By Danny Leigh


Comic geniuses or sewer-minded sickos? As The League of Gentlemen return comic soap opera, Danny Leigh meets the men behind the monsters...

Among that rarefied stratum of society whose faces regularly flicker across the nation's TVs, there's a rule of thumb whereby you can tell if Anyone is actually taking any notice: use public transport. Or, more accurately, use public transport and wait for the deluge of double-takes and muffled giggles to reassure you of your stranglehold on the public consciousness. Which, if they cared, would be bad news for The League Of Gentleman. "Yeah, supposedly if you're on the tube you'll hear this chorus of your catchphrases", explains a rueful Mark Gatiss, one quarter of the unnervingly polite troupe whose mercifully inimitable brand of comedy returns for its second series tonight (BBC 2, 10pm). "That's supposed to be the point at which you know you've become famous. And I can honestly say that's never happened to me. Not once. Never ." His colleagues - Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and non-performing writer/producer Jeremy Dyson - shake their heads in unison. "Me neither." "Or me." "But that's good," shrugs Pemberton, "because you don't want people's personalities overshadowing the characters. This way the characters exist in their own right, rather than just being Mark or Reece or me dressed up in a funny costume."

So, no, in an age of faux-celebrity comics forcing their less-than-savoury features on the world at every available opportunity, you probably wouldn't recognise the League of Gentlemen. But you'll recognise said alter-egos; and if you don't, you should perhaps take tonight's opportunity to get acquainted. Because, while the adjectives most commonly employed around their 60-strong retinue of orthodontically-challenged grotesques are - by their own admission - "warped, disturbing, odd... oh, and sinister, we get sinister a lot", funny doesn't get as many mentions as it should. Equal parts soap opera and sideshow, the League's Tod Browning-meets-Peak Practice shtick is certainly one of the stranger visions to have crept onto the small screen in recent years; it's also the most nervelessly deadpan since Brass Eye, Chris Morris's late and still lamented one-man battery of the British infotainment industry. Although, having said that, you can see where the warped, disturbing, odd and sinister come in. Set in the fictitious northern outpost of Royston Vasey, home to toad enthusiasts Harvey and Val Denton, misanthropic Job Club maven Pauline and - lest we forget - Tubbs and Edward, the nightmarishly porcine owners of the darklysecretive local shop, the League must come as a shock to anyone for whom the caffeinated antics of Friends represents Friday night's comic blueprint. And, as such, it's the kind of acquired taste which means, after five years together, only now are the collective Gentlemen coming to terms with the pressures of expectation. "Obviously, as ourselves, no one knows who we are," Pemberton explains, "but as the League, I think there is a certain level of pressure going  into a second series, which isn't something we've ever had to deal with before." "It's been quite intimidating," agrees Shearsmith, "because now the cat's out of the bag - everyone knows there's this place called Royston Vasey, and everyone knows it's full of these weird characters. So whereas we had the element of surprise before, now we're going to have to surprise people with new characters, and what we do with the old ones."  "So we've made everything bigger this time round," Pemberton interjects." It's almost epic."

Besides the sheer freakishness of much of the material, meanwhile, there's also been the lack of easy categorisation to contend with (which accounts  for the countless well-meaning but misguided comparisons to everything from Monty Python to Twin Peaks littering their press cuttings). Not quite sketch show and several leagues beyond the drab tropes of observational stand-up, theirs is probably not the largest peer group. "There's always been a host of people we've admired and found funny," Dyson remarks, "but I've always thought if you like and respect someone, you should like and respect them enough to try and avoid ripping them off, even subconsciously." "And also," Pemberton continues, "a lot of the time what you get with TV is producers assembling these sketch shows, assembling the cast and assembling the writers, and ending up with that fairly anonymous, production-line kind of comedy. Whereas with us, this is nothing but our sense of humour. This is what we find funny. However disturbing people might think that is." But has there ever been a point at which even they found their cast of  inbreeds, failed rock musicians and accident-prone vets just too unsettling, too bleak ? "God no," the cry goes up. "The more hearts we break the better," Shearsmith laughs. "I mean, if people are coming away from the show feeling freaked out that's great, because then they're really getting involved with the characters."

And what, bizarre though it may sound, if one of those characters suddenly became hugely, implausibly popular. What if they found themselves responsible for another Loadsamoney, or a deformed, sexually troubled Mr Bean? They ponder the scenario.  "Then we'd kill them," Gatiss replies with a broad, innocent smile. "Without a shadow of doubt. Whoever they were, as soon as we could, we'd kill them."


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2002-2006 Virtual Royston Vasey, except for bits belonging to The League of Gentlemen.