Photographer credit: Catherine Ashmore
copyright © Rakshita Patel 2011
Al Senter, the Chair, introduced Mark as the “multi-talented multi-tasking” Mark Gatiss. He said just looking at Mark’s CV makes him need to “lie down in a darkened room”!!!
Mark plays Bernard, the sad puppeteer, in Season’s Greetings which is currently playing at the National. Mark has been in rehearsals since October and he spoke how it had been good to just concentrate on that one thing and nothing else. He was enjoying doing the run and would love to do more theatre.
Mark said that he had “auditioned” for the part of Bernard – he had wanted to do the role. He said that the 1986 BBC TV version of the play had left a “profound impression” on him. He said that he had always wanted to work here at the National (I think you all know how I feel about the National – it is one hell of a special place) and so being in Season’s was like a “Christmas present.”
Mark said that Alan Ayckbourn had described Season’s as a “play set in a hallway” with two uncles – one good and one bad. But it is not necessarily as clear-cut (black and white) as that because it is not always the case that Bernard is the good uncle and Harvey the bad uncle, there are many shades of grey to each of the characters. In terms of Bernard not always being “good”, he cited the example of Bernard bullying Pattie in the puppet show scene.
Mark talked specifically about the puppet show (which is genius by the way!!!) and the fact that the puppet show has 16 scenes with endless puppets. Bernard feels that the children should enjoy the puppets. Mark spoke about his own experiences of relating to children at Christmas and how for his own family he used to read the entirety of the Christmas Carol and do all the voices!!! He felt very strongly that children should not be playing with electronic games and gadgets but they should be listening to the classics. He very quickly learnt that ultimately it was up to the children what they did and what they enjoyed!!!
Al asked him where he felt the humour in Ayckbourn came from. Mark replied that there were a lot of funny lines but that Ayckbourn had a reputation of being middle class. He said that the appeal of the play came from the fact that it was universal and that it was about people. He said that Season’s was “shot through with bleakness”. Al commented that the play heavily featured the wrong people married to eachother!!!
Al asked Mark whether he had had any prior experience of manipulating puppets. Mark said that no, he had not. He had practised with a professional puppet company but they were using much smaller puppets and so when the National fronted up with their larger versions he was taken aback!!! He said it was also hard because the puppet show in the play is supposed to be terrible and not very good. Mark had had frequent nightmares of being pursued by giant puppets!!!
This next section moved me because it really struck a chord with me. Mark spoke about how TV characters had been his “playmates”. As a child, he had been fascinated by TV. He had one best friend and was not lonely. But “TV was a friend to me”. (TV was a huge friend to me too!!!). Mark said that he had spent far too much time watching television - a lot of it bad television!!!.
Mark spoke about how Dr Who was his favourite. He had loved Dr Who from the moment he had seen it with Jon Pertwee. He talked about the first episode that he had watched which was the one in which the shop window dummies come to life. He described the first episode as “incredible” and the second one, featuring the Daleks, as a “phenomenon”. Mark said Dr Who was the “spine of his career”.
Mark said that to write and star in Dr Who was a “boyhood dream come true”. When they had brought it back, it was a delight. Mark said that he had starred in it after extensive lobbying!!! He actually said that the call to star in it had come out of the blue. He was over the moon to get a chance to star in it. He also said that the last day of shooting on it was the day of his 40th birthday and so he had had the best time imaginable.
Mark spoke a bit about how all those involved with the League of Gentleman had met when they were training at Bretton Hall. Whilst it was a terrible course, they tended to do their own stuff. He said how the League of Gentlemen had been pitched to Mark Thompson, the current Director-General of the BBC, and Mark Thompson had said “I do not want this thing – why do you keep bringing it to me?!!!”.
They then moved on to Sherlock (Yippee!!! Party party party!!! Sherlockian cocktails all round!!!). Mark explained how Sherlock has been conceived by him and Steven Moffat on their train journeys back and forth to Cardiff for Dr Who. They had come up with the idea of a modern Sherlock Holmes in a train carriage which Mark felt was very Sherlock Holmes. Both Mark and Steven loved the Basil Rathbone version where Sherlock Holmes had been updated to the present day and was on the trail of Nazis and code breakers. He felt that although this version updated Sherlock Holmes to the present day, it was in keeping with the spirit of the original adventures and this was what he and Steven wished to do. They had both been struck by the fact that Dr John Watson in the Canon was returning from Afghanistan and that now this could be the case again. Mark and Steven had been talking about adapting Sherlock Holmes to the modern day for a long time, but it was Sue Vertue, Steven’s wife, who finally said “Let’s do it!!!”.
Al asked how Mark felt that Sherlock had gone down with the Arthur Conan Doyle purists. Mark described how 5-6 years ago he had been invited to speak to the Sherlock Holmes Society, London at their Annual Dinner in the House of Commons. (I am now a member of this Society and it is absolutely fab!!! Everyone there has been massively welcoming to a newbie so I want to give a shout out to the Sherlock Holmes Society, London!!! Their website is: http://www.sherlock-holmes.org.uk/). Mark said that he had thoroughly enjoyed saying “I am afraid that I have to go now … I am speaking in the House!!!”. Anyway, the Sherlock Holmes Society, London is one of the oldest Holmes societies in the world and when Mark pitched his idea of a modern Sherlock, Mark said that all the members pretty much “loved it down to a man”.
Mark also told the story of how he ran into John Simpson at the BBC and was able to say “You have been in Afghanistan I perceive!!!”.
Mark said that some people may perceive it as heretical bringing Sherlock Holmes into the modern world, for example texting, but he argued that Sherlock was actually incredibly faithful to the Canon and there were a huge amount of Canonical references in there (I agree with this 100%!!!).
Mark spoke about how in the modern day, two men living together in a flat would mean that people would naturally assume that they were a couple, and that he and Steven had turned this into a running joke in Sherlock.
Al asked him what it was like being an executive showrunner on Sherlock. Mark said that that meant that he had power and he liked “to abuse it!!!”. He said that it was actually fantastic although it was also a big responsibility. Mark explained how on the second day of filming there had been a huge snowstorm and it had been a huge operation to get the cast and crew out. Then the day after, Martin Freeman managed to injure himself, when he was on his way out of his trailer. Mark said that he was expecting a “plague of locusts” next!!!
Mark stated that what made both Dr Who and Sherlock a success was that neither show was drafted by committee. The BBC had trusted Russell T Davies’s vision on Dr Who and they had trusted the Gatiss and Moffat vision re Sherlock.
Mark talked about the casting on Sherlock. He said that it was all about getting the right “fit”. They had auditioned Matt Smith for the part of Dr John Watson but they both felt that they had got a Sherlock Holmes already – they didn’t need another one!!! So Matt Smith was not right for Dr John Watson. Three days later however, they cast him as the Doctor. Benedict and Martin just “fitted” together perfectly.
The second series of Sherlock is going to be Adler, Hound and Reichenbach. Mark is writing Hound. Al asked him to say a bit about it. Mark said that it was going to feature a dog and that Sherlock Holmes would be in it!!! He was trying to put some of the “ambiguity back” into the second series!!!
The second series of Sherlock will be airing in the Autumn. The first series was also supposed to air in the Autumn, but ended up airing over the Summer in July, traditionally in the “dead slot”. As it turned out, that worked brilliantly. Sherlock received a huge amount of coverage and won critical and public acclaim.
It was then time for questions.
Someone asked if Mark planned to write any more Lucifer Box novels. Mark said no, he was not a natural novel writer. It was too much hard work!!!
Someone asked what should they do if they wanted to be an actor or a writer. Mark joked “Stop - there is not enough room on the stage”!!! He then said that it was a simple matter of hard graft, “arse to chair, pen to paper”. It was also often a matter of luck – being in the right place at the right time. He also said that there were plenty of people who were famous who didn’t deserve to be, and plenty of people who deserved to be famous who just, for whatever reason, had not received their break yet. It was also, of course, a matter of raw talent!!! He again encouraged anyone who had aspirations of being an actor or a writer to just stick at it and not give up. Keep plugging away. (This was very much what he said at the Clapham event).
Someone asked him what it was like to play real people who are still alive, for example Mark played Bamber Gascoigne in Starter for Ten. Mark explained that it was difficult because if someone was still alive the public expected you to do a good impersonation of that person. Whereas, obviously if you are playing Robespierre or Rembrandt, that is not expected!!!
Someone asked about what Mark felt about being called “the next Stephen Fry”, especially now that they were both playing Mycroft. Mark mentioned the photos that has been taken recently of the two Mycrofts together. He joked that he would have liked to have had Christopher Lee photoshopped into the background!!! He said the film and the TV versions of Sherlock Holmes were two completely different things. They had shot the pilot for Sherlock before the Guy Ritchie film came out. He joked that without putting too fine a point on it, Stephen Fry bore more of a physical resemblance to the Mycroft in the books ie he was more portly than Mr Gatiss!!!
Mark talked about how Sherlock Holmes’s family was introduced in the Greek Interpreter. How the family attributes had been passed down. How Dr Watson had believed that Sherlock Holmes’s deductive powers were unique and that Sherlock Holmes says in the Greek Interpreter that no, in fact his brother Mycroft has even greater deductive and reasoning powers and possesses these qualities in a higher degree. It is just that Mycroft is too lazy to use these powers to the best effect!!!
I had been itching to ask a question right from the beginning and, by this stage, was literally jumping up and down in my seat!!! Al Senter, the Chair, just didn’t see me and there were so many other people there who wanted to ask questions so I just couldn’t get in!!! I did eventually get in – I was the very last question but Mark only had one minute in which to answer my question!!!
I am going to give you my whole question in all its glory because I had written it down and because, despite the fact that I go to well over 50% of the Platforms (talks) that the National runs, this is only the second time I have actually asked a question!!!
“I saw Season’s on Friday. It was outstanding and your puppet show was priceless. However, I wanted to ask a Sherlock question. Sherlock so beautifully captures the spirit of the original Canon stories and has so many Canonical references. Can you say a bit about how you personally get from Conan Doyle’s source material to an episode of Sherlock, because I just don’t see how you do it!!!”.
Mark had one minute in which to answer my question!!! He said that sometimes the adaptation came easily, for example turning the five orange pips into the Greenwich pips. Others things were harder. Both Mark and Steven had both tried to squirrel away as many Canonical references as possible within the Sherlock episodes that they had written. He said that the story structure of the Hound was very strong and so that should prove relatively easy to adapt (rather him than me!!!).
And then the time was up.
Mark was kind enough to hang out in the foyer after the event to sign things and have photos taken. I took along a print that I had bought from the Sherlock Holmes Museum (their website is here: http://www.sherlock-holmes.co.uk/) which features Sidney Paget’s illustrations. It has Sherlock Holmes in the centre and then a montage of illustrations from a range of stories, including The Dancing Men, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Bruce Partington Plans, and the Final Problem. It is to die for!!! And now that it has been signed by Mark, it is priceless as far as I am concerned. I will treasure it always.
A perfect end to a perfect day.
Photographer credit: Catherine Ashmore
copyright © Rakshita Patel 2011