The odd couple: Mackenzie Crook and Mark Gatiss are back together again

Mark Gatiss and Mackenzie Crook, two of television's finest oddballs, are joining forces in a new production at the Donmar Warehouse. They talk to Tim Walker about geekdom, forestry and those infamous potato men...

British TV comedy seems like it must be a small pond, what with the same familiar performers frequently popping up in different programmes. As I recall, the BBC made an engaging documentary, Comedy Connections, on that very theme. So, as I stroll to a rehearsal room in London's Southwark to meet Mark Gatiss and Mackenzie Crook, I'm hoping that they do at least know each other already. Maybe they once sat on neighbouring tables at the Baftas. Maybe Gatiss, lately of The League of Gentlemen, will have been introduced to Crook by, say, Martin Freeman, the latter's co-star from The Office, who also features alongside Gatiss in Sherlock.

Maybe Catherine Tate – who performed with Gatiss in last year's National Theatre production of Alan Ayckbourn's Seasons Greetings, and with Crook in the long-defunct, late-night Channel 4 sketch show, Barking – once had them both round for dinner. (How's that for a comedy connection?) The pair are working together on a new production of The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar Warehouse but, given that it's only week two of rehearsals, and that Gatiss's character doesn't turn up until 45 minutes into the show, there's no guarantee they've played any getting-to-know-you games yet. Will I have to do the honours?

As it turns out, I can partially dispense with the small-talk: they've worked with each other before, on a project that even my extensive pre-interview research failed to throw up. "We made a film together called Sex Lives of the Potato Men," says Crook, a tad sheepishly. "It was very badly received at the time." If anything, that's an understatement: "Cringe-inducingly nasty," said Empire; "One of the two most nauseous films ever made," said The Times; "Would be unspeakably vile if it wasn't so embarrassingly puerile" – the BBC; "Mirthless, worthless, toothless, useless," said the Evening Standard. Crook recalls seeing his face on the news when the film flopped spectacularly, taking with it £1m of Lottery funding.

According to Gatiss, "It has the distinction of being only the second thing to appear in the Daily Mail under a headline including the words 'filth' and 'fury' – the first being the Sex Pistols". Since its disastrous release in 2004, however, the film has become "a cab drivers' favourite", Gatiss goes on. "I was walking my dog on the beach when I was at home in the north-east over Christmas, and this bloke stopped dead to stare at me. As soon as he opened his mouth and said, 'Ay, I was watching you in...', I knew he was going to say [Potato Men], because it happens so often."

Both men's fortunes have improved somewhat since then. This, their second joint venture, comes directly after some of the best work that either has done. Gatiss doesn't just act in Sherlock, as the titular detective's political-fixer brother, Mycroft; he also writes some of its episodes. Crook, meanwhile, has spent the past two-and-a-half years appearing onstage in London and New York, as Ginger in Jerusalem, the most rapturously-received play of the decade. How do you follow that?

Answer: with The Recruiting Officer, which has its own auspicious history. Its writer, George Farquhar, quit acting after he injured a fellow performer in a stage fight. (He'd forgotten to exchange his real sword for a dummy one during a scene change.) He had better luck as a playwright; his Restoration comedy blockbusters included The Constant Couple (1700); The Twin Rivals (1702) and The Beaux' Stratagem (1707). The Recruiting Officer, a romping satire of love and war, replete with bed-hopping, fiancée-swapping and cross-dressing, was originally performed in London in 1706.

More famously, in 1789, Farquhar's was the first play performed in New South Wales, Australia, by the convicts of the first colonial fleet – a production later immortalised by Timberlake Wertenbaker's 1988 play, Our Country's Good. The Recruiting Officer was also the first play to be performed professionally in America, at the New Theatre in New York in December 1732. The theatre belonged to the city's then acting governor, one Rip Van Dam, and the New England and Boston Gazette reported that "the part of Worthy [was] acted by the ingenious Mr Thomas Heady, barber and Peruque maker to his Honour".

Bertolt Brecht also adapted Farquhar's text as a play with music, Trumpets and Drums, the first premiere of his final season with his celebrated theatre company, the Berliner Ensemble. The Donmar production will be significant, too, as the first show to be staged by the theatre's new artistic director, Josie Rourke, who recently took the helm from Michael Grandage following his 10-year tenure. "It's a play that has been used to open a lot of theatres," she says. "And it's a really wonderful ensemble play; so it was an opportunity for me to go to a group of actors whom I knew to be fantastic." Also among the cast are Tobias Menzies, Rachel Stirling and, as Worthy, one of the romantic protagonists, Nicholas Burns – best known to connoisseurs of comedy connections as "self-facilitating media node" Nathan Barley.

"It's one of the most fun rehearsal rooms I've ever been in," says Rourke. "As a director you collect a sense of what actors can do through seeing their work elsewhere, and if you see someone deliver something brilliant, you keep it in your mind for years. I saw Mackenzie in a three-hander at the Bush Theatre called The Aliens, in which he gave a performance of total perfection and plausibility... Mark was fantastic in Season's Greetings, and he's a Renaissance man with a huge relish for and understanding of language and text."

Gatiss confirms as much: "I always wanted to do Restoration comedy," he says. "It seems like so much fun. I get to say 'Split me!'. I've always wanted to work at the Donmar, and nearly have a couple of times previously. I had to text Michael Grandage to say, 'I hope you won't read anything into the fact that I'm doing the very first show since you left!'."

The Recruiting Officer will also be a departure for Crook, whose previous stage work includes Jerusalem, The Seagull, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – all of which, he explains, "demanded a degree of realism. I like to think of myself as a method actor, but it's hard to apply the method to something that was written 200 years before Stanislavski even came up with the idea. This is more like cabaret, big and broad, so it's more helpful to think back to my days as a stand-up."

It's hard to imagine that Crook spent 10 years on the stand-up circuit, albeit not as himself, but as characters such as "cheeky chappie from Chorley" Charlie Cheese, and tyrannical schoolteacher Mr Bagshaw. For an actor, let alone a comedian, he's remarkably shy and retiring. As a teenager, he had his heart set on being a graphic artist, and recently published his first illustrated children's book.

"I wasn't that into television and film," he says of his Kent childhood. Born in 1971, Crook recalls, "I grew up in a household that banned ITV, so I missed out on a bunch of stuff. I remember people talking in the playground about these amazing shows like Starsky and Hutch and The A-Team. Anything American was frowned upon in my house, I guess."

Not until he was 20 did a friend suggest he join a local theatre company. "It hadn't occurred to me to be an actor. I didn't know anybody who did it, and no one suggested it as a viable occupation. I've never regretted not going to drama school, but the one thing I feel I missed out on is a deep knowledge of plays and playwrights. I haven't seen or read the majority of Shakespeare's plays. I didn't know The Recruiting Officer until I was sent it for this production. It's a big gap in my knowledge that I've only just started to fill."

The more garrulous Gatiss, on the other hand, was unknowingly preparing himself for his career from a tender age. Born in Sedgefield some five years before Crook, he was an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes, and an avid watcher of Doctor Who, for which he now also writes. "I did go to drama school, at Bretton Hall in Yorkshire, but it was such a bad course that we had to fall back on our own devices," he recalls. He and three fellow students – Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson – created a live sketch show, The League of Gentlemen, "which we took to Edinburgh, won the Perrier Award and got ourselves a radio series".

Like Crook, who finally found fame as Gareth in The Office, Gatiss made his name playing oddballs. "It's a cliché," he admits, "but it's true that all the fun lies in baddies, grotesques and comic roles. For me, the joy of The League was in the dressing up; the wigs and teeth. Now I get asked to play vicars all the time. I've only ever played one. I got offered three gay vicars in a day last year. I thought, 'Hang on, I'm not the new Nimmo!'. But as an actor, you know very early on if you're never going to play Romeo. And after that, it never enters your head."

It's no coincidence, of course, that his rise has been accompanied by a re-acceptance of the geek in popular culture, which can only be good for his and Crook's career prospects. Doctor Who, for which Gatiss is partly responsible, has undoubtedly driven this resurgence. "Sci-fi and fantasy used to be a TV staple throughout my childhood," he agrees. "Then it just stopped dead. It was seen as culty, a minority interest. The massive success of Doctor Who has opened all those doors again. It's no longer to be sneered at; in fact, people get worried if you don't have genre credentials. Geek preoccupations have become incredibly mainstream – even the geek look is cool. I do get that slight feeling of 'my favourite band's too popular' when I hear people talking about these things and don't quite believe that they're real fans!"

There is one geek ambition that he has yet to realise, however: his own action figure. "The toys I never had as a boy, because they didn't exist, are now taking over my life," he says. "There's an invasion of amazingly beautiful Doctor Who toys in my house. It's like crack. I've got about 30 daleks. When I was finally in Doctor Who as Professor Lazarus, they sent me a photo of a maquette they'd made for a figurine of the character. It was beautiful, but they make a series of maquettes before deciding which ones to manufacture and which to discard. And they never made mine!"

When pushed, Crook modestly admits that he has been immortalised in plastic; there's an action figure of Ragetti, his character from Pirates of the Caribbean. As a child, though, he was more interested in collecting live specimens than toys. His boyish love of nature remains, and a few years ago he bought himself five acres of Essex woodland as a conservation area.

"I manage it, and coppice it, and try to make it as attractive as I can to native wildlife," he explains. "When I bought it, it was very dense and nothing had been done to it in nearly a century. So I opened up some areas to let light down to the floor, which encourages different types of flora, which in turn encourages invertebrates and then birdlife. It's gradually becoming more diverse. Hopefully I'll be able to pass it on to my children. I read somewhere that Mick Hucknall has a forest called the Forest of Hucknall. Maybe I should call mine the Forest of Crook!"

Or "Crookswood", suggests Gatiss, nodding along in sympathy. "It's important to please your inner eight-year-old. The things that used to make you happy tend to be the things that still make you happy. I've got massively back into collecting fossils like I did when I was a child. And I just bought my brother-in-law a telescope for Christmas, of the size and strength that I always wanted and never had. We went out into the back garden and looked up at Jupiter; it was profoundly moving, because all I ever wanted as a boy was to see Jupiter and its four main Galilean moons. They're like little diamonds."

By this time, the two of them are getting on famously without me, so I begin to make my excuses. "I was just looking at Jupiter's moons the other day," Crook tells Gatiss, as I'm putting away my notebook. "I have a lovely telescope now, which I wanted when I was a kid. And I loved fossils as well. We'll have to have a fossil conversation..."

'The Recruiting Officer' is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, from 9 February

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer


Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life


Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital