The League Of Gentlemen: celebrating a work of comedy genius

With an anniversary reunion in the pipeline, we celebrate macabre, inventive, brilliant comedy series The League Of Gentlemen...

“Would you describe yourself as an egregious person?” I asked Reece Shearsmith at a recent Q&A. I was nervous. Everyone else had asked questions about his writing, complimented his performances and asked about the upcoming series of Inside No 9. I just wanted to see how he’d respond. “Piss off,” he said. Actually, I shouldn’t put that in quotation marks because that’s not really what he said. What he really said was much more blue but very jovial and the audience all laughed. Phew. I was initially apprehensive that no one would get the reference but I needn’t have been. It turns out The League Of Gentlemen has a timelessness to it and a special place in the hearts of comedy fans that no other show, before or since, could possibly fill.

So what is it about The League Of Gentlemen that fans love so much? Surely the answer is in its brilliant writing. What other writers have brought such a wonderfully dark concoction of hilarity and horror to the small screen? The show is so gloriously cineliterate whilst also being brilliantly observant of people living in small, remote places. We’ve all met a version of one of the characters living in Royston Vasey, which is an incredible feat considering the outlandishly macabre plotlines that are woven throughout the fictional town. The entire series has elements of the relatable that hook us in and can subsequently pull the fans anywhere; once you’re in, you’ll never leave.

Writers Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson gradually up the ante with each of the show’s beloved characters and plotlines, cranking up the darkness and the stakes to hilarious extremes. With the show’s three key players (Pemberton, Shearsmith and Gatiss) appearing as numerous characters in warts-and-all make up and frequently in drag, the show offers moments of surprising pathos amongst its grotesquery – moments of pause and tragedy in a sea of laughs that only enhance the show’s dark appeal. If you love the characters and the overtones of folk horror greats such as Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, then you’re onto a winner; there really is no finer dark comedy available to you from more intelligent scriptwriters and performers.

There are some people who just straight up don’t get it, though. As much as I hate this analogy, it’s very applicable here; The League Of Gentlemen is Marmite (other brown goo spreads are available). From the non-believers in the population (we might do best to view these individuals as not local) I have heard repeatedly two main reasons why it is not their cup of fresh aqua vita. One: it’s too gross. For some, toads in a blender and squeezing whiteheads into someone’s burger just isn’t their idea of fun teatime viewing and, granted, the show does not shy away from bodily fluids of all kinds, from mysterious nose bleeds to urine in petrol cannisters. Two: it’s bloody bonkers. There’s a fine line between madness and genius, and the writers take their ideas and fly with them. Some of us will follow while others will run screaming from Royston Vasey. The writers did absolutely no fence sitting and it’s an admirable quality; you never get the impression that their ideas were compromised. It would be difficult to say that the show is just ‘a bit silly’; it’s either marvellous or miserable, always morbid but never ‘meh’. As Shearsmith said himself via Twitter in response to an article that called The League “kooky”: “If it was ever ‘kooky’ – then I’m not bringing it f***ing back”.

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Oh, did I not mention? It’s coming back. You heard correctly, townsfolk, The League Of Gentlemen has confirmed a return for an anniversary special and in celebration, here’s a trip down memory lane to visit our favourite characters from the show.

Spoiler warning: I will be talking about what happens to these characters. If you’re loving the sound of it so far but have never watched The League Of Gentlemen, stop here and head over to Netflix where you can find all 3 series.

My boyfriend doesn’t like me working here. It’s not that he’s jealous – I tell him “you should see the state of them”.

Olive Kilshaw (Reece Shearsmith) sits behind the desk in the office of Attachments Dating Agency and systematically breaks down what is left of her nervous and lonely clients’ self-confidence. Horrified when Iain Cashmore (Steve Pemberton) asks if she met her own boyfriend through a dating agency, she says she’ll tell her boyfriend the story in bed later before continuing to stress to her client that he ought not to get his hopes up for finding love.

Ekscood beef, have anybody got any bottle oran goov?

The young, friendly Pamela Doove (Shearsmith) meets with director Jed Hunter (Pemberton) at an audition for an orange juice commercial. It’s your typical scene – nervous actress prepares to give it her best shot whilst the director reassures the talent and reminds her of her line: “Excuse me, has anybody got a bottle of orange juice?” For those of you who have ever been in an audition scenario, Jed’s nonchalant “kewl” as he sits backwards in his chair will already have you howling with appreciative laughter, but the kicker comes when Pamela makes her entrance. From her sing-songy, polite voice comes a low-pitched and manic “Ekscood beef, have anybody got any bottle oran goov?!” It’s alarming. It’s wonderful.

At least I won the mums.

The three pals from the plastics company ought to hang out together a little less for all the drama that goes down when they meet up. We first see the trio when Geoff Tipps (Shearsmith) insists that Brian (Mark Gatiss) tell their co-worker Mike (Pemberton) a joke, “the one about the Mau Mau”. We’ve all been in that uncomfortable position. Someone lays the pressure on for you to remember a joke and it’s an excruciating mess, especially with your friend interjecting with the details you’ve forgotten. Although, of course, it’s a little different here because I doubt said mate threatened to blow your brains out. In glorious League fashion, a light-hearted occasion turns macabre as Geoff grows more and more demanding about Brian’s telling of the joke before pulling a gun on him in the restaurant. Geoff’s dark side emerges again at Mike’s wedding when he uses his Best Man speech to lament his professional and relationship failings before proudly announcing that he “won” because when both men’s mothers fell ill, his mother was the only one to survive.

It’s in the darkness I see the boy’s face…

A truly wonderful one-off sketch featuring Mark Gatiss as Mick McNamara, a tour guide leading his group around Stump Hole Caverns. Not only do his incredibly short shorts create a great ensemble for him, his delivery makes this sketch. Amongst his considerably monotone description of the cavern he mentions the caverns down the road, whom he berates for their gift shop and 100% safety record, and as they proceed deeper into the cavern something darker, ironically, comes to light. As he switches off the cavern lights, he tells his group he doesn’t like the darkness. He speaks of a boy that he sees when he’s left in the dark and when describing the different rock shapes he tells the group how one brings to mind a boy attempting to haul himself up a rope. It’s a fantastically understated comic exposition of trauma seeping out and the look of growing panic on his group’s faces is priceless.

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Come to me in private and I will take you in my German mouth.

Herr Lipp (Pemberton) is one of the writers’ more haunting creations; a gay German who takes his class on an exchange trip to Royston Vasey. His broken English is riddled with innuendos just as his mind is riddled with sinister intentions for the son of the woman putting him up in the town, a school boy named Justin. Is this man just unhappy in his heterosexual marriage or is he a skin-crawling perv? The answer may lie in Justin’s whereabouts by the end of series 2: buried in his front garden with only a snorkel to breathe through and the promise that Herr Lipp will visit him next year.

I bet they’d have their arseholes pierced if they could get the cheeks into the machine!

The Reverend Bernice Woodall (Shearsmith) is the most angry, cynical and prejudiced lady of the cloth you’re likely to ever come across. As she spits vitriol into the congregation, it becomes clear that she’s voicing the same things that a lot of us could be accused of thinking, only with Bernice there’s absolutely no holding back.

I felt like I was on trial at the bloomin’ Old Baileys!

Anyone who ever had a theatre group visit their school as a child already knows these characters. They’ve got them down to an absolute T. The overly cheerful group whose flimsy sets and garish costumes attempt to address teen issues. The only thing is that this group also have quite a lot going on behind the scenes that is played out in front of the students. Ollie Plimsolls (Shearsmith) first introduces their theatre group ‘Legz Akimbo’ to a classroom of students with an announcement that one of the group, Phil (Gatiss), will be leaving them for greener pastures. Phil’s decision incites a great deal of bitterness from Ollie that spills over into their performance, complete with the beautifully well-observed am-dram hallmarks of walking in place, soundscapes and freeze frames. Highlights include Dave (Pemberton) dressed as a skeleton with a sign around his neck reading ‘AIDS’.

Oh, it needs a special mark or we can’t take it.

Vinnie (Shearsmith) and Reenie (Pemberton) are the elderly volunteers of the local charity shop, a pair of women who stumble along mishearing and misunderstanding 90% of what is going on. When a frankly rather beautiful bereaved customer brings in a selection of baby garments (Gatiss can really pull off drag), the pair completely overlook her clear distress and instead squabble over a teddy bear to see if it bears the ‘special mark’ and dump the items on the floor in favour of their favourite thing: the carrier bag.

HELLO DAVE!

One of the best known catchphrases of the show has to be the terrifying “HELLO DAVE” of the circus ringmaster, Papa Lazarou (Shearsmith). A man who calls everyone Dave, Lazarou makes a habit of making local housewives his new ‘wife’, swindling the elderly by claiming he’s channelling the spirit of their dead relatives and putting people in a variety of zoo animals. When Keith Drop (Shearsmith) joins the team at the charity shop, there’s much excitement in store for fans of this crazed character in blackface.

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Little bit more, we can afford to be quite bold.

Poor poor Mr Matthew Chinnery (Gatiss), will he ever get it right? This kind, soft spoken local vet lacks only one thing to get his career off the ground: competence. Whether it’s putting down the wrong dog, blowing the head of a tortoise with compressed air or pulling out a cow’s innards when trying to deliver a calf, his intentions are well placed but his execution is… well, often just that. It transpires that his awful luck is down to a curse that befell his great-grandfather Edmund, a curse he turns to Reverend Bernice Woodall to cure in the Christmas Special.

Back in ’81. Heats. Same year as Bucks Fizz won.

Les McQueen (Gatiss) is perhaps the most tragic character in The League Of Gentlemen. The former rhythm guitarist of glam rock group Creme Brulee, Les lives in the past, dreaming of the band’s golden years. Whether he’s hoping to fill in for a guitarist in a local band or playing Creme Brulee’s old hits on the hospital radio station, it’s hard to feel anything but empathy for a man whose best years and best friends are behind him. When he is contacted by the band’s former lead singer promising a reunion, he invests his money in the venture only to find he has been scammed. Who didn’t feel a bit teary when he turned up in full costume to nothing?

More League Of Gentlemen appreciation on the next page.

I should never have married her, Luigi!

Charlie (Pemberton) and Stella Hull (Shearsmith) are an unhappily married couple who almost exclusively air their grievances to one another through a third party. Whether it’s the waiter at the local restaurant (who is not called Luigi) or the little baby Jade, the pair’s bickering escalates to confessions of boredom and deep unhappiness at the state of their marriage before ending with a light-hearted observation which resets their utter despair until the next argument.

Everyone knows ‘Go, Johnny, Go Go Go Go’.

It’s reminiscent of the playground; there were always a couple of kids who made up an elaborate game with complicated rules to exclude most of the class. Here DJ Mike King (Shearsmith) of hospital radio fame plays a game of cards with Mr Best (Pemberton) and Dr Simon (Gatiss) in their down time. As Mike and Mr Best rattle through possible games to play, all of which are evidently entirely made up, Dr Simon appeals to them to play Rummy or Pontoon; anything actually real. Mike and Mr Best land on ‘Go, Johnny, Go Go Go Go’, a game with incomprehensible rules that they encourage Dr Simon to go along with… and then berate him for putting down a 3.

Jump leads for two. Can do.

Alvin Steele (Gatiss) runs the Windemere Guest House; a friendly man who likes to tell his lodgers stories at breakfast. He seems content with the small-town guest house life, however he must close the communal areas of the guest house every few months for an event arranged by his wife, Sunny (Chrissie Furness). It transpires that his wife holds an orgy in their humble local abode, an orgy to which poor Alvin wears a rather modest PVC outfit and consoles himself over a plate of crisps in the kitchen.

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I woke up this morning and my bed’s like a butcher’s slab.

We are first introduced to Royston Vasey when Benjamin Denton (Shearsmith) gets a ride from Bab’s Cabs and from this journey the precedent is set. Barbara (voiced by Pemberton) is a gruff, deep-voiced transgender woman whose name glistens in gold from the necklace buried in her thick chest hair. It soon becomes clear to any unfortunate soul who uses her taxi service that she is due to have a sex change operation, the gruesome details of which she does not hold back from. Lubrication, the cutting of the penis, her recent experience of the ‘time of the month’ – it’s all up for discussion. When Mr Chinnery botches her sex change, the status ‘down there’ remains unclear. Until, that is, she is seen heavily pregnant following the fire at the local shop, presumably with the offspring of her recently deceased husband-turned-beast David Tattsyrup.

Special stuff.

We’d all love to know, what is this ‘special stuff’? Butcher and on-the-side ‘special stuff’ dealer Hilary Briss (Gatiss) is supplying something to his in-crowd: a substance that is so addictive he’s getting desperate late-night calls to his home for more. It’s spreading like wildfire and soon his small gatherings are being interrupted by more and more locals wanting the stuff. Hilary is wonderfully menacing as the unlikely drug lord of Royston Vasey, the man who is singlehandedly responsible for the nose bleeds everyone in the town is experiencing come Series 2. When was the last time your butcher kick-started an epidemic?

We’re gonna shake hands like men. Like men who’ve done a deal.

Pop (Pemberton) is easily the slimiest resident of Royston Vasey. With an accent that has a tendency to slide but is largely of the Greek or perhaps Turkish persuasion, this scoundrel of a father and landlord spends his time swindling innocent residents and disowning his son after nine Maverick bars are swiped from the family newsagent. He’s wily and he gets what he wants, if only because people wouldn’t dare say no to him. If he’s not in the room with you, you can’t be sure that you aren’t in his sights: he may be watching you for, ahem, his own personal entertainment via CCTV.

Semen is such a persistent stain.

Oh, the Dentons. When Benjamin (Shearsmith) first visits his Uncle Harvey (Pemberton) and Auntie Val (Gatiss) there is something off, but it’s not too off. Yet. I think a lot of us have visited a house in which we’ve been repeatedly told to ‘make yourself at home’, only to feel uncomfortable breathing. It begins this way for Benjamin; he is immediately told to take his shoes off and his backpack is placed on a sheet of polystyrene to keep it away from the upholstery. Soon, on true The League Of Gentlemen form, the ante is considerably upped. There are towels dedicated solely for pubic hair, they sup on glasses of urine over breakfast, they have a nude day once a month (a nude female Gatiss is a sight to behold) and Uncle Harvey breeds toads with which he has an unnatural fascination (a copy of toad-based pornographic material is found in a dresser drawer).

Uncle Harvey has an ongoing issue with having a male lodger, convinced that all Benjamin will get up to in their absence is masturbate, resulting in an indelicate conversation in which Benjamin is instructed to refrain from base urges in case their two young twin daughters find him “hunched double on the sofa bed” doing you-know-what. The sketch features large amounts of toad death, with toads melted on radiators, trampled underfoot and whipped up in a blender whilst Benjamin does his utmost to escape the 

Farmer Tinsel has kept you imprisoned here for ages because you slept with his wife.

The horror influences shine through in this dark sketch featuring Mr Wood from the Cash and Carry (Gatiss), revealed to be tied up beneath an inconspicuous scarecrow. Desperate to escape and left alone for a moment by Farmer Tinsel (Pemberton), Mr Wood beckons to the creepy Denton twins (The Shining, much?) who are passing by. Instead of the girls coming to his rescue, however, they instead explain that he is being punished before announcing “You’re our special friend and you wouldn’t be if you went away.” Haunting stuff.

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I’m lying there thinking ‘Will this pleasure never end?!’

Reece Shearsmith plays Judee Levinson, a rich housewife who spends a great deal of time lamenting the trials of being so well off to her council estate mum of ten cleaner Iris (Gatiss). This is an expertly judged sketch, as instead of Iris’ character sabotaging Judee by attacking her wealth (popping a red sock in her white Egyptian cotton wash comes to mind) she instead chooses to begin a gradual, psychological game. Whilst Judee may go on seven holidays a year, at least Iris has a whale of a time in bed, something she makes clear when discussing her sexual pleasure with Judee. The stakes get higher as the series progresses, with Judee visiting Iris at home and showing evident disdain at her squalid living whilst Iris brings up Judee’s daughter’s eating disorder to even the score. In a wonderful and entirely unexpected climax to the pair’s psychological warfare, Iris unearths that Judee’s husband has evidently died before Judee throws her arms around Iris sobbing, “oh, Mum!”

Would you say you’re a fairly egregious person?

There are, of course, myriad quotes I could have chosen for this section. “Hokey cokey, pig in a pokey!”, “dole scum”… you know where I’m going. Introducing Pauline Campbell-Jones (Pemberton), queen of pens with the exquisite ability to emote more with her bright pink lips than may people can with their entire face. Working as a restart officer at the local Job Centre, Pauline mentors ‘Mickey Luv’, the totally gormless and strangely adorable aspiring fireman Mickey M. Michaels (Gatiss) and Ross Gaines (Shearsmith), the lucky man who shares a table with the wide mouthed, spotty Mickey.

Ross watches Pauline’s reproachful view of the unemployed and her patronising manner towards the residents on the course before finally revealing himself to have been undercover observing her performance. Ross fires Pauline and despite her love of pens and having a job, most likely in that order, Pauline faces unemployed life with all the gusto with which she approached her job: by kidnapping Ross. This sketch offers a brilliant mix of the relatable holier-than-thou teacher figure with slapstick and, surprisingly, a really rather endearing love story. Despite everything that happens between the three of them, Pauline finally marries Mickey Luv at the end of Series 3 whilst Ross sneaks into the back of the church and applauds their happiness. A genuinely touching moment.

We didn’t burn him!

Of course these folk come last on the list, because despite being set away from the centre of Royston Vasey you don’t get more local than this. I am talking, of course, of Edward (Shearsmith) and Tubbs Tattsyrup (Pemberton). Best known for asking “Are you local?” and quietly disposing of anyone that is not, this married couple run the local shop full of ‘precious things’, predominantly a vast selection of snow globes that they have no desire to sell. All visitors to the establishment are greeted with Edward’s threatening “Hello, hello? What’s all this shouting? We’ll have no trouble here!” as the pair look down their snout noses at their latest victim. The whole place reeks of inbreeding and fear and it’s marvellously forbidding, with Tubbs swearing to a local policeman that they didn’t burn a man who has recently gone missing in the area. “You did it beautifully, Tubbs” Edward frequently declares, in an eerie echo of Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, congratulating his wife for her deception in their wicked schemes.

As time passes and more strangers arrive with the construction of ‘new road’, it becomes clear that Tubbs is more of an inquisitive child than a merciless killer, held back by Edward from exploring new places such as London and Swansea that she finds on a map, an entirely alien item to her. When the couple’s son David (Gatiss), returns to the local shop, he offers Tubbs an escape to the big city before he begins to transform into a beast and is kept in the Tattsyrups’ attic. A witch hunt is instigated by the local community which culminates in the shop being set alight. In the most dark and moving image of the series, Tubbs attempts to make an escape before Edward insists that the crowd will get her. After a beat, the pair come together in a dance while the flames consume their home and their livelihood. It’s not often you feel a pang of pain for cold-hearted killers, but that’s the kind of show The League Of Gentlemen is. I love it.