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Gay Times December 08 - Issue 363

What the Dickens?

Writer, comedian and actor Mark Gatiss ruminates for GT on festive spookiness, new traditions, big socks and farts

I’ve always thought Santa quite a frightening figure. He comes into your house, necks some sherry, and creeps right into your bedroom. I once bought a brilliant Christmas card in LA. It was a cartoon of a little boy coming down the stairs and spotting Santa hanging up the stockings. Santa says to him, “I’m sorry you’ve seen me, Timmy. Now I’ll have to kill you.” It made me cry laughing. I can’t remember when I stopped believing in Santa but, weirdly, I recall one very frosty Christmas Eve, when I was convinced I heard sleigh bells on the roof. No, really.
As a child I was terribly confused and rather disappointed that you could go to see Santa in the big Fenwicks department store in Newcastle. I thought, “If that’s him, what’s all the fuss about his coming down the chimney?” You had to go down a long, dark corridor and there he was, smelling of BO and beer. He did give me a copy of Great Expectations, though, which is how I got into Charles Dickens.
Russell T Davies said to me a couple of years ago that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has become the Christmas Story, and in a way that’s true. It’s hard to believe that it’s only150 years old. It feels like it’s always been with us.
It’s my favourite thing. I read it every year, and I think I’ve seen virtually every version. It’s so powerful – a story of redemption, disappointment and second chance, and it’s still so relevant. There’s a part, rarely dramatised, when the Ghost of Christmas Present is about to leave and Scrooge notices a bulge in his garment (no, not that). The Ghost opens his robe, and clinging to him for support are two dreadful, ghoulish children. Scrooge asks, “Whose are they?” and the Ghost replies, “They are Man’s – this boy is Ignorance, this girl is Want – beware them both, but most of all, beware this boy”. It gives me goosebumps still.
Scrooge is obviously an amazing character, but I’ve always been drawn to the melancholy Jacob Marley, perhaps because it’s too late for him. He intercedes on Scrooge’s behalf, but didn’t intervene in human affairs when he was alive and so, as punishment, has to walk the earth wearing the chains he forged in life. I love him. There’s the whole thing with the head bandage (which was used to keep corpses’ mouths closed), and his jaw dropping to his chest. I used to practice the lines in the mirror: “Would you know the weight and extent of the chain you wear yourself? It was full and heavy, and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it since. It is a ponderous chain.” Gorgeous.
I always loved Christmas and am ludicrously sentimental about it. My Dad was originally a mining engineer, and our Christmas stockings used to be his pit socks; big, blue woolly socks stuffed with chocolate, oranges and nuts. It’s funny. You could have Brazil nuts and a satsuma any time, but the fact that they were in that sock made them somehow magical.
Christmas Day, though, is often a disappointment. To me the special one is Christmas Eve. It’s anticipation versus result. The reality of the big day is overeating, the smell of chipolatas and warm farts, and relatives falling asleep in front of Mary Poppins. They all have their charms, but there’s often a slightly fractious family thing: people trying too hard, getting overheated. But then you can clear your head with the traditional Big Walk.
I think you just have to give in to Christmas to really enjoy it. Sit in a corner with a party hat on, slightly askew, and embarrass your nephews. I love doing that. I’ve realised that this is what uncles have done since Time Immemorial. You have to become the silly uncle. That’s the spirit of Christmas.

Black Butterfly, the third in Mark Gatiss’ popular Lucifer Box series, is due out in paperback in December

Words: Mark Gatiss

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