Mark Gatiss on playing Stephen Gardiner in BBC Two’s Wolf Hall

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Surely one of our busiest TV people, from acting to writing to presenting Mark Gatiss barely has enough time to sit down with a custard cream, a cuppa and a 1970’s Portmanteau horror to watch it would seem. His next biggest appearance will be a key role in BBC Two’s highly anticipated dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s history novel Wolf Hall. Here he tells about how Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Cromwell enjoyed a hate hate relationship throughout their dealings with each other across the years.

Who was Stephen Gardiner?
Initially Stephen Gardiner was a secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, then he sort of defected to Henry VIII and then he becomes Thomas Cromwell’s arch-enemy. Their relationship is encapsulated in a very nice scene, a tiny little scene in which, as usual, we’re bitching at each other and scrapping and Cromwell says, ‘Can’t we just drop this?’ and Gardiner says, ‘No, I don’t think we can.’ And that’s kind of the pattern of their relationship throughout the series. Then I think gradually what happens is Gardiner realises that Cromwell is encroaching on his territory. And indeed Gardiner is then sent abroad and Cromwell effectively takes over from him.

What attracted you to the role?
The script, actually, I hadn’t read the book. I’ve now read the books during production, but I loved the script. I’m a huge history buff and I love the Tudors, so I was intrigued to see what would be different about this story. It’s an oft-told story, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII… we’ve been here many times before, but Hilary Mantel’s books and Peter Straughan’s script put a very familiar story into a totally different light, essentially by doing it from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view. On top of that it’s also much more impressionistic. It’s not just a series of wives or battles. You get this whole worldview from it. You’ve got this extraordinary man, completely self-made and the way Mark [Rylance] is playing him is incredible. I think every now and then he gives you a taste of the gutter that he’s wrenched himself up from – he’s like a butcher, really, I think. With Peter Kosminsky and Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis it’s the sort of production I grew up wanting to be in and for it to be this lavish, this high profile and this good is everything you could wish for.

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Why do Gardiner and Cromwell loathe each other so much?
Perhaps they’re too similar. To me the thing which is always fascinating about politics is it’s essentially the same story. It’s always the struggle for the crown, no matter what that means, whether it’s the Prime Minister or the King, as it were. And then there’s always someone like Gardiner and there’s always someone like Cromwell – very able people – whether it’s Robert Cecil from Elizabeth I or Peter Mandelson. There’s always someone in that sort of position who rises through their sheer talent to become indispensible, and I suppose Gardiner and Cromwell just cancel each other out. Only one of them can win.

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What has it been like to play those scenes with Mark Rylance, in which your characters lock horns?
I’ve loved every minute. Essentially I come in every couple of weeks, sweep in to a beautiful stately home, bitch at him and he bitches back at me and then I go home for a bit. He’s a very naughty man, very playful and funny and just fantastic.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.