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Reviews / Screenplay: Gatiss leaves fans with spring in step

Mark Gatiss, of League of Gentlemen/Sherlock/Doctor Who fame, during Friday night's Q&A at Mareel. Photo: Dale Smith

IF THE name ‘Mark Gatiss’ doesn’t ring a bell, then something from his repertoire certainly should, writes Alex Garrick-Wright. A prominent writer and actor, he is most likely to be recognised for ‘The League of Gentlemen’, ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Sherlock’, as well as a brilliant 3-part documentary series on the ‘History of Horror’.

Something from that incomprehensive list should surely be familiar; if nothing is then you’ve got some urgent catching up to do. Start with those, right now if necessary.

Screen 1 was packed for a marvellously varied evening, the first offering being ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’, a dramatisation of the inception and early days of William Hartnell’s tenure in ‘Doctor Who’. Initially shown on BBC2 in 2013 as part of the programme’s 50th anniversary, it worked surprisingly well on the big screen.

An engaging and whimsical film, it follows Verity Lambert, the BBC’s first female producer, and Waris Hussein, the BBC’s first Indian director (played superbly by Jessica Raine and Sacha Dhawan respectively), as they strive to get ‘Doctor Who’ from basic idea to transmission and success, under the supervision of the larger-than-life head of drama Syndey Newman (a hilarious and perfect bit of casting in the shape of former Screenplay guest Brian Cox).

Things begin to take off with the casting of WIlliam Hartnell, a typecast actor looking for something worthy of him (David Bradley, better known as the janitor in ‘Harry Potter’ and the host of the worst wedding in Westeros in ‘Game of Thrones’).

It’s difficult not to make too much of the casting, which was sublime. The end credits helpfully had photos of the respective personages beside the actors chosen to play them, which is helpful as most people (understandably) couldn’t pick 1960s TV bigwig Sydney Newman out of a line-up; a side-by-side with Brian Cox let the audience in on how much of an inspired choice it was. 

In all seriousness, the actors ranged from ‘good likeness’ (Jessica Raine and Brian Cox) to borderline eerie in resemblance (every single ‘Doctor Who’ actor portrayed, with the notable exception of Reece Shearsmith playing Patrick Troughton). The film was heart-warming, fun and informative. A love of ‘Doctor Who’, especially for the older, cardboard-and-rubber-suit era, is on full display.

Screenplay organiser Kathy Hubbard, curator Mark Kermode and special guest Mark Gatiss. Photo: Dale Smith

When Mark Gatiss took to the stage to do a little Q&A, it was very clear where ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ got its passion and energy from. He charmed the audience, talking about walking onto the reconstructed 1963 TARDIS set with childlike glee, and describing his work on Sherlock with a similar fervour and wit.

Kermode’s questions covered a large swathe of Gatiss’ career, followed by an open Q&A where it became quickly apparent that it was not an “audience” so much as an “enthusiasm of fans”, and given the amount of them this was pretty impressive. Anyone could have foreseen the small mob, DVDs and Sharpies in hand, that would form outside afterwards (as indeed it did; Gatiss entertained all comers merrily, sending them away with a photo in their phone and a spring in their step).

After questions, he introduced the ‘Tractate Middoth’, an adaptation of the MR James ghost story made as part of the BBC’s annual ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ tradition (he previously wrote another entry, 2008’s ‘Crooked House’).

In typical fashion, a young academic (again, Sacha Dhawan) becomes embroiled in a mystery involving a lost will, a dusty library and an incredibly creepy, dry, spider-infested ghost. The half-hour film perfectly captures the dust-laden, stuffy atmosphere of academia that was James’ staple, and the careful pacing ensured maximum effectiveness of the wonderfully nightmarish spectre.

Never has a warm, fully-lit library stack been filled with such utter dread. In tone, it resembled the 1970s BBC teleplays, such as ‘The Signalman’, far more than any modern horror output, and all the better for it. A great, concise adaptation of a classic story that gets everything right; obviously if there’s one thing Gatiss loves as much as ‘Doctor Who’, it’s horror. A future classic.

Rarely has a Screenplay special guest brought so much warmth and enthusiasm to the audience; and if there was anyone in the audience who wasn’t a committed Mark Gatiss fan, they definitely left as one.

Alex Garrick Wright

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