Oliver Hall caught up with Sherlock and Game of Thrones star Mark Gatiss to discuss his career, casting gay roles and why the LGBTI community can take nothing for granted.
British actor, screenwriter and director Mark Gatiss has starred in and written for some of the most important TV shows of the 21st century. These include the world’s most downloaded show Game of Thrones (he played the Iron Bank’s Tycho Nestoris and confides he will not be returning for Season 8) and global success Sherlock which he created and stars in as the villainous Mycroft. Sherlock launched the career if Benedict Cumberbatch and its success Gatiss tells us changed his life and the lives of everyone who helped create the show. He hopes Dracula, his new collaboration with Sherlock co-writer Steven Moffat will repeat that success.
He describes Sci-Fi Phenomenon Dr Who as ‘the spine’ of his career. His favourite show as a child, which he went on to write for as an adult. “The new series will be the first where I have no idea what is going to happen and that’s terribly exciting,” he tells us. “I think Jodie [Whittaker] is a brilliant choice for the new Doctor. Regeneration is what that show depends on!”
None of that would have been possible for Mark if it hadn’t been for his crazed career launching pad, cult comedy The League of Gentlemen. “You can’t go back, but you can visit,” he theorises of his plans to embark on a live tour of the show later in the year.
Last year, Mark was approached by the BBC to curate and direct a series of TV monologues to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men over 21 (in private) in England and Wales. Called Queers, this series is now playing on Sky’s Arts Channel in New Zealand.
“It was part of a very comprehensive Gay Britannia season which itself was amazing – when you consider what, if anything, might have been on television to mark the 30th anniversary. So it felt like it was part of a proper concerted effort to really say something.”
The genre of monologues (now rarely seen on television) particularly excited him. “I find them very powerful. I’m hugely influenced by Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series. He’s the master of the form and I thought if we can get anywhere near that, then we’re on to something. They’re simplicity is part of the appeal because it literally becomes about the text and the actor – it’s a forgotten art on television.”
Mark admits his pet peeve is television that tells people how they should be feeling. “I hate how music is lauded onto shows, like plinky-plonky music added to scenes that are meant to be funny!”
Each of the eight episodes is a one person show and Mark cast both gay and straight actors to play queer roles. “I chose the actors from my address book… Should they all be gay? It’s a funny question because you get into a reductive argument where you ask what is acting? I don’t want someone to say to me, ‘well you can’t play that part, you’re not straight.’ I just wanted to get the right person for each one.” He says, continuing: “Where do you draw the line? If My Left Foot was made now, would the actor playing Christy Brown actually have to have cerebral palsy? I don’t know where we are now because there are lines of demarcation and everyone is so vocal on behalf of their community. It shouldn’t be a black and white argument.”
Mark choose a different writer for each episode to ensure the series told lots of different stories and to get more new blood involved in television. For the writers he felt their sexual identity was more important. “I wouldn’t have approached a completely straight person to write one of them, because it’s about the sensibility and the truth of the experience.” He explains.
He would like the stories told in Queers to make LGBTI viewers feel hopeful with a sense of melancholy for what has past.
“Huge progress has been made, but inevitably the more you approach a heterosexual norm, the more you lose the thing that used to be special!” He explains, elaborating, “What gay people have today is just a different set of problems. Personally, I think some of the extremities of ‘chemsex’ is an almost subconscious desire for people to say, ‘I’m not like you. If you think decadence is watching the Rocky Horror Show on a weekend – I’ll show you!’”
Our interview time is up, but Mark is keen to leave his LGBTI fans with a final sobering message: “Keep fighting! One of the dangers is we imagine that all the battles are won. The state of the world tells us that this is not the case and that a lot of things we assumed were on the table are back off; it remains illegal in 74 countries and in 13 of them is punishable by death. It’s been re-criminalized in India and Bermuda, and just look at the state of Russia and the camps in Chechnya. This is a frightening world. We’ve come so far but these are fragile victories that can be undone with the stroke of a presidential pen!”
- Oliver Hall
Queers screens on Sky Arts on Mondays at 9pm.