From an Adam Sandler film to 1940s murder mysteries with titles such as Vegetable Duck, much-admired creator of theatre and TV favourites Mark Gatiss tells Tim Bano about the culture he has been enjoying during lockdown
There are few cultural touchstones that actor, writer, director and producer Mark Gatiss hasn’t touched. He co-created the seminal BBC comedy The League of Gentlemen, as well as the hugely acclaimed TV adaptations of Sherlock and Dracula. He has written and starred in episodes of Doctor Who, played a stern Braavosi banker in Game of Thrones, and has appeared on stage at London’s National Theatre and across the country, winning an Olivier award in 2016 for best actor in a supporting role for Three Days in the Country. During lockdown he has been fundraising for the King’s Head Theatre in London alongside husband and fellow actor Ian Hallard.
He says: “This is a time when you imagine you’ll catch up on all of those things – great novels, great movies – that you’ve never managed, and somehow it hasn’t happened. It’s partly because the strangeness of the atmosphere doesn’t lend itself to that. People are looking for distraction, but I feel too distracted to concentrate. It’s a strange thing. But there’s a huge place in life, and particularly in a pandemic, for a relaxing wash of nonsense.”
I discovered a very good Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston film called Murder Mystery. It’s really good fun and does the power of good. I’ve also been watching the great Talking Pictures TV channel, which is like being off school permanently. It showed a film the other day, which I simply can’t believe I’ve gone without all these years, it is called I See a Dark Stranger, with Deborah Kerr and Trevor Howard. It’s absolutely wonderful, like a weird cross between I Know Where I’m Going! and Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. It’s just so charming and extraordinarily odd.
My big joy is crime thrillers and murder mysteries. A few years ago, I fell down a rabbit hole of trying to find murder mysteries with the most esoterically dreary titles, and I ended up ordering four of them from AbeBooks. There’s a brilliantly named one called Vegetable Duck, which is a really good mystery. I’ve also got He Could Not Have Slipped, but the crowning glory is They Rang Up the Police. I’ve just finished one called Murder in Hospital, which is quite good, bit dry, but the writer, Josephine Bell, her first book was called – wait for it – Death on the Borough Council. It’s around the same year as Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile and I can imagine someone at WH Smith’s at Charing Cross Station thinking: ‘Hmm, Death on the Nile, or Death on the Borough Council?’ Despite their titles, there are some real gems and it’s a wonderful way of delving into golden-age crime.
We started Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, but I feel the same way about it as I do about all his stuff, which is that it looks amazing, and everyone is beautiful, but it’s as thin as Bible paper. There’s nothing to it. It’s like a very expensively shot first draft. I just gawped.
Our chief joy has been the rediscovery of The Adventure Game. It was made in the 1980s, and essentially the beginning of the escape room idea, and The Crystal Maze. It’s absolutely the apotheosis of old-fashioned BBC, boffiny paternalism. It’s about three people – two celebrities and a member of the public – who apparently go to the planet Arg where they have to solve strange problems in order to win a crystal.
I have very fond memories of it, and it’s terribly charming, and it’s also slightly melancholy seeing all these people like Lesley Judd and Nerys Hughes and Graeme Garden in their prime, full of vim and vigour. We are watching it on YouTube every night during our dinner and it’s amazingly revealing of the time because the men – with the exception of Garden – are so bossy and patronising. If any of the women get one of the clues right, they’ll say: “Ooh clever girl.” As a social study it’s fascinating.
I paint as a hobby but that’s something that I find comes very easily. It’s a different kind of creativity I suppose. I find it immensely satisfying to finish something at the end of the day and think: ‘I’ve made something.’ It’s an amazingly powerful feeling in these times.
I’ve written a play in lockdown, which is my adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which was supposed to be happening at Nottingham Playhouse and London’s Alexandra Palace this year – so fingers crossed it will go ahead, but who knows. And I have other things to write, but I am finding it very difficult and so is everybody I know.
Weirdly, the muse is not kind during a global pandemic. You imagine you have all the time in the world, but it’s sort of numbing. I don’t know what I’m writing it for. Nobody knows what’s happening or what’s going to happen, and therefore there’s a kind of paralysis.
Also, Ian [Hallard] and I are spearheading a campaign to raise £100,000 to keep the King’s Head going until September. We live almost across the road from the King’s Head and I’ve been going for donkey’s years. It’s not just any other fringe theatre. It’s been the heart of Upper Street life for so many years, so many amazing people have started their careers there. It’s a wonderful pub and a wonderful theatre and an amazing hub. What really concerns me is how far down on the news agenda this stuff is. There is an idea that art is so rarefied and only for posh party people, and it’s so not. Somewhere like the King’s Head is an absolute beacon in terms of people’s first steps into all kinds of things – writing, directing, producing, lighting, stage management. It really frightens me, because theatre is on an absolute precipice here. The frustrating thing is that the King’s Head was about to move to new premises, and now it’s struggling to survive.
You can donate to the King’s Head Theatre at Kingsheadtheatre.com/donate