Psychoville Halloween: Steve Pemberton and Reese Shearsmith interview

In the run-up to the Psychoville Halloween special, we caught up with writers Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton to talk horror, comedy and Most Haunted…

Already well-known as one half of the writing/acting team behind The League Of Gentlemen, Psychoville cemented Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s reputation as the masters of macabre comedy.

We caught up with them for an illuminating round table interview, and Steve Pemberton began by explaining how they came to write the Psychoville Halloween special…

Steve Pemberton: We were offered a Christmas special, first of all, which is the obvious thing to do, but we said we’d rather do a Halloween one, because it suited our sensibilities. And it suited Psychoville a bit more.

People don’t really do them, apart from The Simpsons, so we thought it would be really good to play with all that Halloween iconography of trick or treating and pumpkins, all that kind of thing. And do these urban myths. They were meant to be things that really happened. They’re stories that are being told about the characters.

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I think if you’ve got something like an abandoned mental hospital – I think everyone grew up near an abandoned mental hospital – there are so many rumours about “Oh my gosh, you’ll never guess what happened,” so we’re tapping into all that mythology of a place like that, and the stories it throws up.

Also, it couldn’t advance the story from the end of series one, because we wanted to do that in series two, so it had to be self-contained.

Reese Shearsmith: Once we had it, it was a case of ‘what do we do next?’, and we thought of the portmanteau horror thing that Amicus did so well, or EC Comics. It was a nice way to explore the characters we already had. And we thought the framing device with Mylene’s character would be good. It kind of fitted with having this haunted location. I’m quite obsessed with Most Haunted anyway, so I thought it would be good to explore that.

SP: There was a lot more talk about Most Haunted, wasn’t there? But it got cut out.

RS: Yes. A lot more.

SP: In fact, we did initially think of actually trying to do Most Haunted, and maybe get Yvette Fielding. But we thought Dale Winton’s Overnight Ghost Hunt was a good idea.

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So, where does your obsession with that lie? Do you watch Most Haunted out of irony or do you actually believe in it?

RS: It just stems from loving watching mediums, especially Derek [Acorah]. I mean, they’re all so terrible. [laughs] And knowing a little bit about cold reading, I find it bizarre that anyone could believe it.

SP: We used to watch it on tour, didn’t we? We’d watch Deal Or No Deal on the way to the venue, and Most Haunted on the way back. [laughs]

RS: Which was scarier?

SP: Cosmic ordering or cosmic bullshit [laughs]. But we started off with the idea that three teenagers were going to break into Ravenhill Hospital and spook each other by telling these scary stories. But when we tried to write this teenage speech we found ourselves completely out of touch! We couldn’t do it, could we?

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RS: No. It was quite, quite excruciating. So, we decided a better way to do it would be to have flashbacks to those characters and their time at the hospital. And Drew was actually a character that was written to house one of our websites. We did this big online content for the series as well, and each character from the first series had their own webpage. There were web addresses in the programme to go and seek out, and this big puzzle to solve online.

And one of the characters at the end of the online stuff last year was this one called Drew, who was talking about Ravenhill Hospital, and we thought we could have this character in the Halloween programme. He knows about Ravenhill and about the stories there, and we thought he’d be a good way of cutting in and out of the stories we wanted to tell. That became the framing device, and then all we had to do was think about the stories.

It came quite organically, really. We always thought we should do a Maureen and David one, and we thought, again, that urban myth of the car running out of petrol, and someone picking up a hitchhiker was a very familiar tale. That was the starting point. It doesn’t quite work out that they’re all familiar, but there’s something about each one that has an urban myth feel to it.

It was great to completely embrace the horror again. When we tried to do the horror, we wanted to make it scary as well as funny.

SP: Also, for people who haven’t seen the first series, it’s a good way into the programme, because you don’t need to know the back story. Apart from what goes on at the end, where you’ll go, “What the hell was that?”

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When you create these characters, what comes first? Is it a voice, or a personality quirk?

 SP: A psychosis! It can be a variety of things. Sometimes it is a voice. I mean, it sounds a bit pathetic to say, “I want to do something with this voice,” but sometimes it is, and it gives you a way in to somebody and their personality, their obsession.

Other times it can just be putting two completely separate things together, like with Mr Lomax. I used to read to a blind man when I was a student, and I always thought that was a really good, fertile idea. And I was in a taxi once where the driver was telling me he collected Beanie Babies, and he was being very macho about how he got these Beanie Babies and how important they were. So, I put those two things together, but what really kicked it off was that first line, [Unexpectedly adopts Mr Lomax’s scary, gravely voice] “Get your claw out of my holy of holies!” Which is a line that one of Reese’s friend’s dads said once, and that kick-started the whole thing! [laughs]

You kind of draw all these separate, different things together, and there you are. You’ve got a character who seems rounded, and you think, “Where did they get that from?” but it’s just different things you’ve taken from separate people.

RS: Or it’ll be an idea for a funny scene that’s almost sketch-like. But what we do that makes it less like a sketch show is that we don’t repeat that same joke again and again. That’s the initial idea, and we take that into the story with the character, so, hopefully, you care a little bit more about that person than if it was just the same thing repeated.

League was more sketch-like, but [Psychoville] is much more narrative in the way we’ve written it. It matters what happens to the characters, even though they’re horrible. Maureen and David are quite sympathetic, strangely, but they’re serial killers. But you’re on their side, oddly.

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How did Imelda [Staunton] get involved?

RS: We thought of the character and what we needed her to do, and I did a short film with Imelda a few years ago. We wrote this character and thought it would be great for Imelda. We wrote it so we could ring her a year later and say, “Can you do it? Are you free?”

It worked out. It was great. She was delighted to do it. It’s such a strong performance that she gives. It totally fits in with the world of Psychoville.

SP: The end of the Halloween [episode] leads into series two, but when that’s going to be on, we don’t know. Her character will come into series two a lot more, and we’ll find out more about her. We just wanted to give this little hint that this wasn’t the end.

RS: That was a hard thing to write, because we wanted the mystery to go on. At least viewers know there is a second series coming, and that some of their questions will be answered.

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We got quite a lot of stick for the end of the first series, because, apparently, it wasn’t resolved enough. But we had to leave a crack in the door open, because without the possibility of a second series, what do you do?

It’s good, though, in a way, that viewers are so emotionally involved.

SP: That’s a good point – a good way of looking at it. It certainly inflamed lots of debate, and the website set up off the back of it, and lots of forums where people are talking about it. And we take it all on board, as well. At the end of the first series, Mr Jelly says, “I’m sure all this doesn’t add up,” so we’re playing with the whole genre, really.

We created this whole online world, as well, so, by encouraging people to get involved with it, you can’t then complain if they query certain things.

RS: They’re obviously really into it if they’re so concerned that they don’t get answers.

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SP: It was only the last two minutes, really, where everything got resolved and we threw in this red herring: what’s this locket all about? That’s what series two will be.

It’s a good job the second series was commissioned, then.

RS: It is a good job, otherwise we’d be left with half a mystery. [laughs]

And the locket was very significant to the Halloween episode.

RS: Yes it is.

SP: It’s as if we knew what we were doing all along. [laughs]

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Did you feel any pressure before Psychoville started? Because, obviously, The League Of Gentlemen was such a huge success.

SP: It was a huge weight on our shoulders to begin with, and we tried to do as much as we could to combat that by trying not to frame things in the same way. But at the end of the day, you write the way you write, and we have our shared sense of humour, and it’s pointless going away from that. So, if it turns out a little like The League Of Gentlemen, so be it.

Psychoville does have shades of The League Of Gentlemen, but I think it’s different. It has more narrative, and has a different flavour. It’s its own thing, and we’re completely proud of it as a standalone project.

But it can be inhibiting to begin with. You’ve just got to go along with it.

RS: It’s hard, yeah. The thing arrives once, and people are surprised by your tone, and then you repeat that and people know your style. “Oh yeah, these are the guys that do dark scary stuff.”

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I always feared that Psychoville would be in the wake and shadow of The League Of Gentlemen, but I’m really happy to say it’s its own thing. We try never to repeat ourself, other than in tone, because that’s the furrow we’re plowing.

As a piece of television, I think it’s interesting to look at. If you were flicking around, and you saw it, I think you’d say, “What’s that?” You might not like it, but you’re impressed by it.

How did you go about mixing the horror and the comedy? How do you get the balance right?

SP: In the series, the horror takes you by surprise. As Reese says, when you’re in a domestic or ordinary situation, the horror comes out of nowhere, whereas in a Halloween special, you’re expecting it to be horrific.

It was trickier, in a way, to write, because there’s an expectation that it’ll be scary. But we wanted it to have that really creepy, spooky atmosphere to it.

We decided to look at different genres of horror as well. So, for Mr Lomax’s story, we looked at Japanese horror, which has a great sense of creeping dread. So, there’s The Eye, The Grudge, Ring. There’s that ghostly thing you can’t quite make out. And it suited Mr Lomax because he has no sight.

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And then with the David and Maureen story we wanted to do the story about breaking down in the car, with the question of who’s the hitchhiker and who’s the murderer. So, it just comes naturally to us. If you asked us to write an episode of My Family we’d still have a murder going on in the basement or something!

I heard you originally wanted Psychoville to be quite light, but when you started writing it didn’t quite turn out that way…

RS: The BBC told us that was what they wanted.

SP: I think the BBC could do with a nice, light sitcom, but we’re not the ones to do it!

Is there an element of self-censorship when you write Psychoville? Are there certain ideas you come up with that you think, “No, we’d better draw back from that”?

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RS: We’re very good on swearing, I think, aren’t we? There are literally panels of people that decide what words are allowed and not allowed in your show, but we’ve not had many problems with them.

SP: No. And you’ve got to be mindful of what’s achievable with money being what it is and the schedules being what they are. We’d write a scene that says, “They’re driving along at 100mph,” and we’ll say, “No, forget that. They’re parked in a lay-by.” Otherwise we’d never be able to film it.

So, we’re experienced now to know what is achievable. But we’re always pushing at the sides of what is achievable, and everyone works incredibly hard to make it look good. If you look at the Halloween special, it does look fantastic, I think, for a comedy. We get the same as everybody else. For a drama, of course, you get a lot more – and you could argue that Psychoville is equal parts comedy and drama – and we wish we had the budget to do some things.

We kind of know what our limitations are, and it also gives us the autonomy to do what we want. People leave us alone, generally speaking. We don’t have reams of notes, and we don’t have interference, because we don’t cost a fortune.

RS: We don’t even have a script editor, do we? We are it.

SP: We think that’s worth an awful lot, to have that, and not have to sit through endless notes and changes.

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RS: Because it’s not diluted or dumbed down. It’s how we intended, and that’s the heart of it. League was like that. It arrived on television very sure of itself, which is really fortunate.

But obviously, you’re quite established. So, would it be harder for newcomers to do something odd, comedy-wise, do you think?

 SP: We’ve had to jump through all the same hoops with Psychoville. We’d had success with League, but we still had to go through read-throughs and script approvals and all that.

RS: And to get series two, we had to get it re-commissioned, with script approvals and all that.

SP: But it is hard for new people getting in, as it was for us. If you can do something that’s in your own voice, and get it that far without having the edges knocked off it, then great. Not everyone will love it, but enough people might like it to make it a success.

[The BBC] could easily have said, “We don’t want Psychoville. We’ve seen that kind of thing before.” And that would have been a big shame, because I think it is different and that there isn’t anything like it. So, it is serving a need for someone.

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RS: Probably just me and you!

Psychoville Halloween screens on 31st October, as you might expect. Our spoiler-free review is up tomorrow…