I WAIT IN the foyer of London's Cactus Studios as a publicist runs to wake up Mark Gatiss. The cult comedian is asleep in his dressing room prior to appearing on British breakfast television programme. 'He's been doing the rounds since Sunday and he's completely exhausted,' the publicist whispers. After leaving me with my back to the decorative koi carp tanks, Gatiss, who is usually seen in British television's The League of Gentlemen, a frighteningly dark social satire set in small-town England, gives the all-clear. He is sitting like a ventriloquist's dummy in a comfy chair turned away from the door. His head swivels slightly and a practised smile sweeps across his face. Otherwise he doesn't move. In the half-light of the mushroom-coloured room, he is wearing a fresh, perfectly pressed mushroom-coloured suit. He seems to be avoiding rumpling his clothes. Known mainly as an actor and scriptwriter for his and other people's TV comedies, Gatiss is now enjoying being feted as a novelist. Though he has written three other books, for the Dr Who sci-fi tele- vision series, The Vesuvius Club is his first attempt at general fiction. 'There is something nice about the fact it's just me,' he says softly, a patient world-weariness in his voice. 'I'm known for being in a group, and a very successful group, and we've had a great time and everything, but at the same time you do have to take care of a part of your brain and ego that needs that type of attention. 'So, going out on your own is kind of risky. You think 'maybe people aren't bothered if it's just me'. It's a good punt to take and, so far, it seems to be all right.' Gatiss, 38, who grew up in the dreary (his words) post-industrial 'New Town' of Darlington, in County Durham, wrote The Vesuvius Club in part as a reaction to his dull childhood surroundings. As a boy, he immersed himself in fantasy and his book is an adventure tale about a bisexual secret agent in Edwardian London. It's a deliberately decadent, postmodern Boy's Own romp, centred on the amoral Lucifer Box, a character the quiet author wishes he was himself. 'I absolutely loathed Darlington,' he says. 'I hated that dull, falling to bits, cardboard comprehensive school and dreamed of being a secret agent in Edwardian London - to have sophistication.' Gatiss, whose peers in the League share his preoccupation with ham-fisted horror, was first published at 24. His Dr Who novels St Anthony's Fire, The Roundheads and Nightshade were a homage to the Saturday nights of his youth, spent watching science fiction. As with The Vesuvius Club, he set about writing the stories in pedantic faithfulness to the original concept. This reverential attitude to his childhood icons is just one facet of his creative talent, but an important one. Now, he is writing for the new Dr Who series, featuring Christopher Ecclestone. 'I've graduated from anorak into part of the official establishment,' he says. 'It's looking great. To make it a vital living programme rather than an exercise in nostalgia, we had to boil it down to its component parts: the Dr, the Tardis, you. There was some dispute over whether we would get the Daleks and for a while they weren't coming back. 'It was bit hairy, but commonsense prevailed. We couldn't do without them. I mean if they're not going to appear in Dr Who, what else can they do?' He has just finished filming the League of Gentleman movie, is recording a radio series and involved in the British TV comedies Nighty Night and Funland. With his League colleagues, he will perform a second tour of their successful show over seven months next year. On top of that, he is looking forward to moving to a new house in London's Islington, an area where he has spent much of the past 13 years. 'It's an exciting time. I'm moving into a smaller place but a very, very beautiful cottage in the middle of Islington. It's an extraordinary find - an 18th-century cottage with a walled garden.' In keeping with his creative roots in horror and the macabre, his new home even has a bricked up secret passageway that reportedly ran to underneath an old music hall nearby. 'I'm going to excavate it,' he says. 'In fact, I'm going to put an advert in the paper and launch an expedition to see where it goes. Despite the romance of the whole thing, it may just be half a mile of storage space, which in London is a premium. 'What's the secret passage for?' 'Well, it's just for DVDs.'' Much of Gatiss' humour derives from everyday horror. Up until recent years it was inspired 'bleak undercurrents' of his Northern English upbringing, but increasingly he looks to the future with fear and trepidation. ' I have a very bleak feeling about the times we live in. There's an end of days, fall of Rome feel to it. There's a sense of excess everywhere; not just obesity levels, but things are too easy, a kind of jaded palate. Everybody is getting too much and there's a weird decadence in the air, which to me is very different from that Edwardian excess, which was a reaction against Victorianism. 'I just hope we're not heading for the first world war again. There's a kind of absence-of-war feel - that people can't test themselves against anything anymore. In a terribly corrupt political environment, where virtually anything seems to be allowed, there's nothing worth fighting for. 'It's terrible to feel that it's so blatant: 'Well, you know, the reason we said we were going to war, well, that wasn't true, but it doesn't matter.' Once upon a time, it would have been more than a resig- nation matter, it would have been a disappear-from-public-life-altogether matter, like Profumo. 'The only way they'll be punished is with a lower turnout, which again opens the doors to extremism. Rather than a positive vote saying you cannot get away with this, there'll be a kind of inertia. Which is why I'm writing books about sheer entertainment.' As I get up to leave, the make-up girl enters with a flurry. Gatiss proffers a hand. 'I'm very thin-skinned,' he says. 'I don't want people to flatter me all the time, but I suppose like everyone, I'm constantly wanting to be told it's all right. But I haven't done this to sort of wave and say, 'Here I am.' I did it because it's fun and that's what my career is. We're all trying to have a laugh.'