The Monday Interview: Mark Gatiss - Top of the League
ALTHOUGH it's bad form to ogle someone else's husband, I can't help admiring Mark Gatiss's rather sexy legs. They seem to stretch to his neck, meeting a scruffy beard that adds a raffish edge to his air of sexual devilry.
This tastiness is a far cry from the grotesques he's so often portrayed, from his days as a member of The League of Gentlemen, to frizzy-haired, gap-toothed Glen Bulb of Nighty Night, and Doctor Who's maniacal Dr Lazarus.
This dishiness is very on-message, since we're here talking about his third mainstream novel, Black Butterfly, starring charismatic spy extraordinaire Lucifer Box, whose adventures in bisexuality are every bit as breathtaking as his undercover work for monarch and country.
Each Box novel visits a different era, allowing Gatiss to pay homage to some of his favourite authors. The Vesuvius Club, set in the early 1900s, evoked Conan Doyle. The Devil in Amber found Box battling Nazis and Stalinists, and was Gatiss's homage to Dennis Wheatley and John Buchan. Preparing for Black Butterfly, set in 1953, heimmersedhimself in Ian Fleming and contemplated the machinations of John le Carr's spies.
But for all these acknowledged influences, Lucifer Box is a spy like no other. Gatiss explains: "I am a gay man who loves James Bond films and snooker – all kinds of working-class pursuits. I didn't set out to deliberately respond to themasculinity. I'mfascinatedthat somanyspieswere or are gay,but I also like the idea, which le Carr showed, that the real job is much more prosaic."
Surely a great spy would be ruthless enough to shag anything? "Yes, and also back in the day, the natural people to approach were people who were already lying about themselves.When homosexuality was illegal these people already had a different identity.
What's interesting is that simultaneously to recruiting known homosexuals, they were also perceived as a security risk, precisely because of the blackmail thing.The recruiters must have known and actually relied on it, but it was always a worry."
"Black Butterfly" is the French nickname for depression, but here it's also the name of a nefarious drug that imbues people with a euphoric sense of infallibility – before propelling them to grisly ends.When Box is poisoned he believes that he's young again – and behaves accordingly – until the antidote is administered by the object of his affections, a dishy CIA operative called Kingdom Kum.
With a respectful nod to JaneMarple, I suggest there must be special challenges in writing about a geriatric spy. "I've never been specific, but he's obviously in his late seventies. I thought the thing to do was mention every now and then how much it hurts (to leap about], but if you keep going on about it then readers stop wanting to go on the journey. You have to believe he's still in good shape even though he's very old. "I was thinking about whether therewouldbeany sex scenes and how to handle it; itmademethink that maybe I couldgetawaywith this idea of thedrugmaking him young again.
"The bit when he's on the drug was my favourite part to write. I carried a notebook around and wrote in a stream of consciousness way. I found it really liberating. I'd open my eyes on a beach – what did I see?
What colour are my eyelids when closed with the sun on them? I was filming in Morocco and noticed a beetle that was like a sculpture rolling down the dunes. I was trying to create very vivid snapshots."
Proving that the lines between life and art blur,whilewritingBlack Butterflyhewas sent theDoctorWhoscriptthat foundhimplaying a man in search of eternal youth. "I thought, 'Oh, there's a message here,'" he jokes. At 42, he must be increasingly aware of his ownageing? "I'vebeenhavingthose thoughts since Iwas 20! Evenwhen Iwas a childI always wanted to be older. I realised just in time that it's a mistake and to enjoy my youth while I hadit. If Imeetsomeonearound20,who's a bit like I was, I want to say, 'Get out! Have fun.' Becauseyourknees start togo,myeyes aregoing.
Ithappens overnight. In the car, trying to read the A-Z, I'msuddenly like my dad!" He also says he had a youthful morbid streak: "Mymumused to say I had an old soul. As long as I can remember Iwas looking backwards. I remember my mumorganised a singalong for pensioners in about 1970, and I used to love singing the old Blitz songs."
He smiles. "They are called Emos now, and before that they were Goths. They didn't have a name for it when I was one, but I was that black-wearing teenager and yes, I wore a little eyeliner. I was really into horror. On the less negative side, I was fascinated by the idea that peoplehadbeenhere beforeme. Ihave a print Julia Davis (the writer and star of Nighty Night] gave me of (my neighbourhood] around the time my house was built, in the 1760s, and it has cows on it, yet it's recognisably the same street. I love that idea of the changes."
This historical bent dovetails nicely with
his delight in wordplay. The Box novels are peppered with silly names, which often occur to him in the bath, a site he finds conducive to deep thinking. Thus Lucifer's sister is Pandora Box, and his Black Butterfly nemesis, Melissa ffawthawte, is affiliated with nefarious baddies A.C.R.O.N.I.M. My own favourite is the "cadre of psychoanalysts-cum-mercenaries known as the Jung Turks".
Both times we've met, Gatiss has patiently explainedthat itonly looks as thoughheworks night and day, but I'msure you'll agree his output is impressive. In addition to the novel, he recentlywrote (andappearedin) an episode of Poirot, filmed the upcoming TV programme Purves & Pekkala, written and directed by Annie Griffinandfilmedhere in Scotland,and the sitcom Clone, which stars Jonathan Pryce.
He's busy writing episodes of the next full season of Doctor Who, for an as yet un-cast (or so he says) Doctor.Knowinghowmuch he coveted the role, andthat he's close friendswith all involved, I try teasing an indiscretion out of him, but Gatiss remains frustratingly closedmouthed.
"I haven't a clue. I found David's announcement incredibly moving. I knew he was going, but I love the fact he did it in the interval, dressed as Hamlet, and he was accepting the award, but he had to find the moment to tell everyone. He's going at the top of his game which is always the best and themost difficult thing to do, because I know he loves it."
Is there a Hamlet, a Lear, or another classic role he longs to play? Without hesitation, he says, "Oh yes, Richard II. It's a very underrated play, a fabulous part – beautiful. He was a very weak king but there's this fantastic poetry about his desire to stay on the throne despite being incredibly compromised. It has that wonderful line, 'I have wasted time and now doth time waste me.' I'd like to do that." Amidall this activity, Gatiss foundtime, last spring, to get married. He and Ian have been together for nearly a decade, so I wonder if marriage changed their relationship at all.
"I feel subtly different," he says. "I don't know what it is, but it's nicer. It was a lovely, very moving day. I was most moved by the notion of our families coming together. My brother said it's the best wedding he's ever beento. Itwasamazing to think that our families were so completely at ease with the whole idea of a gay wedding. And then there was the incredible irony that it took place in Middle Temple underneath a portrait of Sir Edward Carson, the man who prosecuted Oscar Wilde. So when I did my little speech the first thing I did was flick him two fingers. 'This one's for Oscar.'"
Black Butterfly is out now from Simon &Schuster (15).Mark willbein conversation about his work on 18 November at 6:30pm at Waterstone's (Sauchiehall Street) in Glasgow, 0141 332 9105; 19 November at 7pm at Waterstone's (Union Bridge) in Aberdeen, 01224592440; 20 November at 6pm at Waterstone's (West End) in Edinburgh, 0131 226 2666. For more details, contact the stores or log on to: www.simonsays.co.uk
A FEW things that might surprise you about Mark Gatiss:
• The League of Gentlemen won the 1997 Perrier Award for comedy, the first sketch group to win since the awards were inaugurated in 1981.
• A massive fan of the show, Gatiss started writing Doctor Who novels (four to date) when he was a penniless actor.
• Growing up in County Durham, he lived opposite a psychiatric hospital, where both his parents worked and where he toiled as a gardener during his first year at college.
He and Ian are the devoted 'parents' of Bunsen, a Labrador retriever.
• He's starred opposite Julia Davis twice –as Glen Bulb in Nighty Night, and again as Johnnie Cradock in Fear of Fanny.
• In 2003 he was the script editor for eight episodes of Little Britain.
• As French poet Louis Aragon, he played opposite Ewan Bremner's Salvador Dali in Surrealissimo: The Trial of Salvador Dali. The cast list included Stephen Fry (Andre Breton), Vic Reeves (Paul Eluard) and both members of The Mighty Boosh!
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