Interview with Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard about their new production, The Way Old Friends Do

It’s time for a double interview and a strong ABBA theme with actor, comedian, screenwriter, director and producer Mark Gatiss and actor and writer Ian Hallard, ahead of their new production, The Way Old Friends Do at Theatre Royal Bath. Melissa Blease invents a new acronym and discovers that the ties of friendship carry Mark and Ian, and the new play, through…

Times of joy and times of sorrow, we will always see it through. Oh, I don’t care what comes tomorrow, we can face it together… the way old friends do.”

Those lyrics may not come from the most obvious of Swedish supergroup ABBA’s greatest hits back catalogue but the song itself – The Way Old Friends Do, the last track on the band’s chart-topping 1980 album Super Trouper – is certainly one of their most evocative, led by Agnetha Fältskog’s plaintive vocal storytelling set against a lilting bagpipe soundscape that slowly builds up to a spine-chillingly redolent climax.

Some four decades later, that song provided actor/writer Ian Hallard with the title and the original inspiration for his brand new comedy, described as being all about “devotion, desire and dancing queens” (and, in my opinion, a heck of a lot more besides), directed by none other than Mark (Nolly; The League of Gentlemen; Sherlock; Dracula; Doctor Who) Gatiss, aka Hallard’s husband of 15 plus years.

Phew! There’s a heck of a lot of a backstory storyline going on here before we even get to what Mark and Ian refer to as ‘the matter in hand’ – as in, the imminent arrival of TWOFD at Theatre Royal Bath at the end of this month. “Yes, you could call us very busy people!” says Mark. “But the thing is, a lot of what we’ve both done covers a long space of time, and there’s enough to talk about right here and now without referring to five, ten or 20 years ago. And I like to have a broad spread of things to be getting on with; TWOFD is the second play I’ve directed this year, and I’m straight on to the National Theatre, to play John Gielgud in Jack Thorne’s The Motive and the Cue. So yes, a very nice spread of things – and quite eclectic, for sure!”

“We’re both very lucky,” adds Ian; “we both love doing all the things that we do.”

For Ian, ‘what he does’ must surely have been dominated, in recent times at least, by the play that he not only wrote but stars in too, as long-term ABBA superfan (and middle-aged former librarian) Peter, who is coincidentally reunited with an old school friend. After all the years spent apart, the pair come out to one another: one as gay, and the other as – ta-daa! – an ABBA fan. On from there, the old friends’ new journey is quite the story… but where did the story behind the story start?

Ian Hallard and Mark Gatiss. Photograph by Darren Bell

Ian debuted his first play Adventurous (produced by Jermyn Street Theatre and streamed online) in 2021, having formerly worked as both a co-writer (with Gatiss) and script associate on various episodes of the David Suchet/Agatha Christie: Poirot series for ITV, alongside other projects. “I actually sat down to try and write another play around three and a half years ago… but I just didn’t know what I wanted to write about,” he says “Eventually I thought, okay, if I’m going to try to write a new play, then I’m going to write a part in it for myself – so what part would I most like to play? I decided I would have to be a member of ABBA! On from that, I tried a plot that would enable me to do that – and here we are.”

So we can deduce that Ian is a big ABBA fan? “That would be a huge understatement!” he laughs. “My mum was pregnant with me when ABBA won Eurovision in 1974, so I guess I was a fan in the womb. I wasn’t some sort of immaculate ABBA conception, but yes, mum is a massive fan too, and ABBA became the soundtrack to my life that’s never left me”. But how does one turn that kind of personal history into a drama/comedy about “devotion, desire and dancing queens”? “Mark’s better placed to answer that as he gets to sit in the auditorium watching the audience and listening to their comments while I’m on stage sticking to a script I wrote!”, says Ian. So…

“Broadly speaking, the storyline focuses around two former school friends who meet up again in middle age and decide, due to various reasons, to form the world’s first drag ABBA tribute act,” Mark explains. “On one level it’s a feel-good comedy, but to me it brings out the essence of ABBA themselves: a very spangly, catchy surface, but actually rather deep, and sort of shot through with melancholy. The response so far has been terrific; people clearly want to be cheered up and have a wonderful time, but also they seem to become really invested in the characters, and moved by the story”.

“I tried to create some kind of poignancy; it’s definitely not all froth!”, adds Ian. “The characters go through some turbulence and difficult times together, but the ties of friendship carry them through – that’s what the play’s about, it’s all there in the title and it runs the whole gamut, both laughter and tears.”

It’s very clear that Mark and Ian’s working relationship seamlessly runs alongside their personal relationship without the infamous friction that blights so many celebrity power couples (and in theatre world that’s the best way to describe the Gatiss/Hallard partnership) away from the spotlight. Am I right?

“Put it this way,” says Ian. “I wrote the first draft of TWOFD not knowing if it would be any good, or if I’d ever want to show it to anyone. Then I got to the end and I thought okay, I’ll see what Mark thinks, because I know that we’re close enough for him to say okay, look, I love you dearly but let’s delete this and never show it to anyone else. Fortunately he didn’t say that, but he would have done, if he’d needed to, and I’d have trusted him with that!”

“And actually, parts of the script that we’re working with today are remarkably similar to the original draft, so he didn’t have anything to worry about, did he?” says Mark. “But yes, working together and being married too can be a little odd at times, because you can’t really close the door on work – our working lives will pursue us home. But we’re having a great time on TWOFD, and it’s a lovely project, and we have a lovely cast [including, by the way, off-stage characters voiced by Miriam Margolyes and the late, great Paul O’Grady], and we do really love each other, and that doesn’t change in the work environment.” “We love each other and we respect each other as well”, says Ian; “and above all, I trust Mark and follow his judgement”.

“Listen to us!” laughs Mark; “We should go on Great Canal Journeys next, and see what happens then!”

Now there’s an interesting concept: Gatiss and Hallard take to the UK waterway network! “Having said that, when you think about the real life story behind TWOFD…”, says Mark (and I just know, from the twinkle in his voice, that there’s a cheeky rejoinder coming up), “from being shown the script for this play several years ago, written by a guy who actually dressed as ABBA’s Agnetha as a child, to premiering it in his home city at the Birmingham Rep, directed by his husband – that’s quite a nice story arc for another project, isn’t it?”

In the safe hands of the creative tour de force that is Gatiss and Hallard, who says it couldn’t happen? They could face that one together…. the way old friends do.

The Way Old Friends Do, Theatre Royal Bath, 30 May – 3 June;