Mark Gatiss is one of our best, and best-loved actors, writers, directors. He is also perhaps the most high-profile and powerful gay man in the British television industry, with Doctor Who, Sherlock and The League of Gentlemen among his credits.
As part of the BBC’s Gay Britannia season, marking half a century since the Sexual Offences Act, Gatiss was asked to curate a season of monologues – charting life for gay men in the 50 years before and after the legislation. He jumped at the chance.
Remarkably, there has never actually been any anti-lesbian legislation ever in this country
“I love monologues as a form. Alan Bennett is a huge influence on me and he is a master of them. I thought this was so exciting – the opportunity to do something good and important,” says Gatiss.
“I knew they had to be largely about the gay male experience because that is what the legislation was about. Remarkably, there has never actually been any anti-lesbian legislation ever in this country.”
From Ben Whishaw’s soldier (above) returning from the First World War trenches (10pm, July 31, BBC Four) to Alan Cumming reflecting on gay marriage in the present day (10.20pm, August 3, BBC Four), via Russell Tovey as a young gay actor in the 1980s, the Queers monologues, many by first-time writers for television, showcase a range of stories. “Ben and Russell said yes without even seeing a script,” he reveals.
The metropolitan bubble
The monologues offer Gatiss, who rose to prominence in The League of Gentlemen and co-created the wildly successful Sherlock, the chance not only to bring new voices to the fore but to highlight the fact that, despite huge steps forward, hard-won battles for equality are far from over.
“In this metropolitan bubble, we can imagine that everything is straightforward and easy. The world is a very different place. That is one of the things I find frustrating about the splintering of the gay movement. We have arguments about tiny aspects of our privileged experience while halfway round the world people are being set on fire for being gay.
There is a lot that has been gained and an awful lot still to fight for
“We have advanced so far but only a few hundred miles away they are opening camps for gay men. There is a lot that has been gained and an awful lot still to fight for.
“It is frightening how swiftly things could go back. The things that have been exposed by the Brexit vote, and people feeling enfranchised to say things they would not have dared say even a couple of years ago, is just horrific.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
“Look at Poland, look at Turkey – and as a result of Donald Trump, that sort of thing is echoing around the world. With one sweep of a fountain pen they can undo all this stuff. It is only a law.
“It has felt more politically charged of late because so many of those victories feel like they are slipping through our fingers.”
But he does also have grounds for optimism. The Gay Britannia season has included a documentary in which Years and Years frontman, Olly Alexander, explores mental health issues within the LGBT community (available on iPlayer for five months) – and Gatiss says that, “people like Olly give me great hope.”
“He is so fantastically, unapologetically gay,” he continues. “His documentary is about his battles with depression and eating disorders, but he is a fantastic role model, I think. He is just having a great time.
“The more you see people like Olly, who are just out and proud as we used to say, it is an incredibly positive message. People think differently, and I think you underestimate the power of these things. In terms of visibility, a little can go an awfully long way. So whatever you can do to chip away at that edifice and be visible is in itself a mini triumph.”
Mark Gatiss: The cultural moments that changed my life
When I was a kid I used to stay up on a Friday night to watch the horror film on Tyne Tees Television. The slot was called Appointment with Fear. By the time I was about 13, it was traditional that I stayed up to watch the horror film. But they were taken off for the summer. And instead there was a film called if…. I can see it now, the paper said: “Lindsay Anderson’s if…., five stars, don’t miss it.”
I didn’t know anything about it but because it was Friday night, I stayed up. Within a few moments of the film starting with all these boys coming back from the holidays to their public school, a beautiful blond boy with a fringe came down the stairs and the prefect cracked him across the shoulders and said: “Stop tarting, Phillips.” And my heart started pounding. I spent the whole film in a state of pulse-pounding tension that someone was going to come down and spoil it. I knew I was gay but there were so few represent-ations on TV, it was this magic moment. It was so thrilling and sexy and forbidden. I was more tense watching this than any horror film before or since.
A Boy’s Own Story, Edmund White
When I was 19, my only girlfriend bought me Edmund White’s book. Gay cliché alert here: she bought me A Boy’s Own Story and I fell in love with the boy on the cover. That book had a profound effect on me. There is this extraordinary moment where he has his friend staying in the boathouse and they are fooling around like boys do. But he is doing it with an agenda. They are talking about having sex with other boys. He is trying to sound worldly: “We could try it now. If you like. In the darkness.” And it says, “the silence was thoughtful, as though it were an eyelash beating against a pillow case”. That has stayed with me ever since. I can see that moment in the darkness, this throbbing potential, his heart pounding. It is a book I go back to; I still think it was one of his best.
That book had a profound effect on me – I still go back to it
A Liar’s Autobiography,
I remember buying the book because I was a massive Monty Python fan when I was about 13. Again, there was this forbidden thing. Nobody asked what it was about, they just assumed it was about Python. And yes, it is very funny. But within it is the story of him coming out. I remember going through those things in my head as I read it, thinking, I will have to do this one day. What is this going to be like?
Again, little fragments stay with you. At one point, he is in Sunderland and sleeps with someone who works in this hotel. He says, “with a song in my thighs, we went to bed!” I wrote a letter to Graham Chapman and David Sherlock, his partner, to try to articulate what the book had meant to me. I didn’t have the nerve to post it because I was afraid they might write back and there might be questions asked. I had never struggled. Even when I had a girlfriend, we got together because she assumed I was this exotic bisexual creature. Nothing could have been further from the truth – I was just a virgin.
There was a wonderful series when I was a kid called Agony, with Maureen Lipman as an agony aunt. It was co-written by [real life agony aunt] Anna Raeburn. Lipman’s character had two gay friends who shared a flat. In their flat there was a big poster for the Gay Switchboard, or the Switchboard as it is known these days, with the phone number. I rang it. And that is the first time I ever spoke to anyone about it. I can’t remember much about the conversation. I was terrified. But the point of the service, the motto, is “calm words when you need them most”. I found out later that Anna Raeburn had done it deliberately. It wasn’t just a bit of set dressing.
The Naked Civil Servant
I remember watching The Naked Civil Servant in 1975. That was a moment. I was nine. There must have been strange stirrings. We watched it as a family. It became a national talking point and John Hurt became a star. In those days, there were only three channels. It is an interesting argument for making sure things like Queers are not just isolated on a small channel as a niche thing. I hope, once the monologues are on iPlayer, they will have an even wider audience.
We watched it as a family. It became a national talking point and John Hurt became a star
The Champions / Follyfoot / The Tomorrow People
My first crush was Stuart Damon in The Champions when I was about four. If you Google him, you will see I was right. I remember him and the dark-haired one in Follyfoot. I didn’t know what I was feeling but I knew I was feeling something. It is such a strange thing, isn’t it? A confused excitement, I suppose. But the one I remember best was a series called The Tomorrow People. It was ITV’s attempt at doing Doctor Who – it was famously dreadful but a lot of fun. One story called The Blue and The Green is about this alien boy who is in a school. His race feed off violence. In the first scene, he is being bullied for being different. I remember thinking, I love you! He was very, very pretty and it has never left me, that feeling of confused attraction. I must have been seven.
This interview with Mark Gatiss featured in Big Issue 1266