions as he can. He still finds theatre a powerful experience, whatever side of the footlights he happens to be on. ‘I went to watch the play The Gaul in Hull recently with people in front of me who had never been to the theatre in their lives. You’ve got to be thrilled to bits about that and the show is fantastic. And I always like coming to the York Theatre Royal. The community show I did about George Hudson (The Railway King) was one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever been in.’
He is, he says, worried about the fashion for beaming London theatrical productions live to regional cinemas. ‘I’m distressed by this notion that we’re now going to pump out, via film, shows from the National Theatre and shows from the West End — and you in the provinces will be delighted with it. You certainly won’t pay £24 to go to the York Theatre Royal when you could pay £9 to watch Benedict Cumberbatch at the National!’ He pauses. ‘And it never goes the other way. You saw the recent Northern Broadsides’ production of When We Are Married and said it was really good. Well, why wasn’t that beamed to the National?’ Good point.
Costigan, who grew up in Manchester, is a big fan of Yorkshire and not just because Niall, his actor son, and new grandchild live here. Maybe that’s a hangover from his early days working in Butlins Repertory Theatre in Filey. ‘I love Yorkshire. All of it! The first time Jules and I went to the Dales we said why hasn’t anyone told us about this place before?! Holy God, I love it. I love the coastline, too. Filey, the beach, the Brigg, Robin Hood’s Bay... it’s fabulous.’
He’s already working on other writing projects. He’s halfway through another novel, a musical, and a stage play. What about scribbling down some tales concerning his Butlins days? ‘I need to write about that,’ grins Costigan. ‘Hilarious times, just mad.’ But that, as they say, is another story.
The Single Soldier by George Costigan is out now published by Urbane Publications