Recently, Mark Gatiss has spent a lot of time lurking in the shadows as the scheming, conniving bishop Stephen Gardiner in the BBC’s celebrated adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Shortly, he’ll be seen as New Labour’s scheming, conniving Prince of Darkness Peter Mandelson in Channel 4’s political drama Coalition. And later this year, he’ll be back opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock – the worldwide sensation he co-created with Steven Moffat – as Holmes’ scheming, conniving brother Mycroft. What is it, wonders Weekend, that makes people see the genial actor as such a filthy sneak?
‘You tell me,’ laughs Gatiss, before revealing: ‘Peter Mandelson was a direct influence on how I played Mycroft. He and Mycroft and Gardiner, they’re all essentially the same sort of figure – they’re very shadowy string-pullers. The sort of people you could imagine sitting out a world war.’
The 48-year-old is delighted by the response to Wolf Hall. ‘Considering how beloved the books had become, it was a high-wire act,’ he muses. ‘But it definitely worked. It really made you feel these were real people, not figures on a tapestry. It’s not stately like many a historical drama. It feels dirty and real and sad and menacing. There’s a real feeling that the politics are deadly.’
The fact he hasn’t read Mantel’s novels makes Wolf Hall a rare example of a project where Gatiss didn’t arrive with an encyclopedic knowledge of the source material. As an actor and writer, he is famous for parlaying his juvenile devotions – be it Doctor Who, HG Wells, Hammer Horror or Sherlock Holmes – into career triumphs.
‘Yes – there have been so many, I’m running out of them,’ he says. ‘If you can make a job of what you love, then you’ll hopefully be happy. And I’ve been very happy and very lucky to have the opportunities I’ve had to turn these things into a career.
‘The only problem, really,’ he adds, ‘is that people are always asking me to bring things back, and I don’t want to – I want to do new things. It’s just incredibly difficult to get new things off the ground – people retreat towards figures and characters and brands they know.’
Gatiss and Moffat conceived their contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes during train journeys to the Doctor Who production base in Cardiff. When it launched into a midsummer graveyard slot in 2010, expectations were low – but the audience response was immediate.
‘It was a hit right out of the blocks,’ recalls Gatiss. ‘It’s a very unusual thing to say, but Benedict became a star overnight in a way you don’t think really happens outside of a Busby Berkeley film. Over the space of three weeks, his life changed.
‘It was thrilling, really, for all of us,’ he says. ‘It’s been amazing all round. We’ve only made 10 episodes in five years, and it’s globally an absolute phenomenon.’
Weekend asks if, as executive producer, he insisted on casting himself as Mycroft. He tells a story about how it came about sort-of by accident, before admitting: ‘I said no, I couldn’t possibly play him… when do I start?’
Having written half a dozen stories – and made a memorable on-screen appearance as a mad professor (in which he snogged Mavis from Coronation Street) – Gatiss is often talked about as Moffat’s natural successor as Doctor Who showrunner.
‘Oh I don’t know…’ he says when the subject arises. ‘I don’t give a monkeys about these things any more, really. I love writing for Doctor Who, I love being part of it. But I’m very interested in politics and the Royal Family, and I know there’s no such thing as a natural successor.
‘To be perfectly frank, the brilliant thing about Doctor Who, which has kept it alive for 51 years and more, is that it’s always fresh and surprising. The moment it does what you expect it to do, then it’s not Doctor Who.’
This year marks two decades since Gatiss teamed up with Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson – three of his fellow drama students at Bretton Hall College in West Yorkshire – to form demented revue act The League of Gentlemen. Over three brilliantly pitch black TV series, the League won a huge following for their distinctive stripe of comic grotesquery. Are they still a going concern?
‘Yes,’ says Gatiss, who has also established a notable reputation on the West End stage. ‘It’s 10 years since we did anything but, like Abba, we’re still officially together. We’ve always planned to do something again, it’s just getting everyone together, and making sure it’s the right thing. And also, genuinely, if the controller of BBC2 was hammering on our doors demanding a new League of Gentlemen series, then it might be a bit easier. But nobody is.’
From the League’s surrealist freakshow to his trilogy of Dennis Wheatley-riffing Lucifer Box novels via his scholarly TV essays on British horror films, Gatiss has demonstrated an unswerving passion for a particularly lurid strain of gothic melodrama. Could it have anything to do with growing up in the shadow of the Edwardian psychiatric institute where his father worked? ‘It wasn’t Edwardian,’ he says. ‘That story has grown like Topsy, so that now people basically think I was brought up opposite Arkham Asylum. It was actually built in the 1930s.
‘I don’t think it will have hurt,’ he concedes, of the institution’s influence on his feverish childhood imaginings. ‘But you can’t put it explicitly down to that – it’s in the blood, I’m afraid.’
Growing up in County Durham, Gatiss, who is in a civil partnership with the actor Ian Hallard, enjoyed an ‘amazingly happy childhood’. ‘Going back to Sherlock,’ he says, ‘a decision we made very early on is that Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft really are perfectly happy in their own skin. We don’t ascribe to that idea that Sherlock has a drug habit because he’s tortured. It’s more likely – and now we’ve explicitly shown it with the parents – that they had a lovely home life. They’re just slightly odd creatures that sprung up, and I suppose I was a bit like that. I had a lovely upbringing, but I always had a turn towards the macabre.’
No Edwardian asylum, then. But is it true he once had a full-size Victorian chemistry lab built in his London home? ‘It is, yes,’ he says. ‘It was the very definition of a folly. I did it, and I thought “this is lovely”. And that was it. That was a very big lesson that what you want when you’re eight is not necessarily what you want when you’re 40.’
Which, from Mark Gatiss of all people, is a very surprising admission indeed.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, March 5, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend