Show Hide image

A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss - review

A documentary unafraid of enthusiasm.

A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss

Mark Gatiss must live quite close to me, because I see him quite often, ambling along distractedly, thinking his (presumably) moderately dark thoughts. What is it like to be him? His head must ache, sometimes, what with being so crammed: new characters to be written and new plots; the lines of whatever play or film he’s starring in. I wonder if he ever longs to lift it off – his head, I mean – and plonk it on the mantlepiece while his shoulders take a breather. When I think about the brain this head contains, as exquisitely capacious as a Louis Vuitton trunk, as ravenous as a long-distance runner, I feel simultaneously chastened and excited. If, like me, you’re a Protestant sort, and spend your days sitting on a metaphorical spike, the better to give your work ethic free reign, the whiskery Gatiss is basically your number one pop-culture idol. When does he eat? When does he sleep? When does he vacuum underneath his bed?

His new 90-minute documentary (30 October, 9pm) – yes, that’ll be 90 uninterrupted minutes of prime BBC4 –was about the history of horror movies in Europe. OK, I thought. I’ll give this a go, and if it’s as film-nerdy as it sounds I can always shave my legs instead (or something). Two minutes in, though, and I was hooked. What deliciousness. Gatiss was in Ostend, interviewing Harry Kümel, the director of Daughters of Darkness, a 1971 film in which two beautiful lesbian vampires go after a pair of newlyweds who are holed up, out of season, in a gloriously grand seafront hotel. First, Gatiss described one of the vampires – a countess, played by Delphine Seyrig – as having “timeless ennui”. Then he explained how she killed her victim: “Death by dish-cover, anyone?” Finally, he and Kümel toasted each other with a couple of blue-green cocktails mocked up to look like those we’d seen in the film. “Don’t drink that!” he said to Kümel. “It’s shampoo!” And then he tittered.

What I’m trying to say is that his film was both learned and delightfully camp. In Gatiss, you have a guide who takes his subject seriously and it’s this that gives him the right occasionally to poke fun at its campness (a less careful guide would focus only on the campness, with the result that the joke would soon wear pretty thin).

The documentary moved effortlessly from 1922 and (the Liz Jones-alike) Nosferatu through to 2006 and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Gatiss is brilliant at putting films in their historical context, detailing the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they connect to two world wars and, in the case of those made in Spain, to Franco; and he brings a fresh eye to even the most iconic movies. His quietly impassioned account of the career of the great Conrad Veidt – who played, among other roles, the tragic somnambulist, Cesare, in the 1919 German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – was wonderful. As Gatiss had it, Veidt didn’t only act with his face and his hands. It was as if he acted with his veins, too, their every throb another mark of his characters’ torment.

Enthusiasm is depressingly unfashionable these days. But all the snitty-ness in the world can’t kill it when it’s genuine, passion being more contagious than a strep throat. What a lot of movies I need to track down. I’ve seen Clouzot’s chilling Les Diaboliques but I’ve yet to have the pleasure of his compatriot Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage, in which a brilliant surgeon murders young girls in the hope that he’ll be able to graft one of their faces on to that of his horribly disfigured daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob, who plays Christiane, spends the film behind a rigid mask and must act her part only with her eyes).

Thanks to Gatiss, too, I’m dying to see a Spanish film of 1976 called Who Can Kill a Child? “Horror for the package holiday era,” he called it, strolling through whitewashed seaside streets in his electric-blue suit (Gatiss wore this suit in every shot, as if documentary making were just the adult version of interrailing).

Narciso Serrador’s film features murderous children rather than murderous plumbing, or murderous paella; Cliff Michelmore, moreover, is nowhere in sight. But it’s on DVD, and it’s winging its way towards me even as I type.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

Show Hide image

For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide