Mark Gatiss: ‘I’m currently very, very ashamed of being English’

Mark Gatiss scans the breakfast menu at an east London restaurant with a famished eye. We’re at the hinge moment between the nightlife of an A-lister, who attended the James Bond premiere the previous evening, and the day job as an actor who, by his own account, could only land a role he had wanted all his life by writing the play himself. “It was a long evening,” he says of No Time to Die. He hadn’t had dinner and was trying to stave off the hunger pangs by sipping water, but not too much, because he couldn’t get out to the loo: “So I’m just really hungry.” He’s like a jovial Eeyore, painting himself into a lugubrious picture of the turnip fields of celebrity, before deciding, with a giggle, that a hearty breakfast of avocado on toast is exactly what’s needed to put everything to rights.

This is certainly no time to die of hunger for Gatiss, who has rocketed out of the pandemic as one of British showbusiness’s most sought-after all-rounders. He’s currently putting the finishing touches to his remake of the 1972 children’s film The Amazing Mr Blunden while rehearsing his new adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The latest in a series of half-hour ghost stories, The Mezzotint, is ready to roll into his now customary slot on the Christmas TV schedules. But it’s not all fear and Victorian clothing, he spent part of the lost year in the Outer Hebrides, playing a country doctor in a first world war romance, The Road Dance, and another part messing about in a pedalo on a boating lake with his old League of Gentlemen muckers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith for a new series of their TV comedy Inside No 9.

The restaurant is around the corner from the rehearsal room where A Christmas Carol is clanking into ominous life ahead of this weekend’s opening at Nottingham Playhouse before moving on to London’s Alexandra Palace theatre for Christmas. It will, he promises, be as truly, deeply scary as its author, Charles Dickens, intended. But though he’s billed as its star, Gatiss is not playing Scrooge: that honour falls to Nicholas Farrell. This is not just because, at 55, Gatiss doesn’t consider himself old enough to play Dickens’s tetchy misanthropist, nor because it offered the chance of working with one of his all-time heroes – though both of these are true. (He once shouted “Nicholas Farrell, I love you” from the back of a car after spotting the actor, 11 years his senior, walking along a street in Bristol. “I remember him turning round and waving, vaguely, as if he didn’t know where it was coming from. I wonder if he remembers it. I’ll have to ask.”)

(October 28, 1966)

Born in Sedgefield, County Durham. Spends his early years living opposite a Victorian psychiatric hospital. A diet of horror films, Doctor Who and the writings of HG Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle feeds into his later creative work. Aged 11, wins a school competition with a sci-fi story called The Anti-Noise Machine.

(October 28, 1986)

Begins studying theatre arts at Bretton Hall College in Leeds, where he meets future League of Gentlemen members Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton (the fourth member, co-writer Jeremy Dyson, is introduced to Gatiss in 1993).

(October 28, 1997)

The League of Gentlemen, now a sketch comedy team, win the Perrier award at Edinburgh Fringe, and their six-episode radio series On the Town with the League of Gentlemen debuts on Radio 4.

(October 28, 1999)

The League of Gentlemen moves to TV, airing on BBC Two and running for three seasons, plus a Christmas special, a feature-length film, in 2005, and three anniversary specials in 2017. The team go on to win a Bafta award, a Royal Television Society award and the Golden Rose of Montreux.

(October 28, 2005)

Writes his first of nine episodes for the revived Doctor Who, and appears in three episodes.

(October 28, 2007)

Stars in All About My Mother, a stage adaptation of the Pedro Almodóvar film, at the Old Vic.

(October 28, 2008)

Marries the actor Ian Hallard in London.

(October 28, 2010)

Co-creates Sherlock for the BBC with Steven Moffat. It becomes a global hit; its third series, in 2014, is the UK’s most watched drama series since 2001.

(October 28, 2014)

Nominated for an Olivier award for his performance as Menenius in Coriolanus at the Donmar. Appears  in season four of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Plays Stephen Gardiner, secretary to King Henry VIII in the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall. Appears as the Prince Regent in the BBC period drama series Taboo.

(October 28, 2020)

Partnering once more with Steven Moffat, co-creates a three-episode update of Dracula for BBC One, playing the Count’s companion Frank Renfield.

Rather, it’s because, for reasons that reveal his other side as a pop culture geek, a hoarder of great movie moments, he has always wanted to play the role of Jacob Marley, even though the ghost of the old miser’s one-time business partner only makes a brief appearance early on, dragging his chains up from the maw of hell. “I’m obsessed with it,” he says. “I’ve done it twice as a fancy- dress costume. I’ve dropped so many hints over the years, but no one ever took me up on it, so I had to do it myself.”

He tracks this particular obsession back to 1970, when, as a four-year-old growing up in a working-class family in the County Durham town of Sedgefield, he first saw Ronald Neame’s musical version of A Christmas Carol. Though most people will remember the film for Albert Finney’s Scrooge, it was Alec Guinness’s “absolutely outrageous” performance as Marley that captivated the young Gatiss. “It’s brilliant. Just brilliant,” he says. “He didn’t want to do it, and took it on as a favour, but he’s clearly just having the time of his life. It’s one of those rare instances where they do what Dickens describes, which is to be ‘stirred by an unseen wind’. One critic said he walked across the room as if both his hips had been shattered, but I was just mesmerised by it. Plus, I love the idea of this sort of doomed spirit.”

As a child, he was obsessed with horror films and his favourites were always the multiple-story ones, mostly from Amicus studios – “Hammer’s even lower-rent rival”. He reels them off: Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Asylum, Tales from the Crypt, mostly adapted from American comics: “There’s something about the quirkiness of multiple stories rather than one big narrative.” When he found himself stuck in a creative blockade at the height of the pandemic, it was writing a many-stranded horror script that freed him. He won’t say anything about it, except that it had been a long time brewing and it poured out of him over a feverish three weeks.

His “absolute favourite” Amicus movie is From Beyond the Grave, with Peter Cushing as a murderous antique shop owner. Apart from anything else, it appealed to his geeky, gossipy side. When he was young, he would study the credits obsessively to see who was in films and what exactly they did. “There’s this gorgeous sense of people like Donald Pleasence and Diana Dors and Ralph Richardson turning up at Shepperton Studios on a Monday morning for two or three days’ work and saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were doing it.’”

It’s a tradition that Gatiss has carried on, attracting an impressive array of stars to his own low-cost ghost stories. Peter Capaldi played the hanging judge in a 17th-century murder trial (Martin’s Close), Simon Callow appeared as a spooked radio presenter in a witty postmodern riff on the ghost in the machine (The Dead Room) and now Rory Kinnear hams it up as MR James’s art curator in The Mezzotint.

The terrible thing about Brexit is we always had a hard-won and very fair reputation for being amateurish, but basically decent

But there’s another quality that Gatiss’s work shares with From Beyond the Grave: “It’s very, very English and different.” It’s not just that most of the ghost stories he has directed are adapted from that most English of seasonal shockmeisters, MR James. Englishness is stamped through his sensibility, from Sherlock, his postmodern take on Conan Doyle, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, to the lush melodramatics of his 2020 miniseries Dracula, both co-created with Steven Moffat.

In Dracula, the truth-telling nun Sister Agatha told Jonathan Harker: “You are an Englishman: a combination of presumptions beyond compare.” So how does Gatiss himself feel about being stamped as one? This question unleashes an agonised diatribe. “I’m currently very, very ashamed of being English, but I love what I think it represents, or used to,” he says. “The most terrible thing about Brexit is we always had a hard-won and very fair reputation for being amateurish, but basically decent. In a tight corner, you knew where you were with us. And I think that’s been ripped away. It’s like a mask has dropped, exposing this horrible snarling, sneering, angry, jealous face.”

The complicated feelings about Englishness that Alan Bennett has always explored have been co-opted to something altogether darker. “Why do people cry when they see [Jez Butterworth’s 2009 play] Jerusalem?” asks Gatiss. “It’s the same things – sentiment and tradition – but very muddled up and weaponised against everyone else.” While joking that his own personal relationship with Europe is mostly down to the gameshow Jeux Sans Frontières (It’s a Knockout on British TV) – foreign holidays weren’t part of his childhood – he’s outraged that “this simple thing, freedom of movement, is being torn away from the next generation by jealous old people. That’s a real horror movie. It’s the revenge of the dead.”

So pained is he by the current state of politics that he has left Twitter and stopped watching the news. “I feel awful because it’s disengaging, but I sort of can’t bear it, this constant drip-drip of misery which becomes a flood. Scrooge says, ‘I’ll retire to Bedlam.’ That’s my catchphrase now,” he says glumly. Fortunately for his sanity, the shadow twin of horror is laughter and it’s a duality that rings through Gatiss’s work. “I’ve had this conversation with Neil Gaiman. Jeremy Dyson, the rest of the Gentlemen, and it’s impossible to explain,” he says. “But you could get anyone in the room who grew up with [this horror heritage] and for all of us it’s just like a sensibility. Often, it’s hand in hand with laughs. And I think that maybe that’s the difference: we don’t take anything too seriously.”

He applied this rule of thumb to a recent review of Sherlock, which complained that it was becoming too Bond-like, transforming his indignation into five stanzas of doggerel for the Guardian letters page: His poem ended: “There’s no need to invoke in yarns that still thrill,/ Her Majesty’s Secret Servant with licence to kill/ From Rathbone through Brett to Cumberbatch dandy/ With his fists Mr Holmes has always been handy.”

Gatiss found his tribe at the West Yorkshire drama school Bretton Hall, teaming up with Dyson, Shearsmith and Pemberton to form the League of Gentlemen and introduce the world to the fictional northern town of Royston Vasey and its cabinet of grotesques. They won a Perrier prize at the Edinburgh fringe in 1997 before moving on to radio and television, where the show’s accolades included awards from the British Academy and the Royal Television Society and a Golden Rose of Montreux.

I’ve been privileged to make things that I’d like to watch at Christmas or on a bank holiday Monday

Its edgy iconoclasm has recently met a more anxious institutional response: last year, all episodes were taken off Netflix because of a recurring character, the demonic circus master Papa Lazarou, who repeatedly kidnaps women and whose clown-like makeup was judged to offend sensibilities around blackface, a charge the assembled Gentlemen strenuously reject, supported by the BBC, which issued a statement saying it was keeping the series on iPlayer. But though they did a series of specials, and a short reunion tour to mark the 20th anniversary of the show’s radio debut in 1997, the Gentlemen won’t be going back to it, says Gatiss. “We had a brilliant time. They went down very well and we loved doing it. So we got away with it, but I think going back to past glories is always risky.”

Ever since school, he has always been eager to learn new things, he says. Lately, he’s returned to a childhood love of portraiture, enrolling for evening art classes, where his technique has improved with a gratifying speed. He whips out his phone to show off a very accomplished, and lovingly observed, charcoal portrait of his dad, a one-time colliery engineer, who died earlier this year.

The Amazing Mr Blunden marks another new departure: “It’s the biggest thing I’ve directed,” says Gatiss. “I’ve said many times before, that I’ve been privileged to make things that I’d like to watch at Christmas or on a bank holiday Monday. I have a real affection for really good family entertainment. There is a sort of Venn diagram between Jason and the Argonauts and Zulu and Mr Blunden which is my absolute sweet spot.”

The Amazing Mr Blunden is a family film made by Lionel Jeffries from a novel (Antonia Barber’s The Ghosts) on the back of his success with The Railway Children. In Gatiss’s remake, Simon Callow takes the title role of a mysterious family solicitor who persuades the widowed mother of two children to sign up as caretakers of a haunted mansion. “It’s funny. It’s very melancholy. It’s very spiritual. So the idea of redoing it was quite heretical at first, but then I read the book again and I realised the family are modern, so in my version they have to go back 200 years,” says Gatiss, who took advice from his child stars as to how to pitch their modern-day dialogue. “I couldn’t bear the idea of being a 55-year-old man telling them how to speak; on the other hand, you don’t want it to be full of slang that dates within eight months.”

The north London house that he shares with his actor husband, Ian Hallard, is full of old films that are ripe for this sort of rediscovery; he’s currently trying to clear them out, realising that he could liberate four rooms by accepting that these days you can find almost everything online. Nostalgia, he sighs, “is very, very powerful, but also a dangerous thing. And sometimes being part of something you’ve always loved can spoil it.” But luckily, he quickly adds, “it hasn’t happened to me”.

So what about Doctor Who, for which he has both written and appeared as four different characters in three Whovian regenerations (David Tennant, Matt Smith and Capaldi)? “It was absolutely everything I ever wanted to do, but it was a reinvention,” he says. “What I find exciting is being part of a new idea, a new version. You can’t actually put yourself back into The Curse of Peladon. You have to move away. But I think that’s key. As an arch nostalgist all my life, I find I’m pretty singly interested in going forward and trying to do different stuff. You want to make things that people are nostalgic for in 30 years’ time, because at the time they were innovative and strange.” But should anyone be looking for a strange new villain for the next incarnation of James Bond, it goes without saying that Mark Gatiss’s hand is up.

The Amazing Mr Blunden will be broadcast at Christmas as part of Sky Originals

A Christmas Carol runs at the Nottingham Playhouse until 20 November before transferring to London’s Alexandra Palace theatre on 26 November

The Mezzotint will be screened on BBC Two at Christmas