I have to admit to being a little intimidated before talking to Mark, letting his extensive list of recent acting and writing credentials overwhelm me slightly (the frenzied binge watching of Sherlock didn’t do a lot to clear my head when I was pondering over what to ask him). After half-heartedly attempting relaxation techniques and filling my head with endless obscure Dr Who related information, he called. I thought I would open with some common ground, as my research confirmed that he was from Sedgefield, where I grew up. We could talk about the pubs! Unfortunately not. Wikipedia was wrong. Errr…He caught me offguard when he asked me what NARC. meant. Errr… I had this all planned out!
He’s actually from another village in County Durham (School Aycliffe) and had fond memories of growing up in the North East. “My childhood was idyllic, I have really happy memories of home life and at school. We would go on holiday to Scarborough, Bridlington, Hull…” Hull? God (he’s recently been filming the Dad’s Army remake in Bridlington). He talks about school life with his typical off-beat humour, his Headteacher referred to him as “macabre” and recalls how another teacher described him as being a “wizard with words,” even back then. His school reports likened his English compositions to Hammer film scripts. He kept his friends at school entertained with impressions of teachers, and released his frustrations by killing off the teachers he disliked in his stories.
He’s grateful to his parents for being liberal with their TV and film viewing choices – “I got to watch things like the Brides of Dracula and Christopher Lee films as a kid, mainly because my Dad wanted to watch them.” His horror obsession led him to build a Frankenstein-esque Victorian laboratory as an adult, which was apparently “nowhere near the scale of Guillermo Del Toro’s.” His favourite horror films include The Wicker Man and The Haunting (ghost stories are his thing).
His Dr Who obsession started as a child – he remembers getting frustrated when his brother used to tell him about episodes he hadn’t seen yet. His favourite Doctor? “John Pertwee. I like Doctors that have authority, with a strong moral compass – Peter Capaldi has the same air about him.” The use of intellect as a super power must have appealed massively to him as a child. Cue Sherlock Holmes, which combines his writing and acting talents (he plays Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother). “I was given a set of Sherlock stories as a child, which included an introduction where the author said that he wished he was reading the stories again for the first time. I still have the book.” (He recently had the chance to write an introduction to the same set of stories, and used the same quote). He likes his quotes, and is adept at peppering them in throughout our conversation, referencing Churchill the most.
He admits that his drama course wasn’t the best, which pushed him to be more proactive with his contemporaries, which thankfully included the other League of Gentlemen guys (they shared a common love of comedy/horror/Carry on Screaming). Acknowledging the role of luck in getting the break he recalls that “we were lucky that stand up was kind of on its way out at the time we were doing sketch comedy.” It’s no substitute for hard work though – “the best advice is on the doors of RADA – push.” Another quote: “90% of success is turning up” (Woody Allen).
His theatre work also deserves a mention. He’s done quite a lot recently, most notably starring in Coriolanus as Menenius, which led to a Laurence Oliver Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Film-wise, expect to see him soon in the Dad’s Army remake as Captain Mainwaring’s Colonel-in-Chief. Also look out for Coalition, a one-off Channel 4 drama where he plays Peter Mandelson (his impression is chilling and uncanny).
He’s been genuinely blown away by the global success of Sherlock – “it’s gone all over the world. It’s amazing, bearing in mind we’ve only done a small number of episodes.” He’s soon to visit India and China (the popularity of Sherlock fan clubs all over the world even before the show was huge). Now totally hooked, I’m looking forward to the Christmas Special and Series Four (he wouldn’t divulge any spoilers, unfortunately).
I couldn’t end the conversation without picking his brain for writing tips. “I prefer to write at night, or first thing in the morning. I need total focus – I can’t work with the phone ringing or music in the background.” He recommends going to a museum or going to the cinema as ways to help with writer’s block. Early on in his writing career, he did film reviews for a paper in Leeds, and freely admits that he wasn’t all that good. There’s hope for us all then.
*Luckily the night before I spoke to him on the phone, I happened to meet a local (pardon the pun) journalist who had interviewed him previously and confirmed that he was “a thoroughly nice guy.” My nerves at the beginning of the piece may not have been as bad as I made out them to be. I think I’ve been watching too much Sherlock.