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Screentalk with Mark Gatiss and Jonathan Rigby * 13 October 2011


If you spread a net wider than just exclusive interest in Sherlock's cast and crew, you are probably well aware that Mark Gatiss - co-creator, writer and all round Mycroft Holmes - is an excellent and authoritative speaker on the horror genre. In 2010 he and Jonathan Rigby worked together on a three part documentary series for BBC 4 entitled 'A History of Horror', that examined screen horror from the early  1920's up to John Carpenter's 'Halloween' in 1978. When we spotted Mark and Jonathan would be in conversation at the Barbican Centre in early October on the subject, along with a film screening of a classic 1971 horror named 'Daughters of Darkness', we immediately got hold of some tickets to attend.

As expected, the evening was an informative, personal and at times highly amusing experience. Jonathan effectively led the debate, acting as question master to Mark, who in turn took a theme and ran with it, liberally sprinkling trivia, anecdotes and general humour throughout.

Mark spoke of his introduction to horror films at the age of 4 or 5, thanks to what he described as 'lax parenting,' with a viewing of Hammer's 'Brides of Dracula' starring Peter Cushing. This early introduction to the genre led to most of Mark's school work being horror focused, to general alarm from his teachers. Jonathan meanwhile recounted his memories of going to bed at 7pm, before being woken by his father and brought back downstairs at 10pm to watch Hammer films!

Talk then moved through the periods of the horror genre itself. A point was made that the series was titled 'A History of Horror' rather than 'The History of Horror', to make it clear that it was more a personal rather than definitive history of the genre. Mark said much of his knowledge of classic horror films, such as 'Nosferatu', was initially based primarily on writing in books - films of the 1920s remained technically limited for projection until the arrival of home video, and in the case of Nosferatu were limited to black and white, rather than the original sepia tint. He never saw the film for many years, and as a result the film was excluded from the series.

Much discussion was made of the differences between American and British horror films, mainly taking in the classic monster movies of Universal Studios , including Frankenstein - directed by James Whale,  who Mark wrote a book on in 1995 (James Whale: A Biography) -  and their quieter, more psychologically scary counterparts from RKO pictures, to the glorious campy fun of Hammer's classic British works, including much discussion of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing - who of course played Sherlock Holmes against Lee's Henry Baskerville in one of the more celebrated versions of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', produced by Hammer. The mention of Cushing led us onto a brief tangent of talk about Amicus Production's 'The Torture Garden', an anthology of variable horror short films that ends with a mutually adored story starring Peter Cushing and Jack Palance as friendly yet rivalous collectors of Edgar Allen Poe material, who are constantly trying to one up each other. The story comes to a head when it emerges that *Spoilers Sweetie* Cushing's character has somehow collected the resurrected Poe himself! In an echo of Mark's Q&A with Steven Moffat that we attended at the Lexi Cinema in June where they considered which of them was most like John Watson, both men here pondered which of them personified the variance of obsession in Cushing and Palance best - with Mark simply commenting it was 'interchangeable'. Other worldwide horror greats were also brought up, including Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathebone - who Mark insisted was "one of ours" despite his South African birth.

The history itself wrapped up with discussion of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and how the film is actually horrific but also tremendously funny in both a satiric and genuine way - if viewed with a skewed mind. In particular, amusement came from the idea that while it was a bad day for the youngsters on screen, Mark thought it could be seen as an even worse day for iconic bogeyman Leatherface - "having all these damned kids in my house!" - a mindset that lends the film the perverse air of an extended episode of Scooby Doo with added homicide.  Talk turned to the modern day from there, and some fire was spread against the current vogue of remaking classic horror films, with the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre coming in for some flak for removing the original's humour, and the new version of Dawn of the Dead losing the satiric edge of a fight for survival in a shopping mall. The opinion from both Jonathan and Mark was that these updated versions are lazy, unwilling to present new ideas while simultaneously removing the crucial elements that made the originals great.

Throughout the talk, clips were interspersed as a demonstration of the presentation of the evolution of horror - though unfortunately, since they appeared to be streaming from a slowly accessing hard drive, they took a while to play, leaving the audience in tight anticipation and Mark commenting during the wait that the blank screen was "the most boring film I've ever seen!".

The discussion eventually turned to question and answers from the audience, where we managed to snag the microphone and, remembering Mark's comments at the Kapow Comic Convention in London back in April - before Sherlockology even existed - put forward a question asking for their opinions on the evolution of the vampire genre into the modern era, and the movement of the creatures from monstrous to romantic. Jonathan countered that vampires have, by their nature, always been 'romantic' as a means of their hunting for prey, while Mark simply said he'd prefer something different to be done with them, having seen them constantly in black velour for decades before becoming softened. After all, these creatures have been around for a very long time, so who wouldn't fancy wearing bright orange for a hundred years, or maybe Bermuda shorts?

The Q&A ended the discussion, and after a short break 'Daughters of Darkness' played. We won't dwell too much or offer up a full review of the film, but we found it an entertaining, occasionally horrific, occasionally absurd example of the vampire movie genre, that ultimately had far deeper themes relating to gender politics and psychological coercion running beneath the surface, if you chose to look more deeply.

And with that, we headed back upstairs to leave the Barbican, past Jonathan and Mark who were both sat signing copies of Jonathan's new book - Studies in Terror. We'd taken the conscious decision not to mention the 'S' word to Mark, though he seemed to recognise us when we asked our question earlier in the evening. We'd come to listen to Mark's ample knowledge of another of his most loved subjects, and just like his discussion of Sherlock Holmes in June with Steven Moffat, he and Jonathan were brilliant and entertaining company, displaying boundless enthusiasm and passion. If you ever do end up having the chance, there is nothing better than listening to someone of their wit, energy and intelligence talking about a specialist subject.