Mark Gatiss in Conversation

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In the Doctor Who story Time-Flight Professor Hayter is introduced as a lecturer at the University of Darlington. While no such institution actually exists, creating the one imperfection in an otherwise flawless story, it does boast Carmel College, one of the top performing secondary schools in the country at GCSE and ‘A’ Level.

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Hayter’s gonna hate.

Last month I was fortunate enough to attend a talk at Carmel college one Friday evening by Doctor Who writer and actor Mark Gatiss. The event was hosted by the Mayor, and the interview was conducted by Pete Barron, the editor of the Northern Echo (“A local paper…. for local people”).

The evening was attended by many of Mark’s family, former school friends and teachers, along with fans of his work. At one point a photo on the screen on stage displayed an old school photo which Gatiss pointed out had holes from darts over the teacher, Mr. Dixon. At which point Mr. Dixon stood up. Gatiss took the opportunity to share a nice anecdote about Gatiss being called Merlin by this erstwhile teacher, because he was a wizard with words.

Mr. Gatiss looked dapper and elegant in a suit with no tie. He was completely comfortable on stage, witty and engaging. He has tonnes of anecdotes, along with rational, considered opinions on current issues. He drew a round of applause with his assessment that, “We live an age of dangerous unreason. All kinds of things… all the things, like evolution, that used to be off the table are back on. You just go, ‘Did I miss a meeting? was I asleep? what happened? I thought this argument was won.’ Things like that, so many people believe in homeopathic medicine. It’s just nonsense. It’s quackery. It’s very, very dangerous… My biggest pet-hate is people who don’t think we went to the moon. If you Google ‘moon landings’ the first hundred things about the fact they’re faked. It’s the single most amazing thing we’ve ever done as a species, and the fact that people think it was fake… it just makes me sick.”

The conversation covered Gatiss’ life from early childhood influences to his current award-winning theatre acting, and writing both Doctor Who and Sherlock. Citing his influences as Hammer Horror, James Bond and of course Doctor Who, both on screen and in the Target novelisations.

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Stage security was provided by two Daleks.

“Jon Pertwee was my Doctor. And I think you’re very loyal to your Doctor. But I love them all. To be involved in the programme now is obviously a dream come true. But I think that you never quite lose that. I remember watching the last episode… Planet of the Spiders. I’ll say it. There’s some people who’ll understand what I’m talking about. When Jon Pertwee turned into Tom Baker, at my Uncle Jack’s house,  I think, for some extraordinary reason that I didn’t know it was going to happen. I obviously knew that this is what happened to the Doctors because [Mark’s brother] Philip used to tease me, talking about episodes I’d never seen. I used to get frustrated about it. I had suddenly this terrible, dawning dread that he was going to go, and I never quite got over it.”

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“I just loved him. I think, weirdly, Peter Capaldi has a very similar quality to Jon Pertwee. Not just because he’s a bit older. He looks quite like him and he’s got that sort of authority. I love that. I think, my grandad died in 1971, I was only five. Maybe there was something of that kind of feeling of an older man in the background of your life. I loved him, he was sort of in charge, but he was funny. I loved his clothes and his car. And also because, I think there’s a very important thing about those stories is they’ve got a really strong moral core. There’s lovely stuff, which, you look back: it looks a bit patronising, a bit sort-of basic, but it really affected me. About not trying to pretend you’re a hero… And, in a way I suppose it’s a very important thing about the Doctor to this day is he’s not an ordinary hero. When you look at so many other action heroes who have all got guns. The Doctor uses his wits and uses a screwdriver. It’s really important that. That as a kid you can grown up and have as a role-model someone who uses their intelligence, and is not afraid to be clever. Rather than hiding in case they get punched in the face.”

Mark Gatiss as Jon Pertwee in a deleted scene from An Adventure in Space and Time.

Mark Gatiss as Jon Pertwee in a deleted scene from An Adventure in Space and Time.

On the dream come true of working on Doctor Who:

“I used to write stories. I was obsessed with it all my life. Then it came off the air, and I thought that was it. Virgin Books got the licence to do original stories and I wrote a couple of those. That was a fantastic time. Always at Christmas I get these things. And then it came back! And I knew Russell T Davies a bit, and I was hoping he’d ask, and I got the phone call Christmas 2003, asking me to write the Charles Dickens one [The Unquiet Dead]. Just incredible. And then I was in it a couple of years later [The Lazarus Experiment]. I remember I was in a taxi, my agent rang, in that way… I think she was quite a new agent or something. She didn’t quite realise what it meant. She said, “Darling, do you want to go to Cardiff and do Doctor Who?” I went “WHAT?!” Then I said to the driver, “Don’t crash this car for God’s sake!”

Gatiss as Professor Lazarus in The Lazarus Experiment.

On being responsible for children hiding behind the sofa:

“Actually I went on [BBC Radio 4 current affairs programme] PM; after there were complaints after my first Doctor Who and I had to go on the radio with Eddie Mair on PM. I said exactly that. I’m over the moon, of course I am. That’s the point of Doctor Who.”

On how to break into writing:

“In terms of scripts the best thing is to try to write other stuff first. I’m often asked this, but the selection process for Doctor Who writers is quite difficult. It’s quite a difficult show to write for, and a lot of people want to write for it. But the BBC simply won’t have anyone whose not written a TV script before. So actually the best thing to do is write an episode of Emmerdale or try and get on the rung of the ladder like that, and then work your way towards the show you want to do. Because you just need breadth of experience really. You need to write about something else first.”

On interviewing Tom Baker at the NFT in 2000:

“I was asked to interview Tom Baker, who was obviously one of my heroes. He lived in France at the time. I spoke to him on the phone and he said, ‘Let’s meet somewhere cool and neutral, like Pret A Manger.’ So I turned up, and he didn’t turn up. I rang his agent. They said, ‘Oh, he’s got confused. He was halfway across the channel in the Eurostar, forgot where he was going, got off, went home.’ A week later he did come, and I found him crouched on a stool in raincoat reading New Scientist. His opening gambit was, he said, ‘Do you know that when crack addicts run out of places to inject themselves they stick the needle into their eye?”

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On whether he’d like to play the next Doctor:

“I don’t know. I used to, obviously, that’s all I thought about when I was little. I’m very happy, very happy. Really, I am. I’ve had a fantastic career, hopefully not over. I don’t really think about it. I’ve got loads of different things going on, and to continue to write for Doctor Who and be so involved with it is such a dream come true. Also I think, I remember, when Peter Capaldi took over… it’s a huge thing. One of the things that people don’t really consider about the casting of Doctor Who is, first of all, the physical stamina; secondly, where you are in your life. Matt Smith was the youngest ever: no commitments, no attachments. He could move to Cardiff and film for, like, ten months of the year. It’s a huge thing. Peter, oddly, is on the other side. He’s got a grown-up daughter. He was at a place in his career where he was looking for something… and he loves it, always wanted to play the part too. But there are lots of people you might think would be a great Doctor Who, who would go, ‘But I can’t leave London. I’ve got six year-old twins.’ Lots of things like that. And I think just the massive amount of scrutiny, the massive amount of criticism and love in equal shares. And intrusion into your life. I mean, I’m only mildly famous, if at all, and it’s perfectly fine. But I think that level of intrusion must be terrifying. I don’t know if I would want it. But it’s the best part in the world. Of course it is. And I have absolutely no objection to it being a woman. I think it would be brilliant to have a female Doctor one day. But it should be just because the right person comes along, not because anyone thinks, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do it. I’ve got to tick this box.’ That’s desperate. You should do it because someone walks in, you just go ‘Gosh you’d be amazing.'”

Mark Gatiss as the Doctor in a sketch from BBC2’s Doctor Who Night in 1999.

I was quite surprised that no-one took the opportunity to ask about whether he’d take over as Doctor Who show-runner after Steven Moffat. When someone asked a question about missing episodes I thought it was going to be what he knew of the ‘omni-rumour’, but was just which story he’d like to see returned the most. His answer was, “Power of the Daleks. That’s Patrick Troughton’s first story. I’d love to see that. It’s a brilliant story. And, all of them, please. That was on before I was born. I’ve never seen it, I’ve only heard the audio recording. But it’s a fantastic story. To see the first time the Doctor sat up with a another face would be amazing.”

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Mark signs a replica of an Ironside Dalek from his story Victory of the Daleks.

After the talk, Mark Gatiss was kind enough to say behind and sign items for fans. I took the sleeve from the blu-ray of An Adventure in Space and Time from the 50th Anniversary box set (the one with Paul McGann on the cover). It was great to have the opportunity to tell the writer how much I loved that piece of television.

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