Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Mark Gatiss at the Oxford Union

This afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing Mark Gatiss - the well-known actor and writer - speak at the Oxford Union. As many readers will know, Mark cuts a charming and suave figure and is always good value in these sorts of settings. He's best known, indeed, for playing charming and suave characters (albeit also rather sinister ones): Mycroft Holmes, Stephen Gardiner, Tycho Nestoris, Peter Mandelson. The usual suspects. And in person he is, indeed, a very lovely man (his parting words to my friend Louis McEvoy and myself - see the picture on right - were "speaking as someone who wore tweed a lot in my twenties, a word of advice: it's just too damn hot. Dress like Peter Davison instead!"). That said, he's also a lovely man who is very angry and unhappy with the current state of the world. Both Louis and myself had the opportunity of asking questions both in the Chamber itself - where the Q&A took place - and afterwards in the Union bar (pictured). Details follow.

The first thing Mark said about being in the (rather grand) surroundings of the Oxford Union Chamber was "I've seen this place on the telly but never been here... I feel like I should be proposing something controversial". This didn't take long, since he was then asked what most motivated him to take on a project, and he replied "cash and hot boys". Putting the joke to one side, he spoke of how he needed enthusiasm and passion to engage with projects, often linking them to his childhood obsessions - such as Sherlock and Doctor Who - and mentioned a current thing he's working on that he's thrilled to be doing which the BBC specifically asked of him. He added that he gets lots of emails with people suggesting ideas or collaborations, and his golden rule is he doesn't even consider them if they can't spell his name correctly.

The topic of the League of Gentlemen reunion came up fairly early on, with the interviewer mentioning the mooted air date of 2019 or 2020; Gatiss notes that all he had actually said on the matter was that it would be "an anniversary" and thus they could hold on to the idea until "the fiftieth anniversary"! However, he confirmed that they've had several meetings about it, are hoping to shoot this year, and have a number of what he thinks are pretty good ideas. He claims the group never really split up, just went off and did other things, and that they remain very good friends. Almost everything in the show, apparently, is based on real people - stuff that makes the trio laugh; Papa Lazarou, for instance, is based on a childhood anecdote of Reece Shearsmith's, "a private joke made public" in Gatiss' words, blended with the odd idiosyncrasies of a Greek landlord the trio once had.

On the topic of what inspires him most, Mark said "other writers, other actors, things I've seen on telly, and behind the scenes programmes". Noting that it's quite common to see BTS documentaries and the like today, he spoke of how rare it was growing up and that to stumble across the Making of Superman in the 80s was more exciting than the actual film! The Making of Doctor Who was another formative moment in his childhood, buying the volume after carefully saving up for it and forfeiting purchasing a Doctor Who novelisation that month, which he claims he's never regretted - as it helped him discover how TV works, how the show was born, the "mechanics of telly". He adds that, eventually, you do get used to how TV works and see behind the magic, as it were, but that it never loses its interest.

On his forthcoming project, Queers, airing on BBC4 in July - a series of monologues which he's directed and curated but many of which are by other writers - Mark noted that part of the joy of it was working with first-time writers for TV who had never seen a camera crew bring their work to life in front of their eyes. It's largely about the male perspective, he notes, which causes some people - myself included - a bit of discomfort as I'm not entirely convinced that the reasons he offered for not having a broader sweep on the writing front are particularly strong ones. Mark reckons that the importance of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 decriminalisation of male homosexuality justifies the mostly male experience behind the set of monologues. He is keen to stress that the series isn't trying to be everything, or all things to all people, and is concerned that people expect you to tick every box.

On diversity, which rather followed on from the discussion of Queers, Mark mentions that one of the Victorian soldiers in the forthcoming Doctor Who story Empress of Mars - on this Saturday - is played by a young black British actor. He says he wasn't sure if he was allowed to do this for a while as he didn't think there were any black soldiers in Victoria's army, and wrote a long and tortuous email about whether or not it was a good idea, but then went back and read the historical record and found there were actually some individual cases of black soldiers in the army at the time, and so they went ahead with it; he adds that Who is a completely fantastical world anyway so it's hardly the greatest leap of logic, and says it's important to be more representational if you can be.

On writing, Mark says, "keep at it. Stick at it." Many people don't get past that first page, because they have a voice on their shoulder telling them that what they've written is no good. You live with that crippling self-doubt and that evil voice all your life, he says. You just have to ignore it. In one sense writing is easy, according to Mark, in that anybody can do it and nobody can stop you doing it. You're not held back by not having done a course or not having completed a qualification. You pick up a pen and paper and you're off. He also noted the importance of showing your writing to people you trust and getting their honest opinions on your work.

On creating Sherlock with Steven Moffat, Mark spoke of the enormous fun the two of them have had putting it together, speaking of the huge workload but also the amount of fun they have, and how proud they are of the global reach that the show has and how it's pointed so many people back to the Conan Doyle originals. The huge expectations under which the show airs each time round are not something you can quite ignore, he concedes, but feels you don't put that at the forefront of your mind. He feels the most important thing is that you do the show you want and hopefully other people will like it.

On the future of Doctor Who after Steven leaves, Mark sounds genuinely unsure on if he'll be back. He feels that he's living in the pages of the Making of... book now, where people come and go and entire eras finish in the pages of these hallowed texts, but once you're living in it you realise that this is really people's lives and jobs you're talking about, and that it's often immensely hard to leave. He thinks Chris Chibnall will do a terrific job but is looking forward to just watching as a fan from now on; it's sad to say goodbye and see the end of an era, but also exciting and fresh, and is part and parcel of renewal and regeneration (adding that it's a quirk of history that if William Hartnell had been a healthier man the show would probably have run for 5 years and then been quietly dropped, but it's because he was forced to move on that the concept of regeneration was introduced and thus the show's immortality was sealed). He's very proud of the twelve years he's worked on the show, and indeed the ten episodes; Mark's written nine, but in this count he was including An Adventure in Space and Time, the docudrama he wrote for the show's 50th anniversary. There was another script he wrote that never made it to screen - more on that later. In short, he's had a good innings (he wrote audios and novels before the show came back, too, of course).

On his role in Game of Thrones, Mark is happy to announce that he's "still not dead!" He's back as Tycho Nestoris in Season 7, airing later this year. He can't give us any secrets or spoilers, though, as he genuinely doesn't have a clue; he doesn't even have to lie when asked, despite being terribly used to lying after working on Sherlock and Doctor Who for so long. He thinks it's nice to be involved in a big machine of a show that you don't have a personal passion for, though, in the way he does with his two great loves; it's a whole different type of experience. He also recounted a time that he pitched to the GoT showrunners in Croatia his idea that Tycho Nestoris should just outlive every single other character, emerging out from under a rock after the world has been obliterated - because a banker would, right?

On researching for a writing project, Mark reckons it's where some of the most fun can be had for any given piece of work - finding the little story in the shadow of the big one. He notes that we all know about the huge events of history, and so finding the little bits and odd angles in the midst of all that is where the best stories emerge (he reckons this is what Hilary Mantel does with Wolf Hall, in the television adaptation of which he played Stephen Gardiner: she tells a familiar story but this time from Cromwell's perspective). Mark also referenced being in New York earlier this year and watching "almost hyper-real" black and white footage of the Kennedy assassination and funeral, but also of the funeral of the police officer that Lee Harvey Oswald killed the same day, and also of the funeral of Oswald himself. All three people were buried the same day: Kennedy's was huge and transmitted worldwide, of course, but Oswald's was such a small affair that the coffin had to be carried by reporters because nobody wanted to attend or bear his coffin. He reckons there's real potential in intriguing little nuggets of history like that.

On what he'll do next, his first response was "go on holiday", but he mentioned A Christmas Carol too, which he'd love to adapt, but also more ghost stories. He enjoys doing theatre a lot - he was in a play earlier this year and will do one next year - though does feel that it and TV are different skill sets. Sometimes he's asked to do plays which have 11 weeks' rehearsal time and he says a flat-out no because it would just drive him out of his mind.

On how the Doctor, Sherlock and Mycroft would vote in the general election, Mark was quick to say, "the Doctor wouldn't vote; he's not a registered alien. But he'd probably vote for the most human candidate. Mycroft would obviously vote Tory, and Sherlock would call into question the notion of elections."

On whether he'd like to have been showrunner of Doctor Who and, if so, what he would have done, Mark says that he wasn't really offered (first he did a joke routine of saying "I was offered" and then staggering back as if he'd just been shot by a sniper seeking to protect BBC secrets!). He reckons it's the hardest job in TV, having seen it all up close with his best friend. He reckons there's a huge appeal to the job but it's also all-consuming; and that he'd worry he'd not be able to do both his acting and writing aspects of his career. He describes the job as a "poisoned chalice", comparing it to being like the England manager, and notes the wieght of expectations are just huge: whatever you do and however successful you are, there are literally millions of people round the world who think they can do it better than you.

On being part of the 2005 season that brought Doctor Who back, Mark spoke of the immense privilege and thrill he felt at being involved. He says Russell T Davies ringing him up to ask him to write for the series on Christmas 2003 is still the best Christmas present he's ever had; despite keeping the torch burning through "the dark times, the times of chaos" he'd never really dreamed that the show could come back and be so successful again but that the unbelievable has become possible. He reckons Russell's boldness is what made it work; lesser writers might've focus-grouped it to death but he thinks that first season is still so perfectly constructed - no alien planets, a grounded-ness that kept it fresh, and that the marvellous Christopher Eccleston in the role, not an obvious choice, sent a real message about what the show was going to be. He did add, though, that seeing the new paraphernalia of the show was quite disconcerting - and that the first time he stepped onto the new TARDIS set it wasn't quite the jolt of recognition he was expecting, simply because it wasn't quite the TARDIS he remembered in his nostalgia.

On playing Peter Mandelson in the TV film Coalition, Mark calls the man "endlessly fascinating" and notes he was the inspiration for his own performance of Mycroft Holmes (which was actually Steve Thompson's suggestion - the third Sherlock writer to whom nobody pays much attention). He thinks of the coalition now as a "lost golden age of stability", almost missing it(!), and thinking that in comparison to what we have now it kind of worked. He's also pretty open to having more coalitions in the future if it means more cross-party cooperation. He says of Mandelson that he has a "face like a banana: supercilious, princely, camp", noting his "king-like expectation", but is also delighted that Mandelson enjoyed Coalition, in his own words, "despite my somewhat sinister appearance". When asked which other politician he'd like to play, Mark said "Theresa May. But it's a little too early for the remake of Nosferatu".

On social media and how fans and creatives interact, Mark reckons it's a bit of a mixed blessing. Things are consumed so quickly these days, he reckons, that there's a weird discrepancy between how long people work on things and how people just gobble up something in an evening and then say "next!". He says there is feedback on the Internet if you choose to look at it, of course, but that it's generally best to ignore it. David Tennant looked online to see how people were reacting to his casting announcement, apparently, but found some of the comments so depressing that he never did so again. However Mark is happy to concede that had social media been around in the 1980s he knows that he would've got in touch with the then-producer of Doctor Who, John Nathan-Turner, and complained about what he was doing wrong (as, indeed, the next showrunner of the series did do, in 1986). He is pretty depressed about the state of the world, though, and went as far as saying he thinks the Internet will ultimately destroy us all; decrying the phenomenon of "fake news" and noting the old saying that "a lie goes twice round the world before the truth has its boots on", Mark predicts a scenario where some idiot will press the nuclear button because of some false report they've been told. In completely unrelated news, he also called Donald Trump "the Antichrist", and thinks that we are living on the cusp of a 1939-type disaster about to kick off.

On whether there was anything about Sherlock he regretted or would do differently, Mark says perhaps they shouldn't have killed Moriarty off quite so early, especially given that he left the show about five times! The show was originally 6 hour-long episodes, but this was changed to 3x90 fairly early on. At that point Mark had written Episode 2, which was originally going to be an hour-long tale of the lost Vermeer painting, but because everything then had to become punchier, quicker, pacier and with higher stakes, it was simply reworked in to the series finale - The Great Game - as one of the mini-cases Sherlock is set to solve by Moriarty. He claims the 90-minute format "eats up stories", which you have to keep feeding into the mix or the stories become staid and tired. He also spoke of the "12-minute scene" in his first Sherlock episode, a scene all about interaction between characters, which he wouldn't have done if it'd been a 60-minute programme but which the space of 90 minutes allowed him to do (though there was still some concern over whether they'd gone overboard, he reckons the bits of Sherlock people like most are the character discussions).

On his abandoned Doctor Who Series 4 script, The Suicide Exhibition (this was my question!), Mark said that he first wrote the story as being set in the British Museum during World War I but then redrafted it as a World War II story (in which, I think, the Nazis were the bad guys). He claims there never was a third draft, but quipped that if there had been he would have set the story in 2018. What originally inspired it was that he wanted to do a Doctor Who story set in Ireland, noting with some amazement that there still hasn't been one after all this time. He claimed the Bog People, Iron Age bodies left preserved in peat marshes, are surely an iconic image to use for a Who script; and that was part of the story as we saw this weird and wonderful menagerie of things preserved in the British Museum. During the World Wars, most of the collection - the great cultural heritage - was stored in salt mines (I believe this is explored in Frank Cottrell-Boyce's novel Framed), but that some more dispensable things - Iron Age pots and the like - were put out on display in what were called "suicide exhibitions", because the items were thought to be of lesser value. Part of this was also to keep museums functionally running and keeping people's spirits up and their cultural life still ticking over, whilst not risking the most valuable exhibits (sure enough, most of these items were destroyed in bombing). However, Mark refused to go into detail about the actual plot because "I might reuse it one day..."

On whether foreshadowing is always deliberate or not, Mark says that sometimes it is and that it's lovely when people notice the efforts you go to (citing the fact that Henry Baskerville nearly shoots himself by placing a gun in his mouth in the Sherlock episode The Hounds of Baskerville as foreshadowing for the way Moriarty kills himself in the same way in The Reichenbach Fall as a deliberate bit of foreshadowing). But sometimes, he says, it's entirely random and coincidental: "TD12", the memory drug in the Sherlock episode The Lying Detective and a plot device taken from the Conan Doyle short story The Adventure of the Devil's Foot, was not - as some fans supposed - "The Devil's Foot [12 inches]" but that Steven had picked the number entirely at random.

I was lucky enough to meet Mark in the bar afterwards with Louis, and exchanged a few words as he was pestered by other fans keen to do the same (though he took this all in his stride). I got the chance to tell him my favourite of his scripts was The Crimson Horror (Louis' is Robot of Sherwood), and also asked him about what he thought of the relationship between politics and Doctor Who - noting that in 2010, when writing the Churchillian love-fest Victory of the Daleks, Mark had claimed "Doctor Who is not the place for politics", but that since then he'd written about Mutually Assured Destruction (Cold War), imperialism and religious oppression/hypocrisy as well as industrialism and slavery/emancipation (The Crimson Horror) and yet more colonialist themes to come in Empress of Mars. Does he still think Doctor Who is not the place for politics, I asked, especially given how passionate he is about trying to make the world a better place and how important he feels it is that we fight the rising right-wing? He gave a decent answer, I suppose, which is that he thinks Doctor Who is best when it makes soft satire of political points rather than particularly trying to hit viewers over the head with a manifesto - though he agrees that this is the most politically-charged season for an age, i.e. Oxygen or Thin Ice or The Pyramid at the End of the World (and did give me the mini-scoop that "there's a Brexit gag in Empress of Mars"). I'd have preferred something a little more radical, but at that point the most tactful thing was to get our quick picture with him and let him be.

Mark's a terribly lovely man, irrepressibly enthusiastic about his childhood passions, and full of lovely anecdotes. I don't think he's perfect - not all of his writing works for me, and some of his beliefs don't quite accord with mine - but he's nonetheless an absolute delight in person, and a pleasure to meet.

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