Christmas is a tale of three ghost stories for Mark Gatiss
- Credit: Sky UK
Sherlock star Mark Gatiss is gifting three ghost stories to the nation this Christmas.
The first is his version of A Christmas Carol which arrives at Alexandra Palace's suitably atmospheric Victorian theatre after a year's delay.
Subtitled: A Ghost Story, it milks the supernatural aspects of Dickens' festive tale with puppetry, stage magic, and Gatiss himself clanking around in ghoulish make-up as the spectre of Jacob Marley.
"I have never wanted to play Scrooge," he says. "If anyone asked my unperformed ambitions, I always said 'Jacob Marley', but no one ever took me up on it so, I have done it myself. Now I have to come up with a new one," he adds smiling: "I do play other parts, I don't just lie down in my dressing room."
With Nicholas Farrell donning Scrooge's nightcap, Gatiss promises a "beautifully designed big chocolate box of treats."
"Alexandra Palace is perfect for this story. We are using old fashioned technology and state of the art illusion for those jump scare moments. It's unapologetically theatrical, I wanted the sort of breathtaking show you see when you are six and it makes you want to go into the theatre."
The League of Gentleman star's first brush with the story was at the ABC in Darlington aged four.
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"I saw the Albert Finney film. I knew it was going to be frightening and I was thrilled and scared stiff at the prospect of it."
And he's treated Dickens' classic "faithfully", balancing the ghostly bits, social commentary, and uplifting finale.
"It's such a familiar story that it feels almost mythic and starts to become an echo of itself. I read it when I was 10 and was very moved by it. It has a strong social angry message that's unfortunately entirely relevant today, and a powerful redemptive message. Everyone responds to the 'what if?' of a man haunted by regret for lost opportunity and lost love.
"It's called A Christmas Carol for a reason. It's full of all the things you want at Christmas and ends on an incredibly positive note that makes everyone feel better. But as a family holiday favourite people sometimes neglect the powerful image of those ghoulish children Ignorance and Want between the ghost's legs."
He's been delighted by the reaction of Nottingham audiences, where it premiered: "I was worried we'd started too early but Christ are they ready for it. Christmas was cancelled last year, and many haven't been back in a theatre. I saw one woman on the front row singing Oh Come All Ye Faithful clutching her programme like it was a religious experience. The great joy of theatre is that every night is different – sometimes a Tuesday is wild with everyone in the mood."
Gatiss has also written two Christmas TV dramas. Mezzotint is his latest adaptation of an MR James ghost story and stars Rory Kinnear as an antique dealer haunted by an engraving with a life of its own. And during lockdown he penned an update of Lionel Jeffries' 1972 film The Amazing Mr Blunden, which sees him and Tamsin Greig sporting warts and bad teeth to play the nasty servants to a pair of doomed children.
Lockdown at home in Islington with actor husband Ian Hallard was "a game of two halves", he says.
"Lockdown was not without its charms. The strangest part was the silence and suspension of normality, it was like living in a film – a domestic version of the end of the world.
"At first I was totally blocked and couldn't do anything except paint – I got into it four years ago, and when I had a creative urge it was a brilliant thing to be able to do. Then it suddenly broke, with a horror film I'd had at the back of my mind for years. Since then it's been very busy and fruitful."
Starring Highgate actor Simon Callow as the titular solicitor keen to right an historic wrong, Mr Blunden sees a modern family sent to look after a derelict mansion where siblings encounter two children who died two centuries before.
"I loved Lionel Jeffries' film, but I feel strongly that a 50-year-old film isn't going to interest a brand new audience so I have set it in the present," he says, pointing out that the children aren't ghosts, but time travellers.
"It was wonderful and joyous to work with Tamsin, and I think Simon Callow has been waiting all his life to play Mr Blunden."
Asked about the link between yuletide and the afterlife - a time when we remember those no longer with us – Gatiss credits Dickens as "a big force in the crystallisation of the idea of ghosts and Christmas".
"I lost my dad in May and you think about those lost opportunities, the last phone call. It can't help but bring it home at a time when everyone tries to be together," he says.
"But the tradition of fireside storytelling at the end of the year has deep roots going back to pagan times. The turn of the year is both sad and joyous, an interesting liminal time when the boundary between this world and the other is thin, and when looking back and forward makes everyone nostalgic and a bit giddy."
A Christmas Carol runs at Alexandra Palace Theatre from November 26 until January 9.