‘Let’s not forget how far we have come’: Mark Gatiss on remembering gay history in Queers

gatiss-mark.jpgJuly 2017 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised sex between men over twenty-one in the privacy of their own homes in England and Wales. When the BBC approached writer, actor and director Mark Gatiss to curate Queers, a series of monologues to mark the anniversary, he got to work straight away. Here, he explains the inspirations behind the eight pieces, and reflects on where the LGBT+ community stands today.

When I was a child, Friday nights were sacrosanct because it was then – after the late sports report – that Tyne Tees Television showed horror films. I would sometimes watch them in company, but more often than not I was left by myself to sit up and watch. In the summer, the slot was occupied by more palatable fare but, used to my horrors, my family duly left me alone. One night – I think I was about twelve or thirteen – there was a film called if… I knew nothing about it except that the Northern Echo gave it five stars and a ‘don’t miss!’

An English public school. Boys returning from the holidays. And, within minutes, a beautiful blond boy is being castigated by a prefect with the words ‘And you, Phillips, stop tarting.’ I felt my heart thud in my chest, my mouth go dry. As the film unfolded, I found myself more tense and gripped than by any horror film I’d ever seen. I became more and more afraid that someone would come downstairs and catch me watching, spoil it all, spoil the illicit thrill…

I’d known I was gay since before I could really understand what such a thing meant. And, just as I had pored over the men’s underwear section of the Brian Mills catalogue in search of titillation (it was slim pickings in those days), I had scoured the TV schedules for anything that might have even a glimmer of homosexual content. From my first crushes (Craig in The Champions and the dark one off Follyfoot, in case you’re wondering) to the first stirrings of something nameless and exciting whilst watching a particular adventure of The Tomorrow People. Jason Kemp, the actor in that episode, later turned up in the ITV drama Kids, playing a brilliantly acerbic Scouse queen. I think I responded both to his physical beauty and his blazing queerness which, like all the best things, felt both exciting and a little bit scary.

These fragments, then, these little moments of visible gayness were like diamonds in the TV schedules. To be savoured, hoarded up and remembered forever.

These days, of course, we do not have to scour the schedules in the same way. There are visible gay characters in many mainstream dramas. Nevertheless, the commitment of the BBC to their ‘Gay Britannia’ season is still a massive cause for celebration. So when I was approached with the idea of curating a series of monologues for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, I leapt at the chance.

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Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

But where to start? Well, with a qualification. Queers commemorates an Act of Parliament which partially decriminalised sex between men over twenty-one in the privacy of their own homes in England and Wales. It would not become law in Scotland until 1980 and in Northern Ireland until 1982. In curating this series I have not attempted to cover the entire history of LGBT+ representation in Britain over the past century. Rather, I wanted, predominantly, to examine the gay male experience, looking at the world leading up to the 1967 Act and the years which have followed, tracing the extraordinary progress that’s been made, but from a variety of unexpected angles.

Anti-gay legislation in the modern era really began with the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, the so-called ‘Labouchere Amendment’, prohibiting ‘gross indecency between males’. This became known almost at once as ‘the blackmailer’s charter’ and was the law that ensnared Oscar Wilde. Wilde seemed an obvious place to start the monologues, but as I wanted to encompass the century, perhaps it could be from the perspective of someone with a memory of Oscar Wilde? Perhaps someone on the railway platform that infamous day he was taken to Reading Gaol? From this sprang the idea of Perce, a stretcher-bearer in the trenches of World War One and a love that almost spoke its name…

Though the series, as I’ve said, was to reflect mostly the gay male experience, I did want to include some female perspectives. I discovered the extraordinary story of Lillias Irma Valerie Arkell-Smith – known as Colonel Barker – who had lived as a man, even going so far as to marry a woman. I thought this could be the basis of a fascinating story and from it, Jackie Clune wove The Perfect Gentleman and its unexpected take on the notion of masculinity.

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Kadiff Kirwan (Fredrick) on the set of Queers |© BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

What was it like to be a black gay man in the past? Although there was a thriving ‘queer’ demi-monde in America in the twenties and thirties, it only seems to have touched the fringes of the jazz scene in this country. It was astonishing, in fact, to discover how little is known about black gay sub-culture at that time. I re-read the biography of the artist Glyn Philpot and thought there might be something interesting in the notion of being an ‘exotic’ life model at that time. This, together with the story of Patrick Nelson – who was one of Duncan Grant’s lovers – provided Keith Jarrett with the inspiration for Safest Spot in Town.

In 1957 came the Wolfenden Report. This was the beginning of change, though it would take a further decade for the law to actually pass. But what aspect of this period to examine? Jon Bradfield pitched me Missing Alice – an idea with which I instantly fell in love. A woman happily married to a gay man who worries that increasing liberalisation might make him leave her. What a lovely, simple notion. A tiny Terence Rattigan play, as it were.

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Rebecca Front (Alice) and Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

When I first moved to London I remember being invited to what seemed to me quite a sophisticated gay party. What I’ll never forget is chatting to an elderly man, waspish, hilarious and who lapsed into Polari at the drop of a feather boa. ‘It was never the same, you know, dear, after it was legal,’ he said. ‘All the fun went out of it.’ I wanted to use this as a jumping-off point, to explore the notion that not everyone saw legalisation as a good thing. Matthew Baldwin, who had already co-written a fascinating play about ’67 called The Act, was the natural choice to write I Miss the War.

With the eighties, the shadow of AIDS, of course, looms, as monolithic as those tombstone TV ads we grew so used to. This was the time in which I grew up as a gay man. But how to approach this period and this subject which might feel like it’s prey to cliché? Happily, Brian Fillis came up with More Anger about a young gay actor who finds the health crisis affecting him in unexpected ways.

By 1994, change was in the air and the House of Commons voted to lower the homosexual age of consent. I was there that night as big crowds gathered to hear the – as it turned out, disappointing – result. Michael Dennis was also there – though we didn’t know each other at the time. His memories of that experience and of being a young man enjoying the big city for the first time became A Grand Day Out.

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Russell Tovey (Phil) and Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

Finally, Something Borrowed brings us – almost – to the present day and the preparations for a wedding. I wanted to celebrate this amazing state of affairs, unthinkable just a short time ago, but also to explore what might have got lost along the way. The notion of being different, an outsider, other; that illicit thrill I felt watching if… all those years ago. Gareth McLean’s monologue asks some tough questions without providing easy answers.

As we see every day, hard-won victories can be undone with the stroke of a presidential pen. Homosexuality remains illegal in seventy-four countries. In thirteen of them, it is punishable by death. But let’s not forget how far we have come. And that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Curating and directing Queers has been a wonderful journey, and I’d like to thank everyone involved – from the BBC to the writers, the actors, the crew and the publishers – for making it an unforgettable experience.


FormattedThis is taken from the introduction to Queers: Eight Monologues, published by Nick Hern Books in partnership with the BBC.

Curated by Mark Gatiss, and written by Mark and seven other authors – Jackie Clune, Keith Jarrett, Jon Bradfield, Matthew Baldwin, Brian Fillis, Michael Dennis and Gareth McLean – these eight monologues for male and female performers celebrate a century of evolving social attitudes and political milestones in British gay history, through deeply affecting and personal rites-of-passage stories.

The monologues will be performed at Old Vic Theatre, London, and broadcast on BBC Four

To get your copy at a special 25% discount – so just £7.49 – use code QUEERSBLOG when ordering here.

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‘One of the great artistic privileges of my life’: Conor McPherson on writing and directing Girl from the North Country

Fresh from his acclaimed TV debut Paula on BBC Two, award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s latest project sees him weave the masterful songs of Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan into a poetic, haunting tale of love, loss and obligation set in Minnesota during the Great Depression. As Girl from the North Country premieres at the Old Vic Theatre, London, McPherson reflects on how he found the inspiration for the show, and his deep respect for Bob Dylan’s skills as a musician and writer…

Maybe five years ago I was asked if I might consider writing a play to feature Bob Dylan’s songs. I initially didn’t feel this was something I could do and I had cast it out of my mind when, one day, walking along, I saw a vision of a guesthouse in Minnesota in the 1930s.

I had been in Minnesota twice in the years leading up to this – both times in the dead of winter. The friendliness of the people, the dry frozen wind, the vast distance from home, these things had stayed with me. And I saw a way Mr Dylan’s songs might make sense in a play.

I was invited to write down the idea I had seen and send it to Bob Dylan. A few days later I heard back that Mr Dylan liked the idea and was happy for me to proceed. Just like that.

Ron Cook rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

And then I received forty albums in the post, covering Mr Dylan’s career. While I owned Dylan albums already, like Desire and Blood on the Tracks, and loved many of his songs (often without knowing he’d written them) performed by hundreds of artists from The Byrds to Fairport Convention, I had no idea of the real search he had been on his whole life.

It strikes me that many of Mr Dylan’s songs can be sung at any time, by anyone in any situation, and still make sense and resonate with that particular place and person and time. When you realise this you can no longer have any doubt you are in the presence of a truly great, unique artist.

Working on our production of Girl from the North Country, sometimes I would wake in the night with a Bob Dylan song going round in my head. The next day I would come into rehearsals and we’d learn the song and put it in the show. Did it fit? Did it matter? It always fit somehow.

Many books have been written in an attempt to explore this universal power. Even though Mr Dylan will say he’s often not sure what his songs mean, he always sings them like he means them. Because he does mean them. Whatever they mean.

Sheila Atim rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Every time I hear these songs I see a picture like I’m watching a movie. Sometimes it’s the same, sometimes it’s different, but you always see something.

Like Philip Larkin, like James Joyce, Mr Dylan has the rare power of literary compression. Images and conceits are held in unstable relations, forcing an atomic reaction of some kind, creating a new inner world.

But let’s talk about his musicality. Spending time with his music has taught me a few things: Firstly, writing something that sounds original is rare, but writing something that sounds original and simple at the same time is the mark of genius. Anyone can keep making things more complicated, but to keep a song simple, like it somehow always existed and would have surely been written by someone, someday… try writing that one.

Secondly, Mr Dylan always goes through the right musical door. Listening to a Bob Dylan song is like being in a room you’ve never been in before. It’s full of characters and images and tons of musical atmosphere. But then Bob changes the chords, moving through a bridge or a chorus, and a door opens up in that room, so you go through that door into another room – but it’s always the right door.

Thirdly, Mr Dylan sings about God a lot. Sometimes God appears as an impossible reflection of yourself. Sometimes as someone you could never know. But however God appears, however Mr Dylan begs for mercy, you understand that cry.

The company rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Anyway, I write this on the eve of moving from the rehearsal room to the theatre. Whatever happens next I have no idea. All I can say with any certainty is that having had Mr Dylan’s trust to create a piece of work using his songs has been one of the great artistic privileges of my life.


This introduction is taken from the published script to Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, which includes the full text of the play plus the lyrics to all of the Bob Dylan songs featured in the production.

Get your copy via our website at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – here.

Girl from the North Country is at the Old Vic, London, until 7 October 2017. Tickets available here.

Author photo by Mel Melcon.