Ahead of The League of Gentlemen’s TV return and UK tour, Alan Parry looks at the legacy of one of British comedy’s darkest gems.
The League of Gentlemen returns to our screen for the first time in 15 years next week for a trio of festive specials, and have just announced an extensive UK tour for next year.
2017 is a big year for the show’s creators, as it marks the 20th anniversary of the original radio series, and here we intend to look over the show’s lasting appeal.
2005 saw the writers reunite to create the feature length The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, and although all the familiar characters were present, the plot was complicated, and the project was simply not a fitting way to bow out.
With that being so, rumours have circulated for years about a return to the small screen, but the timing had to be right. The boys have been busy, working on other projects with varying success. But we now can catch-up on the lives of some of comedy’s most vile, but frightfully funny characters.
It would be easy for me to sit here and wax lyrical over all the bizarre crowd favourites, but for me personally, I fell in love with the show because of its foundation in gritty realism. Now, ‘Where did that come from?’ I hear you asking. And, is a fair question, so let me explain.
Is the town of Royston Vasey (the real name of Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown), merely an intricate construction of tributes to, and an acknowledgement of the (comedy) horror genre? Because, if that was the case, I think the show would have gone stale a long time ago.
I believe that to only look at this work through that lens is to miss the point. Had the group set out to create a dark comedy that did little more than reference that which passed before, and inspired them, we wouldn’t still be talking about it now. And there certainly wouldn’t be such anticipation for new material. It would have been lazy, on their part to write such a show. And if there is one thing you cannot say about these guys, it’s that they are lazy. They do not take shortcuts. To write something funny, in this genre that have almost carved out for themselves is not an easy undertaking.
Think again about the 2005 movie. Yes, it missed the mark for avid fans, because of the way it pandered to a wider audience, but it was a fresh direction. This diluted extension of the hit series was an intelligent piece of post-modernist writing, which saw the fourth wall broken as the characters spilled out into the ‘real’ or contingent world.
This idea that was picked up by Doug Naylor, but delivered with less success as he attempted to relaunch Red Dwarf for a new generation. Moreover, it would be foolish to dismiss the talents of Shearsmith, Pemberton, Gatiss and Dyson as lazy, when they have (working together and apart) have created some of the finest television this country has seen in the last two decades.
Now, returning to my point about how the show’s longevity being inextricably linked to its realism, rather than because of its strangeness. I think it serves to mention my favourite characters. Each of whom is an exaggerated version of a truth, a twisted truth, but a truth all the same.
This is in my opinion what really resonates. My absolute favourite character is Geoff Tipps, whose realistic, albeit extreme, anxiety and depression I revel in. For many, his line during his best man speech, ‘I won the mums’, is a funny throwaway line. But I think it is the nexus around which the rest of the show is built.
Another choice character for me is Pop, who it is widely known is based on a real person, amped up. Pop is thrown into the most mundane of situations, but some of the show’s funniest moments come because of this, his disowning of his son Rich in the aftermath of the shoplifting of a bunch of maverick bars is one example. Then there is Charlie and Stella Hull, whose fiercely competitive spousal conflicts are more Coronation Street than Coronation Street itself.
It is because of these characters, this grounding in the real, that the group can test our boundaries. We are more willing to go with them, we trust them. They are then able to honour their influencers in the way they do, The Shining’s twins are in there, as is Regan from The Exorcist when Papa Lazarou is captured in series three, and the whole Herr Lipp episode in the original Christmas special is a nod toward Nosferatu.
But there must be a frame of reference to hook us, without which the show would be simply absurd. And so, it was no real surprise when it came to that original festive helping, the characters featured were the more ordinary, you had warring couple Charlie and Stella, foreign-exchange student councillor and paedophile Herr Lipp, and hapless vet Mr Chinnery. Perhaps this is an acknowledgement of sorts, that more mileage can be gotten out of these more grounded, realistic personalities.
15 years is an awful long time, and we have missed everything about the strange, little, northern village. Psychoville never quite hit the mark, and while Inside Number 9 can be brilliant at times, it could also be said to be trying too hard when the guest stars take prominence over the plot, and even at its best, which was probably when it peaked in the opening Sardines episode, it never had the pull of Royston Vasey. We’ll certainly be very glad to have it back.
The League of Gentlemen airs on Monday 18th December, Tuesday 19th December and Wednesday 20th December.
Their UK tour hits Liverpool’s Echo Arena on Sunday 16th September.