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Renaissance gentleman

Sunday Herald, The, Nov 7, 2004 by Words Stephen Phelan

Actor, screenwriter, novelist, control freak, League of Gentlemen co-founder and creator Mark Gatiss is a man of many talents, not least his chameleon-like ability to turn himself into any one of his hilariously sinister/tragic characters from the cult BBC2 show. Having scripted a key episode of the new Dr Who and completed his first novel, he is currently filming LoG - the movie - in Ireland

The Wicklow Gap is not an inherently evil place. It's actually one of Ireland's purest and most beautiful physical features, a high mountain pass through colourful, glistening valley country. On a clear day, you would be wonderstruck. But today the rain clouds are low enough to claw at the ground, carried by a pitiless sub-zero wind, mixing with the fog and blanking everything out. It's a miasma of dread, I tell you. So sinister it's funny. Which is exactly the atmosphere The League of Gentlemen have always courted.

And right in the middle of the Gap is where the new full-length movie-version of that horrific BBC hit comedy series is being shot. My mother, who lives nearby, kindly drives me up there. She's never watched The League of Gentlemen. I could tell her that she definitely wouldn't get it or like it, but that would start an argument. She doesn't see how they could possibly be filming on a day like this. At first, it's hard to tell what's happening - the production car park is full, but there's no one around. Then Steve Pemberton, actor, writer, and co-founder of The League, strides out of the ominous whiteness toward his trailer, dressed in full Bavarian folk-costume as Herr Lipp, the programme's repugnant and hilarious German tour guide and pederast. He's followed by a rag-tag squad of miserable boy scouts. They're filming all right.

As it turns out, the weather isn't quite hostile enough for their needs, so they've got the wind and rain machines running on full power down at the set. It is here, in the back seat of a Land Rover, half-sunk into the black mud, that I meet Mark Gatiss, another founding Gentleman - also a co-writer of the forthcoming, re- invented Dr Who series, and the author of a frisky new comic novel called The Vesuvius Club.

"Money," he says brightly, when asked why they're filming in Ireland. The three series of the TV show were shot on location around Hadfield, Derbyshire, standing in for the fictional rural outpost of Royston Vasey. The League of Gentlemen has always been a grotesquely distorted vision of northern England. "It's all about the tax breaks, I'm afraid. But the landscape makes a great double, I have to say. A big section of the film is set in the 17th Century, and for the rest of it the world is coming to an end, so the location works really well in this kind of weather."

Gatiss is a reasonably handsome man - my mother said so when I showed her his author photograph - but today he's so hideous I can barely look at him. He's currently between scenes as Hillary Briss, the vile local butcher whose extremely suspicious and addictive "special meat" caused a plague of fatal nosebleeds on the TV show. His overalls are stained with viscera and his teeth are coated in rust-coloured filth.

Gatiss has already played Briss, along with more than 20 other regular characters, in the original League of Gentlemen live sketch show (which won the Perrier award at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 1997), on their BBC Radio 4 programme (which won a Sony award), and in the TV incarnation (which has won a Royal Television Society award, and the Golden Rose of Montreux). This film, then, will represent the fourth medium that the League have " conquered, ha ha ha," interrupts Gatiss. "But we've wanted to make a movie from the start. This is our wildest dream come true. The show was always evolving, from separate sketches to scenes with a link, and then separate tales based around a set of characters from the same place. This film is about as far as we can go with it, I think, a full- blown monster movie/disaster movie."

Gatiss, Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, and Jeremy Dyson met as drama students at Bretton Hall in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. All they really had in common was a shared taste for the nasty classics of British sci-fi and horror cinema - Witchfinder General, The Quartermass Experiment, The Wicker Man, the Amicus studio's portmanteau movies Torture Garden and Dead Of Night. Gatiss had become a weirdness connoisseur growing up in Sedgefield, Durham, opposite an Edwardian psychiatric hospital where his father sometimes worked as an engineer.

"That place definitely had an effect on me," he says. "When I was little we would go over the road and watch films with the patients, and I remember being more concerned with looking at frightening shapes in the shadows than whatever was on the screen. People would routinely get out of their seats and shuffle toward you, like in Dawn of the Dead. Obviously I got used to it, but I think it helped me to develop quite a strong fascination for Northern Gothic."


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