Mark Gatiss began his career with The League of Gentlemen at Bretton Hall and now he’s back on stage in Leeds. He speaks to Phil Penfold.
He is, by any yardstick, a huge star. He sprang to fame as a member of The League of Gentlemen and armed with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Doctor Who and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, he went onto write and star in both television franchises. He is also an alumnus – along with John Godber and Kay Mellor – of Bretton Hall College, the teacher-training and arts wing of Leeds University until it closed down almost a decade ago.
“I loved that place”, says Mark Gatiss, who has just turned 50. “To close the doors on Bretton was unforgivable, in my view. But I shall always be thankful that I went there, not least because it was the catalyst that introduced me to Reece and Steve.
“Not that we actually did any of the formal course-work. Because the syllabus wasn’t, to be honest, that good. But that gave us time to go our own way, and to develop our own things. We prospered in spite of it, and we became extremely self-reliant.”
Reece and Steve, of course, are Shearsmith and Pemberton, and along with Mark, they created the multi-award-winning League, along with considerable writing input from Jeremy Dyson. It was dark, bleak, more than slightly surreal, and also hilariously funny.
Now Durham-born Gatiss is coming back to the theatre, in a revival of The Boys in the Band, a 1968 piece by Mart Crowley, which comes to the West Yorkshire Playhouse next week.
“I have never been on that stage, but it was a lifeline to me when I was living in Leeds. I used to go in there for a coffee, and watch all the ‘proper actors’ coming in, and to marvel at the huge community spirit that it had. And still has.”
Years back, Boys in the Band was a ground-breaking and hugely controversial drama about the contemporary gay community in New York. Mark plays Harold, a middle-aged man invited to a party thrown by Michael. Harold has a rapier wit and a sharp tongue, and, at the party, he is presented with a rather unusual gift – a male hustler.
“Good plays, really good plays, always come around again. And this is a very good play,” he says. “Authors do fall out of fashion, but the great thing is that if you are producing good work, it will, hopefully, stand the test of time. Look at Terence Rattigan. He was one of the most successful playwrights of his generation, producing hit after hit.
“And yet, by the time he died in the late Seventies, he was regarded as a ‘spent case’. Recently there’s been a new film of The Deep Blue Sea, there have been revivals of Flare Path and Harlequinade, and Rattigan is back in the spotlight again.
“And I don’t think that it is odd to mention him in the same breath as Boys in the Band, because Sir Terence was also a deeply troubled man and there’s a huge gay subtext to his work. Crowley went at it a different way, and opted for the ‘in your face’ approach.
“I think one of the main things about this revival is that we can all see how much the world has changed. But we can also see how much remains the same. Then as now, for example, it’s perfectly alright to be gay in a big city like Sheffield or Leeds or Hull, but it’s not so easy to be out, and comfortable with that, in little rural communities. And that’s very sad.”
While researching the play and its origins, Mark discovered that all the original cast, with no exceptions, were told by their families and friends and their agents, not to have anything to do with it.
“They were told that it would be complete poison for their careers. And, indeed, when the first run of the play finished, they all found getting subsequent work was extremely hard. Some of them actually got abuse in the street. A couple left the profession altogether. And, sadly, Aids hit hard only a few years later, so I believe that there are only one or two guys from that first cast who are still with us.
“All of us in the cast today believe that drama should provoke a reaction. Honestly, it has to make you sit up and be passionate about what you see on stage on TV, love it or hate it. The worst reaction to anything is ‘So what?’ and a shrug of the shoulders.”
“I hope this production will reinforce that belief that all people are different, and that it is far better to live and let live, rather than to be blinkered by prejudice. And, of course, there will be a good few who come to see it who will be thinking ‘That is really my kind of party, my kind of Saturday night – I know those people.”
During rehearsals, and after reading the script, says Mark, “I found that, to my surprise, it is riddled with quotations that we all know, brilliant one-liners that jolt you when you hear them.”
Did Mark have his own moment when he realised that he was gay?
“Not a blinding revelation as such,”, he confides with a smile, “but I think that I realised that having a big crush on the wildly handsome Stuart Damon, who was in the hit series, The Champions was not something that every one of my male contemporaries shared! The funny thing is that you look back, and there were quite a few gay characters on radio and TV, but they were either outrageously flamboyant and therefore, bizarrely, quite acceptable, or they were hidden behind a smoke-screen of ‘in’ jokery.
“I’m thinking of Julian and Sandy, played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams in Round the Horne, which was an amazingly successful radio series. Those characters were icons, and screamingly funny – but a vast majority of the audience, I’ll bet, hadn’t a clue about why it was, precisely, that they were laughing.”
But, given that half a century has elapsed since the premiere of Boys, does he really think that it still has relevance? “Definitely. In fact, I think that all of us in the cast were amazed about how topical it still is. The issues in it are all still with us. Open relationships or monogamy? Race, addiction, effeminacy, mental health problems. We still talk about all of them now.
“You think that it is all fine, that it might be easy for a gay man to be out and confident in his own skin today, but in some places in the world that is far from the case. Things have gone backwards, and now you can be killed for being gay. This isn’t a period piece, set in a place full of misty warm recollections. This is very much of today.” And next? “A rest. Until probably the end of January. I’m taking time off. And I really do rather love Christmas, so….”
The Boys in the Band, West Yorkshire Playhouse, November 14 to 19. 0113 213 7700, wyp.org.uk