The Script Doctor | Living North

The Script Doctor

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The Script Doctor
Mark Gatiss co-created Sherlock, writes for Doctor Who, and he’s making his directorial debut this Christmas. Roz Tuplin speaks to the Sedgefield-born actor and writer
'As a child, Mark developed a thirst for the gothic that has never left him. Some commentators have noted that this may have its roots in his unusual upbringing – Mark actually grew up opposite a psychiatric hospital.'
The Script Doctor

In a well-organised universe, Mark Gatiss would be a national treasure. Over the past ten years he has played an integral role in creating some of Britain’s most lucrative and celebrated cultural exports: Doctor Who and Sherlock. Working alongside Stephen Moffat, head writer on Doctor Who and co-creator of Sherlock, Mark has channeled a childhood enthusiasm for popular culture, cultivated during the 1970s (the last golden age of television before this one) into shows which have received international recognition and attracted millions of viewers across the globe.

Prior to this, Mark was already famous as a member of comedy group The League of Gentlemen. The League’s cult television show, set in the fictional town of Royston Vasey and effortlessly bridging the gap between horror the comedy, ran for three series, a Christmas special, two live tours and a feature film. Mark has also earned fans with his many solo projects, including his successful trilogy of exuberant spy fiction pastiches, the Lucifer Box novels, and his BBC Four documentary series A History of Horror. ‘I do everything to please the eight-year-old version of myself,’ Mark admits. As a result, he is now a cult hero – on the internet there are numerous blogs and websites dedicated to his work, and a loyal band of Twitter followers hang on his every tweet. 

Chatting with Mark Gatiss is a curious experience for me. I grew up with The League of Gentlemen and the Lucifer Box novels, and only a week before the interview I presented a paper on Sherlock at a conference in London. Of course, there’s a sense in which art is always a conversation between its creator and its consumers, but it feels odd to cut out the middleman and engage in a real conversation with someone so influential in my own cultural education. Mark is also an extremely rewarding interviewee from a professional perspective. He’s naturally very funny, occasionally slipping into beautifully observed impressions, and he’s refreshingly earnest about his love for popular culture, whether it’s Basil Rathbone films or the writing of E.F Benson.

Despite the long time spent in the public eye, there’s still an element of hiding in plain sight to Mark’s career profile. Even in the North East many people don’t realise he’s one of ours. ‘I was sent a link to the Northern Echo website and the headline said “Aycliffe lad to make ghost story” It made me laugh so much, it was like I'd won a competition or something! I play quite a lot of posh characters and I think people assume I'm from down south.’ It’s a shame more people aren’t aware of Mark’s origins, since there can be surely no better argument for arts funding in the region than his extraordinary career. ‘Darlington Arts Centre, where I spent my formative years – once the second largest arts centre in the country after the Barbican – has gone. Churchill famously said, when they wanted to completely cut any arts funding during the war, ‘then what are we fighting for?” It’s a bit hyperbolic to apply that to a recession but in times like this people really need that outlet and it's awful that the first things to go are youth clubs, drama clubs, music societies, anything that looks like a soft target.’

Mark lives in London with his husband, actor Ian Hallard, but he returns to the North East to see his family several times a year and he still speaks with an unmistakeable, albeit muted, County Durham accent. ‘I used to get quite cross about people insisting on a divide. In the early days of the League of Gentlemen we used to laugh at how often we were described as “four northern lads.” They'd never say “these four southern young men” – it’s a metropolitan epithet, you are “other” by coming from the North. But the older I get the more I think the North is a profoundly different place, and I rather like that. People are different and have a different attitude. That's worth embracing instead of trying to say we're the same because we're all British.’ Mark is particularly fond of Northumberland. ‘I think it's amazing, I've been evangelising about it forever. It’s such a vast, bleak, beautiful slab of England.’ I suggest that the landscape of his upbringing may have shaped his often gothic obsessions: ‘Absolutely,’ he says.

The highly anticipated new series of Sherlock is expected in the new year, and Mark will be performing in Josie Rourke’s production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse from December. Before then, Doctor Who fans will be treated to An Adventure in Space and Time, a docudrama about the making of the first series of Doctor Who, starring David Bradley as the actor William Hartnell. This will be followed by Ghost Writer, a documentary about the Edwardian horror writer M.R James, and an adaptation of James’s 1911 short story The Tractate Middoth, which will be Mark’s directorial debut, the logical next step for such an experienced writer. ‘I wanted to have a go at translating what I had in my head directly onto screen,’ he explains. He enjoyed the experience immensely, but found it exhausting. ‘You never really sit down. It's a real shock to realise how physically demanding it is.’

Mark first read M.R James around the age of ten, becoming obsessed with a book about the author that he would repeatedly take out from Aycliffe library. ‘It was a sort of miscellany really, reprints of the original book covers and all kinds of odds and ends, like a scrap book.’ As a child, Mark developed a thirst for the gothic that has never left him. Some commentators have noted that this may have its roots in his unusual upbringing – Mark actually grew up opposite a psychiatric hospital. Whatever the reason, he spent hours in front of the television absorbing anything supernatural or scary. ‘I would scour the schedules for anything with a vampire or a ghost in it,’ he remembers. Mark has already created M.R James inspired work for the BBC before with The Crooked House, three ghost stories broadcast over Christmas 2008. 

Spooky thrills aside, is there a moral to James’s work? ‘It's not so much a moral, because it’s not like saying to a child “Don’t walk across a busy street”, otherwise James’s morality would be “Don’t go digging for 14th century artefacts because a demon will get you!”’ But Mark believes that James’s tendency to write main characters who are academics (James was himself a Medievalist at Cambridge), and the frequency with which their academic meddling is punished, could be rooted in James’s play-it-safe attitude. ‘I think it comes from an innate conservatism,’ says Mark. ‘He once approached two undergraduates at Cambridge who were in earnest discussion and he tapped his pipe on the table and said “Gentlemen? Thinking?” He didn’t really like original thought. He was a very Victorian man.’ Many scholars have also found a Freudian reading of James’s work irresistible, precisely because James himself famously insisted that such matters had no place in a ghost story. I ask if a latent sexuality emerges from the text in Mark’s reading. ‘It’s amazing the preponderance of long fingernails, torn clothes, hair, teeth. There’s a whole school of thought about what that represents in terms of fear of women. But I wonder whether he had some sort of trauma probably involving torn clothes that never left him. Like any writer there are certain things that just keep occurring – Alan Bennett said that “all of us have only got a few beans in our tin to rattle” and I think that’s very true. So many of James’s ghosts are cut from a similar shroud.’

Before bringing M.R James to a new generation, Mark will play his part in Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary celebrations this November with Adventures in Space and Time. ‘I grew up with the story of how the programme was born, like a bedtime story. It was a show that people didn’t have much confidence in and no one liked the Daleks, then President Kennedy got shot the night before the first episode went out. All of these disasters befell it but it triumphed.’ The personal journey of William Hartnell was also fascinating for Mark. ‘He was a very cantankerous and difficult man who took an amazing punt on accepting a part in what was to all intents and purposes was just a little children’s programme. It completely changed his life. He was adored by children. You can’t underestimate the influence of something like that on a personality.’ To illustrate this, Mark tells an anecdote imparted by the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, which demonstrates how the role carries the burden of other people’s rawest emotions. ‘Tom tells a story about walking through Liverpool and seeing a homeless man on the street. He walks past and the guy catches his eye and says “Doctor!” and Tom says “I could see suddenly in his eyes that he was transformed back to a time when he was very safe and warm and his mam was making him beans on toast.” The man’s eyes fill with tears and he says “Get us out of here Doctor.” It’s heartbreaking. That was the feel I wanted to give Space and Time. It’s a redemption story a bit like A Christmas Carol. A grumpy old man is made better by the Doctor.’

If An Adventure in Space and Time enquires into the transformative effect that being the object of fandom can have on an actor, then Sherlock is surely a concrete example of what it can do for one’s career. The week before I interview Mark, buses across the country are suddenly plastered with images of Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch, who is starring as Julian Assange in the forthcoming Oscar-tipped Wikileaks movie, the Fifth Estate. Additionally, there can’t be many movie-goers in the country who missed Martin Freeman’s leading performance in The Hobbit last year. Mark is reluctant to take too much of the credit; he believes that world domination was always their destiny. ‘Martin was already very famous and Benedict was a rising star, so I’m sure it would have happened. It was [for Benedict] a wonderful collision of the man and the part.’ Either way, Sherlock made a remarkable impact for a show created with no apparent agenda than sheer enjoyment. The series has even introduced a new generation to the original stories – sales of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books were boosted by over 50 per cent in 2010 compared to the previous year, and almost doubled when the second series aired.

The third series will see new cast members joining the family, including Danish star of The Killing Lars Mikkelson as Charles Augustus Magnusson, an update of Conan Doyle’s villainous professional blackmailer, Charles Augustus Milverton. I ask if Mikkelson was always in mind for the role. ‘We certainly wanted the character to be foreign – I can’t give much away about the story but his detachment from Britain is quite key. He’s an amazingly modern character. In a way it’s a bit like the Leveson Inquiry. It’s about someone who has unassailable power by virtue of having something on everybody.’ I’m curious as to whether Mark now hears the voices of the actors in his head when he reads the original stories. ‘Oddly enough I still hear and read them as I did when I was little. That never quite goes away. But I love the fact that so many people have gone back to read Conan Doyle as a result of watching Sherlock and I suppose in their heads they may hear them as Benedict and Martin. That’s amazingly gratifying to imagine.’

When not writing and directing, Mark is also an in-demand actor. As well as starring on television, including playing Sherlock’s elegantly tailored, umbrella-wielding brother Mycroft, the last couple of years has seen him return to his theatrical roots. Tickets for Coriolanus sold out in 15 minutes, but the play will be broadcast in cinemas across the country as part of National Theatre Live. ‘I’m excited because as the play is less known people won’t know when I get the words wrong!’ says Mark. It’s certainly fairly unusual to see Coriolanus performed. ‘It’s very un-musical, the language is very martial. It’s about a man who is an incredible war hero but he hates his people and holds them in contempt. I think it’s a very interesting time to do a play showing the rise and fall of a man who refuses to listen to what his people want. I play Menenius, who is Coriolanus’ chief advisor: Geoffrey Howe to his Thatcher.’ Mark will also star in the next series of HBO’s Game of Thrones. ‘I had a lovely time filming it and it’s a brilliant show. I told my brother I’d been cast and he just said, “F*** off!”, he was so excited. But obviously there’s no guarantee you’ll be alive by the next episode.’ 

With so many strings to his bow, I wonder what has made Mark most proud in his career. ‘I received a letter a few years ago from a woman whose son has profound dyslexia and had never read a book in his life. He’s now read all the Sherlock Holmes stories. Whatever we’ve done to help that along is very gratifying.’ Mark is also very proud of his time with the League of Gentlemen. ‘I keep being stopped by people who have just seen it for the first time, and people who say, “I loved your show when I was a kid.” It keeps coming back around.’ The group never officially split up (‘like Abba’, as Mark puts it) and briefly reunited to make a guest appearance in the last two series of the popular children’s show Horrible Histories. ‘The obvious thing would be to do an anniversary show in 2019; a “where are they now” would be fun.’ 

Despite being instrumental in the return of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who to the mainstream, Mark is just as keen to produce original work in the future, although he finds it much harder to get new ideas past commissioning editors. ‘I’ve never had any luck getting my Lucifer Box novels made into a series. I think it's because in the end it’s not a known quantity.’ But as Doctor Who proves, taking chances with new ideas can be highly lucrative when it pays off. ‘It can’t be stated enough that the Doctor was, almost uniquely, a television original. He wasn’t based on a book or drawn from anything else.’ The rakish Lucifer’s personality has proved a difficult sell for TV executives who want to play it safe. ‘People get agitated by the idea that he’s not a straight-forward hero. When we made Sherlock we had a few early emails from people high up at the BBC saying, "He’s not very nice" and we were saying, “No, that’s why people love him!” Look at House or Breaking Bad – these people are morally bankrupt, or their world is not in any way black and white, and that’s why people are fascinated by them.’

One hopes that Mark’s raised profile over the last couple of years will instill a greater trust in the obvious potential of his new ideas. In the meantime, Mark is able to pursue his lifelong passions and inhabit whichever fantasy worlds his eight-year-old self would wish to play in. I notice that he repeatedly uses the word ‘love’ to describe his and other people’s interest in books and shows. He has ‘loved’ Sherlock Holmes since he was a child; fans are ‘in love with’ Sherlock. It’s a revealing choice of language, and what word could be more appropriate for the feeling that a story or idea corresponds exactly with your deepest emotions? Being a fan can give us a whole other imaginative life that we can carry around to protect and comfort us in our everyday lives. Mark’s career shows it is perfectly possible to live that life too. ‘All I’ve ever tried to do is make good work and have fun doing it.’ he says. ‘It’s not always easy and it’s not always fun, but life’s too short to be miserable.’

Published in: December 2013

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