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Dark arts: From Sherlock to Shakespeare, this winter belongs to the League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss

Doctor Who, Sherlock, an MR James ghost story, Coriolanus, Game of Thrones, a League of Gentlemen reunion… Mr Gatiss is taking over in his inimitably dark way

Holly Williams
Sunday 01 December 2013 01:00 GMT

This winter belongs to Mark Gatiss. An Adventure in Space and Time, his drama about the original making of Doctor Who, has just aired on the BBC. He's directing A Ghost Story for Christmas and presenting an accompanying documentary on MR James's seasonal shiver-fests for the same channel. He's stepping into his first Shakespeare role in Coriolanus this week. And he's writing and appears in the obsessively anticipated imminent third series of Sherlock. And that's just for starters…

He also scripted one of the recent, final episodes of Poirot for ITV, and is gamely reviving the 1990s cult comedy The League of Gentlemen, in a sketch for a charity gala tonight. He's even going to appear in the next season of Game of Thrones, as debt-collector Tycho Nestoris.

"I will be all over your screens like a rat," jokes the actor-writer-director-comedian-novelist-presenter. Gatiss has more hyphens than an enterprising reality TV-star; the only thing lacking is the perfume range.

That's hardly his market, however: since breaking into the public consciousness – and disturbing our sub-consciouses – with The League of Gentlemen, Gatiss has excelled at the grotesque, the ghoulish and the geeky. In person, the pale 47-year-old is softly spoken and rather dapper; conversation is polite, if punctuated with occasional belly-laughs (no sign of the swivel-eyed toothy grins of his Royston Vasey days). And – lucky man – he gets to work with all his obsessions: presenting BBC4 documentaries on his favourite horror movies and ghost stories, working on scripts and books for his beloved Doctor Who and, in Sherlock, Poirot and A Ghost Story for Christmas, adapting tales he has loved since childhood.

It's striking that not only is he prolific, but he's been allowed a pretty free rein on several much-loved British treasures, with rich histories of their own and ferociously protective fans. Is it ever daunting, working on such institutions? "Doctor Who has more people who think they could do it better than any other programme in history. That's something you just have to accept. You have to do it your way and hope everybody likes it, or you're lost," says Gatiss. He picks his words carefully on the subject of super-fans – he is one himself, after all, but he also knows you have to write for the casual viewer tuning in at teatime rather than the note-taking nerd (though he managed to please both with the rapturously received An Adventure in Space and Time).

"In the sense of these being national institutions, that's absolutely true – but equally, institutions have to change. Doctor Who is an incredibly different show [now]. With Sherlock, this is our version; you can't be led [by others' points of view] or you'd be trying to please everybody all the time. I am privileged and thrilled to be involved with so many institutions, but in order to avoid being put in one, I have to do things my own way," he concludes with a smile.

We meet in a draughty rehearsal room in Covent Garden to talk about his latest role, in a play by the biggest cultural institution we have on this sceptered isle. "I've not done Shakespeare since I was at college – a ropey Macbeth and an indescribable Taming of the Shrew," he laughs, recalling his student days at Bretton Hall in Yorkshire (the arts college where he met the rest of The League of Gentlemen gang). "So it's very interesting and quite a challenge to do this."

He's no stranger to the stage, however – he was in two productions last year, playing Charles I in Howard Brenton's 55 Days, and the grimacingly grinning fop, Captain Brazen, in Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer. The latter, in which he was very funny, was Josie Rourke's opening show as artistic director at the Donmar. The two hit it off – "It's just the Northern mafia," he deadpans; Gatiss hails from Sedgefield, County Durham, though he now lives with his partner, the actor Ian Hallard, in Islington, north London. Rourke (a Salford lass) asked him over a cup of tea whether he wanted to be in Coriolanus, which is about to open at the same theatre.

Gatiss is stepping into his first Shakespeare role in Coriolanus this week (Manuel Harlan)

Tom Hiddleston plays the title role, a heroic Roman general whose great pride prevents him from pretending to play the preening politician. Contemptuous of a rebellious public, Coriolanus turns to an old battle rival to help him take revenge on the whole city of Rome. Gatiss plays Menenius, an elder statesman and foil to Coriolanus. "I spend a lot of the play just sort of going, 'Calm down,'" he explains. "I'm deployed to talk to the rioters… [Menenius is] very good at playing them. I think he's genuinely avuncular but underneath it all there's a very experienced, slightly weary politician. I like to think of him as Geoffrey Howe to Coriolanus's Thatcher."

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Hiddleston, at 32, is a notably youthful Coriolanus. "It's often done by men in their mid-fifties, but I think he should be young," muses Gatiss. This changes the dynamic, enhancing the father-figure aspect of Menenius. "It is possible for me to feel paternal towards Tom, even though I'm not that much older. He's got that kind of energy. He's a star, [and] that's what Coriolanus is. You'd know when he came into the room." You can expect the same kind of k ripples when Hiddleston enters, spangled with Hollywood stardust after another recent Marvel outing in Thor: The Dark World.

Coriolanus is traditionally one of the less popular Shakespeare plays, but Gatiss disagrees with its reputation. "I don't see it as an unremittingly grim play," he says, before pointing out the set-up/punchline quality of many exchanges; it seems likely he'll find the humour in Menenius's windy speeches and inventive rhetoric.

National Theatre Wales staged an updated version of the tragedy last year, while Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a film adaptation which also aggressively modernised the action. Though Rourke's production resists pitching it into 2013 – "We're going for an ancient feel, [but] not too toga-y," smiles Gatiss – the company has been struck by the contemporary resonance of the play.

Gatiss in rehearsal for 'Coriolanus', with Tom Hiddleston (Manuel Harlan)

Coriolanus features a rising up of the people, and politicians who are definitely part of the 1 per cent. "The plebeians say [to the politicians], essentially what you're doing, on a daily basis, is repealing all the legislation which penalises or checks the power of the rich." Sounds familiar… but if the ruling class resembles Cameron and co, Shakespeare's masses don't map on to a moral-highground, Occupy-activist mould too neatly; they're fickle flip-floppers, easily manipulated and cowardly to boot. "Shakespeare doesn't really come down one side or the other," says Gatiss. "Coriolanus's contempt for the masses versus their sometimes contemptible behaviour is sort of the engine of the play."

Menenius is notable for his ability to win over the people – a quality Gatiss shares. Both the revamped Doctor Who – which he has been involved with since the first Christopher Eccleston/Billie Piper reboot – and the bang-up-to-date TV version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories have been notable for the breadth, as well as depth, of public affection for them. Excitement is riding high for Doctor Who, with the anniversary and the re-generation at Christmas, while anticipation for Sherlock threatens to drown certain portions of the internet.

Gatiss could add casting pro to his list of talents. On the subject of Peter Capaldi being the next Doctor, he says, "I can't lay claim solely, as it were, but Steven [Moffat] asked me months ago [who I thought it should be] and I said, 'Peter Capaldi'. And he said: 'He's top of my list.' David [Tennant] and Matt [Smith] were both very human doctors. Peter has an edge and a kind of anger. I'm very excited."

He and Moffat evidently see eye-to-eye on such matters; when casting Sherlock, Gatiss explains that, "Benedict [Cumberbatch] was our only choice, and as soon as Martin [Freeman] and Benedict were together, Steve leant over to me and said, 'There's the show.'" They were right, of course; as Gatiss recounts, the first episode of Sherlock made Cumberbatch an overnight star. "That's the sort of thing that's not supposed to happen any more!"

Gatiss says of Doctor Who and Sherlock: 'I am privileged and thrilled to be involved with so many institutions, but I have to do things my own way' (Benjamin McMahon)

Gatiss is predictably tight-lipped about the new Sherlock; he's written the first episode, in which Holmes returns – after staging his death by jumping off a building at the end of the second series. "He's not dead – this is a 110-year-old spoiler… In the original story, 'The Empty House', Dr Watson faints when Sherlock comes back then forgives him straightaway, and I always thought that there's got to be more to it. Sherlock comes back expecting everyone to have gone like that" – he snaps his fingers and freezes – "for two years, but Dr Watson is about to get married and everything has changed. That's the dynamic."

Good news for fans: Gatiss insists the whole team would like to keep making them. "The idea of carrying on is really exciting – where do we aim for next? Well, Basil Rathbone did 16 [Holmes films]; we're only on nine."

The only problem is with schedules – they're all increasingly busy. And Gatiss, as well as taking on his first Shakespeare, has just finished his first job as director, on that Ghost Story for Christmas, adapting MR James's "The Tractate Middoth". "It's 35 minutes long, so it wasn't a huge commitment, but to get it from my head to the screen is so exciting. Ghost stories are my favourite thing full stop, so to do it in the tradition of the BBC films of the 1970s, which I admire hugely, while putting my own spin on it, I loved it."

He might seem more geek than luvvie, but actually "love" is Gatiss's most over-used word (20 times in an hour) – he "loves" the Donmar, Agatha Christie, the theatrical rehearsal process, the idea of reviving The League of Gentlemen, other adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, literally everything about Doctor Who…

He basically loves his life – as well he might. How many people get to work on reboots of all of their childhood favourites? Does he, I ask, ever wonder what his younger self would say if he could time-travel back and tell him how his career would turn out? "I do sometimes think if I could tell myself when I was eight, I don't know I would have believed it. Maybe it's all a dream… I'll wake up eight, and I'll be very sad."

'Coriolanus' is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 ( from Friday. 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' airs later this month. 'Sherlock' returns over Christmas

Gentlemen's relish: Where the League are now

Jeremy Dyson

Dyson co-wrote but rarely appeared in the League of Gentlemen TV shows. He co-created Ghost Stories, which ran on the West End for more than a year, and script-edited The Wrong Mans, the recent hit thriller sitcom starring James Corden. Dyson also directed the well-received Sky Arts series of comedy playlets, Psychobitches.

Steve Pemberton

Pemberton is a successful actor of stage and screen. He was the hapless Mick Garvey in ITV's long-running Benidorm and appeared in all four series of the crime drama Whitechapel. Last year he enjoyed good reviews in the National's revival of She Stoops to Conquer, and, with Reece Shearsmith, is currently writing another TV comedy-horror for BBC2.

Reece Shearsmith

Shearsmith has had a productive year. He recently appeared in Doctor Who docu-drama An Adventure in Space and Time as the second doctor, Patrick Troughton. He has also co-starred in Ben Wheatley's Civil War metaphysical puzzler A Field in England and popped up alongside Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in The World's End.

Victoria Finan

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