Mark Gatiss: “My career is partly a long revenge against P.E…”

Mark Gatiss is a busy man. No surprises there, of course: over the past two decades, the writer, actor, director and all-round pop-cultural polymath has racked up a CV longer than his beloved Doctor Who’s stripy scarf. When he’s not reinventing literary icons like Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, reuniting with his old pals from The League of Gentlemen or dreaming up adventures for the good Doctor, you’ll usually find him doing something fabulous in the West End, or scheming in the shadows of TV blockbusters like Game of Thrones and Wolf Hall.

But even by his standards, the 56-year-old has been spinning a lot of plates lately. Over Christmas, BBC Four viewers were treated to Count Magnus, the latest of his seasonal MR James ghost story adaptations, as well as a screening of his stage version of A Christmas Carol. And in 2023, he’s hitting the ground running with no fewer than three theatre projects, alongside a role in Russell T Davies’ latest TV drama and, for good measure, an appearance in the new Mission: Impossible film.

“It’s funny,” smiles Mark, when Weekend catches up with him in a rare moment of downtime. “I meet people who say, ‘you’re always on the telly, you’re always doing this or that…’ But then other people say, ‘I haven’t seen you for ages…’ And you think, well which one is it?”

First up for discussion is a new play he’s directing, The Way Old Friends Do. It’s a project that’s close to home – literally – as it’s been written by his husband of 15 years, actor Ian Hallard, who also stars. Billed as “a comedy about devotion, desire and dancing queens”, it tells the story of two old friends – one gay, one straight – who decide to form the world’s first ABBA drag tribute act.

“Ian had been wanting to write a play for himself. Which has basically been the foundation of my career – you make your own work,” says Mark. “Then one day he said, ‘I’ve finally done it’, so I read it, and I loved it. It’s just such a lovely, touching and very clever way of talking about friendship, and nostalgia, through the prism of two friends who meet again in middle age.”

As a self-confessed superfan of Sweden’s biggest pop export, is this essentially Ian indulging his personal ABBA drag fantasy? “Yes,” laughs Mark. “Although it’s really the behind the scenes story. It’s not Mamma Mia!

What about Mark – is he an ABBA fan, or an ABBA widow? “I’m an ABBA fan, but not to the extent Ian is,” he says. “ABBA for him is a bit like Doctor Who is for me. But I do love them. I went to see Voyage for my birthday last year, and it was genuinely jaw-dropping. The illusion that it’s ABBA in front of you is mind-boggling – and slightly scary.”

More broadly, as a man who’s built a successful career rummaging through the toybox of his childhood passions – a rich brew of Time Lords, vampires and things that go bump in the night – Mark fully appreciates the nature of the ‘fan gene’. “I used to live opposite Arsenal’s stadium in the 90s, and my friend bought me a copy of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch,” he recalls. “I know nothing about football, but I love that book, because it’s directly transferrable. You can read your own enthusiasms into it. And I think that’s what comes over really well in this.”

As well as Ian, the cast for the play – whose opening season at Birmingham Rep in February will be followed by a UK tour, and a month-long residency at London’s Park Theatre – includes stage and screen favourite Sara Crowe, plus special voice contributions from Miriam Margolyes and Paul O’Grady. “I recorded Paul’s bits last week, and at the end he said, ‘I’ve got a confession to make – I don’t actually like ABBA,” smiles Mark. “I said, ‘get out, I’m going to get Tony Blackburn!’”

Also arriving in February is Nolly, Russell T Davies’ hotly-anticipated ITV drama about Noele Gordon, one-time queen bee of shonky teatime soap Crossroads, in which Mark plays 70s light entertainment legend Larry “shut that door!” Grayson.

“It was a joyous experience,” he beams. “Obviously to work with Russell again, and to work with Helena Bonham Carter [as Nolly]. But it’s also just incredible to be doing the story of Noele Gordon. I think there’s something rather wonderful about [new streaming service] ITVX launching with a drama about Crossroads!”

As a child watching BBC One on Saturday nights in the 1970s, could Mark ever have dreamed he’d one day grow up to write and appear in Doctor Whoand play the beloved host of The Generation Game? (All he needs now is to work with Basil Brush.)

“It’s a joyous thing – proper pinch-me stuff,” he says. “But I suppose you have to have a career in order to make these things possible. You can’t just wish them into existence. I remember standing on the set of the TARDIS, for the launch Chris Eccleston’s Doctor Who series in 2005, and thinking, ‘This is all so new…’ I somehow thought I’d be in [1972 Jon Pertwee adventure] The Curse of Peladon… So, to answer your question in a roundabout way, it’s not the same as being dropped back into your own childhood.”

From the king of Saturday night TV to one of our greatest theatrical knights of the realm, Mark’s next acting role will see him playing the mighty Sir John Gielgud in The Motive and the Cue, Jack Thorne’s new play for the National Theatre about the 1960 Broadway production of Hamlet, in which Gielgud directed Richard Burton as the tragic prince.

So, basically, you’re playing one of the most celebrated stage actors of all time, on stage. No pressure… “Exactly,” says Mark. “I saw Derek Jacobi last night, and he went, ‘oh, good luck…’ But it’s a lovely play, very touching,” he adds of the Sam Mendes-directed production, which will also star Johnny Flynn as Burton and Tuppence Middleton as Elizabeth Taylor. “It was the most successful Hamlet in Broadway history, apparently. Burton and Taylor had just got married and it was basically like their Posh and Becks moment. That’s a terribly dated reference, isn’t it?” he laughs, playing up to his slightly young fogey-ish image. “But it was very difficult, because Burton and Gielgud fell out, and Elizabeth Taylor ended up as a sort of mediator.”

And on top of all that, there’s the recently opened West End transfer of The Unfriend, which Mark directed during a sell-out run in Chichester last year. Written by his Sherlock co-creator (and sometime Doctor Who boss) Steven Moffat, the dark comedy stars Frances Barber alongside Sherlock’s Amanda Abington and Mark’s old League of Gentlemen chum Reece Shearsmith.

It’s not the only time the band have got back together recently: last year, Mark made a guest appearance in Reece and Steve Pemberton’s hit comedy anthology Inside No.9 – for an episode set almost entirely in a pedalo. “I’d obviously been waiting to be asked,” he smiles. But it was “the perfect one to do,” he adds, the story of three old university friends meeting up for a reunion echoing the trio’s real-life history as students who formed their surrealist comedy cabaret troupe after meeting at drama college in Yorkshire. “We just needed Jeremy [Dyson, the non-performing member of the League] to be hiding in the reeds somewhere.”

Does it help their friendship that the League have all gone on to have equally stellar careers? Would it have been awkward if one of them had been less successful? “I suppose so,” he considers. “But I didn’t ever think about that… [Steve and Reece] have ploughed such a fantastically interesting furrow. With Inside No. 9, they’ve quietly reinvented the TV play. It was sort of an extinct form, but now anthologies are wildly popular again. I’m lost in admiration for them.”

These days, if you watch The League of Gentlemen on BritBox, you will receive a stern warning about the show “reflecting the attitudes of its time” – presumably a reference to characters like Babs, the hirsuite transgender cab driver, and Papa Lazarou, the terrifying freakshow ringmaster, for which Reece Shearsmith wore blackface. How does Mark feel about that? Does it make him feel old, for a start?

“Everything makes me feel old,” he says. “But I think it’s probably correct. Talking Pictures – which is my favourite TV channel, obviously – do a little disclaimer before everything, saying ‘this film was made in 1945, or this series was made in 1976’…. I think that should do the trick. Because context is everything.” It’s better than simply removing things altogether, he adds, “because then nobody talks about or sees anything. If you take it away, the conversation has ended.”

In 2017, The League of Gentlemen revived their menagerie of comic grotesques for three TV specials and a tour. Like ABBA, they’ve never officially split – but there are no plans to return to their fictional playground of Royston Vasey, says Mark. “When we came back, it felt like the right moment. And probably that’s the right moment to… not do any more.”

He’s vaguely more optimistic about more Sherlock, though. “We’d like to do a film. Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Martin [Freeman] have both expressed interest in that. But it’s all about schedules and timing. I never say never, but we haven’t got anything immediately on the books. Which is good, because I haven’t got any time!”

Would it be fair to say that Mark’s vivid childhood imagination – growing up in County Durham, he was instinctively drawn to the ghoulish and the fantastical – has served him well in later life? “Yes. It’s partly a long revenge against P.E.,” he laughs. “People always told me I lived in a dream world, and luckily the dream world has done me alright. I mean, it’s no accident that I lived in a world of gods and monsters. You know, the child is father to the man…”

It probably helped that the family lived directly opposite the pre-war asylum where his father Maurice worked. “I used to sort of deny that,” says Mark. “But it was an undeniably northern, gothic kind of upbringing.”

His work, though, is “not about happily accepting the notion of arrested development,” he stresses. “It’s not about fetishising childhood so that you can’t move on. Despite the fact I’ve brought back a lot of things, I’d far rather invent new things, which people can be nostalgic about in 50 years’ time.”

As he gets older himself, and has more real-life encounters with death – including the loss of his father two years ago – Mark also admits that his relationship with the macabre is changing. “The more you experience death, the less interest you have in it,” he suggests. “But not, I suppose, the paraphernalia of it. Although, weirdly, I went on a recce last year for my Christmas ghost story to the catacombs in Kensal Green Cemetery, which I’ve always wanted to visit. And they’re absolutely extraordinary – but also vaguely depressing, in a way I don’t think I’d have found depressing when I was 11. Back then, I would just have been thrilled. But there was a settled melancholy about how forgotten it all is. I was glad to get out into the sunshine.”

The Way Old Friends Do opens at Birmingham Rep on 17 February. For tour dates, see thewayoldfriendsdo.com

FOOD BITES

What did you have for breakfast? A bagel. I usually have cereal, but we’d run out of milk.

Are you a good cook? Deliveroo, they do good cooking. No, I’m a terrible cook. Ian is a much better cook, but we do eat out a lot. Not on a Glibert & George scale, but quite a lot.

You’re a big TV fan – do you eat in front of the telly? I’m afraid so. When we have dinner parties, or Ian’s parents come round, it’s actually quite a novelty to eat at the table.

Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever been to dinner with? Kylie! It was Kylie and David Tennant at Sheekey’s [in London]. Kylie had the oysters.

An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend on 19 January, 2023 (c) Waitrose Weekend

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