TV GEMS: The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002)

Luke is here to give you a local review… for local people…

Are you local? Don’t worry – luckily for you, you don’t have to be local to appreciate The League of Gentlemen. Believe it or not, it’s been almost twenty years since the BBC2 cult oddity first aired on 11 January 1999 and confounded us all with its darkly surreal take on life in a fictional rural town called Royston Vasey, vomiting up a bizarre stream of monstrous characters and leaving many viewers running for the hills. Surfacing in the wake of more accessible sketch-based comedy like The Fast Show and Big Train, The League of Gentlemen stood out from the pack in its bold attempt to blend comedy sketches with a sitcom format – a “sketchcom” if you will – allowing it to transcend most of its contemporaries by experimenting with a wider narrative arc and taking inspiration from many filmic influences, most notably the horror genre.

The brainchild of writer-performers – Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, and Reece Shearsmith (in partnership with their ‘silent’ writing partner Jeremy Dyson) – The League of Gentlemen was an innovative black comedy beginning with hill-dwelling owners of the ‘local shop’ Edward (Shearsmith) and Tubbs (Pemberton), each of whom have upturned noses like the inhabitants of Dr. Seuss’s Whoville, who detest non-local visitors with a murderous zeal. Upon Edward and Tubbs’ discovery that a new road is being built through the town in Episode 1, the floodgates are thrown wide open and we soon enter the strange and horrifying world of Royston Vasey.

With a dark but serialised Emmerdale-meets-The Wicker Man tone, The League of Gentlemen proceeds to introduce us to a grotesque menagerie of recurring characters with Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith each playing multiple roles. We have the gruff-voiced and hairy-chested transexxual cab driver Babs (voiced by Pemberton). We see Benjamin (Shearsmith) arrive to visit his disturbingly toad-faced uncle Harvey Denton (Pemberton) and his auntie Val (Gatiss) who are obsessed with tidiness and punctuality to a level of OCD, and tend to strip off for “Nude Day.”

We have the insensitive Pauline Campbell-Jones (Pemberton) who works at the Job Centre and dismisses those who attend her restart course as “dole scum,” and routinely humiliates them. We even have a local vicar Bernie Woodall (Shearsmith) who doesn’t believe in God; and an ageing rock star Les McQueen who won’t stop banging on about the fact he used to be in a glam rock band called Crème Brulee. Then there’s the vet Mr. Chinnery with his stomach-churning habit of killing every animal he tries to cure.

Perhaps most famously, in Series 2, we meet the wife-stealing Papa Lazarou, the Al Jolson-esque owner of a travelling circus who breaks into women’s houses, but not before asking: “Is Dave there?”

Obviously, there are many other outlandish characters – as with most sketch shows – but the brilliance of The League of Gentlemen is each character undergoes their own spiritual journey, so there are many plot strands which make it infinitely more rewarding than most sketch comedies. I suppose what’s so refreshing is that the show’s creators are obvious film buffs as well as practitioners of alternative comedy, so we often see nods to Hammer Horror and even The Shining interspersed within the pitch-dark humour, but it’s certainly an acquired taste. Dialogue-wise, there are many catchphrases, but I’d say it’s more in the vein of cult 1987 film Withnail & I – acerbic but endlessly quotable – with characterful exchanges which linger in the memory as if it had come from the pen of Bruce Robinson himself.

The overarching narrative arc interconnecting these peculiar characters and various sketches primarily revolve around the butcher, Hilary Briss (Gatiss), who provides the townsfolk of Royston Vasey with “special stuff,” a mysterious substance – presumably some kind of meat, but it’s never specified exactly what – which leaves people hopelessly addicted to it like junkies craving their next fix. Over the course of the first two series, we discover that the special stuff has unexpectedly developed a side-effect of causing chronic nosebleeds and a number of fatalities, so the people of Royston Vasey soon start demanding to know who is to blame… which is where things start to get suitably anarchic.

I don’t think it’s often said how much of a gamble The League of Gentlemen must have been for the BBC in 1999. Unflinchingly dark, the show explores a stygian hue of black comedy arguably not seen since Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. In fact, Pythonesque comparisons are indeed worthy, and not just in Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith’s penchant for dressing in drag. Like Python, The League of Gentlemen is frequently surreal, arguably going much further than Cleese and co. in its attempt to create a bleak but absurdly comical world almost to the point of alienating its audience, particularly in the grim situationism and gothic horror intensity of its later episodes.

Before bringing the residents of Royston Vasey to life in a 2005 movie, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, Gatiss, Pemberton, Shearsmith, and Dyson tried to move it to a more episodic format in its third series, but I’d argue it’s the first two – with emphasis on sketch-based humour – where the show was at its peak. Even now, it’s a bona fide jewel in the crown of boundary-pushing TV comedy and deserves to be remembered as a show which broke new ground and spawned many iconic characters.

The show’s influence can even occasionally be felt in some of the darker moments of the revived Doctor Who series, thanks in no small part to Mark Gatiss’s involvement. Given that Gatiss is now acting as co-writer on Sherlock and is an obvious shoe-in for succeeding Steven Moffat as head writer of Who, it’s uncertain that The League of Gentlemen will reconvene any time soon for any further series, despite Pemberton and Shearsmith creating a spiritual cousin in the shape of Psychoville. That’s unless we can ply them all with some “special stuff,” of course, and persuade them to reform. Until that day comes, go back and watch The League, as it remains one of the finest cult comedy shows the BBC has produced in the last twenty years, possibly even longer. It’s just a shame the odds of seeing a show quite as dark and provocative as this seem so slim these days, but that’s the problem with making something so exceptional – it is, as the word makes clear, exceptional, and there’s no denying that…

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