Well, they did say ‘you’ll never leave’. This month sees the long-awaited return of The League of Gentlemen for three 30 minute specials – effectively a half-length new series.
The occasion, apart from Christmas, is the 20th anniversary of their original Radio 4 series On the Town with the League of Gentlemen which first introduced many of their key characters such as Restart officer Pauline, ineffectual vet Dr Chinnery and the formidable Denton family. They’ve been away quite a while, as the third series of the TV show went out in 2002, though there was then a spin-off film, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, in 2005, closely followed by a panto-style live tour. Rumours of their return have swirled about ever since. Sure enough, the new specials are complete with many of the classic Royston Vasey characters, and this time they’re facing the upheaval of a boundary change, which would appear to be the “something Brexity” that League member Mark Gatiss first alluded to in an interview with Northern Soul late last year.
So why is this cause for celebration? Well, because the original show was a genuine game-changer, an instant classic which brought something fresh to British comedy. Consider this: when it started at the end of the 90s, the hit sitcoms of the day were Goodnight Sweetheart, The Vicar of Dibley and Men Behaving Badly. Even Father Ted was basically a brilliantly written take on the traditional studio sitcom format. There were some fine 90s sketch shows – Big Train, The Fast Show – but The League of Gentlemen wasn’t quite a sketch show or a sitcom. It occupied a strange place somewhere inbetween. It also looked amazing, denoting a rare attention to detail in terms of sets, costumes and make-up. Keeping Up Appearances this wasn’t. If anything, it was closer to the lavish, gaudy visuals of cinema, not least the British horror films the team had grown up watching. The first two series came with complete with an audience laughter track, but it was abandoned thereafter, taking it even further into non-traditional territory.
At the time the League’s influence was huge. Pretty much every early 00s British comedy seemed to owe them a debt, not least the initial output of BBC Three. In particular, Little Britain became a hit effectively by offering The League of Gentlemen lite. In those days, you couldn’t move for dark-edged comedy shows set in isolated backwater communities. If anything, though, the League’s unique formula was tricky to ape successfully. Before long, the success of The Office, which overlapped the League’s BBC Two run, had the plagiarists churning out endless mock-documentaries instead. Possibly, then, they really did end up in a league of their own, and this might be the perfect time for them to be rediscovered and re-evaluated.
The team’s relationship with the North is probably best described as complex. They come from, variously, Leeds, Hull, Blackburn and County Durham, and met via Bretton Hall College in Wakefield. Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Gatiss were all there to study drama, while non-performing team member Jeremy Dyson shared a flat with a fellow Bretton Hall student. They knew quite enough about lonely, haunted little Northern towns to create their own in the form of Royston Vasey, filmed on location at Hadfield in Derbyshire. It might not be the most appealing representation of the North, of course. It’s possible that London-based BBC employees who were uprooted to Salford when MediaCity opened for business a few years later were fully expecting to encounter toad enthusiasts, Job Club rejects and local shops for local people. But there’s a dark truth to the League’s creation which resonates deeper than certain other fictions. Live, the team would often perform a sketch featuring hackneyed Northern characters with a wild variety of curious accents, with Pemberton stretching the word ‘North’ to something like ten syllables and ending with a sinister chant of the names of the writers who could be held responsible: “Jim Cartwright! Willy Russell! John fucking Godber!” The team’s Bretton Hall drama days had obviously left their mark.
If the League had a problem, it was that they seemed trapped by their own success. They were originally a sketch group, who went on to create the town of Royston Vasey (originally named ‘Spent’ in the radio series) as an environment to populate with grotesque recurring characters. By the second TV series they were in an imperial phase, with the first episode of the series and that year’s Christmas special being particularly marvellous pieces of television. But by the third series, their new-found popularity appeared to have left a nasty aftertaste. It begins with the symbolical apparent killing off of fan favourites Tubbs and Edward, and introduces a whole swathe of new characters, telling episode-long stories and even venturing beyond the boundaries of Royston Vasey. One of Shearsmith’s regular characters, the hapless Geoff Tipps, escapes to London where he’s haunted by dreams of becoming a successful comedian, whose catchphrases are emblazoned on t-shirts and are shouted out to him by crowds of admirers. The spin-off film took this conceit even further, with the team both playing themselves and their established characters who are desperate not to be killed off of a whim (Dyson was played by a pre-fame Michael Sheen, though on the down side he was killed off before the opening credits).
Of course, it’s not as though they vanished entirely. All four members of the team have gone on to do great things. Together Pemberton and Shearsmith have written and starred in Psychoville and the marvellous, ongoing anthology show Inside No 9, as well as popping up in guest roles in everything from Poirot and Inspector Lewis to New Tricks and Car Share. Dyson has worked extensively with Armstrong and Miller and Tracey Ullman, and has made a name for himself as a prose writer of note. His short stories are first-rate, and next year sees the release of Ghost Stories, the feature film version of a terrifying stage play Dyson co-wrote with Andy Nyman. Gatiss, of course, has worked extensively on Sherlock and Doctor Who, all the while becoming one of the great character actors of his day. He’s appearing in this year’s Doctor Who festive special as well as the new League of Gentlemen episodes, and the idea of a very Gatissy Christmas is surely irresistible.
Clearly, by the time the League was put on ice, they both did and didn’t want to leave Royston Vasey behind. You can’t blame them for wanting to prove they had more to them than Tubbs and Edward. But now they’ve branched out so comprehensively, it’s a thrill to see they’ve made peace with their creations enough to bring them back. It only remains to be seen whether they can recapture those former glories. With any luck, though, they could reassert their place as one of the truly great British comedy teams of their age.
Images: copyright BBC/Ben Blackall
The League of Gentlemen is touring in 2018. For more information, click here.
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Mark Gatiss, click here.