An Interview with Mark Gatiss

Artwork by Barney Bodoano

Artwork by Barney Bodoano

Mark Gatiss is a man who has made a career of developing his childhood passions: Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, comedy, classic literature, Gatiss has done them all. With work as a screenwriter, actor, novelist and showrunner under his belt, Gatiss's illustrious career has been varied, but one thing has remained steadfast throughout his working life; his love of the dark and unsettling.

At a fundraiser for Darlington Police Memorial Fund on Ocotober 3rd 2015, Gatiss told of how Sherlock has changed his life, how he'd warmly welcome a female Doctor, his lifelong goal to play Jacob Marley and the mysterious gifts he has received from fans. After the event, Gatiss was kind enough to sit down with Shadows at the Door to discuss M.R. James and all things horror.

SATD: You did a lot to raise the profile of M.R. James with new audiences with your adaptation of The Tractate Middoth and the accompanying documentary. Do you feel James is as recognised as much as other contemporaries such as Lovecraft?

MG: He's the master(!), he's absolutely preeminent and rightly regarded as so. And well, you know the only problem I found with that is when I did Crooked House. They (the BBC) asked me to do an M.R. James and I said that I'd just like to do some new ones, because in a way, he becomes the default. It's a bit like whenever they list the greatest films ever made, it's so often Citizen Kane and people get a bit bored it it. James is clearly the best that's ever been, and people sometimes think 'Oh is he? Yes he is actually!'. But in fact what you want to do is kind of mix it up a bit, and that's all I wanted to do. Tractate came about because they asked me to do the documentary, and I said I'd love to but I'm too busy. But they kept asking and I just thought I'd chance my arm and said I'd do it one condition: let me write and direct a new adaptation and they said yes! Only trouble is that I'd love to do it every year and they haven't asked! And yes, James is incredible but i'd love there to be a broader field for others, such as Sheridan Le Fanu and all those that came after him. He was the best but it would be nice to mix it up a bit and if there were more of them it would be easier-- we could do with an anthology series, really.

SATD: Yeah, the Ghost Story for Christmas series is quite sporadic at best, each year we look for it in the listings and it's never there. Is it quite a fight to get the BBC to do another one?

MG: Yes it is. I would do one very year until I dropped dead. In fact, I want to do Count Magnus. I'd love to do some more, it's a tough sell because it's a short format and in the 70s it was so easy. The documentary was made via BBC Arts and it was like making one in the 70s, I was left on my own. But essentially, what I'd have to do to make that work is replicate it: do a documentary on someone along with an adaptation, and I can't do James again. But Funnily enough-- no wait, I won't say that because I'll jinx it(!) but it could work again. But it's difficult, it's all about money and ratings and it's a difficult slot whereas if you could make four or five of them together you could make a little series of them but that's expensive. 

SATD: Do you think that's something that could realistically happen?

MG: Maybe. It's just increasingly difficult. 

SATD: You're a fan of H.G. Wells too, is that someone whose work you'd try to push with the BBC?

MG:  Yeah but I tell you what, rejoice! Because the great Graham Duff has just done a serise of four Wells adaptations for Sky, I've seen them and they're fantastic! He's done The Purple Pileus-- the one about mushrooms-- and The Moth. But the particularly brilliant one stars Micheal Gambon, the name escapes me (Mark cries in frustration), but its just brilliant! It's about a dying old man who's looking an heir because he has n children, it's very sinister and it's fantastic. THey're all directed by Adrian Shergold and they so much capture the spirit of mid-70s horror, they're just really well done so look forward to that.

SATD: Sounds fantastic! So moving onto Doctor Who, a lot of your episodes in particular have elements of horror to them. Is this something to comes to you naturally or is it just owed more to Doctor Who's gothic origins? 

MG: Well horror is my bent, and to me Doctor Who has always been frightening. My principle memories of a child are being scared by it, it's in the DNA of Doctor Who. But obviously it depends on the story, The Crimson Horror for example is a northern gothic love letter and others are more traditional scares. A Martian in a Russian submarine for example, you just can't do that in any other show, I've yet to see it in Midsummer...

SATD: Speaking of The Crimson Horror, I've got to ask: were there elements of Hillary Briss (Gatiss's demented butcher character from The League of Gentlemen), in the character of the the undertaker?

MG: Oh yeah! He licked his lips a lot, didn't he? I tell who I really wanted for that part, Graham Fellows who plays John Shuttleworth. I really tried to get him but it didn't work out, I think we would have been perfect for that. What does he say? (Mark adopts a thick Yorkshire accent) 'White as the top of Buckton Pike!" (laughs).

SATD: In other interviews you've said that you're fatigued by the sheer quantity of modern horror films.

MG: That's true! I was just thinking about this the other day: the absolute constant for me is ghosts, but other things can wax and wane. Personally, I think its now all a bit over saturated. Its a bit like super hero movies, theres too many and you start to get weary. Weirdly, its sort of like the old Chinese curse, be careful what you wish for. There are so many shows now, that are just hyper-gothic, steampunk-y, and Im just a bit saturated.

Therefore, like food or wine your tastes change and your palette changes so now I've gone in a slightly different direction. I used to think nothing could exist without waistcoats and bubbling test tubes and now Im actually more interested in modern horror; the gothic but in a modern context. I dont think it has to be about the old and obviously I still love it but it doesnt have to be about candelabra and castles. You can get the same feeling from modern methods, and in a way that is more frightening. The story which by consensus is the most successful in Crooked House, is the one which is in Barratt home because its like; 'Oh this is horrible because it might actually happen!'.

SATD: So have there been any recent films that have pleasantly surprised you?

MG: Well the problem is, and I was just talking to Simon Pegg about this, its like an addict always searching for their first hit. And whenever someone says; 'Oh my god have you seen x?' like The Babadook, which I really enjoyed, but I found it was much more interesting when it was a very harrowing story about that women going mad. The gothic touches left me cold, and I wondered why they were suddenly doing Poltergeist? Thats not what this story is about, the idea of a woman losing her mind because her child is unstable was really scary but in a different kind of way. (sigh) I suppose Im always just waiting for The Thing, really.

SATD: You have a part in the new Victor Frankenstein movie; does that feel surreal now that you're in a horror movie?

MG: All I can think of is; whats taken so long? But yeah, it was a delight. I only have a small part, and it only took a few days. Paul McGuigan, the chief Sherlock director asked me to do it and it was, you know, a really fucking huge Frankenstein laboratory! And I get to pull the lever and everything! There was a bit when I was going up an iron lift with Freddie Fox and it was all outdoors and raining I mean absolutely lashing with freezing cold rain and I said to Freddie; 'This isnt like being in Frankenstein, this is Frankenstein!' (laughs). And it doesnt get any better than that!

SATD: Do you get to ham it up then?

MG: Well, wait and see! (laughs)

SATD: Well, Mark thank you very much!

MG: Not at all, its been an absolute pleasure.