When Mark Gatiss and his cast were preparing their stage play of A Christmas Carol last year, they would come out of the rehearsal room in east London to be confronted by the line for the food bank. “You just think: ‘Scrooge and Marley live,’” he says. That was last year, before the play opened; it was filmed, and this year will be shown in cinemas, when the ghosts of the Cratchits seem ever more present.
“The way that the current iteration of the government has embraced cruelty as a badge of honour is horrible,” says Gatiss. “You think: ‘Are we locked for ever in this cycle of compassion and then absence of compassion?’” Gatiss loves Dickens’s book – he reads it every year. “It always amazes me how much anger there is [in it]. It feels sadly timeless.”
We are about to be deluged with Gatiss’s work, which, in the worst of times, is at least something to be cheerful about. There is the cinema screening of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story, which Gatiss adapted and in which he played Jacob Marley, a dream ever since he saw the 1970 film Scrooge, with Alec Guinness in the role (“It just seared itself into my brain”). There is a new half-hour drama: Gatiss has done the last four of the revival of the BBC’s 70s series A Ghost Story for Christmas, an event that now feels as integral to the season as mince pies. This will be another MR James adaptation. How many more does he have in him? “As many as they’ll let me have,” he says. “It’s my favourite thing to do.”
Then there are two plays: first, in January, the West End transfer of The Unfriend, which Gatiss directed, written by his longtime collaborator Steven Moffat. A month later, The Way Old Friends Do, written by his husband, the actor Ian Hallard, and directed by Gatiss, opens at Birmingham Rep. Then, Gatiss will play Larry Grayson in the ITV three-parter Nolly, and he has a role in the next Mission: Impossible film later in the year. He doesn’t think of himself as a workaholic, he says with a laugh, “because I do like resting. But there’s a lot to do. I’ve been very lucky in things coming my way.”
Earlier this year, Gatiss had a sudden panic. He was writing “a big series, which was absolutely definitely happening and then suddenly didn’t. Then a couple of projects stalled and I thought: ‘Oh, is this it?’” He messaged his friend, the writer and producer Russell T Davies, to share his angst that his career was over. It is a career that has included co-creating the phenomenally successful League of Gentlemen and Sherlock (he says he’d love to do a film version), and acting in just about every quality TV drama of the last few years, including Game of Thrones, Wolf Hall and Doctor Who, for which he has also written. Davies, he reports, “just basically said: ‘Hang on … ’” Can Gatiss – possessor of the career of dreams – really get the fear? “We all do,” he says. “If it did [end], I’d be OK, because I’ve done an awful lot of what I wanted.”
We meet over breakfast in a London hotel, where Gatiss orders boiled eggs and soldiers (“pure comfort”) as he despairs about everything from Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter to the climate crisis and Brexit, more austerity and the attacks on the BBC. “These Tories, it’s a misnomer to call them Conservatives. What are they conserving? They’re sort of anarchists, disaster capitalists.” He has always been obsessed with politics, he says. “I used to draw pictures in my jotter of Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.” But in the last few years, “I have disengaged in a way I never expected to, because it only works if there are rules. The fall of Thatcher, for instance – it has a theatrical dimension. But if the rules are torn up – Johnson – you can’t get hold of anything. It’s sickened me.”
When it looked as if Boris Johnson may be making a comeback, like the monster that refuses to die at the end of a schlock horror, Gatiss was aghast. “I know it sounds hyperbolic,” he says with a hint of a smile, “but my life has been disfigured by hatred [of that man]. I hate everything he represents, and the incredible good luck he’s had.” Gatiss is, he says, “a natural optimist, but it’s very … ” He trails off. A while ago he was in a real “slump about it all”, he says.
None of this is to suggest that Gatiss is anything other than brilliant company. His anger is bracing, but he will just as likely quote a line from a memoir he once read, or talk about Thomas Cromwell, or Abba, or express delight at the silliness of debating, with strangers he met at a soft furnishings warehouse last weekend, whether Britons shouldn’t just take to the streets in protest, while also admiring some curtains.
As the comedian and TV presenter Grayson in Russell T Davies’s highly anticipated drama about the downfall of the Crossroads star Noele Gordon, played by Helena Bonham Carter (Grayson had been Gordon’s friend), Gatiss enjoyed rediscovering the entertainer, “who I loved as a kid. Oh God, he’s funny.” Stereotypically camp stars such as Grayson and John Inman, he says, were “just part of a TV culture. I didn’t ever remember feeling ‘pansy shame’ or anything like that. I just thought they were funny.”
Not long ago, he was talking to an actor friend “who was very active in early gay politics” about a documentary on Grayson he had just watched and loved. “And he said: ‘I could only ever think of him as the enemy.’ I was very struck by that. Russell thinks that, on the contrary, these people were trailblazers. I think the truth is something somewhere in between. You could argue that they were, for all their outrageousness, sort of neutered. If actually they’d said: ‘Yes, I have a boyfriend’, maybe the general public would have reacted in horror.” It is nuanced, he says, “and we don’t live in a nuanced age. But it can be both – both a stereotype and empowering. Larry takes this stuff into the living room, and some of it is unbelievable.” He laughs: “You see these ladies literally clutching their pearls. There’s something extraordinary about that.” And Grayson, he says, “has a kind of glint. If you watch the early stuff – [before] he had his teeth done – he looks like Dracula.” Gatiss appears absolutely delighted at the vision.
Gatiss grew up in County Durham in a working-class family, obsessed with horror films and ghost stories. He still is, as his work shows, but I wonder if his tolerance for some aspects of it has decreased with age, and loss (he is 56, and has lost his parents, sister and brother-in-law). “Yes,” he says with a quiet laugh. “I think it’s no accident that anyone gothy tends to be a slightly truculent 15-year-old. The sensibility remains, I think, but you … I remember reading a memoir by George Baker, the actor, and he worked with a young director. As an exercise, she wanted them all to jump in and out of graves, and he said: ‘Don’t go looking for death, it will find you soon enough.’ It really stayed with me. And it’s true. When you’re young, it feels so remote, you’re allowed to become obsessed with it.”
He pauses: “It does change.” He still enjoys the morbid “kind of Victorian grandiosity” – hence his delicious Dracula for the BBC in 2020 – “but the reality of it is just very different, isn’t it? It’s two things at once. It’s reassuringly ordinary and also absolutely extraordinary.”
When his father died last year, Gatiss remembers, “I could hear the nurses down the corridor, and I could hear traffic. This is a special moment, but life is just trundling on, which is correct. But it doesn’t take away from the amazing scale of it. I think an awful lot of people’s sense of perspective is altered as soon as you’ve experienced that, because it is extraordinary.” All this is delivered, in Gatiss’s soft Durham accent, with a lightness and a kind of wonder. Surely there can be no one better with whom to discuss the big stuff – life, death, politics and 70s light entertainers – over breakfast.