Tag Archives: Mark Gatiss

BFI & Radio Times Television Festival – BFI Southbank

Radio Times Festival - Tom Hiddleston

Television is still (rather unfairly) seen as the poor cousin of most other creative arts. If you say you go to the theatre all the time or spend every weekend in art galleries it’s seen as a respectable past-time, but admitting to watching a lot of TV – regardless of what you’re actually viewing – is still met with derision, especially from those who claim they don’t own a TV at all. Yet, the last few years has felt like a golden age for drama in particular, and despite radical changes in the way we view and consume programmes, appointment-to-view television still exists building communities of people all sharing the same experience at once.

The Radio Times has long celebrated the art of television and the skills of the actors, writers, producers, directors and technical teams that make the programmes listed in its pages. In its articles, features and interviews, The Radio Times champions the intellectual and cultural value of television, making a strong case each week for its acceptance as a recognised and dignified art form. Yes the schedules are awash with repeats and mindless content but for every reality show there’s a Broadchurch, for every soap or tired sporting event, there’s a Night Manager, Planet Earth or Inside Number 9. All art forms have their churned-out nonsense, but like theatre and art there’s also bold new writing and innovative approaches.

After a very talks-based inaugural Festival in 2015 in various marquees in a field near Hampton Court, it makes sense that The Radio Times’s second weekend outing should decamp to the more suitable surroundings of the BFI – itself no stranger to holding exceptional festivals. And as you would expect from a magazine that loves telly, the schedule was packed over three days with something for pretty much everyone – from Call the Midwife, Dr Who and Line of Duty to interviews with Michael Palin and Maggie Smith, from Strictly Come Dancing to Sherlock, Poldark, Victoria and becoming a Youtube star there was much to see and learn. But I restricted myself to four key events.

One of the headline sessions, announced long before the rest of the programme, was a 90-minute tribute to Victoria Wood, who died last year, comprising a panel interview with some of the people that knew her well, clips from her many shows and songs, as well as an opportunity for the audience to share favourite lines and memories. Piers Wenger from BBC Drama sat on the panel alongside Maxine Peake and Julie Walters with a slightly too abrupt Paddy O’Connell as compere who cut people off and interrupted as though he were interviewing lying politicians instead of much loved actors discussing a missed national treasure.

Although slightly marred by the rather haphazard questioning, the warmth and affection for Wood, as well as her genuinely unique observational comedy shone through. Again and again the same words associated with her writing were repeated – “authentic”, “real”, “truthful” and “genuine” – as her friends and colleagues discussed her generosity in sharing great lines, as well as a style of writing that Peake and Walters described as musical, with each sentence honed and word carefully chosen to create the proper effect. Mixed with clips that bare endless re-watching, it was a celebratory as well as an emotional event as Peake wanted to give thanks for a role that launched her career while Walters poignantly remarked that she is constantly surprised at her loss, frequently wondering “where are you”. But it was an event, they all agreed, Wood would have been delighted to be part of having loved telly so much.

With programme-making now so diverse, the RT Festival also made time for one of the biggest success-stories of the past year broadcast entirely online – The Crown produced by Netflix. The astonishing series which covers the accession and early reign of Elizabeth II was discussed by Director Philip Martin, producer Suzanne Mackie and lead actor Claire Foy, in an excellent and insightful panel discussion overseen by ITN’s Tom Bradby who spent a brief period as royal correspondent.

While there was some talk about the mechanics of filming and the role of platforms like Netflix, much of the discussion actually took on a more philosophical consideration of our engagement with the monarchy, as Foy considered the way in which we project a picture of what they ought to be, that they then respond to as times change. The sense of responsibility to create something human and true to itself was clear, which, Martin explained would have been muddied by appropriateness of broadcast slots and their particular expectation had it been aired on terrestrial TV, while Foy spoke with real insight on the process and wider impact of playing such a well-known figure. And for audience members looking for series gossip, they did find out that the current cast will be replaced after Season 2 as the characters age, writer Peter Morgan has mapped out as far as Season 4, but intends six and we will meet Camilla Parker-Bowles in Season 3.

Returning on Sunday, the first session was an interview with Mark Gatiss discussing his career from The League of Gentlemen to Sherlock as well as his engagement with TV growing up.  Interviewed by the marvellous Alison Graham, TV Editor for Radio Times, Gatiss explained that meeting Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson was “love at first sight” and it was a shared discovery that in entirely different locations they’d all missed bonfire night to watch Carry On Screaming that drew them together. Graham was unaware that the League are to reform next year for an already commissioned show to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Royston Vase, and while nothing has yet been written, Gatiss hopes it will revisit old favourites as well as introduce new material, before shocking everyone with the idea that Pauline would now be almost 70.

Much of the Sherlock discussion hinged around the idea of a ‘backlash’ with criticism of more recent episodes, but Gatiss neatly battered this away, suggesting instead that the British like to have a lull so they can then describe things as being “back on form”. He also confirmed that Sherlock’s future is open but scheduling Series 3 was so difficult given the success it brought to everyone that there are no immediate plans to write another.

Finally, thoughts turned to TV influences, and like Victoria Wood in the previous day’s discussion, Gatiss admitted to having watched huge amounts of television as a child being particularly influenced by horror writers like MR James and EF Benson. It was clear from Gatiss’s stories that well-made TV can leave a life-long impression, which led nicely into a final session on arguably the finest drama the BBC has made this century – The Night Manager.

Not many actors would have the power to necessitate a change of venue at a TV Festival but the late announcement that Tom Hiddleston would join a panel on adapting John le Carre for the screen meant swapping the 100 seater NFT2 for the 450 seat Imax which promptly sold out – and such is the appeal of Hiddleston that even a BFI mouse scampered down the stairs mid-session to get a closer view.

Last year The Night Manager proved that TV could be every bit as lavish, beautifully crafted and artistic as film, while keeping the nation home every Sunday night for 6 weeks. Led by journalist Samira Ahmed, this fascinating panel emphasised how completely the visual style and the raft of complex and troubled characters came largely from le Carre’s pages, and although it was modernised and relocated, it was the original novel to which they turned again and again for inspiration and insight.

Hiddleston quoted from memory a passage that described the character of Jonathan Pine with all the personas and contradictions that formed the basis of his interpretation, and le Carre’s exact words were something he returned to several times in discussion, giving an insight into his process as an actor and his ability to recall it in such detail a couple of years later. And Hiddleston spoke with energy about the “malleability of character” which attracted him to the role, particularly the soldiery in Jonathan’s past that is broken open and tested by the events of the story.

As expected some secrets were revealed – particularly by Alistair Petrie who played Sandy –  including the numerous work-arounds that the technical crew accomplished to make things look considerably more expensive than they were by moving lightbulbs to mimic the sun and fashioning a private jet from cardboard, while le Carre himself who appeared as a disgruntled diner enjoyed improvising his annoyance so fervently that Hiddleston wasn’t sure he could placate him. Although a joke about Tom Hollander unexpectedly “manhandling” him during that scene got the biggest laugh and clearly made it into the final edit. And on the rumoured Series Two, Executive Producer Simon Cornwall wasn’t giving much away – it is being discussed but nothing has been decided and it will only happen if the proposed idea can live up to the extraordinary quality of the first he insisted.

Teaming-up with the BFI meant this second Radio Times event felt considerably more at home on the Southbank. What was clear from all the sessions is that the people who make TV really love it and have spent a lifetime watching it, are able to chart the influence of particular shows and genres on the type of performer or creator they became. This event celebrated the dedication, enthusiasm and pure craft that goes into making programmes, and made a strong case for recognising television as a proper art form. More than anything, the Radio Times is there to reassure you that if you watch 5 hours a day or one a week, there’s nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of.

The Radio Times Festival was at the BFI Southbank from 7-9 April. Look out for other TV-related events at BFI including episode previews and Q&As throughout the year.


Three Days in the Country – National Theatre

It’s rare to see a Russian drama that feels as light and fresh as this one, so used as we are to claustrophobic sets and a sense of pointless oppression. Frequently in such plays, the characters sit around for several hours talking about ploughing or some equally riveting subject while not confessing how they all really feel about each other. For all the burning passions that are supposed to exist under the surface, nothing much actually happens and everyone goes home again more or less in the exact same position as they arrived. But actors enjoy the intellectual challenge so Chekhov in particular remains a perennial favourite on the London stage, but I’d long come to the conclusion that perhaps Russian drama is not for me.

Then, the National Theatre came along with this glorious adaptation of Turgenev’s Three Days in the Country, a figurative lightning strike that revealed to me what everyone else has been seeing under the corn threshing chat all these years, and perhaps more importantly proves that the National Theatre really is back in business. Now I’ve certainly given the NT a very hard time in the last couple of years, signifying the death throes of the previous director’s reign and the warming up of the Rufus Norris era (not that changing management is any excuse for over a year of shoddy work).  But suddenly the clouds have parted and the sun is shining on the Southbank once again. This year I’ve seen 5 NT production, 3 of which were genuinely excellent (Man and Superman, The Beaux’ Stratagem and this one), 1 was decent (Rules for Living) and 1 was dreadful (A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire) which is a pretty impressive hit rate in just 6 months.

Patrick Marber, most famously the writer of Closer, has adapted and directed this new version of Turgenev’s novel A Month in the Country, shortening the action to a weekend, stripping out a lot of superfluous stuff and stuffing it full of much needed laughs. As the curtain rises to reveal a smattering of furniture and Perspex walls the enormous Lyttelton stage looks, well enormous, and you wonder how they will ever create the stifling tension of a group of people holed up together with raging emotions. This is going to drown them I thought, but I couldn’t have been more wrong; without the clutter you get to focus entirely on the people, allowing the actors to create buckets of tension and drama. The decision to strip back classic texts and present them in more powerful minimalist staging is all the rage, and what Ivo Van Hove has done for Arthur Miller, here Patrick Marber has done for Turgenev, and it is a huge success.

The story takes place in the sumptuous country home of Natalya (Amanda Drew), a confident and intimidating landowner who is bored with her husband. During this weekend an older neighbour Bolshintsov (Nigel Betts) has coerced the local doctor (Mark Gatiss) to introduce him to the family so he may propose to Vera (Lily Sacofsky) the family ward. But Vera is in love with the handsome young tutor Belyaev (Royce Pierrson) who himself is attracted to Natalya, as well as her maid Katya (Cherrelle Skeete). Meanwhile the doctor has designs on Lizaveta a companion (Debra Gillett) while Rakitin (John Simm) a long-term friend of the family has nursed a love for Natalya for twenty years. The various permutations of these unrequited love stories are played out with plenty of confusion between love and lust, misunderstandings and a houseful of broken hearts by the end.

Bestriding it all are three outstanding performances from Drew, Gatiss and Simm who offer different but affecting insights into their characters. Drew’s Natalya is comfortable in her world as mistress of a large estate – and again the openness of the staging really emphasises the size of the house and land – while happily accepting the devoted attentions of the men around her, but like many Russian heroines suppressing a wilder nature. As the story evolves Drew is particularly impressive in subtly portraying her jealousy of Vera even when encouraging her into the arms of the man she wants for herself. And later in the play when she finally succumbs to her own passions Drew shows how its release completely breaks Natalya forcing her to give way to public emotion, something she could never have done as the play began.

Equally affecting is John Simm’s performance as the ardent long-term suitor without the slightest hope of victory. This Rakitin is a rational and intelligent man willing to accept a close friendship with Natalya rather than nothing at all, and Simm creates a man who it likeable and sympathetic. Each of the three central roles have their moment to shine and Simm’s comes in the Second Act where he too succumbs to 20 years of pain as he continues to counsel Natalya about her love for another man while clinging to a stolen moment between them years before, finally accepting it will never be repeated.

Gatiss, always a great character actor, excels here as Shpigelsky the local quack desperate for social advancement. His association with the ‘big house’ is reinforced by a comical attempt to woo the perplexed Lizaveta by listing his faults and expectations. In a scene not dissimilar to Mr Darcy telling Elizabeth Bennett that he’ll have her despite her inferiority, Gatiss’s doctor tries to strike a bargain with the companion while hilariously dealing with a bad back brought on my being on one knee. He is equally amusing in an earlier scene having drunk too much at dinner, late-night gossiping with the other guests. One of Gatiss’s greatest gifts as a comic actor is to suddenly show the pain beneath the surface which is used so poignantly here, giving the doctor’s character greater depth and winning the audience’s compassion.

It is a great cast who give a convincing sense of a busy country manor, although the character of the tutor that everyone is in love with seems a little flat, so it’s hard to see what all the ladies are so excited about. Similarly Natalya’s husband Arkady is currently an interesting sketch, and performed well by John Light, but seems quite under-used and it would be useful to learn a little more about their marriage to explain her frustrations.  Nonetheless it is a wonderful couple of hours reinforced by Irene Bohan’s costumes and particularly Mark Thompson’s unusual but intriguing stage design which again feels so fresh. You may initially be confused by the hovering red door in Act One which comes to earth after the interval, but its physical purpose eventually makes sense as well as its role as a symbol of everyone’s passions which are eventually released.

Three Days in the Country is probably the best Russian play that I have seen, given real verve by Marber’s loose adaptation. If you like your Turgenev traditional and suffocating then this may be a bit radical, but it was a joy to see something that felt so light yet still created the right level of emotional drama. More than anything, the last few months have completely restored my faith in the National Theatre as a place for interesting and smart adaptations of classic plays. Whether the same can be said of any new writing remains to be seen, but with greater availability of lower priced tickets and an interesting new season from the autumn there is a lot to be excited about. The National is back in business indeed.

Three Days in the Country is at the National Theatre until 21 October. Tickets start at £15 and better seats are available at £20 from 1pm on Friday afternoons as part of the theatre’s Friday Rush initiative.


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