This Christmas Mark Gatiss resurrects the BBC's seasonal ghost story with an adaptation of MR James' chilling tale "The Tractate Middoth". Here's our chat with star Sacha Dhawan, the man at the heart of some distinctly unholy doings in a library...
Did the title The Tractate Middoth mean anything to you?
The name threw me slightly because I was like, “How do I pronounce this?” I'll be totally honest - I've not read the short story, but I know a lot about the project through Mark. After I finished An Adventure In Space And Time , Mark rang me and said, “I've written this project, let's have a little chat about it. Would you be interested in playing the lead role of Garrettt?” So we spent a lot of time talking about the character as he was writing the drafts. I guess I didn't want to read the short story because I wanted to make it my own and make Garrett as individual as possible, and not have any kind of reference to anything else. So I'd read the scripts and say, “I'm kind of feeling that Garrett's a bit like this,” and he'd say, “That's a good idea” or, “I'm not sure about that”. For instance I was very keen to make sure that Garrett was someone who worked incredibly hard. A little too hard. He wasn't from the most privileged of backgrounds, so he really appreciated the fact that he was studying at such a high calibre place. And stuff like maths and physics was really important to him and relates to why he may see the ghost. So you think, “Is it real? Has he definitely seen it?” Things like that, really.
So you had an input into the script as it went along?
Yeah. That's what's so great about Mark. I can say, “Am I on the right lines with Garrett?” and he'd say, “Yeah, that's really good, we'll take that.” You rarely get to do that. I absolutely love working with him.
Mark's also making a documentary about MR James…
He does so much, Mark. I don't know how he does it. This is his first directing project. I've worked with him as a writer on Space and Time , and obviously he's a friend and he's an actor as well. He's really passionate about MR James, and also about ghosts and horrors. I remember sitting have dinner with him and he'd go, “Look at this picture – if you look carefully you can just see a ghost”. He's so excited and he'd got that passion on set. You can see it in what he's written.
Does this kind of period ghost story require a certain style of performance?
I think the trick is not to play it like you're in a horror story or a ghost story, because then you start pre-empting what's going to happen. I guess it's just about playing it as real as possible and forgetting it's a ghost story. From the beginning it's just a young guy funding his way through university, working in a library. He's a happy-go-lucky guy, probably works a little too hard and then, boom, this happens. My take on it is when Garrett sees the ghost, he knows he's seen a ghost, but something he's slightly battling with is, “Am I working too hard and is it something I saw?” As an actor it gives me somewhere to go, otherwise I'm just playing it on one level of, “Oh, I've seen a ghost.” Seeing the ghost is probably going to be the hardest thing to play. Obviously I've never seen a ghost, so it's trying to make it as real as possible. There's a bit where I give a silent gasp and then faint. Fainting could end up looking so melodramatic. I've been looking at videos on the internet of people who have a sudden shock and faint. It's quite scary just watching that. You keep trying to bring it back to being real. Even with a period piece stuff can be a little over the top. I think Mark's very good at keeping it very real.
The Tractate Middoth will be shown on Christmas Day on BBC Two at 9.30 pm