Mark Gatiss: ‘I’m terrified that we are losing the caff for ever’

The actor and director on his fears for a British institution, the day he stopped being vegetarian and why he’s a fast eater

I’m going to disappoint you with my terribly proletarian tastes. If I was to be hanged in the morning, which is quite possible, I would have beans on toast. Because I love that and I have that on a Sunday very regularly because it just makes me happy. I’ve tried to be much more adventurous over the years, but I’m basically working-class, proletarian filth and it’s very hard to eradicate some of those things.

I was a vegetarian for 15 years and I stopped about 2000, a year after The League of Gentlemen was first on TV. Even though things had got so much better for vegetarians, I remember sitting somewhere in Soho and looking at this menu and there were three things I could eat. And I just thought: “Fuck it!” So I had some chicken and it was incredibly bland and I thought: “I’ve blown it, I’ve wasted 15 years of proper abstinence for this bland chicken!” Then the next day I had a bacon sandwich and everything was all right.

I’m a hopeless cook. Terrible. I can make quite a good chilli and I do like doing a lamb tagine with apricots. But I’ve also got a kind of anti-Midas touch: I can take the most exotic ingredients in the world and make them bland.

I’m really genuinely terrified that we are losing for ever the caff. And I mean that very specifically: the caff not the cafe. This is a campaign I would like to get started. I was in town a couple of weeks ago for a meeting, I was a bit early, and I absolutely couldn’t find anywhere that wasn’t Pret. I don’t even mean an amazing greasy spoon. I mean literally somewhere that did egg and chips and a cup of tea. They are genuinely vanishing and it’s such a shame because there’s nothing like them.

An army marches on its stomach, and that’s very much true with a film crew. I’ve often seen it, you can get a mutinous film crew because they don’t like the catering. They just start disappearing at lunchtime, and go to the pub and get something there. And if you’ve lost them, there’s something very wrong. Once I was directing something in the middle of a heatwave and I sent someone out to get as many ice lollies as we could find in this scarce environment. Oh my God, what a difference it made to everyone’s mood!

I vividly remember asking for a steak tartare and asking for it to be well done. Because I had no idea; it was just some words I’d heard in a James Bond film or something.

Again, going back to my roots, I’m a very fast eater. And it’s a problem. I have to consciously slow down. I think it’s because we all ate very quickly when I was a kid, because well, my dad would nick it if we didn’t. But it casts an interesting shadow, even when you’re trying to enjoy a meal. I’m in the middle of a conversation, and I look down and I’m nearly finished and everybody else is just talking: “Oh no, I’ve done it again!”

One of the funniest experiences of my life was when my partner and I went to Paris many years ago. We decided to stay at the George V and really push the boat out and, insanely, to eat in the hotel restaurant. The service was suffocatingly good, when there’s like 13 people to show you to your table. And in a very English way, you just start clenching up because it’s not fun. Anyway there was so little food that when we eventually fled – and I think we did flee – we went round the corner straight away and had an omelette because we were hungry! And it was £500 each for this tiny meal. Oof, it was a lesson, a lesson.

My favourite things

Italian food, overall, is my favourite. I’m very fond of all kinds of pasta dishes and there’s something about the simplicity of the Mediterranean diet that really ticks all my boxes. Maybe it just goes back to my prole roots.

Sauvignon blanc, chilled. On the right day, I don’t think there’s anything quite like it.

Place to eat
Katsuya in Los Angeles. They do a spicy tuna, it’s the most delicious thing. You know that feeling when you have chocolate, and you don’t really want to swallow it, you just want to let it stay in your mouth? It’s like that.

Dish to make
I make quite a good chilli, and I enjoy the process of it. Following a recipe is not beyond anyone, but I just never seem to do it. It’s the risk, isn’t it? If the evening meal is depending on you, it’s not the time to take risks.

Mark Gatiss stars as Larry Grayson in Nolly on ITVX in February. He is directing The Unfriend at the Criterion Theatre, London, and from next month The Way Old Friends Do at the Birmingham Rep. He will star as John Gielgud in The Motive and the Cue at the National Theatre from April


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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