For better or worse, good manners is a cornerstone of British culture. While this clumsy unwritten code has been impacted by multiculturalism and the slow-creep of equality, it still offers a rich source of puzzlement for an unwary overseas observer.
Mark Gatiss is under no illusions about the ridiculousness of our occasional inability to say what we mean. “How often are you in a restaurant vaguely moaning, and someone comes over to ask how everything is and you’re like: ‘Oh it’s all fine, thank-you!’?” Crippling politeness forms the basis of his directorial debut The Unfriend. Premiering during the summer at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, this ruthless comedy is now transferring to London’s West End.
He’s gathered a gifted cast of performers and given a lively zing to The Unfriend. The award-winning Steven Moffat, who previously co-wrote Sherlock and Dracula with Gatiss, sets his debut play around middle-England’s compulsive need to appear ‘nice’. We meet Peter and Debbie, a couple who are marking two decades of marriage with a gentle cruise. They attract the attentions of Elsa, an American whose views are as robust as her conversation style. Arriving back home, they soon receive an email from their new friend. This is followed by Elsa herself, who is expecting to be welcomed as a house guest. A spot of internet research reveals she may be a killer on the run, but the hapless couple can’t quite bring themselves to withdraw their hospitality.
Gatiss is in an ebullient mood today. Asked if theatre direction was a natural evolution for someone established as a writer and performer, he suggests it was simple blackmail. “Steven wrote the play when we were doing Dracula. I read it and loved it. He asked me to show it to a few people in theatre, because he didn’t really know many people.” Matthew Byam Shaw from Playful Productions was particularly keen, and suggested that Chichester Festival Theatre’s Artistic Director, Daniel Evans, would be keen on staging it. “He said: ‘But you’ve got to direct it!’ Now I’ve discovered he said to Steven: ‘No-one else will work with you. Mark has to direct it,’” he says with a laugh.
Not having directed anything for the stage since college, there’s certainly been a learning curve. It’s been a rewarding experience approaching the whole production process from a new angle. “Having been on the other side of the table in rehearsals, I knew how to run the days and the rooms. But it was full of fascinating discoveries.” The Unfriend’s first preview was riotous, with both Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian Mckellan filing in for a glimpse of the new work. “Oh my god, talk about pressure… It was really good, people were howling with laughter. Afterwards, I steamed to the bar to congratulate everyone. I totally forgot that I was supposed to be comparing notes with my crew.”
His approach to direction has been to take things slowly in the rehearsal rooms, so performances still feel fresh and vibrant. “That in itself is an art. Because you don’t want to peak too soon.” Forging something which builds to a tremendous pace is made much easier when you’ve the support of a seasoned cast. The hapless Peter and Debbie are portrayed perfectly by Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen, Inside No. 9) and Amanda Abbington (Mr Selfridge, Sherlock). Gatiss refers to the former, perhaps without it being simple hyperbole, as a comedy genius. “I just knew Peter would appeal to him. They’re joined by the legendary Frances Barber (Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Silk), who brings the menacing Elsa Jean to life. “She’s got such comic chops, but she can also be quite fearsome.”
Providing a foundation to the antics is the bemused, and excruciatingly boring chap next door, who is perfectly played by Michael Simkins. “The neighbour looks like sort of part you’d never want to play. You never know his name because he’s so boring. I needed someone who could do that boringness without being a boring actor. Michael is so adorable.” Gatiss’ notes were to play the character completely straight-faced. The only way it could work is if the audience don’t immediately realise it’s passive aggression. He’s smiling all the way through; nothing is too much trouble. But, underneath, it’s horrible. I think a lot of the laughter was coming from people who were him… but were saying; ‘I know someone just like that’.”
Much of the play’s comedy gold is mined from Barber’s portrayal of Elsa, who tears into her hosts’ shroud of politeness with plenty of loud, MAGA-loving vigour, forcing them to retreat into awkward courteousness. “That American directness is why it works. She just cuts through the bullshit. We find it, as a nation, so difficult. It would save a lot of time, but we just can’t do it.”
For all the jokes, The Unfriend also borrows some gentler elements from the horror genre. This unassuming couple have been trapped by their social conventions and must now confront the universal fear of appearing rude. This intersection between horror and comedy is something Gatiss has explored throughout his career. As well as film and stage performing credits like Darker Shores, Game of Thrones and Doctor Who, he’s a member of The League of Gentlemen comedy team and has helmed several documentaries about the origins of British horror.
Perhaps these two genres play on the same senses, it’s only our preconceptions which determine if we’re scared or amused. “It’s the sweet spot. It’s what I’ve always liked. It’s not overt. More like the horror of embarrassment. Nuts In May is a sort of horror film.” He says he’d always been drawn to M. R. James, who is widely regarded as one of Britain’s finest ghost story writers. Intended to be read aloud, these works valued establishing atmosphere over shock and awe. “They’re often very funny characters, who have terrible things happen to them. It’s not grimly unpleasant. The situation is cosier, I suppose. It’s what he called appealing terror.” This vein of normality thrown off-balance runs through The Unfriend, and in turn through much of Gatiss’ other endeavours. It’s a combination of pathos, scares and complicated embarrassment.
There’s something profoundly English about these qualities, which he finds fascinating. He expresses an admiration for the quiet drama in Alan Bennett’s Sunset Across the Bay. It features an old couple who retire to the seaside just as the world is changing beyond recognition. “You follow them as time slows down. Then the man says he’s going to the gents with: ‘I’m just going to shed a tear.’ Isn’t that beautiful? His wife waits for him, but he’s died in there. I saw that when I was about ten and it’s just stayed with me.” That proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’, and the way the British often adjust to the most testing of circumstances, is one more facet of a complex culture. “When we’re at out best, it’s our most admirable quality. At our worst, if we dealt with these things better if we wouldn’t be so constipated about them.”
The coming months are already looking busy for him. There’s another instalment of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas over the festive period, which build upon the networks tradition of offering festive frights. There’s also Russell T Davies’s eagerly awaited Nolly coming to ITV next year.
Starring Helena Bonham Carter, this three-part series looks at the rise and fall of British soap opera icon Noele Gordon. Known to millions as motel owner Meg Richardson on Crossroads, she was one of the most recognisable people in Britain during the 70s.
When the show’s production company became concerned about making expensive drama productions, she was sacked as an attempt to make it less popular and justify cancellation. “Even if you’ve never heard of her, you will get it. This is the story of a queen losing her crown. I was on the set of Crossroads. I got a photo of me holding the phone, going; ‘Crossroads Motel, can I help you?’” Gatiss plays Gordon’s best friend, Larry Grayson – who was similarly a household name at that point.
The star of mega-hit The Generation Game, Grayson regularly drew over 10 million viewers to BBC One’s Saturday nights with his tall stories and theatrical incompetence. “In a way, I’ve almost fallen in love with him again, because he’s so good. And there’s nothing to his act. It’s just those looks down the camera. It’s so filthy.”
Despite 30 years of hard graft in working men’s clubs, Grayson’s success came almost overnight. He’d been spotted doing a gig by someone from Anglia Television and was booked on a TV talent show. From there he was given his own series. By the end of that year, he’d won the Variety Club’s Personality Of The Year award. For the next decade he was the golden boy of light entertainment, so a natural replacement for Bruce Forsyth on the Beeb’s flagship gameshow. “Russell did say he wondered if there was ‘a story’ to Larry… But there wasn’t, he was just lovely.”
On a festive note, Gatiss’s own version of A Christmas Carol is currently showing in cinemas nationwide. Recorded over two nights at London’s newly restored Alexandra Palace Theatre, it brings Dickens’ classic to life in a truly authentic setting. “An old Victorian theatre to stage A Christmas Carol in… It couldn’t be more perfect,” he says, with conspicuous delight in his voice. Originally opening in winter 2021 at Nottingham Playhouse, before transferring to the capital, the production garnered rave reviews for its mixture of humanity and dark humour. “It’s my favourite story. And I’ve always wanted to play Jacob Marley. It’s a strange bucket list item. I used to end every interview by saying that, in the hope someone would notice and cast me. Eventually, I had to do it myself. If you want something doing…” So, starring Gatiss as Marley and Nicholas Farrell as Ebenezer Scrooge, the new version directed by the Playhouse’s artistic director Adam Penford brings A Christmas Carol to a whole new audience.
While he’s made himself synonymous with a very British brand of dark humour, Gatiss says there’s still no such thing as a free lunch. He’s still not able to get things made without first proving their merits. “The industry is incredibly busy, there’s so much activity. The pandemic has really changed how things are made and viewed. Theatre audiences are reluctant to come back. They’ve almost got of the habit. There’s a lot of exciting things going on, but the landscape is in a weird state of flux.”
We’re speaking just after some far-reaching Arts Council cuts have been announced. I suggest that we as a nation might have fallen into the trap of undervaluing culture and the part it plays in society. “There’s no equivocation… The appointment of someone like Nadine Dorries was a deliberate thing to say: ‘We don’t give a monkeys about this’. And it remains like that. When they were trying to cut arts funding during the war, Churchill said: ‘What are we fighting for?’ The arts are not an indulgence, they’re absolutely essential. People need to try and be more aware of what they mean. It’s not some rarefied thing that all your tax money is spent on. It’s everything… from the telly you watch at night to the Christmas shows you take your kids to. It’s a huge part of our lives, and we are impoverished by attacks on it. But it’s a very English thing to undervalue.”
Gatiss seems to have now acquired a taste for theatre directing. He’s assembled Donna Berlin, James Bradshaw, Sara Crowe and Rose Shalloo to stage Ian Hallard’s new play, The Way Old Friends Do. With its world première at Birmingham Rep next year, it features two school-friends who cautiously come out to each other. One is gay, the other an ABBA fan. Finding themselves on a new path and they decide to form the world’s first drag tribute to the Swedish pop sensations. “It’s more blackmail,” he jokes. “But it is lovely to do these plays back-to-back. It’s a very nourishing experience, to gather a cast and be in a room with people like that. It’s so exciting, it’s just like putting a dinner party together!”
Mark Gatisss’s A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story is in cinemas now.
The Unfriend is at London’s Criterion Theatre on Sun 15 Jan 2023 – Sun 16 April.
The Way Old Friends Do runs at Birmingham Rep on Fri 17 Feb – Sat 4 March, before heading out on a UK-wide tour.
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