Mark Gatiss photos; shaun webb/wikipedia
Published: 18 October, 2012
Ladeez and gentlemen! In the red corner, at just under six feet, I give you Lord Protector of England, Oliver (“warts and all”) Cromwell! And in the blue (blooded) corner, at just over five foot including his head, I give you Charles (“the divine rights of kings”) Stuart!
The two chief protagonists of the English Civil War – a misnomer if there ever was one – have long held writers in thrall. Not least Howard Brenton, whose new play, 55 Days, opens at Hampstead Theatre today.
Set in December 1648 after the only military coup in English history, it chronicles Cromwell’s attempt to compromise with the king and Charles’ determination not to – the 55 days of the title refer to the time period in which a new nation was forged.
On this occasion, it falls to Douglas Henshall to apply the Sugar Puff warts and the irksomely talented Mark Gatiss to don the Van Dyke whiskers.
“This is one of my favourite periods,” volunteers Gatiss, who although admitting to being a Roundhead by nature, has always wanted to play the king.
“Charles has always fascinated me because he was so duplicitous, yet in his martyrdom he becomes a rather noble figure. The bottom line of any argument for him was: ‘But I am the king.’ That was perfectly all right up until the point it wasn’t. Suddenly he was totally out of step with the times.”
Gatiss puts this trait down to the fact that Charles wasn’t expected to be the heir and therefore did not have the training in pragmatics that his father reserved for his eldest son Henry, who died. “So, in a funny way, Charles went off in another direction and became very zealous in his belief in the divine right of kings.”
Still, as the king climbed the scaffold dressed in two shirts so that those assembled would not mistake his shivering for nerves, Gatiss concedes that Charles cut quite a heroic figure: an observation that makes it easier for him to portray a character with which he’s not entirely in sympathy. “It’s a ‘bit scary religious martyr’,” he says, “but there’s a point at which it seems to settle on him that he knows he has to die.”
However, Gatiss reserves most praise for his character’s opponent. “Doing this play I’ve come to the conclusion that if Cromwell hadn’t been on the scene – and he nearly wasn’t because he almost emigrated to America – it would still have happened but they wouldn’t have won. He was like nobody else – he just focused everybody. ‘God’s Englishman’ they called him.
“I think Charles would have beaten them down in the end or they would have come to some very messy compromise in which, as was his wont, he would lie to them and then kill them.”
55 Days is Gatiss’s second play this year – he kicked it off with The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar Warehouse – but after sitting behind a computer screenwriting for the intervening months, he’s delighted to be back on stage.
“Acting,” he says, “exercises a totally different set of muscles. I genuinely find it refreshes me for writing.”
The hours spent behind the computer screen will bear fruit next year. Remember, this is the man who co-created the Benedict Cumberbatch Holmes reboot, Sherlock. He’s also been instrumental in regenerating Doctor Who for a new generation, as well as writing and presenting his very personal history of the horror film.
Next, to mark the programme’s 50th anniversary, is a drama about how the BBC came to make Doctor Who.
It’s all a very long way from the Canal Café Theatre in Little Venice where he appeared as a quarter of The League of Gentlemen, the comedy troupe that made his name.
But even he was taken by surprise by the enormous success of Sherlock. “Yes, we were confident we’d made something good but my favourite maxim in show business is: nobody knows anything. Lots of things have come and gone but this just hit and worked, and the fact that we’ve had this reaction to just six films is amazing. To get the country talking about how he did it…”
Post Royston Vasey, he’s deftly juggled the legit with the cult. Along with the likes of a live Quatermass remake and The First Men on the Moon, he’s clocked up roles at the National and the Old Vic. But, he says, there’s a link.
“Everything I do is united by a common thread,” he explains. “I’ve always been mad about history since I was a little boy. There was a lot of historical stuff in The League of Gentlemen and I write a lot of historical Doctor Whos. It’s all from the same melting plot.”
Which sort of brings us back to where we came in.
• 55 Days is at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, NW3 3EU, until November 24, 020 7722 9301, www.hampstead theatre.com
• Horror Europa, Gatiss’s history of the European horror film, goes out on BBC Four at Halloween.