Mark Gatiss reveals his inspiration for The Dead Room
By Will Hazel
For decades, the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas strand has given viewers a pleasurable festive chill.
While the BBC has sadly been inconsistent in commissioning such stories in recent years, in 2018 horror fans are in luck. The Dead Room, written and directed by Mark Gatiss and starring Simon Callow, is being broadcast on Christmas Eve on BBC Four.
Answering questions after a special preview screening at the BFI last week, Gatiss explained where he got his inspiration for the original drama…
The works of M.R. James – widely regarded as one of greatest ghost story writers in the English language – have provided much of the material for A Ghost Story for Christmas. Gatiss adapted one of James’ stories, The Tractate Middoth, in 2013. However, this year he decided to do something different.
“Rather than adapting a story, I thought I’d adapt one of his essays,” Gatiss said.
In the foreword to several of his story collections, James set down what he saw as the rules for an effective ghost story. At the beginning of The Dead Room, Callow’s character, Aubrey Judd – an actor who presents a long-running radio horror series called The Dead Room – recites these rules almost verbatim.
A ghost story should begin with ordinary people doing ordinary things; it must have “reticence”, with the supernatural showing itself slowly by degrees before a terrifying climax; and the setting should be familiar to the reader but have a “slight haze of distance” – James said that “thirty years ago” is an ideal setting.
In The Dead Room, Gatiss takes these rules and uses them to build a Jamesian ghost story from scratch. While the story unfolds in the present day, it’s rooted in events which took place in the 1970s. “The big thing for me was by setting it in the modern day, the haze of distance [James] talks about would be the 70s or the 80s,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen a ghost from the 70s. That immediately became very exciting to me, because I thought does it work?
“The idea that things, literally from my own memory, could become the past, the distant past, and therefore capable of being spooky, I thought was really a very fertile place to be.”
And because it follows James’ rules, when the horror finally arrives it doesn’t disappoint. “The descriptions of some of his stuff is just really horrible, and I think that’s really important,” Gatiss said. “However little time you have to glimpse it, you just go ‘oh Christ’”.
The Dead Room is shot at the legendary Maida Vale studios, which have been operated by the BBC since the 1930s but which are now set to close. As well as being the name of Judd’s series, the story takes place within a ‘dead room’ – a completely soundproofed room used for radio recording.
“It’s such a special place… it’s so odd, it’s like a big Wendy house,” Gatiss said of Maida Vale.
And something spooky happened when they were filming. “The day before we started shooting we had a little look around to see if there were any other parts of the building we could use,” he said. In the props room, Gatiss found a huge pile of old film reels. “They all had their sides turned away, except one. It said: THE DEAD ROOM.”
“It’s true! I said if we put that on a reel to reel now, it will be us...”
The Dead Room riffs on a long tradition of radio horror which is close to Gatiss’ heart. In fact, Gatiss used to present a series of spooky radio plays, The Man in Black, which shares an uncanny resemblance to Judd’s series. Gatiss played a sinister raconteur – only identified as the Man in Black – who introduced each play.
Gatiss revealed that when he was presenting the series, “the producer was always asking me if I would write one of the stories”. “The more I thought about it, it should be me as the Man in Black being haunted here in the dead room.” He never got round to writing his idea for radio, but “filed it away” and has now brought it to life for TV.
Because of its storyline, Gatiss wanted The Dead Room to tap into a “very 70s” aesthetic, providing a “slightly overwhelming sensory experience” and informing every detail down to the opening title.
“Everything in the 70s was frightening,” he explained. “Children’s programmes, the news nationwide! It was really tinged with the supernatural. If there wasn’t a standing stone circle it wasn’t correct.”
Central to the story is the repressive sexual attitudes of the decade, and the challenges of being gay and in showbiz at that time. Gatiss said that Judd’s character is in “the shadow” of Norman Scott (the lover of politician Jeremy Thorpe) and Peter Wyngarde, the British actor who was arrested for “gross indecency” in a Gloucester bus station.
“Because of the setting, that was very present in my head,” Gatiss said. “I thought I don’t want to make [Judd] a seventy-year-old, married man with three children. I’m going to write about being gay. I’m gay and again I thought, I don’t think I’ve seen that. I felt it was an interesting place to push it.
“I found that very interesting, the whole piece about what it was like to be working and to hide – what might have been at stake for Aubrey.”
Where next for A Ghost Story for Christmas?
Gatiss said he’d love to adapt more literary ghost stories in the coming years. From the works of James, he mentioned Count Magnus, and Martin’s Close, but he also said he’d liked to have a go at Green Tea by Sheridan Le Fanu and the stories of E.F. Benson.
And does he believe in ghosts outside fiction?
“I don’t believe in the continuation of the spirit, but I think there’s something in it,” he replied. “There’s thousands of years’ worth of ghosts in every culture. It must mean something. I don’t know what it is.”