Couldn’t escape if I wanted to

Husbands Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard share what it’s like to live and work together, and why Hallard in particular is such a huge fan of ABBA

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The Way Old Friends Do, which takes its title from a 1980 ABBA song of the same name, is hard to pin down. Billed as a comedy, it is also a heartfelt exploration of the many forms love takes, from fandom to friendship, written by Ian Hallard and directed by Mark Gatiss.

The couple, married in 2008, have worked together before. Hallard made an appearance in The Reichenbach Fall, a 2012 episode of Sherlock, which Gatiss co-created with Steven Moffat, as well as in two of Gatiss’s contributions to Doctor Who. In 2016, they also both starred in a production of Mart Crowley’s The Boys In The Band.

Now, the stage production The Way Old Friends Do marks a return to collaboration behind the scenes 10 years after they co-wrote The Big Four for Agatha Christie’s Poirot in 2013.

“It’s the first [original] thing I ever wrote,” says Hallard, who also stars. “It’s the tale of the world’s first ABBA tribute band in drag.”

In 1988, the protagonists, then at school, come out to each other – one as gay and the other, more shockingly, as an ABBA fan. Years later, they reunite and form the group. “It’s the backstage story of the ups and downs of the band, so it’s a little bit Full Monty, a little bit Calendar Girls – but without middle-aged women taking their clothes off.”

“It’s middle-aged men taking their clothes off!” Gatiss laughs.

Writing is not a new venture for Hallard.

“I’ve been Mark’s unofficial script editor for over 20 years now,” he says, “so I feel like I’ve picked up quite a few handy tips. But the thing that always prevented me was actually coming up with an idea.”

It was in summer 2019 that he decided to try.

“They say to write what you know, and there’s not much that I don’t know about ABBA , so I thought, I’ll do that, see how it goes,” he says. “I wrote it very much on spec, thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is going to be any good,’ but knowing that I had Mark as a sounding board. I knew I could trust him to be honest, and if he turned around and said, ‘Look, I love you dearly, but this is terrible and you need to never show another living being,’ that would’ve been a bit mortifying, but I could’ve taken it.”

Thankfully, “he thought it had potential, so I carried on working on it, had a few rehearsal readings so I could hear it aloud, and then sent it to Sean Foley, who’s the artistic director at Birmingham Rep. He really liked it and said: ‘Yep, let’s do it!’”

“I suppose I have a feel for when a line or a paragraph is too long or needs to be pithier or is actually difficult for an actor to say,” Gatiss says of the experience he brought to the writing process.

“If people persistently stumble over a line, it’s because it’s actually hard to learn.”

Having accumulated years of acting and writing credits, Gatiss began directing for television in 2013 with an adaptation of MR James’s The Tractate Middoth, marking the beginning of his revival of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas strand.

He also directed The Unfriend, a raucously funny play running until 16 April at London’s Criterion Theatre, in which an English couple reluctantly – but very politely – host an American serial killer. Written by Moffat, the production stars fellow Sherlock alumna Amanda Abbington alongside Gatiss’s long-term collaborator Reece Shearsmith, with whom he got his break in dark sketch show The League of Gentlemen in the late 1990s. How does directing theatre compare to television?

“It’s different, but it’s equally rewarding,” Gatiss says. “On both shows, I find myself distracting myself with anecdotes and just having a good time, and then realising we have to get on.

“I like to think, being an actor myself, that I’m very empathetic with my cast, so I try not to go past five in the evening because I know that’s when everyone’s energy levels die. I work with a lot of technical directors who aren’t very good with actors. They’re very good at putting something on stage, but they don’t really know how to talk to people. It should be the first thing you have to do – to understand your cast and anticipate their needs.”

In this case, he had a head start. “What we really enjoyed is actually just spending time together,” he says of working with his husband. “One of my favourite quotations is something Noël Coward said: ‘Work is much more fun than fun.’ There is something lovely about collaborating – it’s very invigorating.”

For Hallard, ABBA has been a lifelong obsession.

The Way Old Friends Do is full of details for obsessed ABBA fanatics but “that isn’t to say that the play is only for ABBA fans,” says Hallard

“They’ve been a constant in my life. My mum was pregnant with me in April 1974 when they won Eurovision, and it was through her that I was first introduced to them.”

But his teens “coincided with the mid to late-1980s when they became deeply unfashionable. It feels impossible to believe now, given that they’ve had such a renaissance and a reappraisal, but nobody played ABBA then. At my own 18th birthday party, I had to bring my own 7” singles with me because the DJ didn’t have any ABBA!”

Such reappraisals seem to be in vogue currently. In February, Gatiss returned to the small screen as Larry Grayson in ITVX’s Nolly. The three-part drama follows the latter years of Noele Gordon (Helena Bonham Carter), the Crossroads star who, as she claims in the first episode, “practically invented daytime TV”. Is late 20th century culture undergoing a reassessment?

Gatiss – who, Hallard jokes, has “ended up knowing more about ABBA than he ever dreamt” – credits the critical U-turn on the band purely to their talents.

“Good things last,” he says. “Things can go in and out of fashion, but if they’re good, they tend to persist. They’re profoundly brilliant musicians.”

Hallard describes ABBA’s 2021 reunion, marked with the release of their ninth studio album, Voyage, and a hologram show of the same name, as “a fairytale story” for fans who “never thought in a million years that they’d actually get back together and record new music”.

When the show was announced, he says, he “pulled out all the stops to try to be there on the premiere night when all four of them would be there.

“It was amazing, extraordinary. I cried at various points, but the best thing for me was when the digital versions of themselves came on at the end to take a bow as they are now, which was incredibly moving.

“I went with my mum, and halfway through, she turned to me and said: ‘Are you enjoying it?’ I think basically because I just didn’t move a muscle! I said: ‘Yeah, I just don’t want to miss any of it!’”

This kind of adoration is at the heart of the play.

“It’s full of little details that only the most obsessed fanatics would know about,” Hallard says. That isn’t to say that the play is only for ABBA fans, though.

“We’re all fans of something,” he continues, “so you can recognise that fan mentality and go: ‘I can apply that to this in my life.’”

Alongside love of ABBA, love between the protagonists is at the play’s emotional fore – though keeping that affection platonic was important to Hallard.

“The play is very loosely based on a friendship that I have,” he says. “After a couple of the readings we had, I had meetings with a few different producers, two of whom floated the idea that actually their relationship become romantic and that that could be a plot twist, and I was quite adamant that I didn’t want to go down that route.

“There are stories to tell about friendships between queer people who don’t have any desire to hop into bed with each other. Every time we run certain passages about that friendship, I get a little bit teary eyed, and Mark’s always welling up.”

The story’s concern with reconnection also feels of the moment. Just last year, Gatiss starred in an episode of Inside No. 9, the horror-comedy anthology by Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, also of The League of Gentlemen, that likewise followed a reunion of old friends. Have the last few years prompted a preoccupation with restoring past relationships?

“It’s partly that these stories are created by middle-aged people,” Gatiss laughs. “We think about that a lot! But after the past couple of years, there’s been so much separation, it makes sense that this is coming through more. There was something online where a palliative care nurse said that the things that people always say on their death beds are ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’ and ‘I wish I’d kept in touch with people.’”

When they are not working so hard themselves, do they each have a favourite ABBA song to unwind to?

“I love all of them, but I particularly love Under Attack,” says Hallard, “and most recently, my most played on my Spotify playlist has been Don’t Shut Me Down from the new album, which I think is a genius return to form and a love letter to ABBA’s fanbase. It’s all about them returning and how their fans might accept them in this new form.”

“I agree, it’s a banger!” Gatiss says. “My favourite, though, is Like An Angel Passing Through My Room – an absolutely beautiful song.”

The Way Old Friends Do is at Salford’s the Lowry from 22-27 May and York’s Theatre Royal, 6-10 June. Full dates and tickets at

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