Traveller’s tales: Mark Gatiss
The Operation Mincemeat and Sherlock star talks sleeping with the lights on in Japan, discovering spicy tuna in LA and his evolving relationship with NYC…
Where are you right now?
I’m in my house in Islington, London – which I feel like I haven’t left for the last two years. I largely haven’t!
When was your first trip abroad?
1979. As a family we used to go to English seaside resorts, which I have very fond memories of. We went to Bridlington, Scarborough, Great Yarmouth – and Hull one year! Then my parents caught the Costa del Sol bug. They went first for experimental trips and then that was it. There was no way we were going to spend a fortnight in a wet English seaside resort. We went to Salou in Spain for our first foreign family holiday. The thing I remember the most is the warmth, and how incredible that was. Also, the food was utterly vile, as far as I was concerned. Weirdly, the hotel we were in served a lot of spiced German sausage and I thought it was horrible. We were just so used to egg and chips. I remember it vividly because it was such a culture shock and then, almost instantly, we got hooked because the sea was so warm – everything was so warm. It was a totally different experience. We went to Rimini in Italy the next year, then to Menorca two years running. Then I was too old and cool to go on family holidays, so my parents went on their own. I regret it now because they were great.
What’s your favourite memory from a work trip?
I haven’t filmed abroad as much as I believed I would, but I have very vivid memories of the things I have done. One of them was in Romania for three months and that was an experience in many ways. The best one was doing Poirot in Morocco. It was what they always tell you it’ll be like: being in an Agatha Christie film in the middle of the desert wearing white linen. It was my first time there. We did three days in Casablanca and then we went further down the coast to this extraordinary place. It was an Algerian fort – a French colonial fort, Mazagan (El Jadida). That was quite something. There was this incredibly handsome Arab boy gazing out at the sunset and I took his picture because I thought, “God, this is pure Lawrence of Arabia”. We came back the next day and he was doing it again and I realised he just did it for tourists because he knew how good he looked!
Gatiss as Ivor Montagu in British war drama Operation Mincemeat
As Harold in The Boys in the Band at London’s Park Theatre in 2016
As World War I soldier ‘The Captain’ in in the Doctor Who Christmas special, 2017 (Gatiss also wrote some episodes of Doctor Who)
The band ‘Crème Brulee’ in The League of Gentlemen, season two, 2000
Gatiss played Tycho Nestoris, an envoy from the Iron Bank of Braavos, in the fourth, fifth and seventh seasons of Game of Thrones
Have you ever extended your stay after a work project?
I did a documentary about MR James that was being filmed in France. I happened to be in Paris for something else and was supposed to fly to Lourdes and then be picked up to drive to Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, where Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book is set. There was some sort of crisis and all the flights to Lourdes were cancelled. I remember being in the airport and it was just full of nuns! I didn’t know what was going on. There were just nuns everywhere! Anyway, I had to get a different flight and I was picked up. It was one of my favourite moments of travel: the producer and the cameraman (it was a tiny crew, just the three of us) picked me up from wherever I got to (Nice or somewhere) and drove through the night to this place. We were desperately trying to find a restaurant and the producer was on the phone talking in broken French when we found somewhere that was just open – in the middle of nowhere. It was a beautiful restaurant. We sat outside by a lake (it was about 10 o’clock at night) and it was so beautiful and romantic. Very, very distantly I heard a train whistle and then it came rattling along by the lake and it was just the most romantic thing you can possibly imagine. After the chaotic circumstances we’d arrived in, we thought, “This isn’t too bad!” So, I stayed on a few days there.
What destination has surprised you the most and why?
New York is one of my favourite places, but when I first went it wasn’t quite what I imagined. Then I think I discovered its secret, which is that there are an awful lot of very anonymous-looking brownstone buildings that seem quite drab but, when you go inside, are fantastic. It’s either a coffee shop or a restaurant or a museum. I remember being worried, thinking: “Am I the first person that doesn’t get New York?” Then suddenly it clicked and I realised, “I love this city.” I think it’s a fantastic place. I’ve always imagined if I got to Broadway or something I could enjoy the experience of living there for a bit, which would be quite something.
I didn’t know what was going on. There were just nuns everywhere!
Do you have friends who live there?
Funnily enough, I did a famous play years ago called The Boys in the Band, the first gay play, really. Mart Crowley, the writer, who was in his late 80s, came over to see us and was very supportive. A couple of years after we did the play, I went to visit him in his apartment in New York and he showed us all round little museums, including where Klimt’s The Woman in Gold is. He enjoyed taking us around the city and saying, “That was Lenny Bernstein’s house; that was Jerome Robbins’ house.” It’s worth its weight in gold when you have a personal guide like that.
What’s your favourite meal and where serves it best?
This was a recommendation from Steven Moffat: spicy tuna from Katsuya in Los Angeles. It’s really, really delicious. It made me think of when I was a kid, when you eat something like a Flake and your mouth is so coated in chocolate that you don’t actually want to swallow? It was like that, but with tuna. It was absolutely gorgeous. Dangerously so. We were there for the Emmys about five or six years ago and Steven had always evangelised about it, so it had quite a lot to live up to, but it was lovely.
Where do you go on holiday?
My partner Ian and I had a thing for a long time of going away in February or March – the grimmest months – to Malaysia and Mauritius and various places. When I was a kid, I didn’t really like beach holidays because I found them boring, but I love them now. Malaysia was a particularly good one. We went to Langkawi and stayed in this beautiful resort. It was a jungle. It felt like we’d really gone somewhere – not just five minutes down the road, as it were. We had an amazing little villa right on the beach. That’s one of our absolute favourites and that was 20 years ago. We always laugh about the Malaysia trip. We literally didn’t leave the resort.
In Thailand we did a couple of things. The big one was that we went to Phuket to the location of The Man with the Golden Gun because I’m a big James Bond fan. It was on a huge boat trip and it’s the last place you visit.
Have you ever made friends on holiday?
This is a funny story. We were in Jamaica and the hotel had this policy of putting you on tables with strangers to encourage social mixing and the idea filled me with horror! We were partnered with this very nice couple. Actually, the guy was a bit of a bore, but his wife was really delightful. She was French and they’d been coming to Jamaica on and off for donkey’s years. We got on very well and saw them again the next night. Then we swapped emails, as you do. A year later she rang up and said, “He’s left me. I’m in London. Can I come and see you?” So, being British, and instead of saying, “I don’t think that’s really appropriate”, we ended up having lunch with her and it was the weirdest thing… She poured her heart out and then she was gone. We never spoke again.
What do you love most about London?
You go to major cities, in this country or abroad, and the things you could do during a day are surprisingly limited compared to London, which has almost anything you can imagine – so many theatres, so many different venues and museums. I’ve been to a few capital cities that are actually quite modest and it’s quite a shock when I think, “I’ve sort of done it now”, and it’s taken a day and a half.
I’m trying to get better at not just gravitating to the same places; it’s funny how easily you do that. Years ago I was in Coriolanus, and one of the cast was from Denmark and she asked me to take her on a tour of London, so I drew up an itinerary and we spent the day out. It was really delightful! I thought, “This is the sort of thing you should just do for yourself.” We started with breakfast in Shepherd Market then walked to the British Museum because it had an exhibition on Roman artefacts. Then we crossed the bridge to The Globe and did the tour, which I hadn’t done. Then we went to the Cheshire Cheese pub on the Strand and then to Inner Temple. It was just brilliant. Just little snapshots of stuff. I often think that’s the thing to do. Challenge yourself and think, “Where have I never been?” It’s lovely when you find something totally different.
I run a bit and sometimes when I’m trying to change up my route I just go down little alleyways. There’s a little left turn by the church near the fire station in Euston. If you go down it there’s a parade of Georgian shops that are really extraordinary. They’re really old. At the end of last year I was rehearsing in Spitalfields and there’s a road called Artillery Lane and it’s absolutely amazing. It’s a little slice of Dickens just dropped into the city. Beautiful.
I remember being worried, thinking: “Am I the first person that doesn’t get New York?”
Did you visit any great locations for Operation Mincemeat?
I did most of my scenes in Bloomsbury, which was very exciting because they closed off most of the square at night-time. It was very atmospheric, like being in a blackout. They had cars with the muffled headlights and stuff like that.
A few years ago, I did a film called Coalition where I played Peter Mandelson, and there was a connecting tunnel between somewhere in Whitehall and the Ministry of Defence. We shot in it and it was really exciting! You never get access to places like that. And the Home Office. I remember spending Sunday morning in the Home Office and it was the real thing: we had to go through all these security doors and it was thrilling.
What’s your most memorable hotel stay and why?
I went to Japan in 2014 for The Guardian. I got one of those emails you always hope you’re going to get saying, “Do you want to go anywhere in the world and write about it?” I said, “Yes, I do!” My first choice was Antarctica, but it didn’t quite work out, so Japan was the next place on my list. I had a great time. I went to a city called Kagoshima and we got to this resort by the coast, the Kagoshima Sunamushionsen Ibusuki Hakusuikan Hotel, and it was like something from Dr. No – it was like a Ken Adam set. Absolutely, ravishingly beautiful. It was all rock and metal. Properly, ridiculously luxurious. The room was like an apartment with paper walls. There was a complimentary kimono, the food was fantastic and the view was incredible. In the bay next to it there was a section where there’s a tiny little spit of sand so you get waves overlapping, but they don’t merge together. I’ve never seen anything like that.
The one thing, though, was that it was so sophisticated I couldn’t find the light switch. I slept on a proper Japanese bed but I had to wear an eye mask because I couldn’t turn the lights off. They’re so discreet, they didn’t seem to have a switch, so I had to imagine darkness. They must have been thinking, “Why has he still got the lights on?”
What one place would you say everyone needs to see before they die?
Middlesbrough. Just so they can appreciate everywhere else. I’ll get in trouble for that, but it’s true!
Do you have any annoying travel tics?
No, I hate to disappoint! I just love to travel and I miss it very much. I’m looking forward to going away. I did a film in the Outer Hebrides in lockdown and that was the last time I’ve been on an aeroplane. It was a propeller plane – like being in The Wicker Man. It’s a fantastically beautiful place. The isles of Lewis and Harris are absolutely amazing. There is more weather there than anywhere else on earth, but it was beautiful. I was so grateful to be away and to have a taste of somewhere different during all that misery.
Do you have any plans to travel?
I’m directing a play, Steven Moffat’s The Unfriend, in Chichester, which opens in May, and then I’m comparatively free for me so I think I might go to LA and New York because I’ve missed them. Then I’ll plan a proper big holiday, if we’re allowed to now. It’s definitely time again.
Operation Mincemeat is released in UK cinemas on 15 April
As told to Ally Wybrew
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