Number 8: The League of Gentlemen
Essentially a sketch show within an overarching storyline set in the fictional village of Royston Vasey, ‘The League of Gentlemen’ dealt with such diverse elements as cannibalism, homosexuality, child abuse, kidnap, murder, exploitation and telekinesis.
The origins of the show are theatrical and date back to the mid-Nineties. Winning the coveted Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe, the team were hired to produce a show for BBC Radio 4 entitled ‘On the Town with The League of Gentlemen’. When this too received rave reviews, ultimately winning the high-profile Sony Award, the BBC moved the show to television.
Despite each season sharing the same title, in actuality the only linking factors between them are Shearsmith, Gatiss, and Pemberton themselves and the setting of Royston Vasey – the real name of famous British comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, who has an occasional role as Mayor Larry Vaughan, itself a reference to Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’. Each season was episodic in nature and had an overarching storyline interspersed with scenes featuring more of the weird and wonderful village residents. Season One broadly follows the attempts of shopkeepers Tubbs and Edward to keep the area ‘local’ by fending off development of a new road; Season Two follows Tubbs and Edward as they attempt to find a wife for their son David, whilst the village is visited by both Papa Lazarou’s Pandemonium Circus and Herr Lipp’s German exchange students; and Season Three is almost entirely sketch-based but a number of key faces from the previous series make a reappearance here. The franchise was also extended in 2005 with the addition of the feature length ‘The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse’, in which the characters escape from Royston Vasey into the real world and meet the real life cast of the show. Acting simultaneously as a greatest hits and as a conclusion of sorts to the series, the film had a mixed reaction from fans and critics alike; whilst praise was heaped on the performances of Shearsmith, Gatiss and Pemberton and the continuation of the show’s trademark jet black humour, many felt that the plot was too convoluted and made little sense, and that the move to the real world removed the suspension of disbelief inherent in the show.
‘The League of Gentlemen’ may feature a huge range of characters but the cast itself is incredibly small; though supported by actors who appear infrequently, the main characters are all portrayed by the three series creators. Whilst Pemberton and Shearsmith play the roles of Edward and Tubbs – who appear in the majority of episodes – Gatiss also is a regular star. That is not to say that any of them are instantly recognisable; the show’s characters are a true rogue’s gallery of the grotesque and bizarre. Aside from the shopkeepers, other major players include: Barbara Dixon, a transsexual woman, who as part of her role as the local taxi driver regales passengers with grisly tales of her medical procedures; Val and Harvey Denton – the link to Twoface is played up beyond the name – and their ‘Shining’-esque children; cannibal butcher Hilary Briss; and Mr Chinnery the incompetent vet. The series’ most recognisable character is doubtless the incredibly sinister Papa Lazarou – Shearsmith in blackface – owner of a travelling circus and freakshow. Obsessed with finding the never-identified ‘Dave’ and in collecting new wives, the denouement of Lazarou’s character arc at the end of Season Three gives one of the most creepy and bleak moments of any show on this list.
Ostensibly a comedy, the real strength of ‘The League of Gentlemen’ is the endless stream of horror references, homages and imagery the trio put into each episode. This intertextuality is what elevates the show above so many entries in the genre TV catalogue and highlights Shearsmith, Gatiss and Pemberton as horror fans above all else. In addition to Lazarou himself they also give us Herr Lipp whose obsession with British teenager Justin leads to the show’s darkest moment at the end of Season Two. Initially portrayed as a more straight comedy role, the character quickly reveals motives of the most sinister variety; in programming packed with the weird and the worrying, Herr Lipp stands out as the most subtly evil. In one of the most amusing moments for horror fans, Pemberton reappears alongside Shearsmith as film experts Henry Portrait and Ally Wells. Horror fans themselves, the pair often discuss genre movies, either whilst at the local video shop or through hilarious discussions about who would win in a fight between various horror figures. The genius of these two is that they are instantly recognisable to fans; many will have had the self-same discussions with their horror buddy of choice.
Horror fans in the UK will be doubtless aware of ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and its twisted sensibilities; fans from elsewhere will have found the show more difficult to track down. There is also the issue of accessibility; the show is absolutely British and its sense of humour may well not translate abroad. That said, from a genre perspective, it is essential viewing. Scattershot in the best way, it is endlessly creative, thick with horror references, and bleakly creepy. It is the most indie show on this list too – there is nothing like ‘The League of Gentlemen’ – and it launched the careers of its three stars into the stratosphere. Their reach now extends to such diverse genre examples as Ben Wheatley’s ‘A Field in England’, ITV’s police procedural ‘Whitechapel’ and, of course, BBC’s excellent ‘Sherlock’. Pemberton and Shearsmith reunited for short-lived BBC horror show ‘Psychoville’, an altogether more schizophrenic affair, but ‘The League of Gentlemen’ is truly lightning in a bottle. There is little else like it in the pantheon of horror television, nor are its twisted humour, visually grotesque characters, and endlessly bleak tone likely to be repeated. Horror fans of every flag should check it out.
Papa Lazarou Clip: