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Profile: Mark Gatiss

The Oxford Union

“I feel like I should be proposing something controversial,” Mark Gatiss confides. Cleanly-cut in stylish gray suit and with an obvious flair for the debonair, it is no great stretch to detect in Gatiss himself the mannerly (if often slightly sinister) gentleman of his defining roles. From top-tier omnipotent government official Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock to his impression of Peter Mandelson in Channel 4’s political drama Coalition, Gatiss is television’s reigning king of the 21st century dandy, albeit infinitely warmer and immediately more personable himself. Sharp dress compliments sharper mind, as Gatiss is the fount for some of the BBC’s finest as co-creator of Sherlock and a returning writer of Doctor Who.

So what specifically does it now take for new projects to catch his eye?Cash and hot boys,” is the quick response. Some choices, however, aren’t really choices at all: “Sherlock was a boyhood obsession of mine and Steven [Moffat’s], and Doctor Who has always been my favourite show, so some things are obvious”.

 “I would get more excited about watching the making of Superman than the show itself” 

What exactly has fuelled Gatiss’ inspiration for so many years? Chiefly and formatively, his interest was first sparked by making-of specials. “There was a time when I was a child when those kind of shows would be very rare. I would get more excited about watching the making of Superman than the show itself.” This importantly ignited dreams of working on Doctor Who: “There was this marvellous book called The Making of Doctor Who…It was 60p! I had to decide whether to buy that or one of the stories. I never regretted it”.

When Steven Moffat is mentioned, the current Doctor Who showrunner and his Sherlock writing partner, Gatiss wryly remarks “Whatever happened to him?”. What’s their dynamic? Unhesitantly, he offers the perfect mental image: “the naked wrestling scene in Woman in Love”. Does the pressure of expectation catalyse or kill the creative process?You can’t ignore it, but you can’t put it at the forefront of your mind. It’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: you can’t measure something properly by the act of measuring you disturb it. If you start to do that to your own show, you’re second guessing things. You just have to do the show you want to do, and hopefully people like it.”

As a core member of the writing team since Doctor Who’s revival in 2005, leaving must be surreal. How is he feeling? “I really don’t know – I sort of feel like I’m living inside the pages [of The Making of Doctor Who], which describes how it was when John Pertwee left…you realise that all that stuff that looks like a kind of legend is just people’s lives and their jobs, and it’s very hard to then go”.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the United Kingdom, Gatiss is launching Queers, set to air this month. However, a press release which cites the series as dealing with “LGBT” perspectives is wrong, and Gatiss seeks to clarify the aim. “It’s very difficult these days just to use the word gay because it feels exclusive, but that’s what it is”. “It’s very hard these days to do something like that without people expecting it to tick every box, but you just can’t. I had to fight to do eight [monologues] instead of six”.

The floor is opened for questions, and the first is a corker. With the general election on the horizon at the time of the talk, this begs the question: which way would the Doctor, Mycroft and Sherlock vote?

Gatiss laughs, but doesn’t disappoint with imaginative endorsements. “The Doctor doesn’t vote – he’s not a registered alien! He’s above party politics. The Doctor would vote for the most human person, so I know who that is. Mycroft would definitely vote Tory. Sherlock would call into question the notion of an election.”

“The job of showrunner in Doctor Who is one of the hardest in television…it’s such a poisoned chalice”

A shoe-in for showrunner for Doctor Who, the Union is curious – was he offered it? “I was offered-“, abruptly cutting himself off, the loose-lipped Gatiss dramatically falls back in his chair, and mimes death by sharp-shooting BBC executive. Turns out the role is not all roses. “The job of showrunner in Doctor Who is one of the hardest in television…I wasn’t offered it. But it’s sort of a…it’s such a poisoned chalice, like the England mangership, I imagine, knowing nothing about football. There’s so much expectation [and] millions of people who think they can do it better than you.” The side effects are also a drawback: “Steven was only nineteen when he started. It’s taken a terrible toll on him”. Gatiss notes our Who fixation with a groan-inducing pun: “you’re The Oxford Who-nian!”.

His role as Peter Mandelson in Coalition comes up. Apparently he is “the direct inspiration for Mycroft Holmes”, and Gatiss recalls a telling moment in the documentary The Real PM. “There’s this brilliant bit where…he’s eating a yogurt and spills some on his tie. He just reaches out and someone takes it from him, with absolutely king-like expectation.” Making small talk as the microphone is passed, the Union President asks if there are any other politicians he wants to play. Without skipping a beat: “Theresa May”. And in the laughter, so sharp you might miss it, he more darkly comments, “but I think it’s too early for a remake of Nosferatu”.

“I keep reading these things saying ‘history is going to judge Donald Trump very harshly’, and I’m just thinking, ‘if there is a fucking history!’”

He is undoubtedly displeased about the notorious decrier of fake news himself, President Donald Trump. “I keep reading these things saying ‘history is going to judge Donald Trump very harshly’, and I’m just thinking, ‘if there is a fucking history!’”. “I think he’s absolutely the anti-Christ. He is! You can survive bad presidency, a bad government, but that man is genuinely dangerous, and the people around him are terrifyingly dangerous.”

Any regrets at all about the direction of Sherlock? “There’s always things you’d do differently, I suppose. Maybe,” he pauses to laugh, as if it just occurred to him. “Maybe we shouldn’t have killed Moriarty off in the second series”. The dead-eyed, sardonic fan favourite, played by Andrew Scott, has reappeared in many episodes since. “He’s left the show like five times now!” Is that the only thing? “Give me twenty years to decide…by which time they’ll be a fifth season.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have killed Moriarty off in the second series”

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly time-y wimey stuff. I take you to moments before my interview prior to the Q&A, and the moment the man himself enters the Union in strikingly Mycroft-esque fashion, armed with curved-handled umbrella. On the way up winding stairs, Gatiss is careful to stress that this is not an affectation, but a precaution: it’s been tipping it down ever since he arrived in Oxford.

After pleasantries and comforting small talk, we get down to business. I try not to lower the IQ of the street a la Anderson with my questions.

“Who’s it for?”

“The Oxford Student,”

“Just one student?”

“I’m very busy. I do a lot of things.”

“It’s an independent paper!”

So both Sherlock and Doctor Who come from already very beloved and popular legacies which you have helped to reboot – is there anything particularly which gravitates you to innovate established characters and stories?

He’s quick to correct me. “Not really, no. I’ve been a fan since I’ve been a child, since I was four, so when it came back it wasn’t a sort of, ‘would you be interested in being part of this reboot?’. It was ‘please, please!’. And then Sherlock similarly comes from childhood obsession, but neither of them are from a desire to reboot things – several things which I’ve tried to do in that vein have not happened because frequently people get frightened that there is no existing brand. But the great thing about Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who is that it’s an imperishable brand. It’s been around for a long time, so it makes it easier for people to say ‘yes’. I’m often asked what I’d like to bring back, and I really don’t want to bring anything back. I just want to do something different.”

One of the episodes of the first season of new Who I look back at most fondly is your first episode, The Unquiet Dead, which was my gateway into Dickens. I started reading him because of that episode and have chosen to study him this year, so thanks for introducing me to his world!

“Oh brilliant!”

The Crimson Horror also seemed to have that Dickensian edge, and of course The Abominable Bride went straight back to Sherlock’s Victorian roots, so what is it with the Victorians? Is there a new spin on them in your upcoming episode, The Empress of Mars?

“They go to Mars, which I suppose is new for them. (laughs) I suppose I’ve always had an affinity for that period – I would say almost to the point of definitely being time to move on. I love Dickens, and Wilkie Collins, and O’Conon Doyle obviously, and Robert Louis Stevenson and those kind of things. It’s a sort of infectious style I think, and also a lot of my favourite things come from that period in terms of daring-do and boys own kind of stories, those big adventure stories. My new Who is consciously like an Edgar Rice Burroughs meets HG Wells story, I’ve always liked those. But equally I like to be challenged. That’s why I’ve tried to do modern day ones or even futuristic ones…but I suppose the Victorians are my default. (Wryly) Maybe it’s all of our defaults. But honestly, I’m just very interested.

“There’s a marvellous book by friend Matthew Sweet called Inventing the Victorians…Matthew’s whole impetus for that book was someone in conversation said that whole thing about putting doilies around piano legs because the Victorians thought they were indecent. And of course he did some research and it’s absolute bollocks, but it’s a sort of propaganda really, from Victorian children who didn’t want to be like their parents. You hear those things all the time…So it’s really interesting to get to the root of those things and have fun with them.”

Thanks for expanding my bibliography! On the subject of revealing books, I used to pour over Russel T Davis’ The Writer’s Tale, which features some his emails from his time as a head writer. Have you considered publishing something similar? What are your email chains with writers like Steven Moffat and Stephen Thompson like?

(Laughs) “Oh god, I’d hesitate to do that. It’s too haphazard! I don’t know. We could do it about Sherlock. I’m wary of any kind of guide. I might one day do some kind of memoir, not because I think my life is anything worth telling, but just because I’d be quite interested in doing it. But all I really give in terms of advice is to tell people to stick at it – it’s a huge amount of luck, but also Woody Allen said “90% of success is turning up”, and I think that’s very true. It’s sometimes quite an easy place to be not quite getting there, because it’s more comfortable not to actually get there.

I watched An Adventure in Space and Time [a 50th anniversary special about the founding story of Doctor Who which Gatiss wrote and executive produced] this morning and ended up sobbing. (I’ll spare you the rest of my unprofessional gushing, including an accidental f-bomb drop which very thankfully he chuckles at). Near the end of the drama is of course, the final moment when David Bradley as Bill Hartnell looks over to see Matt Smith in the TARDIS-

He interjects – “That’s the first idea I had for it. Not with Matt Smith, but he’d see the present doctor. Despite it being a love letter to Doctor Who, I wanted to make it any every man story. That’s what it is, and that’s why there’s a lot of references to King Lear: it’s about being replaceable. I think it’s my proudest thing on Doctor Who.

When have you had that specific feeling or moment, if you’ve had it as a writer? Either feeling like you can look forward at a future legacy like William Hartnell, or a moment of gratitude looking back on what’s past, like Matt Smith and his doctor?

I’m expecting him to bring up his latest project Queers, or other inspirations throughout the years, but Gatiss dodges any emotional heart. “You mean who might replace me? No. I just look into the abyss! If there’s anyone there I ruthlessly kick them down!” I laugh, and he says “I’m looking at her now, I think. I’m feeling.” The recording goes silent, but if you really listen closely, you can hear my uncool little Whovian heart stop beating for a bit

Again in An Adventure in Space and Time, the granddaughter of William Hartnell, asks about the character of the Doctor, “Does he make people better?” As some of your bigger projects might possibly be ending, with a new series of Sherlock unconfirmed and having potentially written your last episode of Who, do you think writing for these shows has made you better – as a writer, as a human – or in any other way?

“Interesting! Yes. I’ve learnt a huge amount from writing the show – from Russel, from Steven. I feel like I’m a very different place from where I started at. The nature of the show makes you better, because of the timeless lesson of the show. The character of the Doctor is what we aspire to. He or she or they are complicated character, but ultimately kind and good. And all those things that are burnt into our Doctor Who fan minds: never cruel or cowardly, all those lovely old things. I’ve said it many times, but I kind of learnt my moral compass from John Pertwee. I think what’s been brilliant this season is some of the more overtly political stuff. Not in a kind of on-the-nose way, but the Doctor doesn’t put up with shit. If he sees a fascist, he punches him on the nose (laughs) We could all do with some more of that.”

Maybe an autobiography isn’t imminently in the works any time soon, but An Adventure in Space and Time reworks wonderfully as a proud final bow for a departing, devoted Who team (perhaps as an even better low-down than the 60p Making of Doctor Who). In endings however there are always beginnings, and of course there’s already much more set for the inexhaustible Mark Gatiss. Two weeks ago, another Sherlock-style BBC series helmed by both Gatiss and Moffat based on Dracula was announced, promising feature-length episodes and a winning writing collaboration. Nothing is in production yet, but with Gatiss’ track record and proclivity for Victorian stories, the series could not be in better hands. Sherlock fans already know it will be worth the wait.

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