Coalition: Mark Gatiss on playing Peter Mandelson

The actor reveals how he based Sherlock’s Mycroft on the politician – and why he’s now playing the Prince of Darkness for real

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Mark Gatiss is, thankfully, all over the place. He’s won Baftas for writing and starring in The League of Gentlemen. He’s written Doctor Who episodes, starred in The Wind In The Willows, turned up in Marple and starred in an Alan Ayckbourn at the National Theatre. Plus he’s written three novels. In Sherlock, he’s a favourite of the viewing public as Benedict Cumberbatch’s brother, Mycroft.

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All this darkness and drama makes no sense when you meet him – he’s the most charming, intelligent and thoughtful person you’re ever likely to meet. So on whom could he have based such a sly, manipulative, behind-the-scenes control freak as Mycroft – a man out to get his way through a mix of charm, power and ratlike cunning?

“I based Mycroft on Peter Mandelson,” Mark Gatiss says, with a sly, Mycroft-style grin. “It was explicit even before I was going to play him. Steven Moffat and I talked about how Mandelsonian Mycroft was… Conan Doyle says Mycroft is the British government. He’s the power behind the throne. Both Mandelson and Mycroft are the sort of people who, I think, would sit out a world war,” his face takes on an air of mischief, his voice slips into Mycroft’s and he all but strokes his chin. “There’s a longer game to be played…”

Now Gatiss is finally getting the chance to play Mandelson, the architect of New Labour, in Channel 4’s Coalition, James Graham’s political drama about the formation of the current government. It’s a part he’s tried for before – he auditioned unsuccessfully for the role in Channel 4’s Mo Mowlam biopic, Mo. Is this an obsession?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLKqenZVDvY

“I’ve always found him a fascinating personality,” Gatiss explains. “The whole ‘Prince of Darkness’ persona delights him, I think. I’ve never met him but when you watch footage of him – which I have a lot – he’s very funny, he’s very clubbable, he’s a bon viveur, he’s got a natural regal quality. But he’s a human being, and whatever you think of the various decisions he’s made he’s still an incredible political bruiser.” 

In Coalition, Mandelson is trying to pull off something that had seemed impossible in the days before the 2010 general election – putting together a minority Labour government. “We forget that polls ahead of the election put the Lib Dems ahead,” Gatiss points out.

“The shock on the day was Gordon Brown and Labour doing much better than expected. Mandelson had been bought in by Brown to manage the decline and help them to go out with dignity. Suddenly the results come in and it’s like – what? You can sense that every fibre in Mandelson’s political being is going, ‘I can do this!’” Even if, as history shows, he didn’t…

Mark Dexter, Bertie Carvel and Ian Grieve as the party leaders

Gatiss compares Coalition with the film Apollo 13: “We know what happens, but it’s full of unexpected twists and turns.” His favourite scene doesn’t involve Mandelson at all – it’s when then-cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell (David Annen) puts the negotiators in a room and says: “If we don’t have an agreement by Monday, the markets will start selling our debt. The world is watching.”

“We don’t really think about that – we think ‘Did Nick Clegg sacrifice his party on the altar of his ambition?’” Gatiss leans forward. “We don’t think of the massive stresses involved in simply forming a workable government. It’s something we’re going to be encountering very soon again. We’ll have a minority Tory or a Labour/SNP government. But the world will be thinking, ‘That’s not stable.’ And business confidence will leach away.”

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“As a politics junkie it’s incredibly exciting, but the next election is also terrifying. It would be horrific if the only time the public don’t change their mind on a by-election winning party is with Ukip.” He gives a shudder.