WARNING: This is a local blog post for local people.
The League of Gentlemen is the stolen title of a comedy troupe who made their names in the latter part of the 1990s. Unlike the comedy stars of the decades before Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss met one another at Bretton Hall College near Wakefield in West Yorkshire rather than going through an Oxbridge education.
Along with Jeremy Dyson they started to collaborate in the mid-1990s and put on a Perrier award winning show at the 1997 Edinburgh Fringe Festival which gave them an opportunity to produce a six part radio show for BBC Radio 4 later that year which followed the adventure of outsider to their fictitious settlement then called Spent. Triumphing in the Sony Radio Academy Awards led to this black-comedy being converted to a television series where Pemberton, Shearsmith & Gatiss would perform their range of a bizarre characters on location.
All Northern England born, the ensemble hunted for the run-down High Street and surroundings that captured the mood of this downtrodden town eventually landing upon the North Derbyshire settlement of Hadfield which is situated near Glossop and the Western boundary of the Peak District. They also renamed their municipality to Royston Vasey (the birth name of blue comedian Roy Chubby Brown), other nearby locations also served as filming locations which made it a believable depraved home to an array of residents.
The first series was an amended version of their half dozen episodes of their audio program. The three performed the majority of roles regardless of gender with many female personalities displaying excessive makeup and with only the outsider figure of Benjamin Denton played by Shearsmith, the character not having stand out physical features.
These characters such as the incestuous proprietors of the Local Shop Edward and Tubbs Tattsyrup and the condescending stationery loving restart officer Pauline Campbell-Jones who found kinship with well-meaning simpleton Mickey Michaels gained a cult following of fans. This helped gain enough viewership for the BBC to offer a second series and Christmas special in 2000. Between this series and the final main six episodes, they returned to the stage doing a show at London’s Drury Lane.
After three series, they brought the curtain down on the filming on location with the final series taking a different approach with each episode running at a simultaneous period of time and concluding with a scene where all six story lines wrapped up together.
Due to the success they had gained, Pemberton, Shearsmith and Gatiss all found themselves starting to spread their wings in acting both on and off screen before reuniting together for the 2005 movie adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as three of the Vogons keen to destroy the planet Earth for a Hyperspace bypass before also writing and starring in a big screen and extended narrative and live on stage productions based back in Royston Vasey.
In the late 2000s and 2010s, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith worked together, first on Psychoville and then Inside No. 9, away from Mark Gatiss who had started to pen alongside Stephen Moffat, the reboot of Doctor Who and the modernised Sherlock.
Psychoville ran for two series revolving around an unlikely mix of characters brought together due to previous events and being blackmailed as a result. Some of these characters are played by Pemberton, Shearsmith along with the likes Dawn French, Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton and Daisy Haggard and several other cast members.
Inside No. 9 which started to air in February 2014 is an anthology series where Pemberton and Shearsmith play various guises sharing screen time with other popular actors such as Timothy West, Anne Reid, Gemma Arterton, Helen McCroy & Felicity Kendal. This series is due to begin its fifth series with a Halloween special next month and then in early 2019.
Alongside this further roles and writing credits allowed the League to step aside from continuing to working together. Pemberton now equally recognised for his role as Mick Garvey in ITV’s Benidorm, Shearsmith stepped into the bio-drama of convicted sociopath Malcolm Webster opposite Sheridan Smith and Kate Fleetwood and Gatiss in BBC dramas such as Wolf Hall and Taboo as well as a four episode run in HBO’s Game of Thrones.
The BBC in 2016 and 2017 brought back many popular comedy programs for one off episodes as a way of grabbing back the audience share lost to other networks. Such revivals included Nicholas Lyndhurst reprising his Gary Sparrow character in Goodnight Sweetheart and Kerry Howard playing a young Hyacinth Bucket as well as Kevin Bishop taking on the mantle of Ronnie Barker Fletch’s grandson in a standalone Porridge special.
With the League hitting twenty years, the cult following was determined to see the grotesque world of Royston Vasey once again in a Brexit bound Britain. Gladly the troupe and the BBC felt it was also time to offer the fans a chance to return to the town they and Shearsmith’s character Benjamin found it so difficult to leave. Three episodes filmed back on location in Hadfield and shown in December 2017 and once again viewing figures were encouraging allowing the group to bring their local show to nationwide theatres and arenas.
Days prior to the twentieth year anniversary mini-series airing on BBC Two, the League confirmed that they would start their latest tour in Sunderland on 25 August 2018. After much mulling I decided to purchase myself a ticket for the evening of 2 September which would be performed at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena. This being my most local venue of choice.
Opened on April Fool’s Day in 2000 by Olympic Gold Medallist and locally born Jayne Torvill, the arena is a multi-use indoor amphitheatre with a capacity of 10,000 spectators where people have been able to see live concerts by Kylie Minogue, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga as well as other comedy performers such as Bill Bailey and Eddie Izzard have done shows of their tours on the stage in Nottingham’s Lace Market venue.
After travelling from my parents’ home to the city centre of Nottingham, I made my way to the auditorium and soaked up the atmosphere of the souvenir stalls contemplating what to buy as memorabilia from the event. In the end settling on a programme, a small enamel badge, a metallic Royston Vasey town sign and a pack of hand drawn character postcards before making my way to my seat for the evening. Thankfully I had booked a mid-tiered seat albeit in the far right from the stage which gave me a good vantage to see what was happening on stage and glance at the monitors for closer detail.
It can be said that sometimes when comedians transfer from stage to television or vice versa they do not perform the same. This may be because the performer is not comfortable with one medium or the other or they are allowed more licence to be heavier in their use of language or material. The League of Gentlemen has never been afraid of being controversial and being able to insinuate and perform risque depictions especially those of a sexual nature or use of bodily fluids, so for those who uncomfortable with that being exaggerated to a fairly gruesome level, this show certainly would not be for you.
The first half of the performance allowed the League to go through some their most recognisable sketches all while keeping props and costumes to a minimum. These including the impossible ruled card game “Go Johnny Go Go Go” to a dating agency assistant who looks down on her client then to Pam Doove’s awkward audition for an orange juice advert. Other skits included the tempestuous couple playing a game of Trivial Pursuit and the perverted father attempting his sleazy flirtations towards his son’s girlfriend with Steve Pemberton’s performance in this sketch causing Reece Shearsmith and Mark Gatiss to corpse and break the straightness they are performing this material with. The beginning and end of this hour of proceedings is sandwiched between the fictitious theatre company Legz Akimbo performing their routine on the danger of paedophiles and other important “issues”.
After the interval, the performance took a more extravagant up turn in costumes and using of the set. Starting almost at the end of the anniversary specials where Local Shopkeeper Edward Tattsyrup is looking for his wife/sister, Tubbs, who had vanished through a trap door of a fake photo booth into the travelling minstrel and collector of wives, Papa Larazou’s “Wife Mine”.
On different levels of the stage, Tubbs and Edward sing a duet on how they hope to be reunited to open up a more energetic second half of the show. As Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton go through their first costume change allowing Gatiss to perform a monologue Bingo calling character called Toddy sharing his tragic love story with a transgender individual from Thailand. The trio all return on stage together for the first time in costume performing a Best Man’s speech scene where the tactless Geoff Tipps (Shearsmith) is toasting his friend Mike (Pemberton) on the re-marriage to his wife Cheryl.
Other key scenes/sketches include Pemberton as the over the top homosexual German, Herr Lipp who has yet to fully grasp the English language therefore provides sexually explicit double entendres around other males, offering German lessons to an audience member with the phrases being heavily sexualised when audible to non-German but English speakers.
This is followed by Gatiss as the unfortunate veterinarian Mr Chinnery attempting to operate on a panda’s cataracts and also as the failed pop singer Les McQueen. Reece Sheersmith brings via video link and eventually on the platform, his performance as the atheist berating at her parishioners vicar turn Mayor of Royston Vasey, Bernice Woodall.
One of the main scenes features Steve Pemberton’s infamous Pauline Campbell-Jones dropping in on her own funeral before running away to France with the dimwitted Micky where outlandish flashback scenes both on stage and screen explain how despite being smothered accidentally by previously seen Geoff, to apparent death in the anniversary specials, it was all fraudulent. During the on stage flashback scenes Micky (Gatiss) breaks the fourth wall explaining some of the original script hasn’t dated well.
Another distorted scene is in the Dentons’ living room where a multitude of bodily fluids is sprayed over each member of the League in their guises in a similar fashion to David Walliams and Matt Lucas’ brainchild Little Britain used before the show climaxes with Tubbs being rescued by her husband/brother after a nightmare envisioning Edward going off with a Conservative election candidate.
The League of Gentlemen is most certainly a comedy which stretches the audience’s gross out factor by pushing limits further than most comedy programs ever would dare so therefore I would not recommend watching while eating or feeling sensitive. However, I have a warmth to this dry black-comedy and feel it has it’s place in the comedy folklore. Some scenes and characters are certainly cringe making, hard work and twisted however there is a charm and very human satire underlying the dark themes the comedy highlights.
Therefore I feel it was worth investing an evening to be entertained by Messrs Dyson, Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith.
The first three series of the League of Gentlemen can be found on Netflix UK & Ireland. However the anniversary mini-series has yet to be put on the streaming service. The complete series of Psychoville and series one and two of Inside No. 9 (with the third due to be released later in September and the fourth to be confirmed).
All series and the film can be bought on DVD from Amazon as can the recordings of the performance at Drury Lane and the 2006 pantomime filmed at the Hammersmith Apollo in London –
- The League of Gentlemen – The Complete Collection (Series 1-3 including Christmas Special) – https://www.amazon.co.uk/League-Gentlemen-Complete-Collection-DVD/dp/B00083D4G6/
- The League of Gentlemen – Anniversary Specials – https://www.amazon.co.uk/League-Gentlemen-Anniversary-Specials-DVD/dp/B07895MDTT/
- The League Of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse – https://www.amazon.co.uk/League-Gentlemens-Apocalypse-DVD/dp/B000ANDBSU/
- The League Of Gentlemen: Live At Drury Lane – https://www.amazon.co.uk/League-Gentlemen-Live-Drury-Lane/dp/B00005NQEU/
- The League Of Gentlemen Are Behind You – https://www.amazon.co.uk/League-Gentlemen-Are-Behind-You/dp/B000I5XNJW/