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25 July 2018updated 26 Jul 2018 9:10am

Laughing in the dark

Twenty years ago “four northern lads” brought their blackly comic vision of small-town life to our screens. Now the League of Gentlemen are back to expose the shadowy heart of England.

By Kate Mossman

The pubic wig, or merkin, originated in the 1450s and was worn by women who shaved their pubic hair to combat lice. Five hundred and fifty years later, and merkins were thin on the ground: Mark Gatiss used two beards stuck together, in 1998, for his League of Gentlemen character Val, who went nude on the first Monday of every month. A seam of pink between the welded beards looked, on screen, like his penis, so it had to be coloured in with CGI. The year 2017 brought, to his joy, a “massive merkin” for the 21st century TV comeback: his character keeps her door key under it. As we talk, Gatiss, in shorts and sitting on a plastic chair, morphs in and out of Val with his soft voice and luxuriant gestures: “I am always taking my clothes off.” There is hardly anything to the nude suit, he points out: just the huge breasts and bush. The rest is Gatiss’s actual skin.

Upstairs in a converted church in north London, the League of Gentlemen gather around a MacBook, writing their forthcoming arena show. Inside these quiet men of average height are howling portraits of rage, cannibalism, cruelty and perversion. With their strange faces, they always seemed to be linked by DNA – a warped creative family who resembled each other just as they resembled no one else, a little like the way the Nineties band Supergrass did. Twenty years after their show began, they still refract their many characters: in Reece Shearsmith, you feel the smiling, pent-up Ollie Plimsolls of the Legz Akimbo educational travelling theatre troupe, author of the plays Slitface (about burkas) and Suck it and See (about revenge porn). Steve Pemberton, with his ice-blue eyes, is one of the women he plays – tough and warped, an amalgam of the ruthless job centre restart officer Pauline, and the mentally challenged Tubbs, of the Local Shop.

The previous night, I’d watched again the three-part special that aired over Christmas, a comeback surprising not just because it happened at all, but because it worked. The unloved, underfunded fictional northern town of Royston Vasey – a relatively unusual setting for BBC comedy in the late Nineties – was in the hands of a Ukip-flavoured lynch mob and soon to be fracked to within an inch of its life. The show’s most famous catchphrase – “THIS IS A LOCAL SHOP FOR LOCAL PEOPLE, THERE’S NOTHING FOR YOU HERE” – was, post-Brexit, hardly surreal at all. Says the mayor: “The people of Royston Vasey do care about their town and they demand answers. Fucking sheep.”

The dialogue spat, crueller than before, and I wrote some of it down to see what it looked like on the page. Officer Pauline surveys the tired men in the job centre and complains of the smell:

Smell that, jobseekers? That is the smell of idleness. Dirty little bum cracks pumping out gas from a Kwik Save No Frills pasty. Eaten cold at four in the morning because time has no meaning for you. That is your smell, jobseekers. And I am an aerosol.

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It was dark Victoria Wood. Pemberton collected the late comedian’s script books from charity shops when he was a student in the mid-Eighties (“I still look at them now”); Shearsmith recognised a truth to Wood’s speech – the way his friends’ mothers spoke – “and a ‘cuddliness’ that is not actually there, if you look at it”. Two slack-jawed teenagers from Royston Vasey trade black-market DVDS in the park: “Pretty Woman. It’s a LOVE. Pigshite boring.” An unseen, morbidly obese character is said to be “like one of them American ones – wear grey tracksuits, have to take a wall out. Apparently bed’s on bricks…”

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Since the original show ended in 2003, Pemberton and Shearsmith have created Inside No 9, the series of macabre and wondrous half-hour teleplays increasingly described as the best thing on TV. Writer Jeremy Dyson – who doesn’t act, but is here today – is best known outside the League for co-writing the hit play Ghost Stories. Along with the others, he is credited with a revival in British “folk horror” for his Gothic portraits of rural life. Mark Gatiss has written for Doctor Who, and co-created Sherlock with Steven Moffat, in which he also played Mycroft. He then fed Holmes’s slippery brother into his portrayal of Peter Mandelson in James Graham’s television film Coalition; the prince of spin and Gordon Brown were, Gatiss reflected in 2015, “Like Ali and Frazier. You imagine them facing each other, cut and bleeding, but saying, ‘Well, we’re still here!’” Gatiss was born in 1966 to an Old Labour mining family in Sedgefield, County Durham, Tony Blair’s former constituency. He was amused, in the late Nineties, to see his town suddenly on the map.

Emerging from the era of catchphrase comedy, there was an abstract gag at the centre of The League of Gentlemen – a couple, Edward and Tubbs, who ran a village shop but didn’t want anyone in it. Tubbs was based on a woman they’d met in the Sussex village of Rottingdean, on a short excursion from an early show at the Brighton Komedia. The four had entered her shop looking to buy fossils – Gatiss collects trilobites – and were met, Pemberton recalls, with the sense that she thought they were going to murder her, and burn the place to the ground.

“We’d lost sight of the number of political cartoons we’d seen of various Conservative and Ukip politicians with their noses up going, ‘THIS IS A LOCAL COUNTRY FOR LOCAL PEOPLE,’” he says, squashing his nose up with his index finger. “We liked the idea that we could galvanise the people of Royston Vasey behind this thing that wasn’t even real – just a ready-made lynch mob and a few soundbites.”

The comeback show climaxed with the journalist Matthew Parris on BBC news, defending Tubbs and her husband. According to Parris, they were simply saying, “We have had enough of petty meddling. We own a shop. A good shop. A shop we should be proud of and I, for one, am sick of people trying to talk our country down.”

The Derbyshire town of Hadfield, where The League of Gentlemen is filmed, lies 12 miles from Manchester. Its former mills tell a story of post-industrial England: cotton spindles gave way to automatic looms at the turn of the century; in the First World War, the mills were used for the manufacture of guncotton explosive – then parachutes and barrage balloons in the Second. They then produced Pan Yan Pickle in the Forties, for a company that had lost its premises in the Blitz (“It sharpens the appetite and aids digestion”). The mills closed in 1976 and became a trading estate.

Dyson recalls that when they started filming there in 1998, someone said: “Thank God you’ve come here. This town is dying on its arse, this is just what we need.” He adds: “And it did give them a little boost, a little tourist boost of League fans going to see it.” They filled the empty units on the high street with Hilary Briss’s butcher’s shop, with its trade in human flesh, and the taxi rank owned by Barbara, a transgender woman played by Pemberton, of whom more later. The Local Shop stood by itself on a moor. Royston Vasey was said to be mentioned in an appendix in the Domesday Book as “an hutte with a pigge outside”.

When they returned in 2017, though, Hadfield was gentrified – a prosperous and pleasant commuter town for Manchester the miracle city, home of urban regeneration, of Chinese investment and of course, their employer, the BBC. Dyson says, “We had no choice but to spend energy and money trying to make it not look nice.” There had to be a new threat to Royston Vasey, inspired by local government boundary changes in Greater Manchester. The fictional town was to be merged with the neighbouring village of Blackbottoms, to bring down crime statistics and unemployment. Royston Vasey’s mayor-cum-reverend, the snarling Bernice Woodall, played by Shearsmith in a dog collar, is asked for a quote about this forthcoming disaster. She fires back:

Have you ever read the Bible, mate? Me neither. Well, apparently there was a place called Sodom, site of incest, buggery and murder. Eventually it was destroyed by God. Shat on from a great height. Welcome to Royston Vasey. If they want to force us into Blackbottoms, so be it. It’s no skin off my fanny.

Bernice has a Durham accent. Other voices merging with Yorkshire and Lancashire in The League of Gentlemen are a kind of Manuel-from-Fawlty-Towers Spanish, and a pompous RP, which Gatiss and Pemberton lapse into today to render portentous a serious point they might be making. Their relationship with northernness was not straightforward. In the early days, all press coverage referred to them as “four northern lads”, a counterpoint, like Caroline Aherne’s The Royle Family, to both the southern comedy that seemed to dominate the Nineties and the shiny optimism of the New Labour era. Said Pemberton in 1997: “We see ourselves as subverting the traditional sketch show – which, as its name indicates, is not well filled-in.” But there was something uncompromising about their vision of wet, dead-end life and rural small-mindedness.

“We despised northern comedy that was putting it on for the sake of it,” says Dyson. “But we were bound together by northern humour. We were looking in on the north-south divide, rather than looking down south and saying: we are better than you. We weren’t saying the north was wonderful. We were finding the things that frustrated us about the attitudes and the communities.”

 Taking back control: Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton as Edward and Tubbs

Shearsmith and Pemberton were born in the late Sixties to working-class parents in Hull and Blackburn respectively. Like Gatiss, they enrolled on the theatre arts degree at Bretton Hall College in the West Riding, affiliated to Leeds University, where Dyson was a student. Bretton Hall, set within the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, is now a luxury hotel with 120 rooms. One proud alumnus records online that the college prepared you for unemployment: “How to write theatre CVs, approach agents, register to become self-employed.”

Pemberton says: “I get letters from actors who want to go and study, or put a play on, and I always give them something because I remember what that was like. I used to write letters begging for ten pounds, 50 pounds, and it meant so much when we got 50 quid off David Jason, because someone in the company had a way of contacting him. The elation you felt. It wasn’t the money, but the belief that someone had shown.”

He and Gatiss were in the same year, enrolling in 1986, Shearsmith in the year below. One of the first things that actually made them laugh together was recalling – and writing down – the things their parents said about their choice of careers. “It was all about coming from a northern background where no one understands why you want to do drama,” he says. “Working-class, non-culture-based backgrounds where you never went to the theatre, it was alien to our families. No Radio 4.”

After college they did in fact spend years on the dole. “However, those years on the dole were not wasted because you get a Pauline out of it!” And when it came to creating Royston Vasey, they simply brought in elements of home: “Those desolate parks where you used to go and play, and you’d always find a damp porn magazine in a concrete tunnel. A concrete tunnel was something to play in! And it always stank of piss.”

In 1997, the League of Gentlemen won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe. In their early thirties at the time, they would start their shows dressed in ironic tuxedos – a look that they’re returning to in the first half of their new stage show, in which they’ll perform obscure, fan-pleasing sketches (the second half will have full costumes and Royston Vasey sets). We speak during the week that Shane Allen, the BBC comedy commissioner, has declared war on Oxbridge male dominance, predicting that future comedy troupes would be “a diverse range of people who reflect the modern world”.

“People absolutely assumed we were Oxbridge at the start,” Gatiss says. “As if Royston Vasey were some field trip where we went to look at people. I remember talking to a producer in the early days at the BBC – he said they used to pile in a minibus and drive down to the Cambridge Footlights and recruit that year’s crop and give them a series. It made my head spin.

“Until the person making the appointments and decisions is not a white Oxbridge person it will not change. It won’t really have anything other than the smack of ‘we’ve got to do something about this’. There is something very patrician about that idea and there is no sign of it changing.”

They were impressed, returning to their old show, by how “savagely horrible” it was. It was not so much the Grand Guignol tone – the bleeding noses, the kidnappings, the circus freaks – but the dark human themes: rotten marriages, codependencies, excruciating loneliness. In the 2017 comeback, one exquisite balance between humour and blackness was achieved in the sketch known as “Bingo”, an Alan Bennett-style monologue written by Gatiss, fresh from directing Queers, BBC Four’s series marking 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act. A septuagenarian bingo caller, surrounded by disengaged pensioners in a day-lit, half-empty room, recounts his experience of love in later life – “Never had anyone close, like. Never been kissed. Had a bit of money when dad went, so I thought why not? I guess I’ve always known I fancied something a bit different.”

The object of his love was a Thai boy called Cream, who follows him back to the UK and dies while in the process of transitioning from male to female. The story is told through the calling of the bingo numbers: “Twenty-four, knock at the door. Number one: all alone.”

Royston Vasey already had its own trans character – the gruff taxi driver Barbara, in her pink dress, face never seen. In December last year, the NME ran the headline: “Let’s talk about Barbara: why The League of Gentlemen feels out of time.” Keen to keep what Shearsmith calls their “sweet-natured” invention, they had tried to get in there first. Barbara’s cab was now a “safe space”. “People used to make fun of the likes of us,” she growls. “Well that’s all gone now. The world’s moved on. We are no longer a source of cheap humour and laughs!” She explains that she shuns the term “LGBT “in favour of her self-invented “ACRONYM”: “Actively Considering Reassignment Or Not Yet Made Your Mind Up.”

“It’s not about being deliberately provocative,” says Gatiss. “It’s about finding the humour in those things you always did – and some of the absurdities of those situations are intrinsically funny, even funnier than they were. The world around us has got so much more precious. We talked an awful lot about what has changed. Barbara is not the same joke, but it’s a joke around the bits of it which were always absurd – the acronyms. And they are absurd.”

You wonder how new sensitivities will affect the process of comedy writing – whether there would be a show such as Paul Abbott’s Shameless or a Royle Family today, or if there would be room for Harry Enfield’s grotesques, Wayne and Waynetta Slob.

“If you are a writer, the notion of oversensitivity should energise rather than restrict you.” Dyson says. “What leader writers busy themselves talking about is different: the practitioners do what they have always done. We think, either they’ll laugh at it or they won’t. Nothing that any political commentators do or say is going to interfere with that.”

But Shearsmith tells me, “Increasingly I hear that comedians are not doing campuses any more because they’re terrified of being shouted down.”

Nothing for you here: the Local Shop

Whenever you talk to TV writers about a classic BBC show from the past, you hear the same thing: that they “were left alone”. The League of Gentlemen’s office at Television Centre was opposite that of Kenith Trodd, Dennis Potter’s producer “who basically lived there”, says Gatiss. “We really were of that world” – he lapses into the voice of a honeyed and camp continuity announcer: “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Barbara Dickson…”

They would routinely receive a hundred pages of notes from their executive producer, Jon Plowman, three days before transmission, when it was too late to change anything. Ronnie Corbett was their first great fan: Michael Palin came to a screening of their Christmas special which was “like being anointed”. Today, like their old drama school, Television Centre is an extraordinary hotel.

In the show’s first months, journalists probed its writers for sad childhoods and traumatic experiences, but there weren’t many to speak of. Gatiss grew up opposite an Edwardian psychiatric hospital, where both his parents were employed, but he didn’t think it odd – he’d get his hair cut there, and use the swimming pool. Pemberton had a heart attack at 25 while on a tour in Germany: “I’m not going to tell you there’s nothing wrong with your heart,” the German doctor said. Various Germans from that experience fed into his character Herr Lipp, the paedophile from series two who buries an exchange student alive in his garden with just a snorkel poking through the soil.

While their backgrounds were ordinary, the way they looked at the world was less so. As with so many writers of that geek generation, it was years in front of the television in the Eighties and Nineties – summers spent with the curtains shut, watching VHS tapes – that really created the programme, as they amassed a shared network of references long before they met each other, which each assumed only he possessed. It was the strangely intense but solitary nature of teenage culture consumed before the internet. Among the more surprising inspirations were documentaries such as Dispatches: Shearsmith recalls a real-life, horrific crime scene with a po-faced policeman who acted offended when someone said “bloody hell”.

Dyson and Gatiss were introduced by a mutual friend on New Year’s Eve, 1986. “If you had a passion for the portmanteau horror films of the Sixties, or Val Lewton’s 1940s horrors, you assumed you were the only person that felt strongly about it,” Dyson says. In addition to the cloistered nature of the viewing he praises scheduling limitations. “You had three channels and whatever was on those channels was extremely well-curated: that’s only obvious with the passing of time. Like The Wicker Man, which had died on release [in 1973] and was then picked up by whoever programmed the films on BBC Two in 1982. It made an impact on our generation because it was focused through the lens of someone’s taste.”

Dyson agrees that “folk horror” means English horror. “We have a very rich pagan tradition, which is certainly not true of America, apart from what they’ve inherited from us.” You lose count of the American horror films that rely, for their peripeteia, on some spooky European text pulled out in a dusty library – or perhaps a random pentangle, traced upon a page.

“Vampires and werewolves come from Mitteleuropa and fairy-tale tradition. And we have witchcraft, sacrifice and non-Christian spirituality,” he says. “There is a tension between that and Protestantism and Anglicanism, which were despiritualised from Catholicism anyway. The English spirit looks at things in a different way. It is quite earthbound, and it questions more – the roots go really deep. ”

Religious tension underpins the work of MR James, and Gatiss is now – practically – the official adaptor of James’s very English ghost stories at the BBC. Coming back to write The League of Gentlemen is, he says, “like playing, and no one interferes”. He and Dyson write together, and Pemberton and Shearsmith are a partnership, “because those were the original friendships”. As a child, he longed to own a Victorian laboratory, and when he and his husband moved into their first home, he built one. As he talks, he slips naturally into a kind of monologue.

“I bought a lot of Victorian lab equipment. That genuinely was my ambition as a child. But you realise that what you wanted when you were eight is not what you want at 40. It was beautiful, people would come round and I’d say: ‘look at this…’ but then I’d close the door. I don’t know what I thought I would do – turn back time? Create life?

“The thing I always wanted was a Wimshurst machine – that Victorian thing that generates sparks. And you can get a perfect reproduction of the time machine from HG Wells, huge like a sleigh. And I was going to get that… but then I stopped. I thought: this is interesting, this is a lesson. It’s like building a folly. I’ve still got most of the stuff, dotted around the house, but then… you have to think… all right… you grow up.”

The 2017 League of Gentlemen special ended with the line: “Sometimes you can’t go back, but you can visit”. A reference to pre-Brexit Britain perhaps; or the “trouble-free” era of New Labour. Or perhaps an age where you could make sick jokes and get away with it. Or possibly, it referred to a creative place that its writers had outgrown. For now at least, the curtains are shut on the summer holidays, as the new material for the tour takes shape. 

The League of Gentlemen Live again! tour begins on 6 August at Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple

This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special