“Britain has become Royston Vasey and we’ve never had any credit for it.”
So says Mark Gatiss, the actor, screenwriter, comedian and novelist whose CV includes Doctor Who, Sherlock and, of course, The League Of Gentlemen. If you’re unfamiliar with that last show, then consider that Royston Vasey, The League of Gentlemen‘s fictional town, is a dark, insular, inbred backwater, full of grotesque Gothic terrors who are supremely fearful of outsiders. Sound familiar?
Anyway, leaving aside the whole Brexit issue for the moment, Gatiss is also one of the few people I’ve interviewed of whom friends have been genuinely excited about, and let’s face it, nakedly jealous (and I include Jimmy Osmond in that list).
He’s oop North to appear in a touring production of Matt Crawley’s The Boys In The Band. Originally staged in 1968, this landmark play was the first to feature a cast of all gay characters. A film version followed in 1970 and, over the years, the piece has become a real curio (and milestone) in gay-themed drama. The 2016 theatre reboot, featuring an impressive cast of familiar faces, has enjoyed a sell-out run in London with multiple celeb endorsements. Now it heads to Salford for a run of dates at The Lowry before moving on to Brighton and Leeds.
Gatiss plays Harold, a bitchy, self-loathing man with curly black hair and odd teeth. I wondered what could possibly have attracted him to the role?
“Ha, well I nearly turned it down because they wouldn’t give me enough false teeth and I didn’t have quite enough of my own to work with. I first saw the film when I was a teenager and it, along with movies like Lindsay Anderson’s If, had a profound effect on me. Even aged 11 I remember thinking Harold would be a hell of a part to play. The piece was exciting and sophisticated and had a strangely dangerous thrill to it. It also made me think ‘is this what being gay is like?'”
He adds: “I didn’t actually read the play until it became possible to put it on. I also watched the film again and just thought it was an extraordinary, remarkable piece of work. Over the years it’s transcended from being the ‘gay play’ to just being an excellent play. You can view it in a different kind of context now.”
On the screen, the part of Harold is played by actor Leonard Frey. As a fan of the film, I wondered if it was difficult for Gatiss to silence the ghosts of such a towering performance.
“It’s difficult in a way because he’s monumentally brilliant in the part. There are some lines that you can only do like him and have to be delivered in a certain way because of their construction. I try to bring my own take on Harold to the stage but I also actually look like Leonard did with the wig and velvet jacket on.”
Back in the late 60s, The Boys in the Band was notable for being the first of its kind to feature entirely gay characters. Almost half a century later, is it still relevant? Gatiss believes so.
“I genuinely do think it’s just a really good play about nine particular people as opposed to being a ‘gay play’ that has to carry the weight of all expectation and responsibility. That was the key to its original controversy, that it was the first one of its kind and therefore became a trailblazer but it also got picked upon by some gay people saying, ‘well I’m not like that’. That attitude still goes on across the board now – as soon as you introduce a gay character in a soap, there’ll be someone saying it’s misrepresentative and you try to say ‘but no one’s trying to say all gay people are like that’. As long as you have a diversity of character and attitude, practices and expectations then you’ll be true to life instead of trotting out a series of cliches.”
Today, gay entertainers such as Graham Norton and Alan Carr are fixtures of peak-time television, and gay characters in soaps like Eastenders and Emmerdale are commonplace. TV dramas in particular are changing the context, and perception, of their LGBT characters. Gatiss see this as real progress.
“What would once have been the gay storyline is not always as obvious anymore. It’s still there if you want to do a story about someone coming out but you can also have characters like the middle-aged cross-dresser that Roger Sloman played in Eastenders. That was interesting because it wasn’t just about everybody having a problem with it, it was more about the character’s own personal journey. I appeared in My Night With Reg a couple of years ago at the Donmar. That piece was originally defined as an AIDS play but now, 20 years on, you just appreciate that it’s a beautifully written piece of work about friendship and unrequited love. It’s like you’re allowed to like Reg and The Boys in the Band again because they’re so well written.”
Some of the gay community who saw the first London production in 1969 have returned to see the new version. It has been an emotional experience for many, as Gatiss explains: “It’s been amazing to hear how it profoundly affected people. One man was shaking with emotion. His partner died last year after 55 years together. They met in the Korean war and it was really touching to hear his breadth of experiences because so much had changed during their life together. Yet, when you look at so many of the themes and relationships in this play, you realise that life hasn’t changed that much at all. People are people.”
He continues: “What we’ve discovered is just how funny the show is. The film has such a dark reputation that you come to the play thinking it’s just about self-loathing homos with some funny bits infused with darkness. With a live audience you get a very different experience, particularly in the first half which is extremely funny. It’s nice to see how it slowly turns during the evening as the audience aren’t always expecting it and never quite know where it’s going.”
The Boys in the Band was written by American playwright Mart Crowley. Now in his 80s, Crowley has been happily hands-on with the new production. This has been an added bonus for Gatiss.
“He’s delightful and a huge anglophile so having another production in London was a thrill for him. He came to the first preview and was quite nervous – though not as nervous as we were – but it was a riot and I don’t think he could have been happier. He’s since been to see it three or four times and we’ve been in constant communication. He’s even been giving us new lines and jokes and cutting things he never thought worked so it’s been brilliant and unusual to be right there with the writer.”
Gatiss adds: “Another joy has been working opposite my husband Ian Hallard who plays Michael. We spend a lot of time apart because of work so we’re loving seeing each other and being on stage together. The cast have all bonded and there’s a really lovely chemistry, though I think it’s the straightest cast that’s ever done the play. Still, everybody might as well be gay really. That’s the truth of it.”
Gatiss has appeared in – and written – some of the most popular shows on television. Now aged 50 and originally from County Durham, it’s always struck me that, professionally, he’s living out many of his childhood fantasies. But is it as wonderful as he imagined?
“Of course it is! Doctor Who and Sherlock were the two things I was most obsessed about as a child so I’m truly living the dream. But equally, it’s very hard work and the great danger of working on stuff you love is that you stop loving it but, thankfully, I really haven’t. It’s a high pressure thing getting three full-length Sherlocks done every couple of years but it’s also delightful. To have written for Doctor Who for ten years now is also amazing. I happily haven’t fallen out of love with either of them and I never stop counting my blessings.”
Diversity is surely one of the biggest aims for any actor and most recently Gatiss has been seen in an even broader range of roles from TV drama London Spy to the movie version of Absolutely Fabulous.
“It’s the variety I love,” he says. “I like being asked to do things and I get some really interesting offers. I went through a period where I was being asked to play slightly broken husbands and vicars and now I’m getting a lot of colonels and patrician politician Peter Mandelson types. When this happens, what you have to do is something completely different to show people that you don’t just do one thing. I’m having a great time in this play then I’m going to have a bit of a break and see what next year brings.”
What everyone wants to know is whether 2017 will bring something new from The League of Gentlemen. Gatiss has some good news for the show’s ardent followers.
“Yes we are actively trying to do something. We’ve wanted to for a while because, unbelievably, it’s been over ten years but it’s a case of trying to find the right thing at the right time. We’ve got something sort of ‘Brexity’ in mind because Britain has become Royston Vasey hasn’t it? We’ve never got any credit but ‘local this, local that’ has been absolutely bloody everywhere lately – though with no sense of irony. It’s like an attempt to parochialise everything with that ‘there’s nothing for you here’ feeling. That couldn’t be truer than in this bloody country at the moment.”
The Boys In The Band is at The Lowry in Salford from November 3-6, 2016, and touring. For more information, click here.