Royston Vasey nestles in the moors, somewhere in the north of England. It's a quiet little town, hard to reach by road and poorly served by rail. It feels dated, like the setting of Last Of The Summer Wine. It's a place where everyone knows your name and what you're up to. 'You'll never leave,' reads the motto on the town's Welcome sign. But you'll sure as hell try to.

This is the home of Val and Harvey Denton, a pair of compulsive - obsessives who make Norman Bates look like the perfect host. Theirs is a house where everything has its place, from visitors' shoes (in the hall, under the barometer) to human excrement (the upstairs toilet, thank you), where towels are colour-coded for the body-part they're destined to dry, and where every day starts with a glass of fresh, foaming... well, let's leave that for later. Spend the night at the Dentons' and you'll wish you'd found a nice, wet ditch to sleep in.

This is the home of Pauline the Restart officer, who spends her days stripping any vestige of hope from her unemployed 'clients'. Everything she knows about people, she happily admits, she learned from pens: 'If they don't work, you shake them. And if they still don't work, you throw them away.' The only job she'll get you is flogging the Big Issue.

This is the home of butcher Hilary Briss, who's selling something very dodgy from underneath his counter. Only his special customers know quite what - and they're not telling.

Worst of all, this is the home of Tubbs and Edward, a weird-looking couple who run the local shop in the hills above the town. Step through their door and you'll never be seen again. 'We'll have no trouble here,' they vow, and to make sure, they neutralise you before you can start any.

Thank God it's only a TV show.

This is the setting for BBC2's new series, The League Of Gentlemen, the first TV appearance by the comedy group of the same name. Building on their work on stage and radio, it ties together a series of off-colour sketches with a plot that involves murder, perversion and hints of cannibalism. The humour is so dark that it comes with the world's most obtrusive laughter track 'because you have to tell people it's comedy', in the words of one of the actors. And it's a tour de force of plotting and characterisation.

But then, you'd expect something special from the League of Gentlemen, who in 1997 became the first sketch group for 16 years to win the Perrier prize for comedy. They've been described as 'deeply hilarious, cruelly intelligent, unmissably good', 'the funniest sketch show in the world' and, most recently, as 'a parade of Billy Bunters in frocks', though that's one remark they'd just as soon forget.

There are some 60 characters in the series, three-quarters of them played by the League's three actors, yet it's remarkably hard to tell who does what. Four years of live performance, and a series for Radio 4 last year, long ago proved that Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are top-class comic actors, but this is the first time they've had so much to do with make-up and costume. They used to favour the dinner-jacket look, which won them an undeserved and unwelcome reputation as Home Counties Oxbridge types. In fact, all three actors are northern-born graduates of Bretton Hall drama college, and their writing partner, Jeremy Dyson, was born in Leeds, where he met them while studying studying philosophy.

The BBC's make-up staff apparently leapt at the chance to turn a bunch of men in their late twenties and early thirties into anything from spotty teenage boys to middle-aged women. 'They were getting bored just making Jeremy Paxman look orange,' giggles Gatiss, who, like his fellow performers, resembles a rather camp puppy when he's away from the cameras.

One of the greatest challenges was to give Tubbs and Edward, those murderous shopkeepers, their remarkable noses, which are so tip-tilted that any front view gives you a view right up their nostrils. Not only does this shared deformity make them look both silly and sinister; it suggests generations of inbreeding, possibly involving farmyard animals, which would explain why Tubbs is at one point seen breast-feeding a piglet. On stage, the actors pulled up their noses with Sellotape. Reluctantly, they decided this was not an option for TV .

'The make-up people tried everything," recalls Shearsmith, who plays Edward. 'They even put pasta up their noses - little Mickey Mouse shapes. In the end they settled on wig gauze and glue.' But what makes this series so special is the writing, which leaves you swinging between the hysteria induced by some very broad jokes and the claustrophobia that wells up when you realise every character you feel for will sooner or later find himself trapped by the malign spirit of Royston Vasey.

The prime example is Ben, one of the series' few normal characters and the outsider whom we follow into the heart of darkness. He plans to spend one night in the town as the guest of relatives, but soon after dropping in on Auntie Val and Uncle Harvey he finds himself being lectured about the evils of masturbation and finally locked out because he comes back five seconds after curfew.

The friend who might have given him moral support hasn't turned up, the family expects him to drink his own urine in the morning, and to cap it all he's forced to stay another night so he can babysit his appalling twin cousins. He knows he has to get away - but how can he do it without offending his relatives?

'One of the things we wanted to achieve,' says Pemberton, who plays Uncle Harvey and Tubbs, among many others, 'was that if you watched it a few times, not only would it stand up, but you would see things you maybe hadn't noticed the first time.' And so the series is crammed with tiny running jokes, or hints of suspicious happenings, like the newspaper bill reading 'Mike Read Is Not Gay - Pictures', or the poster headed, 'Lost: Grandma Bradley. Answers to the name 'Nana'.

'It's not our mission to appal the nation,' Gatiss insists, though that's hard to believe, given his Mr Chinnery: a charming young floppy-haired vet clearly based on the beloved James Herriot. He only has to look at an animal for it to drop dead.

The League would like us to believe they're holding up a mirror to reality. 'Most of the characters came from real people or situations,' says Shearsmith. The appalling Pauline was based on his own experiences on the dole: 'Pauline was my Restart officer. I had a horrible week with her, but it gave me some brilliant material.' Tubbs and Edwards were inspired by a shopkeeper in the East Sussex village of Rottingdean. When the League members walked in one day and started picking up her shells, she assumed they were going to rob her. 'That isolationist shopkeeper's attitude became something much sillier,' Gatiss explains. Like Tubbs's marvellous lines: 'Don't touch the things. This is a local shop for local people. There's nothing for you here.' One day, Gatiss was waiting to film a scene in Hadfield, the Derbyshire town that provided Royston Vasey with its high street. He was due to greet Barbara of Babs' Cabs, 'the leading transsexual taxi driver in the Royston Vasey area' - a friendly soul, if a little too keen to discuss her gender reassignment.

'It's quite a straightforward operation, really,' she reveals in tonight's episode. 'Basically, they split the penis in two and invert it, using the membrane. . ." 'I was sitting on my bicycle in the rain,' Gatiss recalls, 'waiting to pedal off, and this couple were watching and asking questions. I swear to God, it was a bloke with a transsexual. His girlfriend was a transsexual.' ('He knows about these things,' Pemberton chips in, helpfully.) 'We chatted a bit and then she tottered off, like Steve Coogan's character Pauline Calf, and I thought, 'You see, we're not million miles from the truth'.'


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