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19 May 2023

Mark Gatiss: Rishi Sunak “doesn’t give a toss” about the arts

The actor and writer on playing John Gielgud, the culture wars and a decade of Tory arts cuts.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Mark Gatiss enters the bakery wearing a baseball cap. I assume this is an attempt at anonymity. Almost a quarter of a century since The League of Gentlemen first aired on BBC 2, Gatiss has become an establishment figure on the British cultural scene. He’s done it all: comedy, acting, writing, directing – for stage, screen and radio. He’s written and appeared in episodes of Doctor Who and co-created the BBC’s Sherlock with Stephen Moffat, in which he also stars as Mycroft Holmes. His versions of MR James’s ghost stories have become cult classics. He even had a role in Game of Thrones. He must be fed up of getting recognised.

Right now, however, he’s focusing on the immediacy of theatre, playing the legendary actor John Gielgud in Jack Thorne’s new drama at the National, The Motive and the Cue, directed by Sam Mendes. The play centres on the 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet, in which Gielgud directed Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn) in the title role, with the assistance of Burton’s smouldering wife Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton). It’s a thespian’s fantasy, meta-theatricality at its finest with actors playing actors playing characters. Flynn and Middleton are exceptional as the celebrity couple – but Gatiss is the standout. How does he go about embodying one of the greatest actors of all time?

“Start by shaving my hair,” he says laughing, removing the baseball cap to show off his performatively bald head. “I do look quite like him, especially now.” Indeed he does, but it’s more than that. Gatiss has caught the lyricism of Gielgud’s intonation, the distinctive melodic rise and fall of his voice. His recitation of Hamlet’s speeches is indistinguishable from Gielgud’s 1948 recording for BBC radio. He’s mastered the gestures too – his head tilts – by watching countless interviews from the actor’s later career and asking those who knew him (Ian McKellen, for one) for their tips. Gatiss has that shape-shifter quality: he can assume the mannerisms and inflections of a real person to a degree that’s almost uncanny. In the 2015 television film Coalition, he tackles the “Prince of Darkness” Peter Mandelson. “There’s a scene in that where I eat a muffin. I got the most amazing review about my muffin-eating. It was ‘pure Mandelson’, apparently. I was like, was it? I was just eating a muffin!” He is, at this moment, eating a Danish pastry – though not, as far as I’m aware, in the style of Gielgud.

[See also: Could disgruntled Tories really topple Rishi Sunak?]

Gatiss, 56, is gushing with excitement about the play, despite the exhaustion of performing live eight times a week. He brings his dog to the bakery, a bounding Golden Labrador called Bob who hunts hopefully for crumbs as we talk. He chats animatedly about watching the reality dating show Naked Attraction on Channel 4 when he comes home from the theatre too wired to sleep, of how much he loves the Eurovision Song Contest, and of the surrealism of hanging about with Tom Cruise on the set of the forthcoming, seventh Mission Impossible film. Gatiss has a mystery role he’s been sworn to secrecy about: “Every now and then you just go ‘It’s Tom Cruise!’ It’s like a poster has come off the wall.” But there are undertones of quiet fury whenever the conversation gets political.

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Ostensibly we’re here to talk about the play – the clash between old and new represented by Gielgud and Burton’s conflicting visions, why Hollywood stars seek “legitimacy” in Shakespeare, what it is about Hamlet that can make or break an actor’s career. Thorne’s script focuses in part on the class tension between Gielgud and Burton. Gielgud was born into an acting dynasty; Burton was the son of a Welsh miner. Gatiss’s own background is much closer to Burton’s: his father was a colliery engineer in Sedgefield, County Durham, Tony Blair’s old constituency. He got into acting the hard way: drama club, youth theatre, then studying theatre arts at Bretton Hall College in Yorkshire – where he met his League of Gentlemen collaborators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (also working-class northerners). Their route in to the arts, he says sadly, barely exists anymore.

“Arts funding has been so throttled in terms of community theatres or arts centres, every little way that I got started is being gradually closed. There’s no priority given to it because it’s seen as a soft option. And in other countries it’s not: it’s celebrated, it’s vital. It’s such a British disease to slightly sneer about the arts.” He sighs. “The French would rather die on a barricade than lose their right to go to the opera.”

For Gatiss, the impact of 13 years of Tory misrule is everywhere. Brexit – “the biggest act of self-harm this country has ever done” – is devastating the arts sector, from the musicians who can no longer tour Europe without reams of bureaucratic red tape, to the extra expense of importing set and costume materials from the EU.

“It’s a bit like the shit in the rivers,” he warns. “You can’t get your head around the fact that people think this is perfectly acceptable. And it’s perfectly acceptable to them because they’re not living next to the river. It will become clear to them when we can’t drink our own water… In the same way, Sunak doesn’t give a toss about small touring indie bands, but the effect overall, over the next few years, is going to kill it. It’ll kill it like it kills a river.”

Gatiss, by his own admission, feels a visceral loathing towards Boris Johnson. “I hate him,” he says, with venom. It infuriates him “that he will be a national treasure within two and a half years and will spend the rest of his life making millions of pounds, having shat on us all”. He can only laugh hollowly at Liz Truss, describing her appearance after Johnson at the coronation of King Charles as “the Honey Monster followed by Banquo’s ghost”. As for Rishi Sunak. “His attempts to look like a human being thrill me. I find him quite endearing because he’s such a geek, he looks like someone who would rather be playing with his Rubik’s Cube who’s suddenly been asked to do a public speaking competition,” he says. “It’s quite nice not to think that the government is in free fall for five minutes, but he’s clearly quite a vicious technocrat.” And Keir Starmer? He shrugs. Starmer is too cautious – on Brexit, and on challenging the Conservatives – for Gatiss, though he admits that might be the safest strategy for Labour right now.

Would he be interested in playing any of them? “Well there won’t be any arts or television!” There’s a long pause, and then he laughs. “Truss, maybe.”

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s best man: can James Forsyth help save the Conservatives?]

When Mark Gatiss was born, two years after John Gielgud directed Burton on Broadway, homosexuality was still illegal in England and Wales. Gielgud would have been well aware of this – he was arrested in 1953 for cottaging, sparking a public scandal. “He had a nervous breakdown. It marked him forever, actually,” Gatiss sighs. In one of the most powerful scenes in The Motive and the Cue, Gielgud invites a male prostitute up to his New York hotel room. The planned sexual encounter does not go ahead; instead, they talk movingly about ageing, insecurity and love in forbidden times.

For Gatiss, who came of age in the Eighties at the height of the gay rights movement, that scene has particular poignancy. The march for LGBTQ+ equality has made extraordinary gains in his lifetime: in 2008, Gatiss and his long-term partner Ian Hallard were able to officialise their relationship with a civil partnership; for their tenth anniversary in 2018, following the legalisation of same-sex marriage, they “upgraded” and got married. Yet this progress, he fears, is under threat – in the US, across Europe, and here in the UK. Days after we talk, speakers at the National Conservatism conference made headlines for railing against those who challenge “traditional” family values. Gatiss sees the Sixties homophobia explored in the play echoed in today’s culture wars – the backlash against drag queens, the panic over queer children – and quotes Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

He worries, not just that all the progress he has lived through risks being undone, but that young people today don’t realise what’s at stake. “I saw a programme a couple of years ago which had several generations of gay men and as they were talking about decriminalisation it became clear that the two youngest ones didn’t know what was happening. One said ‘I didn’t know it had ever been illegal’. And part of you dies.” Then he pauses. “But equally, the greatest victory you can have is that people don’t know that, in a way.”

Culture wars, for Gatiss, are just a desperate last-ditch effort of a failing government to distract from the damage it has caused. He knows when he talks about arts funding or Brexit or LGBTQ+ equality he will be dismissed as an out-of-touch “luvvy” or “elite” (despite his working-class background). Why should anyone care what Mycroft from Sherlock thinks about the Tories? But he’s not afraid to use his national platform, won through decades of writing and acting in some of Britain’s best-loved dramas, to make his point.

Or maybe he’s simply too angry to care about the fallout. Two years ago he made headlines for saying he was “currently very, very ashamed of being English”. “I knew as soon as I said it I shouldn’t have said it,” he admits when reminded. So does he still feel that way? “No comment.” A long pause. A sip of coffee. Another bite of the pastry. A glance down at Bob the dog. “I’m very proud of where I’m from. I’m very proud of what this country has been and can be. But its current iteration is nauseating. Not completely, of course not. Every day I’m overwhelmed by random acts of kindness and generosity. But we’ve got ourselves into a such a terrible place. And it is very hard to see a way out of it. I’m always optimistic but it is just so depressing how we’ve found ourselves strapped to this train to nowhere. There doesn’t seem to be any way off it except to go further and further into the darkness.”

[See also: The New Statesman’s left power list]

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This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up