IRISH TIMES - MAY 5, 2001
By Brian Boyd
This generation's answer
to Monty Python, the grotesque comedy team of The League of Gentlemen
has gone from being a local to a universal success. During the run of
their West End show, Brian Boyd is invited backstage for a guided
tour of Royston Vasey and the chance to touch the 'precious things'.
Welcome to Royston Vasey. On your right,
you'll see the local shop where the incestuous owners inside will kill
any customer who isn't from the area. A bit further along you'll see the
butcher's shop, where the proprietor will sell you sausages made out of
human meat. And look, there's Herr Lipp, the child-molesting German
exchange teacher, talking to Barbara, the preoperative transsexual taxi
driver. We're not in Ballykissangel now, Toto.
Remarkably, the above tour really does
take place. The hardcore fans of the sinister and dark comedy series,
The League of Gentlemen, really do travel on a coach to the town of
Hadfield in Derbyshire, where the show is filmed.
The locals smile patiently as hundreds of
addled "Leaguers" (as fans of the show are known) hurtle
around their quaint town, shouting out "are you local?" (one
of the show's catchphrases) and ringing the local taxi company, asking
for Barbara. Tonight, though, the gallery of grotesques who populate
Royston Vasey are going about their grim business amid the glimmering
lights of London's West End.
Tubbs, Edwards, Pauline, The Dentons,
Herr Lipp, Barbara, Dr Chinnery and Hillary Briss are all at the Theatre
Royal, at the end of a nationwide tour and halfway through a potentially
box office-record-breaking West End run. Outside on Drury Lane, people
dressed up as characters from the show lend a Rocky Horror Show feel to
proceedings, and the surrealism of the situation is copper-fastened by
the sight of a bunch of elderly blue-rinse ladies striding into the
foyer of the theatre, all wearing "Are You Local?" T-shirts.
At the extensive merchandising stall, I decide to get in the swing of
things and purchase a "My Nipples Are Like Bullets" top.
We've been here before all right. Some
fans used to dress up as characters from Newman and Baddiel for their
live shows, while others spouted Father Ted catchphrases ad nauseum, the
way they now repeat the League's "don't touch the precious
things", "okey cokey, pig-in-apokey", "special
stuff" and, most strangely, "would you like to see Harvey's
toads?". This time, though, people are paying homage to a show
based on comedy routines about incest, paedophilia and cannibalism. But
all done in the best possible taste.
Potentially as big and as important for
this generation as Monthy Python was for a previous one, The League of
Gentlemen has grown too big for its cult status and is now marauding its
way through the European television networks (Poland and Sweden are
massive fans). It is also beginning to make an impact in the US, where
the New York Times hailed it as a welcome relief from the mainstream
gloss of Friends and Frasier.
It began, like most British comedy acts,
at the Edinburgh Festival, the stage show winning a Perrier Award in
1997. It was then incubated on Radio 4 for a year before transferring to
BBC2. The first two series picked up an average of five million viewers
per episode, as audiences were transfixed by a show that was nominally
"comedy" but which traded - and gleefully so - in violence,
bullying, pain and despair. More Theatre of the Cruel than sitcom, The
League was darkly disturbing and spookily sinister, yet somehow it
fascinated. When the dam burst halfway through the first series, the
awards just didn't stop coming: A Royal Television Award, a Golden Rose
of Montreux, a BAFTA . . . The video of the first series sold more than
100,000 copies, and when The League are on tour, they regularly fill
Point Depotsized venues.
Come backstage and meet the cast - they
won't bite/bugger/bludgeon you to death. Reece Shearsmith looks like a
junior manager in Centra and, during most of the interview, is more
interested in examining what lies below his fingernails than in
answering questions - but does make a strong finish. Mark Gatiss is
blokish-looking, friendly and responsive, odd only in the fact that he
collects fossils - and tells you so. Steve Pemberton looks exactly like
Herr Lipp - terrifyingly so, in fact. The three perform all the show's
40odd characters. Missing is the fourth member of the troupe, Jeremy
Dyson, who writes but doesn't perform. "He just can't act, that's
all there is to it. So he confines himself to writing," says Gatiss.
All from various parts of northern
England (Blackburn, Leeds, places like that), they're quick to dispel
contrived ideas of where their material comes from.
"We're all Michael Palins,"
says Gatiss, grinning. "None of us experienced deep and dark trauma
in our childhoods and we're all quite normal. People often presume we're
a bit psychotic or something because of the nature of our stuff, but the
opposite is in fact the case. We're tired now of being called `The Dark
Princes Of Comedy'." They are, they think, the collective sum of
their TV-watching youth.
"Although we only met up when we
were drama students at a college in Wakefield in Yorkshire, we all
seemed to have similar upbringings" says Gatiss. "We were
always the types who, instead of playing sports at school, would be
walking around the pitch talking about films instead. We grew up
watching people like Leonard Rossiter, Peter Sellers and Ronnie Barker.
"The `dark' stuff in our humour comes from the fact that it makes
us laugh - and if we laugh at something, it's in the show. Expecting us
to be some sort of ghoulish figures, as the press always do, is just
like saying to an artist: `You paint pictures of men with beards, but
you're clean-shaven yourself'. It's a bit ridiculous."
"It's an odd one though," says
Pemberton, "When people approach us and say, `We love your stuff
because it's so dark and evil', we always go, `But it's a comedy show'.
And then, when other people say, `We just find your material really
funny', we go, `But it's really dark and sinister, isn't it?' So we're
ambivalent about the whole thing."
Located somewhere between Monty Python
and David Lynch, The League of Gentlemen has succeeded where other
comedy shows has failed, precisely because it manages to extract humour
from areas where it shouldn't properly exist. Like the good drama
students that they were, the team have understand that in the local lies
"Anywhere can be local; that's the
whole point of Royston Vasey," says Gatiss. "The other point
is that we are portraying real people, in some cases quite literally
[see panel]. Most everyone in the show is based, originally, on a real
person. We didn't want a bunch of outlandish characters being parodies
of themselves, just spouting catchphrases."
In that case, has the show ever given
away enough detail about who provided the basis for the characters for
the real-life person in question to take an action? Has this happened?
The three look at each other, then chorus, "We can't talk about
that". But Shearsmith does say: "A while back, we went back
down to that place near Brighton to see if we could re-find the
shopkeeper who Tubbs is based on. We were walking around lost when these
people came up to us, who obviously knew the show, and they said, `If
you're looking for the local shop, it's just over there', so obviously
some people know who Tubbs is based on. We went back into the shop and
she treated us the same way she had treated us the first time. No change
More theatrical revue than stand-up, The
League first took to the boards in 1994 with a weekly residency at a
small theatre in London's Little Venice before taking the Edinburgh
plunge. On their second visit to the festival, they won the Perrier
prize (beating Bandon boy Graham Norton), becoming only the second
sketch-type act to win the prize.
"We come from a totally different
tradition to the stand-ups," says Pemberton. "We do very
character-based comedy that just wouldn't work in a comedy club - in
fact, we tried doing some of the characters in the clubs, but in the 10
or 15 minutes that we had, it just wasn't possible to get the idea of
the character over."
Fittingly, the first half of tonight's
show is a reprise of their Edinburgh show. The League, all dressed in
tuxedos, run through a series of well worked routines that the audience
enjoy, but obviously all are here to see Royston Vasey brought to life.
When its inhabitants appear in the second half, there are almost rock
'n' roll style cheers for the entrance of Tubbs, Edwards, Herr Lipp and
company. A magnificent display sees them throwing in references to
Sondheim, Jean Genet and Shakespeare, while still managing to plumb the
beautiful depths of an adult-rated horror show.
The live show has been extended so many
times now that The League worry about how they're going to find the time
to write the third television series - after London, the tour comes to
Dublin and then goes on to New York. "With all these performances,
it's difficult to meet the sort of people who we can base new characters
on," says Pemberton. "It is a worry, and we're really going to
have to sit down and work on what we're going to do in the new series.
But it's difficult to do a finite amount of touring when you hear the TV
series has taken off in places like Israel and Japan."
"Apparently loads of Japanese people
are turning up in Hadfield," says Shearsmith. "And the bus
that brings them there now has Royston Vasey written on it instead of
Hadfield. Somebody was telling me the other day that the local butcher
in the town was going out of business before the TV show came out, but
now he's put a sign in his window saying he sells sausages with `special
things', and he's doing a roaring business. How strange is that?"
Indeed. Pondering this strangeness, I
leave the League of Gentlemen's dressing room, but after a few wrong
turns in the cavernous theatre, I find myself in the basement, in a
darkened room, seriously lost. I step on a mat and PIL's This Is Not A
Love Song starts to play - very eerie. Fumbling around, I find a light,
switch it on and (gasp) come face to face with all the horrific props of
the show. I make a run for a fire exit, push open the door and emerge on
to the sun-drenched streets of Drury Lane, realising that I've just
stared hard into the faces of Royston Vasey - a place where you can
check out any time you like, but you can you never leave.
A GUIDED TOUR OF THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED - Most of the characters in this gallery of
grotesques are based on real people. Here, the population of Royston
Vasey is unmasked:
Tubbs and Edward -
The incestuous, serial-murdering owners
of the "local shop for local people", who constantly admonish
unwelcome visitors not to "touch the precious things", are
based on a real-life shopkeeper. "About five years ago, the four of
us were down in a place near Brighton," says Reece Shearsmith.
"We went into the local shop for a look around and the woman
working there had an 'I've got a gun upstairs' look on her face. She kept staring at us all the time,
almost daring us to touch one of her crappy snowstorms. She is Tubbs and
Edwards. If you want to go to the actual shop, it's in a small seaside
town called Rottingdean". Incidentally, Tubbs and Edwards were
worked on in rehearsals for quite a while, but never really clicked
until someone came up with the idea of giving them scary looking
The town's pre-operative transsexual cab
driver is based on a real magician. "She would be doing her magic act
and halfway through would always stop and start telling the audience
about the operation she was about to have," says Shearsmith.
"We just turned her into a cab driver."
Papa Lazarou -
Perhaps the scariest of all the locals,
Papa "you're my wife now, Dave" Lazarou, the
black-and-white-minstrel ringmaster is based on Shearsmith's and
Pemberton's ex-landlord. "He was very odd," says Shearsmith.
"He would never speak to me, only to Steve. If the phone rang and I
answered it, he would say: 'Hello, Steve.' That became "hello,
Major Frank Vaughn -
The only character not played by one of
the League. It's a bit of an in-joke, in that the Mayor is played by
"blue" comedian, Roy "Chubby" Brown, whose real name
is Royston Vasey. The Mayor died of a nosebleed in the last series.
Hilary Briss -
This is the evil butcher who serves up
"special things". Not based on a real person, the joke here is
that "briss" is the word for the Jewish circumcision ceremony.
Yes, I know it's disgusting.
The fascistic Restart officer, who has an
unhealthy obsession with pens, is based, handily enough, on Shearsmith's
real-life Restart officer. "She was my officer in Wood Green in
1992. Obviously not every- thing about them is the same, but yes, there
is a real-life Pauline out there somewhere."
Pauline's dim sidekick. "I grew up
near a mental hospital," says Mark Gatiss.
Herr Lipp -
The child-molesting German exchange teacher was inspired by Steve Pemberton's experience in Germany.
Taken ill and rushed to hospital, he was
visited by a chaplain who was morphed into
Herr Lipp. Interesting fact: the doctor who
treated him was called Dr Sick.
Reverend Bernice Woodall -
Simple. The misanthropic agony aunt is
based on Denise Richards, the agony aunt on TV's Richard and Judy.
"We all just find Denise very scary" says Shearsmith.
Val and Harvey Denton -
The disgusting couple with weird twin
daughters, who are obsessed by towels and toads, are based on Dyson's
experience of staying with relatives. "You know that sort of thing
where relatives try to make you feel at home and tell you to do what you
want," he says. "Well, I went out one night and got back late
only to find the door bolted. We got Val and Harvey out of."