Mark Gatiss: It’s time the BBC took a chance on fresh talent

When Gatiss was asked to curate the series Queers for BBC4 – he strove to commission people who hadn’t written for TV before

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You never forget your first time. The first time you hear your work on radio or see it on television. You’re thinking, I wrote those words and now someone is saying them! I remember all of us – Jeremy Dyson, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and me – sitting round the radio waiting for the first episode of The League of Gentlemen to go out on Radio 4, between the news and The Archers. It was finally on! You could sit in the bath and listen to it. It was magic. And it was the same with the TV version.

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We’d all done bits and pieces by then, but the idea of it being Your Thing was both glorious and terrifying. (This was a long time ago, before the internet – now it would just be destroyed immediately on social media…) But that’s what happens when you take a chance on someone. Abba were right.

When I was asked by the BBC to curate Queers – the series of eight monologues on BBC4 that is part of the Gay Britannia season commemorating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality – one of the first things that occurred to me was how rare such slots are. There’s always a lot of nostalgic talk, of course, about the days when there were one-off dramas on television – the Play for Today slot, say – and that these opportunities simply don’t exist any more. The sort of slot that actors used to get started on and where writers could find their voice scarcely exists on TV now; radio is really the only place where that still happens.

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Rebecca Front in Queers

So, I thought it would be wonderful to try to commission mostly people who hadn’t written for TV before. There are a lot of great, experienced writers I could have approached, but I tried to skew the balance towards new voices. I believe there’s an onus on more established names to give something back, impart whatever wisdom we imagine we have, offer others a chance through our choices and champion talent.

How often do we hear people say, “Why can’t we have more new voices and new faces?” and then it just doesn’t happen. I’ve always thought commissioners underestimate the audience and what it wants to see. No one marched on ITV when James Norton, a relatively new face, was cast in the lead in Grantchester and, now, after three seasons, he’s part of the furniture. 

When we started filming Sherlock, Martin Freeman was the established name. But it made Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott into overnight stars, so viewers do respond to you being bold and imaginative. There’s a perception that the audience is innately conservative, but I don’t think that’s quite true. 

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I took a year off after school to go travelling, then applied to several drama schools and didn’t get in, so I went to see my old drama teacher who recommended a place called Bretton Hall. I remember auditioning for the head of department, and the last thing I had to do was an improvisation in which I was stranded like Robinson Crusoe and had to imagine I had just seen a ship. I remember thinking, I’m just going to go for this. As a result, he took a chance on me, I met Steve and Reece and Jeremy, and that was the beginning of everything. It would never have happened otherwise. Today, we’re still writing together – a new League of Gentlemen anniversary project is in the works.

If Queers is a success, I do hope that BBC4 continues with monologues on all kinds of subjects, from all sorts of writers, so voices both old and new can be heard. Because being creative is about being collaborative – and taking chances. 

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Queers begins on Monday 31 July at 10pm on BBC4