Mark Gatiss on adapting Count Magnus and loving The Traitors
The writer/director of BBC Two's A Ghost Story for Christmas series reveals what the future might hold.
First published in 1904, Count Magnus was famously one of a few of M R James's ghost stories which eluded Lawrence Gordon Clark, the director/producer who spearheaded the BBC's A Ghost Story for Christmas strand through the 1970s. Back then, a screen version was nixed by the BBC for budgetary reasons, but Mark Gatiss – Clark's successor who now oversees a new series of macabre tales – tells RadioTimes.com that he's trying not to feel "intimidated" by the story's positioning as the "Holy Grail" of James adaptations.
"I'd always hoped to do it, but it's an annual fight to find the money to do these," Gatiss explains, revealing that what sunk Clark's Count Magnus – the story's Swedish setting – almost nixed his own take. "I was going to do another [ghost story], which I won't name – that for various reasons didn't come about and I suddenly thought, 'It's my job make it look like Sweden, that's what I should do. If I get a largely Scandinavian cast and the right location, I can do it...' because the story itself is not that complicated.
"It's not masses of locations or people. So then I suddenly became obsessed with doing [it] and it sort just finally slid into place. I'm very, very happy with it."
While fans of Gatiss's efforts might insist that these ghost stories – which have also included 2013's The Tractate Middoth, 2018's The Dead Room, 2019's Martin's Close and last year's The Mezzotint – now feel like a festive tradition, he insists that getting the green light never grows any easier.
"I actually said when I met Suzy [Klein, the BBC's head of arts], 'Is there any way we can not have to have this meeting every January?' – but that's just the way broadcasting is. Budgets are so tight everywhere. Even though there is such a hunger for it, it's a tough sell.
"I've tried so many different ways, like suggesting we make three at once. But it's just difficult. So I'm just so thrilled each time I get one away."
Like his previous adaptation, Gatiss's Count Magnus – which follows the inquisitive Mr Wraxhall (Jason Watkins) as he attempts to unpick the shadowy history of the titular Count – takes a few liberties with the source material. "I'm a big fan of trying to take the form forward," he says. "Lawrence’s last one, Stigma [an original story aired in 1977], is an extraordinarily grim and incredibly ‘70s piece of work and that's what I tried to do with The Dead Room, to do a modern one. But equally, what people really want is a pleasing terror, this sort of chilly comfort blanket, isn't it? So I like the idea of mixing it up."
The half-hour chiller also contains a surprising amount of humour, as Watkins's character – in Gatiss's own words – "ignores so many red flags" as he's drawn inexorably closer to a dark, unseen presence. This blackly comic element, though, is something Gatiss insists is very much present in the original stories.
"It's a bit like Sherlock Holmes – people who treat it as an edifice miss the point, you know. Certainly, [Arthur] Conan Doyle didn't think about Sherlock Holmes like that – and M R James wrote his stories to be read, by him, and there are lots of funny characters in them, I think so he could do funny voices!"
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This year's festive edition of Inside No. 9 from Gatiss's League of Gentlemen cohorts Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton is also an M R James-inspired affair, though he insists he feels in no way proprietorial about it: "I think they should go out as a double-bill!"
Our conversation at this point turns to scheduling – I suggest there's something about these ghost stories that feels very particularly BBC Two, which Gatiss agrees with. "That corner, at that time of night, at this time of the year, feels sort of right. Over the years of trying to get them off the ground, a lot of people have said, 'Could you not go somewhere else?' It's just not the same. That's where it belongs."
With talk then that the future of the BBC might lie not in linear channels but in a single digital brand, does he feel we might lose that special corner for projects like this? Would that sense of individual identity of the various BBC brands be compromised?
"Inevitably," he says. "I mean, I don't think we're there yet. It's a bit like the death of the novel – the death of linear television is always spoken about and then something like The Traitors happens, and everyone goes, 'Well, I'm not going out tonight, I'm watching this on the telly.' It keeps fighting back."
It's perhaps no surprise to learn that Gatiss is a big fan of BBC One's new reality hit The Traitors, what with its gothic undertones and premise of a pack of cloaked traitors 'murdering' their unsuspecting fellow castmates. "I just love that the way that something could surprise you like that. I mean, it's obviously a version of [the party games] Werewolf or Mafia, and then lots of other bits of other reality shows, but something different has worked in this that doesn't work in other ones."
He laughs: "Maybe it's the psychology of watching these people take it far too seriously! There was one moment where somebody said, 'I can't believe you betrayed me!' – it's literally called The Traitors, that's the entire point of the game!"
Looking ahead, beyond Christmas and into 2023, Gatiss will be starring in Russell T Davies's Nolly, an ITVX series dramatising the events surrounding the actress Noele Gordon's controversial dismissal from ITV soap Crossroads. Gatiss, who'll play TV entertainer Larry Grayson – a close friend to Nolly (played by Helena Bonham Carter) – describes the three-parter as a "love letter to television" and draws comparisons to his own Doctor Who origins drama An Adventure in Space and Time.
"The great skill of Russell's script is that it is essentially the story of a queen losing her crown," he says. "If you know Crossroads then you know Crossroads, but if not, it works on every level. You can totally get it."
Playing Grayson – best remembered for hosting The Generation Game on the BBC – was, Gatiss says, "the biggest draw" in luring him in. "I always loved him, but I'd not realised how skilled he was and how effortless it is. I mean, there's hardly anything to it. He just kind of gives a look to the camera... and it's absolutely filthy. But it's joyous. He's a joyous personality."
But what does the future hold for A Ghost Story for Christmas? Gatiss says he's not particularly ambitious about adapting all of M R James's short stories and he'd be interested in dramatising the work of other authors. "There are lots of people to adapt – E F Benson is one of my other favourites...
"I mean, I'm just very thrilled to do it, to be able to continue that tradition – and I hope to continue further."
A Ghost Story for Christmas: Count Magnus airs on BBC Two on Friday 23rd December at 10pm.
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