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 the universal.

"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 there."

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 upturned noses.

Barbara -
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, Dave'.

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.

Pauline -
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."

Mickey -
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."



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