Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

It's properly scary and funny

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As one quarter of The League of Gentlemen, the creator of the most famous twitch in television in Nighty Night, and former script editor of Little Britain, Mark Gatiss has made a career out of blending the grotesque with the surreally comic. His characters - the family butcher who offers customers nosebleed-inducing "special stuff" or the James Herriot-style vet who unwittingly brings death with every housecall - are rooted in the darkest recesses of British gothic horror.

So it should come as no surprise to discover that Gatiss's contribution to the new Doctor Who is on the dark side. His story is a Victorian gothic horror set in an undertakers, featuring Simon Callow as Charles Dickens. "They are having problems with the cadavers, which won't stay dead," says Gatiss, 38, a lifelong Doctor Who fan. "It is quite unusual for a Saturday evening family show to feature Victorian zombies. It's very blackly comic, which is my favourite form. But at the same time I had to be true to what I think Doctor Who is, in that it's properly scary and properly funny."

Along with Russell T Davies, the writer of Queer as Folk, The Second Coming and the current BBC3 drama Casanova, Gatiss was one of a clutch of writers who kept Doctor Who alive during the "wilderness years" of the 1990s by writing audio dramas, videos and books. When Davies was given the go-ahead to bring back the series after 16 years (not counting a critically derided 1996 television movie), he asked Gatiss to write episode three. "I've always wanted to do it," says Gatiss. "I've written four Doctor Who books, but writing for the series itself is an itch I've never scratched. I was also aware of a sense of responsibility to fans of the series, as well as the joy that comes from being in at the new beginning."

Along with most fans, Gatiss believes the golden era of Doctor Who was in the mid-1970s, when Tom Baker's goggle-eyed eccentricity was married with chilling, gothic stories. The producer at the time, Philip Hinchliffe, and script editor Robert Holmes plundered Universal, Hammer horror and 1950s B-movies. Plots of Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera, The Beast With Five Fingers, The Day of the Triffids and The Forbidden Planet were raided, while murderous ventriloquist dummies and giant rats kept Mary Whitehouse busy filing letters to the BBC.

Gatiss believes that the gothic tradition which surfaces in Doctor Who, Hammer, Quatermass and The League of Gentlemen runs deep through British horror and science fiction. Part of that tradition is to place the exotic in the familiar world. Bram Stoker's Dracula may be chilling in Transylvania, but he is terrifying in Yorkshire.

The new series is almost entirely set on Earth. The first episode recreates one of the most famous Doctor Who scenes, from the 1970 Jon Pertwee debut in which shop dummies turn into moving killing machines. "Someone recently said to me that Doctor Who's skill is a kind of gothic surrealism," says Gatiss. "It's more frightening to see shop dummies come to life. Your familiar, ordered life is suddenly thrown into this grotesquery."

The revamped Doctor Who has kept the balance of humour and horror from the original (another writer is Steven Moffat, creator of the BBC2 sitcom Coupling). In the opening episode, Christopher Eccleston's Doctor flicks through Heat magazine and mutters: "It'll never work. He's gay. She's an alien." And the most memorable scene sees the boyfriend of his assistant, Rose, devoured by a deadly belching wheelie bin.

Gatiss was under no instructions to tone down the humour in the episode he wrote, but stresses that the show is not a comedy. Future stories, featuring hospital wards of sinister patients in gasmasks, are expected to push the boundaries of family viewing to their limits.

While there are no plans for The League of Gentlemen to return to television, a League feature film (described by Gatiss as "Blood on Satan's Claw meets Bambi") opens in June. Next month Gatiss stars in the live recreation of the original Quatermass serial. Because only two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment were recorded, it will be the first time the Nigel Kneale's drama has been seen since 1953 (see feature on previous page). "He is an extraordinarily prescient writer. In The Year of the Sex Olympics, which he wrote in 1968, he imagined a world of Big Brother reality TV, and everything he thought about is now our staple TV diet. Quatermass has been justly recognised as the founding father of TV science fiction. "There is also talk of another series of Doctor Who," says Gatiss, "although the BBC have yet to commission it. The format is so terrific. People have asked whether it's still relevant, but of course it is. If you are living in an estate in Swindon and you watch a programme in which a wheelie bin eats someone, if you are the right age you will be frightened of your wheelie bin the way that I was frightened of tailors' dummies for years. Suddenly you find a little door has opened into an imaginative world. That's the joy of this programme."

The new series of 'Doctor Who' starts next Saturday at 7pm on BBC1.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Derbyshire, David (2005-03-19). It's properly scary and funny. The Daily Telegraph p. Arts & Books, p. 6.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Derbyshire, David. "It's properly scary and funny." The Daily Telegraph [add city] 2005-03-19, Arts & Books, p. 6. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Derbyshire, David. "It's properly scary and funny." The Daily Telegraph, edition, sec., 2005-03-19
  • Turabian: Derbyshire, David. "It's properly scary and funny." The Daily Telegraph, 2005-03-19, section, Arts & Books, p. 6 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=It's properly scary and funny | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/It%27s_properly_scary_and_funny | work=The Daily Telegraph | pages=Arts & Books, p. 6 | date=2005-03-19 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=17 November 2019 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=It's properly scary and funny | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/It%27s_properly_scary_and_funny | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=17 November 2019}}</ref>