TV discussion

A local show for local people – looking back at The League of Gentlemen

“Hello hello! What’s going on? What’s all this shouting? We’ll have no trouble here!”

When you look back on The League of Gentlemen, there are just so many catchphrases. People frequently remember Little Britain as the sketch show of the early 2000’s which popularised the most lines and memorable phrases in British comedic popular culture, but without question the BBC’s bizarre series of grotesques beat them to it by a couple of years. Whether it’s inbred murdering shopkeeper Edward’s decry upon a new visitor to his shop, or the terrifying circus owner Papa Lazarou’s “you’re myyyyy wife now!”, or even psychotic employment officer Pauline’s “have you got a pen?”, The League of Gentlemen threw dozens of almost immediately classic one-liners and comedy characters into the mix at the turn of the millennium, characters who have endured over the last two decades.

It had been many years since I undertook a rewatch of Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith & Jeremy Dyson’s gem of the series, indeed I had never watched them in sequence or quick succession ever before. Thanks to Netflix, this is now possible. My memories were stronger regarding some scenes or characters or storylines than others, and at various points I was taken by surprise. The first season, for instance, probably is the funniest in terms of hit rate of laughs; there is an incredible amount of pathos underneath the broad, Northern humour, to a degree Little Britain—which it arguably helped inspire—lacked; and it’s easy to forget just how well shot especially Season 2 onwards is, as you can see the budget increase and allow the writers to indulge their touchstones in greater depth.

Here’s the thing with The League of Gentlemen, you see – it’s riven in cinematic and literate history. The very title, indeed, has nothing to do with Alan Moore or his similarly titled comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but rather is taken from a now obscure 1960 Basil Dearden caper starring Jack Hawkins. Name anyone outside of classic cinema-literate circles who knows either of those names. You’d have been pushed to do so even in 1999, when the show moved to TV after starting as a stage show in 1994, winning plaudits at the Edinburgh Fringe, before transferring to radio for a series called ‘On the Town with the League of Gentlemen’, featuring fictional creations existing in a town called Spent. The template for what would hit TV screens was there.

What immediately stood out on TV with The League of Gentlemen, ostensibly a sketch series featuring a gallery of grotesque characters in a remote, isolated Northern fictional town called Royston Vasey, was how close to the bone the writers—all of whom except Dyson played almost every main role, adding to the suggestion the town was highly inbred—would go with their comedy. Edward & Tubbs Tatsyrup immediately struck a chord as murderous, bigoted, monstrous creations, who would kill or torture people who were ‘not local’, despite existing in a tiny shop on a hill far from the city, a shop perenially stuck in the 1950’s. Other characters such as psychotic Geoff Tipps or Pauline Campbell-Jones were violent, unhinged or clearly mentally ill; Stella & Charlie Hull were trapped in a painfully unhappy marriage filled with bile; and later characters such as Herr Lipp would make an entire running gag out of, essentially, sexual attraction to children.

And yet… they were funny. Deeply funny, and often real. Underneath almost every character was a root cause of their pain and suffering which the writers, deftly, would touch upon even when these people were doing or saying horrendous, outrageous things. Ollie Plimsoles, the sickeningly deluded leader of the terrible Legs Akimbo theatre company, clearly feared loneliness and suffered a wife who cheated on him; Pauline had lost her entire family to death and lived for a job she abused and used to prop up her own ego; Stella & Charlie just wanted to be happy and be loved. The list goes on – even one-off characters, such as the maudlin, monotone tour guide of a cave trail talking about how he failed to save a child from a tragic death, are layered with a reality underneath the comedy.

Some characters were especially designed as tragic, lost or lonely souls. While the writers probably made the most impact with the loud, outwardly vile characters who were forged in pain, they could touch a real nerve in writing characters who were kind but desperately unlucky. Take Les McQueen, a failed 70’s bass player, who lived for someone to remember his band Creme Brûlée, and is systematically ignored or ripped off by anyone who offers him hope; or Alvin Steele, the kindly owner of a guest house whose wife just wants to have sadomasochistic sex parties, which he isn’t remotely into; and perhaps most significantly the luckless Dr. Chinnery, the town vet who would accidentally, violently kill or mame any animal he came into contact with.

Interestingly, all of the more sympathetic characters above often tended to be played by Gatiss, while the monstrous characters often would fall to Pemberton or Shearsmith. To counterbalance the sympathy and empathy of tragic souls, the writers gave us a rogue’s gallery of pure monsters; Harvey & Val Denton, fastidious house owners and toad breeders who essentially plot to keep prisoner their own nephew; Hilary Briss (played by Gatiss, indeed), a calculating butcher at the top of a dark conspiracy providing unspecified, addictive ‘special stuff’ meat which is highly suggested to be human flesh; or most memorably the terrifying Papa Lazarou, the closest to a super-villain the show ever had, who remains one of the weirdest and scariest characters ever seen on TV.

Yet while the characters are the centre point around which the show revolves, the style and wit of the series could not be underestimated. The first season operated much more as a sketch revue, often placing these characters into variations on a comedic theme each week, and frequently with a similar narrative style – the writers would take a situation, ramp it up to extreme levels of anger, violence, pain or psychosis, before deflating the drama with a gag. When you look at the structure, many of the scenes follow a similar pattern, even with different characters. Almost always, the gags work, hence why the series gets away with it. And while the writers often re-use their most fun characters, there is enough room for memorable one-off scenes or gags along the way.

The second season is where they start to experiment, and further indulge their literary and cinematic influences. Take the ice cream van playing ‘Tubular Bells’ from The Exorcist, or how the writers begin evolving the series—thanks partly to a visibly increased budget—into a series of ongoing storylines with an overarching plot for Royston Vasey. They do this in Season 1, with the threat of a ‘new road’ set to potentially destroy the local shop, and even indulge their love of Hammer horror with Edward’s stitching together farm animals to create a chimera-monstrosity, but Season 2’s build to a near viral apocalypse thanks to Hilary’s mysterious meat involves almost all of the main characters, while others end up seeing their own storylines build; whether its Pauline’s desperate attempts to keep her job, or Benjamin escaping Harvey & Val, or even Edward & Tubbs trying to find a wife (or ‘no-tail’) for their son. The end of Season 2 could almost have been the end of the entire series.

Possibly their apex was the Christmas Special from 2000, which indulges the writers’ love of classic portmanteau horror by delivering three horror stories around bile-spewing, Geordie vicar Bernice, all of which indulge horror or thriller tropes with principal characters; Stella faces a play on voodoo & Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut; a younger Herr Lipp in the 70’s plays as a riff on Nosferatu; while Chinnery’s terrible fate with animals is revealed to be the result of a Victorian-era curse from the Indian colonies, allowing the writers to play with a Victorian Royston Vasey setting. There is a question of how canonical this episode perhaps is, even with the terrifying surprise ending, and perhaps serves as proof for comedic reasons the writers were more interested in indulging their own inspirations than sticking to serialised storytelling. It is, however, one of the finest hours of TV ever made on British television.

This absence of canon may not be true of the radical third season, of course, which employed a Rashomon-approach and changed the entire format. A key event in Royston Vasey involving six key characters is seen from six different viewpoints, telling six half-hour contained stories about those characters. Instead of a sketch show akin to The Fast Show or Monty Python, with added ghoulish influences, Season 3 feels more like a comedic anthology. It featured some characters we had seen a lot of, but focused primarily on much minor sketch characters such as Lance the joke shop owner, or Reenie the batty old charity shop worker.

Some viewers felt alienated at the new format and the focus on much lesser known or loved characters, but hindsight shows how skilled and unique the approach was. There wasn’t even a laugher track, which the show experiments with in certain scenes in Season 2. You wonder if this, combined with the approach in the Christmas Special, is the kind of storytelling the writers really wanted to do all along, but the BBC no doubt would have been less keen had they not made the series a pop-culture success already. By this point, the series was at a high, going back to the stage for a UK tour and taking these beloved characters on the road. I was lucky enough to see the show in 2000 at the Birmingham NIA and it was as terrific as you may expect.

Only as soon as it became a major hit… it disappeared from TV. The writers decided to take the concept to the cinema screen for The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, to a very mixed degree of success, far more mixed than on TV. Their ambition was to be applauded; taking a ‘meta’ concept of having the show’s characters break out of the story into the real world to try and find their writers as signs of the Apocalypse hover over Royston Vasey, before entering the new fictional story Gatiss & co are writing set in the 17th century called ‘The Kings Evil’. It was strange, ambitious and different, but perhaps *too* different for audiences who hoped for an extension of the show they had known and loved. It’s a picture perhaps deserving of re-appreciation.

Over a decade later, the League are returning for three special episodes which very much look like the show is returning back to basics – all of the major characters are back, even those who died during the first few seasons, and in all likelihood their catchphrases will return with them. The writers have suggested a unified threat to Royston Vasey will exist, and you can almost certainly expect more than a few nods and winks to the current Brexit situation allegorically given the ‘little Englander’ surroundings of the series.

It could all have been a lot more prescient than we think, in it’s weird, eccentric, ghoulish way. We can’t wait to see this local show for local people back. Hellllooo again, Daaaaaave!

Are you a fan of The League of Gentlemen? Who’s your favourite character? Let us know!

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