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

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT - Mark Gatiss.

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...

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