Mark Gatiss: ‘Christmas is the perfect time for ghosts’
It’s Christmas Eve, and you’re as ready as you’ll ever be. Presents under the tree? Check. Turkey in the fridge? Check. Mince pie for Father Christmas and a carrot for Rudolf on the hearth? Check. The thinning of the veil between this world and the next, allowing unquiet spirits to walk the Earth and the long shadows in the moonlit, frosty lanes to shift and darken with things not of this world? Check, check and check.
Because while Christmas might traditionally be the season of goodwill, comfort and joy, it is also very much the time of ghosts. And no one appreciates that quite as much as Mark Gatiss.
Gatiss is one of our most recognisable TV actors and writers, making his name with the surreal comedy of The League of Gentlemen and cementing his reputation with a starring role in Sherlock, his TV take on Dracula, and his recent run of Christmas ghost stories for the BBC adapted from the fiction of MR James.
In fact, the publicity for his latest one, Count Magnus, which was broadcast Friday, and is now available on iPlayer, says that he is “now as much a part of Christmas as It’s A Wonderful Life”.
“I’ll take that!” laughs Gatiss, but then adds he’s had the most “depressing news”. He says, “I saw the weather forecast and it says it’s going to be 13C and rainy on Christmas day. Is there anything worse than a mild Christmas? And we had such promise with the weather recently…”
Gatiss wants frost, if not full snow, and bright, clear, nights where your breath plumes from your body. Gatiss wants a Christmas where magic might happen, and ghosts might manifest, just like he enjoyed as a child, growing up in Sedgefield, County Durham.
“I always loved Christmas,” he says. “It’s my favourite time of year. And it was always the build-up to Christmas that was special. There’s something about Christmas Eve in particular that is particularly magical.”
And well, why not? It is the night, according to ancient folklore, when animals are able to speak in human tongue, and when old Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four ghosts to show him the error of his ways.
Gatiss hums me a few bars from Victor Hely-Hutchinsons’s “Carol Symphony”, used in the opening credits of the 1984 Christmas TV series The Box of Delights, adapted from John Masefield’s novel and a festive staple. “That’s pure Christmas magic to me.”
As well as the new adaptation of Count Magnus from the MR James oeuvre for the BBC, Gatiss is giving Christmas a jolly good haunting. On Christmas day BBC4 is showing the stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Nottingham Playhouse production, directed by Adam Penford, was filmed live for cinemas during the 2021 stage run at London’s iconic Alexandra Palace Theatre, and features Gatiss in the role of Jacob Marley in his own re-telling of the famous story.
On Christmas Eve, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts Hunting Ghosts with Gatiss and Coles, in which he teams up with retired reverend Richard Coles to wander around his former parish in Finedon, Northamptonshire, reputedly one of the most haunted places in England.
And Sky is showing once again its big Christmas production of last year, Gatiss’s new version of the 1972 movie (itself based on Antonia Barber’s novel The Ghosts) of The Amazing Mr Blunden.
But, of course, it’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ that we have to thank for our association of the festive season with ghosts. Can anyone not have seen one of the many adaptations of the story?
“Christmas is the perfect time for ghosts,” says Gatiss. “It just is. And of course, it’s the time when people think about those they have lost, which is a different kind of haunting, that’s of the past and the future. It’s all bound up in a kind of magic.”
Gatiss’s adaptations of the ghost stories of MR (Montague Rhodes) James started in 2013, with The Tractate Middoth, then Martin’s Close in 2019, The Mezzotint last year, and this year’s Count Magnus.
MR James is inextricably linked with Christmas; he used to write his stories to tell to his friends by a roaring fire on Christmas eve, and originally adapted for the BBC’s annual A Ghost Story For Christmas slot between 1971 and 1978 (which also included a couple of non-James stories).
Gatiss says, “The first MR James adaptation the BBC did, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, directed by Jonathan Miller, was actually shown in July, and after that, the director Lawrence Gordon Clark went to the BBC with the idea of doing more, and at Christmas.”
James’s stories often feature scholars or academics, caught up in ancient evil through their research, with classic things-that-go-bump in the night ghosts, perfect for a Christmas chill.
Count Magnus, first published in 1904 in James’s signature collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, follows a traveller to Sweden who meddles in the old legend of the cruel but long-dead landowner of the title, and on his return to England finds he’s not quite alone.
Gatiss grew up on A Ghost Story for Christmas, and is thrilled to be able to continue the tradition. Will he do another one next year?
“It’s down to getting the necessary funding,” he says, “and also slightly complicated by the fact that the half-hour one-off drama slot doesn’t often fit into today’s TV schedules, but of course, I’m hoping that there’ll be more.”
But, of course, it’s A Christmas Carol that we have to thank for our association of the festive season with ghosts. Can anyone not have seen one of the many adaptations of the story, even if they haven’t read the book, in which miserly Scrooge is visited first by the spirit of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, and then three ghosts who teach him the error of his ways and allow him to wake on Christmas morning a reformed character.
“Dickens firmly intended it to be a ghost story as well as social commentary,” says Gatiss. “He was first going to write a pamphlet about the iniquities of the Poor Law but then thought he’d get a broader reach if he incorporated that into a story.
“The story came to him complete and he wrote it in a flurry over six weeks, and he immediately knew he had a complete winner. Dickens gives us a version of all the ghosts in A Christmas Carol. We have the phantom with clanking chains, we have the indefinable creature, we have a kind of Father Christmas/Pan figure, and finally we have Death.
“It was a triumph when it was released and Dickens did try to write more Christmas stories, but he never really cracked it again like he had with A Christmas Carol.”
Scrooge – a bad boss if ever there was one, begrudging poor Bob Cratchit a day off for Christmas and rationing coal for the workplace fire – has perhaps never been as relevant since the Victorian times as he is today, with the economy in crisis and workers rising up en masse against their working conditions.
I always watch these shows about Bigfoot or UFOs and I think, well, if you had actually found something, we wouldn’t be finding out about it on some obscure channel in the middle of the night
In fact, it’s down to A Christmas Carol that conditions did start to improve a little, says Gatiss. “It was only afterwards that some bosses decided to give their workers a day off for Christmas. And it took a while to percolate, perhaps, but the enduring popularity of A Christmas Carol meant that by the Edwardian era, people were starting to firmly associate ghosts with Christmas.”
He ponders for a moment and says: “The English do Christmas ghosts very well. It’s perhaps our major export at the moment.”
A brief detour into whether the government should actually appoint a Minister for Ghosts to maximise our potential in this area, which leads us into reminiscences about 1970s children’s television series Rentaghost, and we’re on to belief in both ghosts and religion.
His show with Richard Coles came about after they appeared on a radio programme together and someone at the BBC thought it might be fun to get them together. Gatiss is an atheist while Coles obviously is not. “I’m not sure if someone thought we might clash but it wasn’t like that at all,” he says. “We had quite a wonderful time going around his old parish, which is absolutely beautiful and it was a cold, foggy day, very appropriate.”
I hazard that if they had actually found hard evidence of ghosts, we might have heard about it before the Christmas eve broadcast.
“I know!” he laughs. “I always watch these shows about Bigfoot or UFOs and I think, well, if you had actually found something, we wouldn’t be finding out about it on some obscure channel in the middle of the night, it might have made the papers. But it was such fun making the programme, and Richard said that he could see the parishioners who had died… not that he meant he could actually see their ghosts, but he could feel or sense their lives that they had lived around that parish. It was quite moving.”
And it’s at this time of year that Gatiss comes into his own. He says, “Did you ever notice, when we were kids, Halloween was one thing and Bonfire Night a totally separate thing, and though they were only a week apart in my head that felt like an absolute age. Then it was weeks until Christmas, which felt like about four years. Now it all seems to be one big thing.”
He’s right. Halloween and its witches and ghouls leaks into Bonfire Night with its big pagan bonfires, and before you know it we’re on midwinter and Yule and the ghosts and folklore of Christmas, one big, long dark season where scares and frights have become part of the tapestry. Gatiss loves that, though.
“Well, I am the Prince of Darkness!” he says, and we part to allow him to throw himself into the Christmas season at last, ghosts, spirits and things that go bump in the night and all.
‘Hunting Ghosts with Gatiss and Coles’ airs on Christmas Eve at 10.15pm on BBC Radio 4