Mark Gatiss loves to bring a spine-chilling ghost story to our screens every Christmas, and this year he gives us not one but two: The Mezzotint on BBC2 and The Amazing Mr Blunden, which arrives on Sky Max on Christmas Eve at 7pm.
The Amazing Mr Blunden is the more family-friendly of the two movies: it's a remake of the 1972 film by The Railway Children director Lionel Jeffries, in which two London children, Lucy and Jamie, and their mother become the caretakers of a crumbling country house thanks to the mysterious Mr Blunden. One day while in the grounds of the house, Lucy and Jamie encounter two ghostly figures who turn out to be children who lived in the house many years earlier, and have traveled forward in time seeking help as they believe the evil Mr and Mrs Wickens are plotting to kill them.
As well as writing and directing the film, Mark also plays Mr Wickens, and we spoke to him about updating the story for a modern audience...
Mark Gatiss on falling in love with 'The Amazing Mr Blunden'
"The odd thing is, people who know it really know it, but a lot of people have never heard of it. It's a curious thing, because it's very much a companion piece to The Railway Children, but it's passed a lot of people by, which is why — although it initially felt sacrilegious — we felt we can do this again, because it was 50 years ago and it's a lovely story. I saw it at school when I was seven, literally the day that we broke up for Christmas, on an old projector, and it was like, 'is this film made for me? It's got everything I love!' So it's a very personal project."
Did you always intend to play Mr Wickens as well as writing and directing it?
"I tell you what I'm discovering: I don't know how Mackenzie Crook or Orson Welles manages it, it's very hard because you're literally nipping back and forth, and when time is against you and you're having to watch replays just to see what's going on, it's difficult — but that's part of the fun, I suppose! Like Mycroft in Sherlock, it wasn't the original plan [for Mark to play him], but it was kind of part of the package. And also fun to do. But I had to play a small part because I've got too much to do. There is one scene I was meant to be in a lot more, just in the background, but I realised the day before that it was just going to be impossible, so I literally walk out of the scene in order to direct it! You'll know it when you see it — I seem to show no interest in my child's concert..."
How did you find playing Mr Wickens?
"I wanted to do something different, because David Lodge [who played the role in the original] is utterly brilliant and very frightening, but he's an ex-boxer, which I'm obviously not! I think the key to it really is that there isn't a reason why Mr Wickens lets the fire get out of hand. I thought actually, maybe he's a pyromaniac, so that's what I've tried to seed. Every time he sees a flame he's a bit drawn to it, so when Mrs Wickens says 'start the fire', he just goes too far — with his catchphrase, 'pretty pretty!'"
Have you changed much from the original film?
"It's quite the reverse actually, we've gone back to the book. [The film is based on the 1968 novel The Ghosts by Antonia Barber.] An interesting thing about the Lionel Jeffries film — because of the success of The Railway Children, I think they were very much encouraged to make it feel like it, so the family are from 1918 and go back 100 years. In the book, they are a modern family, so we've done that, and I think that's quite an interesting thing. The original film, which I adore, is a period film within a period film, whereas this is 2021 back to 1821, and there's a starker feel to that. It was great going back to the book — the original film follows it very closely, but there's lots of other little bits and pieces."
Did you always have Simon Callow in mind as your Mr Blunden?
"Oh, very much — if Simon hadn't been available, I'm not sure who we could have asked! He's perfect for it — it's an interesting part, Blunden, because it's avuncular and twinkly but it's also very sad. We talked a lot early on about how much this story has its roots in A Christmas Carol anyway, so it's a redemption story — Blunden has made a mistake and he's suffered for 200 years with wanting to make things right, and this is his chance to do it..."
- The Amazing Mr Blunden airs on Christmas Eve at 7pm on Sky Max, Sky Showcase and streaming service NOW.
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