HEROES & INSPIRATIONS: MARK GATISS
FROM UNSHAKEABLE CHILDHOOD DREAD TO LONDON’S ODDEST CORNERS, THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN SHARES SOME OF HIS FAVOURITE THINGS WITH NICK SETCHFIELD
The Sherlock co-creator shares some of his favourite things. Hartley Hare snuck in there somehow. Don’t have nightmares.
Mark Gatiss is the culmination of his passions. Volcanically so. “Like a spot!” he laughs, relishing the simile before giving it a gleeful squeeze. “Like a great big boil! all the pus has reached the bursting point in me!” actor. Writer. strangler. Gatiss’s twitter bio omits the word enthusiast, possibly because it scarcely needs stating. From The League Of Gentlemen to Sherlock, his trilogy of Lucifer Box novels to acclaimed documentaries on painter John Minton and the history of screen horror, it’s a career powered by infatuations.
“i’ve been lucky enough to pursue my passions,” he tells SFX as he chooses a mere seven of his touchstones ahead of Christmas ghost tale The Dead Room, which he’s written and directed for BBC Four. “the challenge always is that you don’t fall out of love with it, because it obviously becomes work. You have to do it when you don’t want to do it, and you don’t want to squash all the joy out of it, but i’ve not got there, thank god.
“it all leaves a fingerprint, doesn’t it?”
THE TIME MACHINE (1960)
I saw it when I was very young and it completely knocked me for six. It’s amazing the extent to which those early things grip you. As a writer you can’t write them out, either, no matter how many times you think, “Oh, I know where that’s come from!” They crop up again and again. There are so many elements of it which I can’t – and wouldn’t want to – dislodge from my head. The design of the time machine is so beautiful, it made my hair stand on end. The Morlocks terrified me so much, especially when he goes forward in time and it rots and its eyeball falls out! But the most crucial thing – and this is something that I keep coming back to – is the magical moment where he sits there, in his conservatory, pushes the lever and the sun and the moon arc overhead, and the fashions in the shop across the road change… I just love that. Magical. If you’re a Wells purist it’s obviously a very pulpy version of a brilliant novel that’s actually a devastating social critique, but as a piece of brilliant pop film culture there’s nothing like it. I could watch it for the rest of my life, and I fully intend to, starting right now!
THE GHOSTS OF MOTLEY HALL
It’s difficult to choose a TV show because there are so many things which once upon a time felt like buried treasure, and have now become much related and much anthologised, as it were. Because all of children’s TV was scary in those days and now because of wonderful things like Scarred For Life there’s no escape! There’s no hidden ones anymore. But a show I rediscovered – it must have been about eight years ago now – that was utterly delightful, and every bit as good as I remembered, was The Ghosts Of Motley Hall. I was ever so fond of that show and I bought the DVD with some trepidation, and I was terribly moved and delighted by it. Richard Carpenter, who wrote it, was a giant, much underrated. It’s a beautifully written show. It’s extremely melancholy, like all the best things. It has a sort of Bagpuss-like melancholy at its heart. And just a wonderful idea – a group of ghosts from
different periods, all played by fantastic character actors. I was really pleased that it wasn’t a show that disappointed. In fact it was even better than I remembered.
It may surprise some people that I’ve never been a huge science fiction reader. I read a lot of HG Wells and a lot of Ray Bradbury, but a lot of the biggies, like Frank Herbert or Asimov or Arthur C Clarke, I’ve never gone anywhere near. It’s something about the hard SFness of them. They’re a bit dry. And anything that looks like it’s part of a 19-part series… oh, I simply can’t be bothered! But this book by Keith Roberts is very good. I remember loving the world-building. Elizabeth I is shot by an assassin, and she dies, the Armada succeeds and then it’s the present day – so it’s basically the 1960s except the Spanish won, and the Catholic world of England in the 1960s is a completely different world. The church has held back progress massively. They don’t have cars but they have sort of car-ships with sails and stuff like that. There’s a lovely, magical bit in that book when someone remembers beacons being lit across the country the night the old king died, and I remember thinking, “But who was that king?” Because in this alternative world, where the Spanish invaded, that’s a line of kings and queens we never knew. I loved that. What a wonderful sentence. I was always a big fan of counter-factuals, they thrilled me. I’ve gone off them now, largely because we’re living in one. And that’s no exaggeration. I have no appetite for them anymore. I used to – anything like SS-GB or The Man In The High Castle or Handmaid’s Tale I loved. I’m terrified now. They’re too close. It just feels like a live feed from America.
My favourite modern musician is Rufus Wainwright, who’s a friend of mine. I took his first album away on holiday and I played it to death. I remember thinking, “I love everything about this, I love his voice, I love his ideas. They’re beautiful melodies but there’s an ache in them. He’s also very gorgeous!” And then I interviewed him when he came to London to promote the second album and we became friends. We were talking about writing a musical together. We were in the middle of the snowy Montreal hills in this wonderful log cabin, like a Rock Hudson film, and we’d meet at breakfast time and talk about it then go away to our individual huts and scribble away. And I would come back with some piece of doggerel and Rufus would come back and say, “I just wrote this thing – what do you think?” And he’d just made up some heartbreakingly beautiful song… This is what it must be like to be a genius. He’s just insanely talented.
He was flawless. I love the fact he was from Huddersfield and yet had this extraordinary cut-glass voice, which we’ve all been doing for the rest of our lives. His greatest performance is in Salem’s Lot, which I could quote till the end of time – [uncanny Mason impression] “Come to the master, holy man, your faith against his faith!” He’s just amazing. And he’s got a wonderfully unknowable quality. There’s something odd about him, always. Something unplaceable. He was a big Hollywood star, but he doesn’t fit. You can tell. What I love, particularly in a fantasy film, is people with total dedication. He’s in some really schlocky films but he never gives a bad performance. In
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea he’s playing Nemo for real. It’s a wonderfully admirable quality. He’s a technically brilliant actor, too. There’s something immaculate about it all. The presence and the voice and grace… something feline. You can see why he was great box office. He’s an incredibly sexy presence. But then he matures in that North By Northwest way, becomes that mid-’50s, steel-grey-haired, urbane American sophisticate. He remains a fantastically complex personality. That’s why he interests me. You really can’t pin him down and you can’t pin down his choices, either.
I really am very loyal to London. I think it can kill you – it’s like a monster, the people it spits out. But everywhere else I go I think, “Well, it’s not as good, is it?” Its madness is its joy, the fact it’s still so higgledy-piggledy. Peter Ackroyd wrote a fantastic book called London: The Biography and one of the most appealing things is that it’s separated into chapters called Sound and Light and he absolutely nails the weirdness of it, that you can step off Shaftesbury Avenue into a little courtyard and go, “Where’s this?” Suddenly all the sound has changed. It goes from being very chi-chi to quite rough within one street. I think that’s wonderful, and there are very few places like that. It’s an intrinsically British thing to be this sort of messy and fucked up, which I think London is. What I absolutely love doing is finding unexpected bits. It’s like being a tourist in your own city. It’s something everyone should do. Make a conscious decision not to go to the places you usually haunt and just go somewhere else. I like getting off my usual rails. I did the Highgate Cemetery tours several times – they’re fascinating. And I used to do infamous addresses tours, usually murder sites. There are more than you’d expect. And there are so many curious places. A formative thing from childhood was the Spaghetti House siege. I remember it so vividly on the news for about a week and a half in 1975. Spaghetti House is still a chain, but then I found the one the siege took place in and I was really excited!
Ghost stories are my favourite thing, in terms of horror or fantasy. They’re the thing I always come back to. The more my tastes have gone in that direction the more I appreciate that kind of creeping dread. If you’re from that generation where every children’s TV series seemed to be supernatural then it leaves a weird, indelible mark. It was everywhere! Even the things which weren’t supposed to be seemed to be vaguely creepy and vaguely about standing circles. All puppet shows were horrible, weren’t they? Even supposedly nice ones, like Dusty Mop… and Hartley Hare! Look at Hartley Hare, for Christ’s sake! What was going on? There is so much to enjoy there. There was folk horror everywhere. I definitely draw all that out to this day. It doesn’t leave you. In The Dead Room the inciting incident is from the long hot summer of ’76. It’s very much about invoking that atmosphere of what it was like to be there during the drought and everything that it meant to me as a 10-year-old kid, but also being supernatural at the same time. It’s deeply infused with the atmosphere of that time.
The Dead Room is on BBC Four this Christmas. The League Of Gentlemen Live Again! is out now on DVD.
growing up with ghost stories leaves a weird, indelible mark
He hoped this was the correct lever for pink bubble bath.
James Mason: the epitome of suave.
The Ghosts Of Motley Hall was essential viewing for ’70s kids. Let’s all swoon to the voice of Rufus Wainwright.
Hartley Hare is not mangy, he’s misunderstood.
Highgate Cemetery is the perfect place for a spooky picnic.