By Ben Thompson


The funniest comedy team on television is back with a new series – and it’s as ghoulish as ever. Ben Thompson joins the League of Gentlemen on location.

If you ask ten different people what makes them laugh, you’re likely to get ten different answers. If on the other hand you ask Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson – better known as The League of Gentlemen – they will probably all agree on a despotic circus ringmaster who forces his way into the homes of innocent women and compels them to join his harem.

The League of Gentlemen are not the first comedians to derive inspiration from raw material that seems more the stuff of nightmares than of light entertainment – they simply take the idea further than anyone else. (In fact they are part of a great British tradition stretching back from Reeves & Mortimer to Monty Python and Spike Milligan.) But from Pauline the sadistic Restart interviewer who seems hell-bent on ensuring her clients never work again to the toad-fancying relatives who try to force their hapless nephew to drink his own urine, the League’s freakish characters have struck a cord with thousands of television viewers, as well as helping the foursome win a Bafta award and the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreux. This success, though, has been achieved without much light being cast on the source of the quartet’s inspiration. Indeed, the League of Gentlemen live up to their name (taken from a 1960 film starring Jack Hawkins) by eschewing the attention-seeking antics of many of their peers, and by maintaining an enigmatic and oddly dignified presence on the fringes of top-flight show business. There seems to be only one way to get the bottom of what Dyson – in a rare moment of self-aggrandisement. – calls "the things that are still mysterious about what the League do; the things that really shouldn’t be funny but somehow make you laugh anyway". And that is to watch the League of Gentlemen at work.

For their third series the League of Gentlemen’s army of grotesques has moved away from the blasted Mooreland locations of Royston Vasey (the fictional burgh, actually the small Derbyshire town of Hadfield, that was the setting for their first two series) and marched towards the bright lights of London like some eerily dysfunctional peasants revolt. So, on the morning I visit, the team are filming at the Canal Café, a fringe comedy venue on the edge of Little Venice in west London. Dog-eared posters on the hallway wall advertise a selection of unappealing comedy shows. It would be nice to think that the BBC art department had devised these for the series, but sadly they are real. Upstairs, the League is performing and Legz Akimbo – the nightmarish theatre-in-education troupe responsible for some of the ensemble’s most gruesome, and unforgettable, moments.

Reece Shearsmith plays Ollie Plimsoles – a man who funnels all the disappointments and failures of his life into superficially well-meaning but in fact deeply offensive plays about ‘issues’, performed to restless audiences of uninterested school children by a tortured and desiring company. Like some fearful car-breakers yard of the soul, these vignettes compress the horror of a whole life of thespian under-achievement into compact cubes of suffering. Legz Akimbo landmarks include Everybody Out, which featured the mock-triumphant conclusion, ‘Me, I’m happy with who I am…and if you’re not happy with that, why don’t you go and kill yourself like Mum did?’ (That episode was lent added bite by the fact that Mark Gatiss, the League’s leading man, is gay.)  Today’s production is called Vegetable Soup and addresses the questions of disability with a level of tactlessness that would make Richard Madeley blush. Plimsoles, like many of the League’s most outlandish characters, is based on a real person – in this case, someone with whom Shearsmith once went on a theatre-in-education tour. Later, talking to Jeremy Dyson, the quartet’s only non-actor (he writes but does not perform) – I wonder if some of the acuity the trio bring to Legz Akimbo comes from an apprehension of the misery which might have awaited them had a glorious career in the world of small-screen comedy not beckoned. "!Obviously you don’t think about it that coldly when you’re actually writing the material," Dyson replies. "You’re just drawing on something that seems funny. But inadvertently, yes – that’s definitely the case. There was a lot of frustration and bitterness in the early days of the League, and that sort of thing is very good fuel for comedy."

Watching these four mild-mannered and startlingly polite men, aged between 34 and 36, eat lunch together in their trailer (scenically located in the car park of London Zoo), there appear to be few vestiges of that frustration and bitterness. In fact the atmosphere is entirely free of the vicious rivalries that usually prevail among groups of comedians (though the fact that Shearsmith shrieks, ‘Don’t mention The Office!’ when someone refers to Ricky Gervais’ much-appraised television series does suggest that they do at least have a collective ego). The strong bond between them is obvious. They all come from what Pemberton calls, "similarly ordinary Northern backgrounds"; a quick survey of parental occupations throws up a secretary, an accountant, a car salesman and a relationship counsellor.  If any of the League were – as you might imagine them all to have been – raised in caves by sadistic newsagents, they’re not letting on. Shearsmith, Pemberton and Gatiss met while studying drama at Bretton Hall College, Wakefield. A friend introduced them to Dyson who was reading philosophy at Leeds University, and they formed the League of Gentlemen seven years ago. A year later they performed at the Edinburgh festival, and while their budgets were a good deal lower than they are now (one effective – if painful – money-saving ruse being to stretch Sellotape across their noses to create a series of alarming facial expressions), their brand of sombre hilarity was already well-honed. After Edinburgh they performed at the Canal Café every week ("We got a bit nostalgic going back here this morning" admits Gatiss, "for about five minutes"), and tried to come up with new material each time in the hope of persuading fans, like me – to keep coming back.

The tone was set. Sketches seemed to whip themselves up into shocking and often outrageous climaxes. Everyday situations were twisted into ever more bizarre shapes until the original familiarly itself seemed outlandish – a good example being the local shop at which the arrival of a customer throws the husband and wife proprietors (the infamous Edward and Tubbs, whose catchphrase ‘This is a local shop for local people’ echoes round offices and school playgrounds to this day) into an alarming psycho-sexual frenzy. On the League’s second visit to Edinburgh in 1997 they won the coveted Perrier Award. But rather than cashing in immediately they were advised by management PBJ (who also look after Rowan Atkinson and Reeves & Mortimer) to develop their ideas gradually on radio and in small venues like the Canal Café. It was a sound suggestion: by the time the League their first television series in early 1999 the town of Royston Vasey – the real-life name of comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown – had come to full creative life.

The exquisitely detailed production of the programmes took the League of Gentlemen’s brand of homespun Northern gothic about as close as the television comedy gets to art. The episode in the second series in which the sinister circus of Papa Lazarou comes to Royston Vasey is as disturbing (and looks as horrifyingly funny) as anything in Freaks, Tod Browning’s infamous horror film of 1932, or in the gleeful iconoclastic early films of Luis Buñel. Nor is their world solely dependent on television: last year, in the course of a triumphant live tour, they found themselves performing their dark and tormented vision to packed audiences at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. But towards the end of that second series – particularly in a climax so bloody it made Herod’s slaughter of the firstborn seem like a shaving cut – the League’s obsession with Grand Guignol was threatening to get the better of them.  Their decision to strike out in a new direction is therefore extremely exciting. Instead of a series of sketches linked by a narrative thread, each episode will focus on a single character or group of characters (such as Pauline the Restart officer and her class of job-seekers), with some new faces (among them a vicious pair of dept-collectors) making up sub-plots. All the stories will come together in the last episode: a grand finale rumoured to depart the League’s tradition of containing elements of joy as well as pain, "In amongst all the bile, there’s compassion, too," Pemberton insists proudly.

Nevertheless, the group is keen to refute the suggestion that the combination of professional success and an end to twenty-something romantic uncertainty (all are now settled in marriages or long-term relationships) might have made them soft.  The new series, they promise, will contain "quite a lot of unpleasantness", including the two aforementioned debt-collectors "savagely beating a simpleton" and "a lot of people gathered together inside the skin of an elephant". I can hardly wait.

Transcribed by Anne


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