Mark Gatiss: Rocket man

Having had the TV hit of the summer with Sherlock, Mark Gatiss is now bringing cult horror to the masses – and putting Edwardians on the moon. Stuart Jeffries meets a shooting star

Mark Gatiss
'We crash into places and bugger them up' … Mark Gatiss. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

'When I was a boy," says Mark Gatiss, "I wanted to be a whiskery man in a white coat saying, 'Look, it's a pterodactyl!'" He elaborates, mentioning one of his film heroes, who died earlier this year: "I wanted to be Lionel Jeffries in an Edwardian-set family fantasy film."

Gatiss, now 43, has his wish. He's playing Edwardian inventor Joseph Cavor in his own defiantly kidultish adaptation of HG Wells's 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon. Cavor is white-coated, facially hirsute and occasionally ditsy. Just before they set off for the moon, fellow astronaut Arnold Bedford inquires: "I say, Cavor, we will be able to get back, won't we?"

"I don't see why not," says Cavor vaguely. "Probably."

Gatiss, when we meet in a London cafe, proves as sumptuously whiskered as Cavor. "The reason I wanted to do The First Men in the Moon," he says, "was that there is something so challenging in the combination of space travel and the Edwardian period." Quite. The result, which airs on BBC4 next week, is a charmingly homespun, low-tech, very British vision of space travel. It recalls A Grand Day Out, in which Wallace and Gromit flew to the moon after running out of Wensleydale.

Following lift-off in Sussex, Cavor and Bedford settle back under a framed painting of Edward VII for the journey, the former reading Shakespeare, the latter Tit-Bits. Once in space, they draw back the porthole's blue velvet curtains to view what no one has seen before: Earth disappearing into the cosmos. But how, you'll be asking, was space travel possible in Edwardian England? Because of a substance called "cavorite", which deflects the force of gravity. Cavor coats his copper spaceship with it and equips the craft with rollerblinds. "We'll be able to tack like a yacht using the sun's rays," he tells Bedford. Moments later, they are planting the union flag on the moon.

Gatiss recognises that Wells was writing an allegory of imperialism: Bedford seeks to colonise the moon and plunder it for its vast deposits of gold, while Cavor, a naive man of science, seeks only knowledge. "Wells would have understood people like Donald Rumsfeld," says Gatiss. "We crash into places and bugger them up, sometimes with the best of intentions – and sometimes with pure evil in our hearts."

Gatiss was, he says, keen to have an "art nouveau" spaceship: "I wanted it to look like the entrance to a Paris metro station." Sadly, he had to drop the novel's lunar crops on budgetary grounds. Wells envisaged fast-growing vegetation in which Cavor and Bedford lose their way before finding sustenance with magic moon mushrooms. It's one of the novel's funniest scenes: the men gibber through a jungle – lost in space and out of their Edwardian gourds.

The UK's 38th most influential gay person (according to the Independent on Sunday's 2010 Pink List) is sipping coffee in a cafe near the Islington home where he lives with partner Ian and dog Bunsen. That labrador actually has a role in The First Men in the Moon, looking dolefully skywards as his master's spaceship disappears. "I trained him extensively using carrots to achieve that effect," says Gatiss, still basking in the unexpected success this summer of his adaptation, with Steven Moffat, of Sherlock for the BBC. Some people suggested that their three 90-minute adaptations of Doyle's stories couldn't have been any good since schedulers put them on in August: ratings and reviews suggested otherwise.

"We have all been knocked out by the response. Now I have got to follow it up." He and Moffat have been commissioned to do another season next year. "I've no idea what we'll write yet, but there's so much to play with. When [actor and playwright] William Gillette wrote the first stage adaptation, he cabled Doyle, 'Can I marry Holmes?' Doyle replied, 'You may marry him, or murder, or do what you like with him.' So I feel we've got free rein."

Horror with three Purple Hearts

Gatiss is soon to appear at the National theatre, in a production of Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greeting with Catherine Tate. I suggest he's working so hard because he wants to be higher than 38th in next year's Pink List. "It's bollocks," says Gatiss of the list. "Big pink bollocks." Actually, there is so much Gatiss looming on TV, especially on BBC4, that by November viewers may well be sick of the Sedgefield-born novelist, actor, screenwriter and League of Gentlemen star. This month, the channel is screening not only his moon adventure and a repeat of his 2008 Crooked House ghost story, but also his three-part history of horror films.

These, the first of which began last night, will be a personal journey through horror by a long-time devotee (and a biographer of Hollywood's great horror director, James Whale). The programmes will dwell on three of Gatiss's favourites, which he feels have been neglected: Son of Frankenstein (1939), Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), and Martin (1977). "Son of Frankenstein is never talked about in the same tone as James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein," he says. "But it should be. It was Boris Karloff's last appearance in the Frankenstein series and stars Donnie Dunagan, then a child actor. By the time I caught up with him for the documentary, he was an ex-marine with three Purple Hearts."

Gatiss says he chose Blood on Satan's Claw, about a demonically possessed 17th-century English village, "because it was part of that folk horror moment in cinema that includes The Wicker Man. But The Wicker Man has been culted to death. I wanted more people to know about this one."

Martin, meanwhile, is "George Romero's vampire film about a disturbed teenager. We don't really know whether he is a vampire or a rapist. It's a brilliantly done film that is very much of the late 70s. All films speak to their times. It becomes obvious only after. Late 70s films like Martin are full of post-Watergate paranoia and depression."

So what do today's horror films tell us? "Something terrible does seem to have happened. I'm thinking of the Saw franchise. The first was inventive, but the sequels were unbelievably cynical. I can't watch films like [Michael Haneke's] Funny Games because that is my deepest fear: finding someone at home who's going to kill me slowly."

As Gatiss poses for photographs, suited and booted, he looks like a man out of his time, more than a little like the dotty Edwardian scientist he plays in The First Men in the Moon. It's hard not to think he'd be happier in another more innocent and sumptuously whiskered age. "The question I ask myself," he goes on, "is: have I really just become a squeamish middle-aged man, or has something happened to the horror genre that shows a growing appetite for watching torture, or at least a desire to explore it on film? And if so, why would that be? I can't pretend I know. I just know I don't like it."

• A History of Horror With Mark Gatiss is on BBC4, 18 and 25 October. The First Men in the Moon is on the same channel, 19 October.

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  • mike65ie

    11 October 2010 10:22PM

    Can't wait for this, the 1964 film with Lionel Jefferies is one of my favourite fantasy adventures. A delightful mix of knockabout humour, action and special effects (very old school of course!) if it strikes the same tone it should be a winner. Taping History of Horror on its 1 am showing (pesky 9 pm scheduling collision) so I may be back tomorrow evening with an update.

  • roastpudding

    11 October 2010 10:51PM

    I have to admit I thought this one was Reece Sheersmith, and I thought Mark Gatiss was the one who played all the funny characters in LoG (the German guide, Toad man, Pauline etc). Only now do we find out which one was which!

  • YummieMummie

    11 October 2010 10:57PM

    He has that soft quiet on the outside, but really evil inside Donald Pleasance quality.

  • Victoriatheoldgoth

    11 October 2010 11:01PM

    @mike65ie, yes, incredibly mean-spirited of whoever it was to schedule Whitechapel against History of Horror, or vice-versa.

  • Kulturtrager

    11 October 2010 11:10PM

    Martin is unquestionably a masterpiece for many reasons, including the fact that it is utterly disturbing to a degree rarely seen these days.

    As a film obsessive, I really can't for the life of me think of another movie quite like it.

    Mr. Gatiss is proving to be one of the finest talents on television.

  • mike65ie

    11 October 2010 11:34PM

    Dawn of the Dead (1978) is also being shown, so we can spend the next few weeks guessing which version is being shown. The time slot marked for it is 2 hours suggesting a rather tight fit for the 126 minute US cut or a rather 'comfy' fit for the 117m Dario Argento cut or that 'just right' feeling for the 120 min 1979 UK theatrical edit.

  • jollyspaniard

    11 October 2010 11:51PM

    I agree with him about modern torture porn. I avoid the stuff and I find its popularity a bit unnerving.

  • Rumplestiltskin

    12 October 2010 1:02AM

    The Film Program on Radio 4 always perks up when Francine Stock goes on holiday and Mark Gatiss turns up to talk about old British movies.

  • tardislass

    12 October 2010 1:48AM

    Nice article and I agree about the movies pushing the envelopes on torture scenes.

    As a fan of HG Well, I hope the US will get to see "Man on the Moon" next year. Glad to hear there's another season of Sherlock as Gatiss' Mycroft steals every scene he's in.

  • Rumplestiltskin

    12 October 2010 2:09AM

    Torture porn isn't even scary.

    The only movies that ever kept me awake at night were those that put pictures in my mind without showing them on the screen: the Haunting, the Blair Witch Project. The Innocents is also brilliant (and thanks to Mark Gatiss for writing about that in the Guardian several years ago; I'd never heard of it before then).

  • Manclad

    12 October 2010 3:20AM

    Torture porn like Saw isn't horror -- it's a new genre you could call "revulsion" films rather than "horror" as it isn't scary, just revolting

  • beastless

    12 October 2010 3:42AM

    I have often wished the BBC would do a proper, late-Victorian adaptation of War of the Worlds, costume drama meeting CGI martian tripods. All the movie versions are unsatisfactory, for various reasons. I have high hopes for First Men in the Moon, though, and if it's a success, maybe they'll up the budget and do WoW next. How about it, BBC?

  • younghusband

    12 October 2010 4:48AM

    The UK's 38th most influential gay person

    Are there any straight, adult Doctor Who fans?

    Always liked Gatiss- it's always nice to know that, if life ever took me in that direction, there's, y'know, a chance.

  • HowardJuno

    12 October 2010 6:03AM

    Loved the first part of History of Horror.

  • Rumplestiltskin

    12 October 2010 6:21AM

    I have often wished the BBC would do a proper, late-Victorian adaptation of War of the Worlds, costume drama meeting CGI martian tripods.

    There was an independently made version of WOTW which came out about the same time as the Spielberg version. It was faithful to the book - but didn't have a large budget. I only saw the trailer, which wasn't very inspiring.

    Please, please, please, please, please, BBC . . .

  • beadster

    12 October 2010 7:27AM

    Mr Gatiss' book The Vesuvius Club is excellent. Give it a read if you haven't already.

  • muscleguy

    12 October 2010 7:40AM

    @Beadster

    Seconded. I think Mr Lucifer Box would be a scream on the box. I would also not be averse to another outing for him between the pages.

  • monders

    12 October 2010 8:51AM

    I was glued to History of Horror last night. I learnt LOADS. Boris Karlof was BRITISH, and had a very dull British name?! Chaney did all his own make up?!

    Fortunately I managed to cover my eyes before I saw the werewolf in the clip from Silver Bullet. Otherwise, I would have had some pretty savage nightmares and might even have cried a bit.

    Lucifer Box. Hmmm, I read Vesuvius Club, but it didn't really sparkle for me. It took me a week to read. So did The Stand (unabrdiged). I feel the charcter would work miles better as a graphic novel. Perhaps cropping up in Alan Moores League?!

    Mark Gatiss, I'm not a gayer but you, Sir, are one special Gent indeed xx

  • PietroMercurios

    12 October 2010 9:04AM

    I was taken to see the Lionel Jeffries version when I was very young. I loved it. I saw it again, recently and enjoyed the warm glow of nostalgia for a lost age. The early 1960's.

    Recently, I also watched '[i]Son of Frankenstein[/i]', again. It's pastiched quite neatly in '[i]Young Frankenstein[/i]', however, I have to admit, Gattiss is quite correct,in terms of quality, it does belong with the first two James Whale films. Basil Rathbone as young Wolf Frankenstein, Karloff as the Monster, Bela Lugosi as the monstrous, gallows cheating, Ygor and the scene stealing Lionel Atwill, as the police chief, Krogh. Very much a 1930's version of the League of Gentlemen. Great stuff.

    Torture porn? I include, '[i]24[/i]'.

  • Contributor
    unexceptional

    12 October 2010 9:05AM

    Mark Gatiss is tremendous.

    The League of Gentlemen onwards have all been excellent; I even remember liking him in that remake of Quatermass a few years ago. A History of Horror was brilliant too: he's so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the subject that the hour flew by, even though old horror films aren't particularly my scene.

    I get the impression he's going to become BBC4's mainstay presenter of distinction; a cultish figure of quiet passion who knows how to make an absorbing and informative programme on a low budget that outstrips most of what else is on television. Excellent, and the best of luck to him.

    Plus, he always wears a tie. Stylish chap in a discreet sense.

  • avenir

    12 October 2010 9:07AM

    I was disappointed that he didn't talk about The Mummy with Boris Korloff and the link between German Expressionism and the Universal Horror movie. The Mummy was directed by Karl Freund who photographed some of Murnau's film's, Metropolis and Dracula but he also directed Mad Love – an extraordinary film. Maybe he didn't have enough time to talk about those films?

  • johnny5eyes

    12 October 2010 9:25AM

    As a pretty much life long fan of all types of Horror movies (I am not a Goth) it's great to have someone with his profile banging their drum. Missed the History Of Horror through other commitments but will be 'Catchuping' it. Three episodes isn't really enough to do the subject justice really, it's the most resilient of all film genres and just about the only one that has never gone out of fashion.

  • apatheticzealot

    12 October 2010 9:30AM

    Really enjoyed this article - I love Mark Gatiss. The League of Gentlemen was one of the funniest things on television during the last 10-15 years. As someone mentioned above, it's heartening to see that talent will out. But for me, he will always be Hilary Briss...

  • kirstbee

    12 October 2010 9:50AM

    Roastpudding - The one who plays Pauline, German guide etc is neither Mark Gatiss nor Reece Shearsmith, but Steve Pemberton.

  • wolfsatan

    12 October 2010 9:50AM

    I will definitely be checking out some of this.

    Who wouldn't want to see a well-made costume drama based on some HP Lovecraft as well?

    Gatiss legend.

  • franknstan

    12 October 2010 9:54AM

    Gatiss is good etc etc - but it seems at the moment that everything he writes down is turned into a BBC4 drama or a docu-presenter thingy. There must be some other people out there who can write, surely?

  • whatwedoissecret

    12 October 2010 9:58AM

    Really glad Crooked House is getting another airing. I think it's my favourite thing that Gatiss has done.

  • fibmac70

    12 October 2010 10:18AM

    Mark Gatiss is now bringing cult horror to the masses

    What is this celebrity obsession with horror and fright ?
    First Karloff, then Simon Pegg, now Gatiss. More light, gents, more light !

  • whatthedeuce

    12 October 2010 10:23AM

    Mark Gatiss is fantastic- loved him in League of Gentlemen and Sherlock was amazing. Talent, class and humour- a devastating combination.

    P.S: Just to confirm who's who in The League of Gentlemen:

    Mark Gatiss: as above- played Hilary Briss and that doctor who kept exploding animals :)
    Steve Pemberton: Large, rubber-faced man, plays Buchan in Whitechapel.
    Reece Shearsmith: Short, dark-haired one, played Papa Lazarou.

  • peachycarnehan

    12 October 2010 10:26AM

    He's overrated. Made a good living out of being one of a very small group of media types who are able to talk enthusiastically to the british love of "scary" telly shows. But his creative output is quite overrated.

  • JohnnyVodka

    12 October 2010 10:26AM

    Nice! Haven't seen Martin in ages, not since ditching video for DVD. Looking forward to watching it again.

  • zigzagw

    12 October 2010 10:37AM

    Will someone please just give Mark Gatiss a couple of volumes of M. R. James' ghost stories and a few quid, and ask him nicely to pop one out every Christmas for the next twenty years or so? That would make me (and probably him) very happy.

  • catfacebaldwin

    12 October 2010 10:42AM

    Gatiss is great. Did anyone see Crooked House? Fantastic stuff. Deserves more BBC2 time not just 3 or 4.

  • diogenesagogo

    12 October 2010 10:48AM

    I've liked nearly everything he's done - apart from Crooked House, which was rather poor. It came across as an M.R. James tribute/pastiche. Unfortunately it went it for some pc style moralising, which James never did; one of the most frightening things about his stories was the way innocence was frequently punished.

    The crime in his tales was to be curious ...

  • DeDrepteMill

    12 October 2010 10:55AM

    beadster & muscleguy,

    Try The Devil in Amber (read and enjoyed), and Black Butterfly (not read, but will probably enjoy) for more Mr Lucifer Box shenanigans.

  • nutsch

    12 October 2010 11:06AM

    I know he didn't write these lines, but...

    Jill (climbing seductively out of bed): I better go and have that shower.

    Glen: Oh, I think I many have left a little gift in there.

    Jill: I love pressies...

    Glen: Er, no, I mean I think I may have blocked the toilet. That system can only cope with modest sized stools, and after last night's lamb bhuna...

    Jill: Was it very big?

    Glen: Well, it'd give a weasel a run for its money.


    ... for this alone he gets my vote. And apart from a slightly sub-par episode of Dr Who, everything else has been magnificent.

  • CryWolf

    12 October 2010 11:31AM

    Johnny5eyes: "(I am not a Goth)"

    That means you are one.

  • gawain

    12 October 2010 11:34AM

    I like Mr. Gatliss's take on horror and the final comments in the piece show an interest and understanding of what is happening the genre . I'm going to watch ihis show .

    - YummieMummie 11 October 2010 10:57PM -

    Mr. Gatiss playing Doc in Wake in Fright.

  • snark1

    12 October 2010 11:45AM

    Sorry if I'm being thick, but what has his being gay got to do with anything? Would the reporter introduce a piece on, say, Kenneth Branagh, by specifying him as a "straight" actor?

  • Mendoza

    12 October 2010 12:00PM

    Briss was a good character. Would be good to see him do a 'man from del-monte' esque piece, 'cept he'd be visiting cannibal tribes, instead.

    Enjoyed the 1st History of Horror episode, even though I was never greatly enthused by the earlier horror films, when I was growing up.

  • EKHornbeck

    12 October 2010 12:25PM

    How annoying, I missed the first episode of this. All the publicity that ridiculous dancing show gets and the BBC couldn't put a couple of extra promos out for this?

    I agree with the comments on torture porn; it's just tedious and formulaic. What's particularly annoying about it is that there are often good ideas in these films - Hostel, for example - but rather than playing on these ideas, you just end up with an hour and a half of detailed mutilation. 'Saw' is just rubbish. I could only watch half of a recent 'Saw' film and gave up out of sheer boredom - but 'The Changeling' (1980 film, not the Angelina Jolie film) scared the bejesus out of me.

    The remakes of old franchises are also problematic. 'Nightmare on Elm Street', 'Halloween' - did these really need to be re-done?

  • IsMyHamster

    12 October 2010 12:29PM

    Most of the modern horror genre I don't get, including torture porn. Its not scarey - its obvious and in being so is very dull. There's no suspension of disbelief.

    Having seen Omen at an impressionable age I still can't watch it again, even hearing the music scares the bejaysus out of me.

  • Baron71

    12 October 2010 12:46PM

    Are there any straight, adult Doctor Who fans?

    Yes there are, thank you very much!!

    I met Gatiss when he did a signing for the 3rd Lucifer Box novel in Waterstones a couple of years ago. He was a very nice chap - quite happy to talk about Dr Who, League of Gentlemen, whatever really.

  • Baron71

    12 October 2010 12:47PM

    ...and no, horror films aren't scary any more.

    Blair Witch Project was probably the last one I saw that genuinely freaked me out.

  • joeydangers

    12 October 2010 12:53PM

    There's a lot of love here for Mr Gattis, but I'm quite fed up looking at him. He's never off the box and seems to be one of about 25 people the BBC keep going back to. His performances are all one note and the less said about his Dalek episode for this year's Doctor Who series, the better. The horror documentary was OK, but how can you have an intro to horror cinema without mentioning the old German films? It smacked of received (Hollywood) wisdom and appeared to focus on films starring any old performer the BBC could get access to.

  • christof62

    12 October 2010 1:05PM

    To be perfectly honest I had no idea who he was until I started reading about him today. As a massive fan of horror films I thoroughly enjoyed last night's programme although I do agree with the comments regarding greater focus on other classics of that period such as The Mummy and even King Kong didn't get a mention. However there was so much to cover during that decade so I'll let him off. Looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

  • doozler

    12 October 2010 1:19PM

    Three episodes isn't really enough to do the subject justice really,

    I agree, last night's we had the 30s. Next week Hammer Horror and then I'm guessing we go with the 70s and 80s for the final episode.

    Great subject matter. I can't stand American mainstream horror films these days. Caught an advert for Saw 3D shortly after watching this. The last thing I want is 3D torture porn, thanks.

  • MelonMouse

    12 October 2010 1:29PM

    Is he ever going to apologise for "Clone" though?

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