IN A LEAGUE OF HIS OWN
THE NEW SHERLOCK IS A GLOBAL TELEVISION PHENOMENON. ONE OF ITS CREATORS, MARK GATISS, IS ALSO A WRITER AND ACTOR ON THE HIT REBOOT OF DR WHO. THE SENTIMENTAL STAR GEEKS OUT WITH JOHN RICHARDS ABOUT SCIENCE FICTION ESOTERICA, SLASH FICTION EROTICA AND HOW
If you sat down to watch the first episode of The League Of Gentlemen in 1999, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that one of the four performers would become one of the most powerful producers of English television. The show was a twisted tour of the small town of Royston Vasey, where shopkeepers spontaneously shout things like, “we didn’t burn him!” and where Papa Lazarou’s catchphrase, “Hello Dave! You’re my wife now”, could be terrifying. The town’s signpost declared, “Welcome to Royston Vasey. You’ll never leave!” For a sketch comedy, it was surprisingly chilling.
Mark Gatiss played some of the show’s more poignant characters, including Mr Chinnery, the world’s worst vet; Iris the cleaning lady, who has an ongoing passive-aggressive battle with her employer; and Les McQueen, bass player for failed 1970s rock act, Crème Brûlée. The League Of Gentleman spanned three seasons and a spin-off movie, with all members of the troupe going on to long and successful careers. But while Jeremy Dyson, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have continued to make dark comedies, Gatiss has found himself inside the UK’s two biggest dramas, Doctor Who and Sherlock. A regular writer on the former and co-creator of the latter, his work now tops the UK ratings and is watched in 200 countries worldwide. If that wasn’t enough, he has a starring role in Sherlock as the titular detective’s devious brother, Mycroft, and he continues to be a script editor, novelist and documentarian.
I get sent things that would make your hair turn white. It’s not just holding hands on a park bench, I can tell you that.
Gatiss is also openly gay, telling the Radio Times in 2012, “The parts I play, my sexuality doesn’t make a difference. I’ve never been in a position where anyone has tried to mentor me not to be out. Maybe that’s because I was out before I was well-known or because if ever such a thing had happened I would have laughed in the person’s face.” Six years ago he married his partner, actor Ian Hallard, in a civil partnership. He told The Guardian in 2010 that they met online. “He spelled everything so well – I said to myself, this is the man for me. We spent most of our first chat talking grammar.” He added that they were married underneath a portrait of Edward Carson QC, the man who cross-examined Oscar Wilde in his libel trial. “The whole day was replete with irony.”
Gatiss’ voice is surprisingly soft with a hardto-place accent – totally unlike the cut-glass figures he plays on screen. He tells me he’s just been talking to “southeast Asia” and soon will be off to tour Brazil to promote Sherlock. The Guinness Book Of World Records lists Sherlock Holmes as the most-portrayed movie character. More than 70 actors have played the part in over 200 films (starting with the 1900 silent, Sherlock Holmes Baffled, with a screen time of less than a minute). He’s had dozens of TV adaptations and been played by everyone from Richard Roxburgh to Christopher Lee, so it’s astounding that this new incarnation could have such impact. Sherlock is so popular, he can even bring down television channels. When looking for ways to cope with the BBC’s drastic funding cuts, Director General Tony >>
>> Hall decided it was better to lose a whole channel (BBC3) so they could “keep delivering the great shows people already love – like Sherlock [and] Doctor Who.”
This latest retelling places the detective in contemporary London, a place more suited to smart phones than horse-drawn hansom cabs. There’s also a curiously gay edge to the series with Sherlock and Dr Watson constantly being mistaken for a gay couple. Where exactly did that come from?
“It comes from the Billy Wilder film, The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, which, along with the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce films, is our great touchstone for the series,” Gatiss explains. “It’s a fantastic film and there’s a brilliant joke running through it where Sherlock is asked to father a child with a Russian ballerina and he gets out of it by claiming that he and Watson are a couple. And Dr Watson is outraged! We took that and ran with it. Because we thought in the 21st Century the first thing a prospective landlady would think would not be that two bachelors are living together, but that they’re a couple. Then everyone does. Certain portions of the audience have run with that, and then some! But it’s a joke. Obviously I’m not tr ying to belittle the notion of it, but it’s the most famous friendship in literature and the idea that people would just very normally and casually assume they’re gay and not have a problem with it is rather a lovely thing. But I think we’ve probably done that joke now!”
When he says some people have taken that idea and run with it, is he referring to slash fiction – where fans write gay erotic stories featuring heterosexual characters?
“By Christ, is there slash fiction!? You spend an idle afternoon, you find out… and the artwork! Oh my god. I get sent things that would make your hair turn white. It’s not just holding hands on a park bench, I can tell you that. Some of them are incredibly graphic and also extremely well-drawn, but my goodness. I’ve not tried half the things they’re doing.”
One of the themes that reoccur in Gatiss’ work is the idea of the loner. Even John Watson, Sherlock’s everyman and the audience’s viewpoint character, is shown to
Sherlock and Watson is the most famous friendship in literature and the idea that people would just very normally and casually assume they’re gay and not have a problem with it is rather a lovely thing.
have virtually no friends. What is it about that character that appeals? “With Dr Watson, that’s very much from the original story. We’ve slightly widened his circle of friends but he and Holmes become close because he isn’t very clubbable. He’s not a very clubbable man. He’s a damaged war veteran and that’s one of the themes we’ve played with in the series. They sort of complete each other; they are a couple in that sense.”
Beyond that, everyone from League’s Alvin Steele to gay teen Tommy in his Doctor Who story The Idiots Lantern seem to be making their way through the world alone.
“I’ve always liked – you know that Noel Coward song, If Love Were All? That notion of the bittersweet is what I’ve always responded to. I like things with a hint of melancholy, or more than a hint. So I’m drawn to those kinds of characters, definitely. I’m by nature a very optimistic person but Sunday just gone I had such a melancholy. It gripped me! The people I’ve lost touch with… what Douglas Adams called, ‘the long dark tea-time of the soul’,” he laughs.
I’m surprised to hear him say he’s optimistic, since The League Of Gentlemen didn’t exactly hint at that worldview. “I don’t think it’s nihilistic,” he says. “I mean, it’s bleak but in a sympathetic way. One of the things I always loved about the show is that they find a lot of pathos in the characters. Funnily enough, for all the monsters like Pauline there is still something rather tragic about them that makes them human. It’s probably not optimistic, that’s the wrong word, but I think there’s a lot of humanity in them.” Such as Les McQueen, the heartbreakingly tragic rock star who gets used by those around him? “He’s insanely optimistic! You can see he’s dead behind the eyes but he keeps going. He says it’s a shit business but he even says that slightly cheerily. He never >>
>> gets how desperate his situation is. Poor old thing. In the second series we were going to give him a happy ending and then we thought no, that just doesn’t work.”
Gatiss is an old-school geek with an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything that came before. Since so much of his output seems to involve reviving old material ( Doctor Who, Sherlock, First Men In The Moon) or touch on pastiche ( The League Of Gentlemen’s nods to Amicus films, his Lucifer Box series of novels), does he ever find himself worrying he’s not creating anything totally new?
“I do, yes. I would say The League Of Gentlemen was very much a new thing and I think it’s had a profound influence on other things. So even though there is a strong comic horror element, the thing itself is definitely it’s own thing. But it’s a very valid question and I can answer it in two parts. One is that unfortunately in an inherently timid industry it’s very difficult to get anything new off the ground. And I’ve tried. Secondly, I’m always being asked what I want to bring back next and I always say I don’t want to bring anything back, I want to do something new that people in thirty years time can be nostalgic about. But I’d be mad to turn my back on Doctor Who and Sherlock, not just because they’re so successful but because I love doing them.
“Everyone must also acknowledge that everyone is standing on someone else’s shoulders. And this came across to me very strongly doing An Adventure In Space And Time. In the very DNA of Doctor Who there is a massive mix of Sherlock Holmes and HG Wells. Everything which has a magic portal stems from Narnia and The Wizard Of Oz, and probably things even before that.
“And with Doctor Who you could have asked the same question to [1970s showrunners] Barry Letts or Terrance Dicks or Philip Hinchcliffe. I think the great thing is to feel like you’re contributing to an ongoing legacy
and doing your own version of it because the show is completely different from 1963 to now. It has distinct phases, distinct reinventions, so it’s always an ongoing and exciting thing to be part of. You’re not regurgitating or copying the one you grew up with, you’re trying to contribute something new to the mythology. As with Sherlock, our version, we’ve only made nine episodes but it’s enormous around the world. It’s created a huge impact and that’s brilliant because it’s pointing people back toward the original stories which is fantastic.”
Speaking of Doctor Who, in the UK the show was notorious for its huge gay following in a way that wasn’t as noticeable elsewhere. Why does he think it appealed so much to the gays?
“I think what used to appeal to a gay audience was initially some unspoken bond between this loner who did what he liked; the mystery of him, the fact that you can’t get to the bottom of him. And then certain elements of camp, I suppose. But that sort of denies the fact that an awful lot of it isn’t camp. I think it’s probably unquantifiable. It’s like trying to define camp or why anything has a gay sensibility. You can sniff out when something’s trying too hard. It’s like a Eurovision entry – I know I’m on safe ground here – you know with a Eurovision entry when it’s trying to be a “Eurovision song” it will fail, but when you get a fat Greek singer trying their damnedest to be serious it’s the campest thing in the world. And I think somewhere in that tortured metaphor…” Gatiss breaks off laughing.
Some years ago, I asked Sylvester McCoy (the actor who played the seventh Doctor) why he thought Doctor Who attracted a gay following. He said, “In the early days of Doctor Who I got the impression that what attracted many people to it, especially people who felt lonely or cut off from the rest of society in many ways, was that you could go wherever you want, you could be whatever you wanted to be in science fiction. And they transposed their fantasy onto Doctor Who. I think for the
You know that Noel Coward song, If Love Were All? That notion of the bittersweet is what I’ve always responded to. I like things with a hint of melancholy, or more than a hint. I’m drawn to those kinds of characters, definitely.
gay community in those earlier days it was still hard. It was still not accepted as much as society accepts it now, in Britain. And I think it was a place where people could go and find a kind of communication… a little home.”
Gatiss agrees. “That’s a very lovely answer. I think that’s true. Certainly the Doctor, without ever having to nail political colours to the mast, defends freedom versus tyranny. He’s defiantly anti-fascist. He tries to disrupt any kind of grim authority or bureaucracy; he’s a slightly mischievous character, which people obviously respond to. But yes, all are welcome in the TARDIS! And that’s a great message to send to kids.”
Mark in a relaxed mood at rehearsals for Sherlock.
Mark’s creative input has helped forge the re-booted Dr Who: David Tennent and Catherine Tate. Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor. John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, the Doctor’s gayest travelling companion,
Royston Vasey, where the dark comedy of The League Of Gentlemen and Gatiss’ television career began.
Scott (the openly gay actor who plays Moriaty in Sherlock Arqiva British Academy Television...