British actor, TV writer, novelist and co-creator of possibly one of the most popular current TV shows — Sherlock — Mark Gatiss will be visiting the Mumbai Film and Comic Con next weekend. Before he arrives, we speak to him about being introduced to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective character at the age of seven, how he ended up playing Mycroft, and why he watched “hundreds” of adaptations of Sherlock Holmes.
Have you watched any adaptations of Sherlock?
I have seen hundreds of them, and I’ve loved them all. It’s a very exciting thing to love Sherlock Holmes because there is always a different interpretation. It’s always interesting to see what other people have done.
When you created the show, did you know you were going to write yourself in as Mycroft?
The pilot didn’t have Mycroft in it; then we made a 90-minute episode. We wanted to bring in Moriarty and Mycroft sooner, and we had this idea that we could present him (Mycroft) as if he were Moriarty. So, Mycroft says (in the first episode of Sherlock), ‘My brother, Sherlock Holmes, thinks I am his archenemy’. That was a joke really, because we thought people would assume that if I was putting myself in the series, then I would obviously want to play Professor Moriarty (laughs); so it came out of that.
Have you ever met Stephen Fry (he plays Mycroft in a Hollywood film) and discussed your respective portrayals?
Stephen is an old friend. We exchanged a few funny notes. We thought we should meet (as two ‘Mycrofts’; brought together I think, for adventure (laughs).
Is it different writing the show now, with so much more pressure?
Steven (Moffat; co-creator) often says, ‘The only pressure comes when you’ve got a flop’, and that’s very true (laughs). The scale of its success and worldwide audience is unbelievable. But the daily pressure has to come from within, and we want to keep the bar very high.
There always so much news and speculation about the show on the Internet…
We’re not influenced by what’s going on around it. I get people demanding things everyday on Twitter. But it doesn’t work like that I’m afraid. Last year, because we were bringing Sherlock back from the dead, a lot of people read The Empty House, the original Doyle’s story, which includes Colonel Sebastian Moran, who is Moriarty’s chief henchman, and they decided it’d be really good if Michael Fassbender played the part. Then when I didn’t include the character in the story, they were angry and disappointed, that someone they casted wasn’t included, but that’s not my fault (laughs).
Andrew Scott is the new Bond villain. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are also busy with their Hollywood film careers. Is it getting harder to do the show?
Andrew is in the new Bond film, yes. Although, I think if anyone should be, it should be Mycroft (laughs). Everyone is very busy and it does make it hard, but the good thing is everybody is very willing to do more.
What is your earliest memory of reading Sherlock Holmes?
I came across Sherlock by watching some films starring Basil Rathbone (the actor played Sherlock in films such as The Hound Of The Baskervilles, 1939, and Sherlock Holmes And The Voice of Terror, 1942) when I was around seven. Then, I didn’t read any book, until I had German measles, and I was bought a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a present. I was immediately hooked. The Adventure Of The Engineer’s Thumb, Blue Carbuncle and Five Orange Pips were my favourites.
What does it take to keep those who have read the original stories and those who haven’t, intrigued at the same time?
From inception, we saw it (Sherlock) as a restoration, not a reinvention of Doyle’s vision. Over the years, the characters of Holmes and Watson had become secondary to the trappings of the Victorian world, and we wanted to just get back to that, to the essential friendship between the two men and the strangeness of Sherlock. So, what we had to do every time is to find the essence of the original story. Then, in other respects, we’re trying to find a kind of equivalence all the time; for instance, the equivalent of him smoking a pipe then, will now be nicotine patches.
You’ve spoken of your fondness of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and The Woman In Green (1945). Are there other adaptations that have influenced you?
It’s not always a specific moment; sometimes, it’s just the atmosphere. The 1944 Basil Rathbone film, Spider Woman, is one. It’s a giddily enjoyable film. The Scarlet Claw (1944), which is sort of a remake of The Hound Of Baskervilles, is set in Canada; it’s a horror film and it’s really lewd and weird, even slightly queasy.
Are you going to feature in the next season of Game Of Thrones?
Yes, I am. I’ve just done my bit in Croatia, but of course, I’m not allowed to talk about that. I’m afraid of having some horrible nasty thing that they do in Bravos to be done to me (laughs).
Have you watched the work of any Indian film-makers?
I am a big fan of Satyajit Ray and his Apu trilogy; I thought those films were amazing and magical. I am looking forward to seeing new stuff… the last Indian film I watched was an Indian version of The Hound Of Baskervilles (laughs). I think I watched every possible version before I wrote mine.