December 18th, 2008
I have been a fan of Mark Gatiss’ work for many years. In an age of bland sitcoms Gatiss, as part of The League of Gentlemen, brought us innovative and darkly surreal comedy. In recent years he has written and starred in Doctor Who, bringing his trademark wit to a programme he has held close to his heart since childhood. He has also enjoyed success with his gentleman adventurer, Lucifer Box, in a trilogy of novels that have leapt from Edwardian Sherlockiana to the ’20s of Bulldog Drummond and, most recently, 50s Fleming.
Now Gatiss has dipped his toe into the world of MR James with a trilogy of ghost stories to be shown from Monday 22nd Dec on BBC Four. Reflecting the portmanteau feel of Crooked House, this interview will run over three consecutive days and encompass Gatiss’ love of MR James, Amicus movies, the renaissance of horror and sci-fi on TV, his new modern day take on Sherlock Holmes written in partnership with Steven Moffat and… oh, yes, his thoughts on the new Doctor Who…
Bill Hussey: Mr Gatiss, can I just say it’s a real honour to speak to you today.
Mark Gatiss: That’s what you think. Wait ’til I leave you screaming on the floor with frustration! No, nice to speak to you as well.
BH: I’ve been a really big fan for many years.
MG: Thank you. Since the radio series you said.
BH: Absolutely. I’ve made pilgrimages to Hadfield [the filming location for The League of Gentlemen's Royston Vasey] and everything. I’m hoping I’m not coming across as a stalker!
MG: Too late for that! No, it’s very kind of you, thank you.
BH: I’d like to start by asking if you could give us an introduction to the story of Crooked House.
MG: Well, Lee Ingleby plays a teacher who has found an ancient door knocker in his garden. He takes it to a local museum to be identified by me. That’s where we pick up the story. I tell him that it comes from a house near here that had an interesting reputation. I then tell him three stories about the strange things that went on there. The first story is Georgian, the second set in the Twenties. The third concerns Lee’s character today.
BH: It strikes me that it’s a cross between the old BBC MR James Ghost Story for Christmas and the Amicus portmanteau horror movies of the ’70s…
MG: You’ve put your finger precisely upon it! It’s a fantastic accident because originally I was going to do one story last year, which is actually now the third story called The Knocker, and it didn’t happen. We ran out of time. So I got the project going again early this year. BBC Four said they would like more of an event because they were worried that one story might get a bit lost in the Christmas schedule. So I said: WELL HERE’S THREE! I thought we could show them on separate nights concurrently and then we’d put them together into a ninety minute film as well. Which is actually what happened. A fantastically rare thing, for it to happen exactly the way you wanted it. It is a portmanteau by the virtue of being put together, but it also exists separately as individual ghost stories. So it’s on the 22nd, 23rd, 24th December as separate half hours then on Saturday 27th as the ninety minute version.
BH: It seems to me you have a great affection for these portmanteau movies…
MG: Oh God, they are my favourites. The funny thing is, they are not by any means the greatest horror films in the world. There’s usually one or two good stories and then a lot of bad ones. But the actual form, I love it. If all other horror films fell into a black hole and the only thing I could watch on a Friday night was a portmanteau, I’d be very happy. I love the mischief of them. The idea that, once upon a time at Pinewood, Nigel Patrick and Ralph Richardson and Joan Collins and Nigel Green were all standing in the same set. It’s just a lovely Friday night kind of thrill. So I was delighted to have my go at it.
BH: My favourite was Asylum, I think.
MG: Mine was From Beyond the Grave.
BH: You can just imagine these writers racking their brains to come up with a new framing device.
MG: I know. I used to think it would be fun to do one set in a swimming pool with an attendant. Someone would come in, they’d bomb in the pool, and the attendant would exact a terrible revenge. And then someone would be snogging - he exacts another terrible revenge! Everything you’re not allowed to do in a swimming pool ends in death. Because, of course, in the EC tradition a terrible punishment was exacted for stealing twenty quid or something like that! But yeah, I love Asylum as well.
BH: It’s something you’ve affectionately parodied before in The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special…
MG: We’ve always loved them, and the notion of tying stories together like that is so exciting.
BH: The other element to Crooked House is the MR James theme. What is your favourite of the old Lawrence Gordon Clark adaptations?
MG: Probably Lost Hearts. I think because it’s the one that scared me the most as a kid. The hurdy gurdy sound and the fingernails on the children. But particularly that bit when he lifts his hands up and there’s the hole in his chest. Absolutely terrifying! I think the standouts are still The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious and The Signalman. And I absolutely love The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. That moment when Michael Bryant has found the treasure and he won’t come out of his room. A friend comes round to see him and the charlady is scrubbing something off the stairs which has just appeared in the night. A trail of something. [Bryant] is obviously losing his wits and he just says, rationally, ‘It is a thing of slime, I think. Darkness and slime…’
BH: Wonderful bit of dialogue. There’s also that bizarre scene near the end with the gloopy stuff coming out of the catacomb…
MG: Yes, and then there’s also the fantastic scene where he thinks he’s got away with it by putting the treasure back. The doctor is heading up the drive, and he can’t quite see him in the sunlight. Then it pauses to that amazing crane shot… Very spooky.
BH: I think my favourite is A Warning to the Curious because you get that sudden burst of violence which you don’t really expect in an MR James story.
MG: Yes, and it’s so sweaty. That bit when he finds the crown and just flees! And again the brilliant bit when he sees the peasant in front of him and immediately when he turns around that thing is following him… Brilliantly made! Crooked House, though, is not really an homage [to the MR James adaptations] because I wanted to do original stories. But it is in the spirit of those stories and what they represented to me, and the fact that Christmas and ghosts go together so perfectly.
BH: I want to come back to that, but I wanted to ask you about how you went about writing Crooked House. I know you’re a fan of Robert Aickman. Aickman thought the ghost story wasn’t a conscious construction and that his ideas came to him as if dictated. Was that anything like your experience of coming up with ideas for Crooked House?
MG: Well, as soon as I realised I was going to be allowed to do three, I felt what I needed to do was tell three different types of ghost story. I already had the idea about the knocker being found and I thought that’s very Jamesian. It’s the antiquarian angle, discovering something buried. With the first story, called The Wainscoting, the Georgian story, I went straight to what frightens me. When I was a kid what really petrified me was The Haunting. I wanted to do a story about something in the walls. In fact, there’s a line in my first Doctor Who which wasn’t actually shot the way it was supposed to be, but that’s another story! I had originally imagined this trailer moment where the Doctor puts his ear to the wall and he can hear the Gelth whispering around in the pipes and the Doctor says ‘There’s something in the walls!’ I love that idea, and this is what The Wainscoting is about. It is a kind of aural ghost, it’s just sounds. I find that really frightening because you can build it up so well.
BH: Absolutely. And The Haunting works really well on that level because Robert Wise [the director] used so few special effects.
MG: Yes, but he did have the bending effect with the door. He did show something, it wasn’t all suggestive. But the thing is, by the time you get there you’ve got such an amazing build up of atmosphere and real terror you’re ready for it, and it only needs that effect… With the second Crooked House story, which is called Something Old, I wanted to go for a proper spook, and ghostly brides did it for me! I loved the idea of going for a proper physical presence. The third story, the modern one, is really a time travel story. So I’ve got three distinct types of story there.
BH: And the best of those Amicus movies certainly had distinctive stories, didn’t they?
MG: Yes, absolutely.
BH: You have a great cast for this as well…
TOMORROW: PART TWO: Mark discusses the cast of Crooked House, his own take on things that go bump in the night, the tradition of the Ghost Story for Christmas, Nigel Kneale, Quatermass and we hear his thoughts on the renaissance of sci-fi and horror on TV, beginning with a certain Gallifreyan exile…
(Picture credit: TIGER ASPECT/ED MILLER)
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