Posts Tagged ‘Mark Gatiss’

BBC Gatiss

There aren’t many people whose appointment as a TV scheduler I would wholeheartedly endorse (and most of the current incumbents wouldn’t get the thumbs up, either), but one of those who would receive a more generous hearing than others would be Mark Gatiss, actor, writer, director, producer, and novelist, who’s had a hand (or possibly a toe) in many of the things I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years, most recently Doctor Who (of course) and Sherlock.
So Gatiss’ hijacking of BBC4 for two nights this week made at least one viewer happy. The man in question managed to wear no fewer than four different hats over the course of two programmes, which is certainly challenging for some kind of record (although given the paucity of BBC4’s budget it may just be down to efficiency measures – he may well end up doing Victoria Coren’s hair on Only Connect next).
Monday night brought us the second installment of A History of Horror, written and presented by Gatiss, which focussed on the British-led boom in Gothic movies from late 50s onward. Although I’ve seen quite a few of the Universal and RKO pictures of the 30s and 40s, I probably came to them too late in life to fully appreciate them, but this episode was virtually custom-made for someone like me. Gatiss apparently saw his first Hammer horror at the age of four – I wasn’t quite so precocious, and had to wait until I was 13, when the BBC showed a terrific documentary on the subject, The Studio That Dripped Blood, and followed it up with a season of movies it sometimes feels like I’ve been endlessly revisiting ever since – Dracula – Prince of Darkness, Quatermass and the Pit, Rasputin – The Mad Monk, Curse of the Werewolf… what does it say about me that I find watching Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde to be a strangely stirring experience to this day? I’m not sure I want to know.
Anyway, this was an exemplary introduction to and discussion of not just the classic Hammer movies but all of their competitors as well – Roger Corman’s Vincent Price-starring Poe-pics, Amicus’ series of portmanteau horrors, Mario Bava’s Italian work, and the folk-horror movement of the late 60s and early 70. Sadly, no mention of the sublime Theatre of Blood, but you can’t have everything. The only even mildly disappointing thing about this show was the movie the BBC opted to screen alongside it – and while Brides of Dracula isn’t quite Hammer of the first rank, anything with Peter Cushing in it is always going to be watchable. Very nearly an essential view in my book – and particularly timely with Hammer’s long-overdue resurrection as an actual film studio only a few weeks away.
Rather different tonally was the adaptation of HG Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, which Gatiss wrote, executive-produced and starred in. Making any kind of SF drama on a BBC4 budget represents some kind of minor miracle, and while the shortage of money was in places rather obvious, the overall effect was charming rather than clunky.
Though it’s not one of the master’s best-known works (I must confess to not having read it since childhood – in fact I’m not entirely sure I ever did), the story’s two big ideas (an alien civilisation within the moon, and probably the first use of anti-gravity in SF – here by means of gravity-shielding Cavorite) are brilliant enough to have been borrowed and incorporated into much of the general-steampunk or Wells-mashup stories of recent years. (Stolen Cavorite is the Maguffin in the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series (a brilliant riff on the literature), while Wells himself uses Cavor’s sphere to visit Mars and free Selenite slaves there in Kevin J Anderson’s The Martian War (more a dismal parp).)
Gatiss’ adaptation steered absolutely clear of such metatextual nudges and winks, and while there were obviously a few alterations, these weren’t for the most part intrusive and in one case served to make the story just-about credible for a contemporary audience. The story is this: unscrupulous chancer Bedford (Rory Kinnear) makes the acquaintance of brilliant, eccentric, but alarmingly vague scientist Cavor (Gatiss), who has invented the gravity-shielding material which bears his name. In the interests of exploration they construct a cavorite-coated sphere and depart to explore the Moon! However, our satellite is not as dead as it initially appears…
As I said, this was a genuinely charming piece of work, just wry enough to make you forgive its oddness, just serious enough to engage the intellect. (Cavor is my kind of explorer, whose first concern on beginning an expedition is to ensure he’s brought enough books to read along the way.) It was effectively a two-hander between Gatiss and Kinnear for most of its length, but the very limitations I keep banging on about and air almost of primitiveness seemed to have inspired the programme-makers rather than curtailed them. Considering it’s usually such a big-budget genre, BBC4’s produced a surprising amount of fantasy and SF over the last few years – and this is amongst the best of it.


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