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Mark Gatiss Interview

Lee Saturday, 16 October 2010 ,
When he was a boy, Mark Gatiss loved Doctor Who; now he regularly writes for it (he’s just finished an episode for next year’s series). He also, as a boy, loved Sherlock Holmes; now he’s the co-creator, with Steven Moffat, of BBC One’s recent big hit, Sherlock. Another passion of his youth was HG Wells; now he’s adapted, and is starring in, Wells’s 1901 story The First Men in the Moon for BBC Four. He seems to be making a career out of realising his boyhood dreams. The young Gatiss enjoyed collecting fossils, too, so no doubt we can expect a palaeontological documentary series from him before long.

The BBC would probably let him do it, as well, because in television Gatiss is flavour of the month. Literally “of the month”, in fact – as well as The First Men in the Moon (Tuesday), he’s got A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss (Mondays, BBC Four), and the same channel is currently repeating his 2008 drama series Crooked House (its final part airs tonight). “At the moment, BBC Four appears to be entirely staffed by me,” he says, chuckling. Actually, it isn’t just BBC Four – on October 27 there’s a Poirot whodunit he’s adapted for ITV1, and on October 28 he’s on Radio 4 in a documentary he’s made with his old League of Gentlemen colleagues about a haunted house.

Not only is The First Men in the Moon a Gatiss type of story, but Professor Cavor is a Gatiss type of character. Time and again in his writing career, he’s drawn to weirdos: Sherlock Holmes, with his cocaine habit and violin; the Doctor, a time-travelling alien; the inhabitants of Royston Vasey in The League of Gentlemen, BBC Two’s cult comedy about inbreds, clowns and sinister butchers. “I’m drawn to eccentric characters because they’re more fun,” says Gatiss, simply. “I think one of the few faults in Dickens is that mostly his lead characters are blanks – who is David Copperfield, who is Oliver Twist? And yet he takes such joy in populating the rest of his novels with these fantastic, grotesque people like Pecksmith and so on.“Also, eccentric characters can surprise you. Something I was very keen to put in our version of Sherlock, which I don’t think had ever been done, was to combat this idea that Holmes is a complete know-it-all – so I put in this thing from the original stories that he doesn’t know the Earth goes round the Sun. There are some things everybody else knows but which he’s ignorant about. He says to Watson, ‘I don’t care.I know by looking at the mud on your shoe that you went to the Wigmore Street post office this morning but why should I care if the Earth goes round the Sun or the Sun goes round the Earth?’ When I was a kid, that thrilled me.”

It wouldn’t be too rude to say that Gatiss is a little eccentric himself. Not that you would guess this to talk to him: he’s polite and affable, with a voice as soft as slippers. But in the London home he shares with his civil partner, Ian, he did once build a Victorian laboratory (another boyhood dream fulfilled, although in the end he never actually did any experiments in it – he just liked showing it off to visitors).
Born in Durham in 1966, he grew up opposite the place where both his parents worked: a psychiatric hospital. At school, he says, he was “desperately” geeky: “I’ve got some very, very awful photos of myself when I was eight with wildly tangled red hair and terrible NHS specs.”

At drama college (Bretton Hall in West Yorkshire) he met the other three members of The League of Gentlemen; in 1997, just two years after their stage debut, they won the Perrier Award at Edinburgh. (Although there hasn’t been any new League of Gentlemen material since the 2005 film, he says they’ve never split up, and may work together again in future.) In the Nineties he also published several Doctor Who novels, which ultimately helped bring him to the attention of Russell T Davies, the producer who relaunched the TV series in 2005.

Today the work just keeps coming. When I speak to him, by telephone, he’s in Crete, where he’s supposed to be enjoying a holiday but is in fact writing a script for the second series of Sherlock.
To announce the drama had been recommissioned, he and Moffat put together a press release including hints about the episodes to come. “We look forward to Sherlock encountering lots of new enemies – whether two or four-legged – and perhaps seeing the master of deduction and reason falling – but whether in love or over a precipice remains to be seen…” You don’t need to share Holmes’s powers in order to work out which stories they have in mind.

The young Gatiss, who so loved Holmes and Wells and the Doctor, would have been delighted to know this was how his life would turn out. But he wouldn’t necessarily have been surprised. “I had a strong sense as a kid, who was constantly belittled by vile PE teachers, that I would prove people wrong who said I spent all my time daydreaming,” says Gatiss. “When I’d walk around the perimeter of the football pitch in the p---ing rain and feel the terrible smack of the football against my cheek, I had an inner conviction that I could somehow make use of my geekiness. And I’m very pleased to say I have.”

The First Men in the Moon is on Tuesday on BBC Four at 9.00pm