Lenny Henry: “Work is a structure, but it can also be your undoing”
Julia Llewellyn Smith
He’s the co-creator of Sherlock, the BBC’s most successful international hit. So when we meet Mark Gatiss, there’s one question we want to ask before all others: will the eccentric detective ever return to our screens?
Happily, it sounds like there’s a distinct possibility he will. “I’d love to make a Sherlock film for the big screen,” says Mark, who co-wrote four series before the drama came to an end in 2017.
Mark, who plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft in the series, knows there would be no shortage of interest in a big-budget cinema outing starring the show’s two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. And he’s not the only one. Co-writer Steven Moffat has said he’d “do Sherlock again tomorrow”, Freeman recently confessed his “door would always be open” to the idea, and Cumberbatch has said he’d “never say never”. So what are they waiting for?
Mark is diplomatic. “The success of Sherlock made Benedict into a big star and Martin into an even bigger star,” he says. “Getting them together would be the problem. Even when we were filming the fourth series, it was increasingly difficult to get them in the same place at the same time. But, who knows? It would be nice to get the elements aligned and see what happens.”
You can watch Mark answer our questions in the video below
Sherlock – sold to 231 countries – is one of many projects touched by the seemingly magical hand of 56-year-old Mark, who shot to fame in The League of Gentlemen.
He has written nine episodes of Doctor Who and appeared in three, co-created and acted in the 2020 hit Dracula and has just starred in ITVX Crossroads drama Nolly.
He’ll also be starring in the forthcoming Mission: Impossible film (Dead Reckoning Part One, out on 14 July). Plot details are firmly under wraps, but Mark has revealed that he had to pinch himself when filming scenes alongside Tom Cruise as he’s been watching his movies since he was 14.
“That was… amazing, just a fantastic experience,” says Mark. “The weird thing was that [my husband] Ian and I were living in a hotel just off Oxford Street in central London during the filming. We were having some work done on the house at the time, so it felt like we were tourists, which was actually a lot of fun. When you’ve lived in London a long time, it’s easy to forget what a beautiful city it is.”
As if his Hollywood film role hasn’t kept him busy enough, Mark has also recently directed Moffat’s play The Unfriend and is about to star as Sir John Gielgud in The Motive and the Cue at London’s National Theatre.
Directed by Sam Mendes, the play depicts what happened when the 60-year-old Gielgud and Richard Burton, 39, worked together on a 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet.
Mark grew up in Newton Aycliffe in County Durham, the son of a miner in an area that, even in the Seventies, was still dominated by coal and heavy industry.
Mark, though, was fascinated by TV, cinema and books. “When I told my careers teacher I wanted to be a writer or work in telly, he said I was living in a dream world,” he recalls.
By the age of four, Mark also knew he was gay. “Obviously, at four, I didn’t really know what ‘being gay’ meant, but I was aware of certain things which made me feel funny,” he says. “Being gay wasn’t an issue; I was never the tortured soul. At 15, I told my schoolmates and I was sure that my older brother knew.”
Telling his mates was one thing, but he knew coming out to his parents – especially with his dad’s background – wasn’t going to be easy. “I put it off and put it off until my mam asked me about it one night,” he recalls.
“I must have been about 20. At first, it felt like this massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders, but then I realised we still had to tell Dad. Mam said, ‘Don’t say anything. It’ll kill him’. Although she told him a couple of weeks later, it hadn’t been properly dealt with. It just became this thing that Dad didn’t talk about.
“And he didn’t really talk about it until a few years before he died [in 2021, aged 89]. We were having Sunday dinner in the local pub and, out of nowhere, he said, ‘My mates kept telling me that they couldn’t have lived with a gay son. They wanted to know why I didn’t kick you out. How could I? You were my lad!’
“Dad’s attitude certainly mellowed in his later years. I think that had a lot to do with loneliness. He lost my mum to cancer in 2003, then my sister to cancer at 50 and my brother-in-law to a stroke at 52. He’d say, ‘No one understands loneliness until it happens to them.’ He got himself a lady-friend and became a lot less judgmental about the idea of love.
“I wouldn’t describe my coming out as easy – I was only 18 when I first had sex with a man, so my homosexuality was illegal – but if you compare that to what the previous generation went through, I got off lightly.”
‘When I told my careers teacher I wanted to work in telly, he said I was living in a dream world’
Mark could be referring to Sir John Gielgud, the man he’ll soon be playing and one of the acting world’s best-known ‘secret’ homosexuals. Gielgud’s arrest for cottaging in 1953 was a national scandal and, having recently been knighted, he assumed his career was over and considered suicide.
“Because of his arrest, everyone knew he was gay,” says Mark. “But coming out was impossible to contemplate for someone of his generation. Even in later life, he still felt he had to hide the truth, which is sad. The arrest drove him to a nervous breakdown.”
Although Mark never knew Gielgud, he is friends with several people who did, such as Simon Callow, who has advised him how the star spoke off-stage. “To be honest, it’s not the voice I’m worried about as much as the hairstyle,” he adds with a laugh. “I haven’t got much hair left myself, but I’m having most of it shaved off to get that particularly old man’s look that Gielgud had.
“I’m going to leave it till the last possible moment – I will be wearing a lot of baseball hats in between performances. At least when playing Larry Grayson in Nolly, I got to wear a wig!”
Like Gielgud, Grayson was another of the previous generation’s gay stars that had to ‘pretend’ they weren’t. “If you were watching telly in the Seventies, the only gay icons you had were people like Larry and John Inman,” recalls Mark. “Gay, but no hint of a partner or, God forbid, a sex life! I know a lot of gay men who totally resented Larry and John, and I can see what they’re getting at. But when I spoke to Russell [T Davies, writer of Nolly] about Larry, he saw him as a torchbearer. An overtly gay man on prime-time telly.”
Nolly wasn’t the first time Mark and Davies had worked together. Davies, the driving force behind 2005’s Doctor Who reboot, produced two episodes written by Mark. “I’m not lined up to do any more, but I am very excited for the upcoming 60th anniversary and the choice of Ncuti Gatwa as the Doctor.” he says.
“To me, the show has always moved forward; full of imagination and unconventional ideas. You can spend all the money in the world, but if you haven’t got that spark of imagination, you end up with something like Avatar, one of the most boring films ever conceived. I couldn’t give a monkey’s about it – you’re just watching money burn on screen.”
Despite the year’s packed schedule – he is already in talks about a new Christmas ghost story for the BBC – Mark insists he is getting better at a work-life balance. “My husband, Ian [Hallard, an actor and writer], has made me realise I don’t have to say yes to every bit of work I’m offered. It is OK to go on holiday.”
‘When I was growing up, I lived opposite a Victorian psychiatric hospital’
But didn’t Ian get you to direct his play, The Way Old Friends Do? “Technically, that was work, but I was also able to spend every minute of the day with the man I love, which was wonderful.”
No arguments or creative differences? “We’ve been together over 20 years and, creatively, we’re on the same wavelength,” Mark asserts. “Having said that, when we first met and he told me he was an actor, I didn’t think we’d ever become a couple, especially as we met on the internet. In the late Nineties, internet dating was in its infancy. We didn’t even tell our friends that was how we met in case they thought it was all a bit dodgy. How things have changed.”
The couple live in London with Bob the Labrador – “anytime we feel broody, we get a dog!” – and Mark’s collection of ghost story anthologies and vintage horror films. “When I was growing up, we used to live opposite a Victorian psychiatric hospital,” Mark recalls. “After Dad finished at the pit, he worked there, which meant it became part of our lives.
“One summer, Dad got me a job looking after the gardens. Some of the patients were just old women who’d been thrown in there as young girls because they’d had babies out of wedlock, but there were a couple of scary characters. Did working there contribute to my northern gothic sensibilities? Did it help me to understand that your life can suddenly turn a sinister corner just because this person says you broke the rules? Yes, it probably did.
“We’re very privileged in this country and it’s easy to imagine that people no longer have to suffer the horrors such as those that the women who were locked away went through. But look at what’s happening to gay men in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Look at America. Battles we thought had been won years ago – like abortion rights – are reversed. It’s as if we’re travelling back through time, back to Sir John’s arrest and the Fifties.
“What’s that quote from Thomas Jefferson? ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’ He was right. A single politician and a single election can change everything.”
The Motive and the Cue is at the National Theatre from 20 April. For tickets, see nationaltheatre.org.uk.
Written by Danny Scott