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A moonstruck Mark Gatiss sends HG Wells into orbit

The First Men In The Moon has a whiff of nostalgia for the League Of Gentlemen star.

Pretend it’s a Monday. Pretend it’s three in the afternoon and it’s a bank holiday, that it’s winter and outside it’s a horrible, rainy day (you might not have to pretend that bit). Finally, pretend that you’re 10 years old.

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Now you should be in exactly the right frame of mind for the BBC’s new version of HG Wells’s The First Men In The Moon. Mark Gatiss, who’s written and stars in the film, has strong memories of how those rattly, wintry holiday afternoons used to feel and, in one way or another, has spent most of his life and career trying to recreate the feeling, over and over again.

Gatiss – still perhaps best known for being part of The League Of Gentlemen foursome and for creating all those funny/horrible characters and those grotesque, unsettling catchphrases – says his intention with his Wells film was to make the sort of drama he’d like to watch. “There could be nothing I’d more want to see than a bank holiday scientific romance like The First Men In The Moon,” he says. He is a big fan of the original 1901 novel and the 1964 film with Lionel Jeffries. He is also a big fan of the quaintness of the story, the ludicrousness of an Edwardian gentleman hammering together a spaceship from bits of mahogany and taking it to the surface of the moon. This isn’t digital science fiction where machines go beep; this is analogue science fiction where machinery goes creak.

Gatiss, who’s 43, says this old-fashioned aesthetic has always appealed to him more than modern science fiction. “I’ve never read the 17 books in the Goontharc cycle or whatever,” he says. “Stuff like that leaves me so cold, but Wells has everything – the huge shining ideas, plus the charm of the period, plus a political idea or argument – in the case of First Men In The Moon, it’s a parable of imperialism. It’s also this idea of an Edwardian going to the moon – that just ticks all my boxes.”

Much as he loves this story, Gatiss’s first experience of Wells was actually the glorious 1960 film version of The Time Machine starring Rod Taylor. As soon as we start to talk about that film, Gatiss does a little time travel himself, swooping back to the 1970s when he first saw it, and all the primary-coloured thrill of it. “It’s never left me,” he says. “It’s gorgeous: the design of the machine itself, that first wonderful moment when he pushes the lever and you see the sun arcing overhead and the fashions changing in the shop window. I remember being thrilled and terrified in equal measure when suddenly the shop gets boarded up – and he goes outside and it’s 1914 and there’s a war coming. It still makes me go slightly funny to think about it – it’s so sweet and melancholy at the same time.”

And then suddenly, Gatiss cranks the controls of his own time machine and comes back to the present. He’s been enjoying all this wistful chat, but is aware of its dangers too. “I’m terribly nostalgic, but I’m with the Elizabethans who thought nostalgia was a disease. It’s a dangerous place to be because you can get caught up in it.”

That said, take a look at Gatiss’s career and it can look like he doesn’t heed his own warning – a lot of his work recreates TV history and, quite often, he has been part of reviving old shows from the 1950s and 1960s that have risen again like the mummies in the old horror movies he also loves. There’s Doctor Who, of course, which he has written for and starred in; there’s his revival, with Steven Moffat, of Sherlock Holmes; there was a new version of The Quatermass Experiment (created by Gatiss’s other great hero Nigel Kneale); a revival of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased); and now there’s HG Wells. Gatiss is aware how all of this looks, but denies it reflects who he really is or what he wants to do.

“It may look on the surface that I’m interested in remaking and revisiting an awful lot,” he says. “but I’m much more interested in doing new things. Nostalgia is a lovely place to be, but it’s a honey trap.”

Despite that warning, Gatiss’s version of The First Men In The Moon drips with lots of sticky nostalgia and a love for how things used to be done. There is a very small cast – basically just Gatiss as Professor Cavor and Rory Kinnear as his sidekick Julius – and the story unfolds in a few three-wall sets just like it used to be done in the old days. As Cavor, Gatiss is clearly channelling actors like Peter Cushing and William Hartnell; his professor is a mumbly, chaotic inventor lost in his own brilliance. It’s the kind of character, says Gatiss, which inspired him to act. “I’m drawn to the idea of the man on a mission, there’s something very boysy about it. It comes back to that bank holiday feeling – it’s Boys’ Own, and I don’t mean bluff and straight. I mean something about the adventure.”

Gatiss’s use of that word – “straight” – gets us talking about the idea that, as well as the Boys’ Own aspect of science fiction, there may be another appeal going on for him as a gay man. He’s certainly aware of the theories on why science fiction appeals to gay men, but in the end says it’s not central to how he works. “There are learned papers about the appeal of Doctor Who in particular to gay men and what it represents and still represents, in terms of escape and responsibility without responsibility or a stable home which moves anywhere you want in space and time. I was very aware of being gay as a kid, but I wasn’t aware of Doctor Who appealing to me for those reasons. It was the thrill of it. It’s something I can almost bottle for myself.”

As for the small cast and the studio-bound nature of The First Men In The Moon, some of that was inspired by the small, intense nature of the original novel, but a lot was imposed by the restricted budget needed to create a journey to the moon and the aliens that live there. “Right from the beginning I said, is this actually possible?” adds Gatiss. “Can we do it? But there’s an odd thing that comes into play, which is that the restrictions of a BBC Four budget mean you are more able to be faithful to the novel because there’s less pressure to fiddle with things.”

Even so, Gatiss reckons he is concerned about how television budgets have shrunk and even more worried about the cuts to come. “It can’t not happen, given that everybody is tightening their belt – the first thing anyone hears these days is ‘there’s no money’, and there really isn’t. So that’s an issue – people are worried about it just in terms of there’s very little work and actually being able to live. My fear is that the axe is going to fall in all the wrong places, and that they’ll try to cut the licence fee or even get rid of it, God help us. So it worries me. I hope there is a line that can’t be crossed.”

Gatiss’s only other sadness about The First Men In The Moon is that there isn’t more television like it around. It’s sad, he says, that, despite the success of Doctor Who, there are still many more hospital wards and police interview rooms on television than space ships.

“When we grew up there was no perceived difference between adapting Day Of The Triffids and Middlemarch,” he says. “But science fiction now is still regarded with a bit of suspicion, even though when I was a kid, fantasy and horror and science fiction were staples of television.”

And with that, we’re back again: back in those October afternoons of the 1970s, with the wind rattling the slates and imagination rattling around in young minds. Whatever he says about the dangers of nostalgia, Gatiss is clearly happy to do this, to go back to the past - and then crank the lever of the time machine, return to the present and try to recreate some of that wonderful feeling for the rest of us.

The First Men In The Moon is on BBC Four, October 19, 9pm

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