“We didn’t burn him!”
Now twenty years old, The League of Gentlemen (available on Netflix and BBC iPlayer), is undoubtedly one of the weirdest shows ever to grace British TV screens. Three series* ran initially, then a feature film and a fourth series was added in 2017 – as well as many live shows. The League of Gentlemen was oddly, incredibly popular, yet still somehow something of a cult phenomenon: not a mainstream hit.
Like many BBC classics, The League started out on radio. Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and offscreen, often overlooked writer Jeremy Dyson between them wrote and acted well over sixty characters. Each and every weird creation inhabits or visits the small town of Royston Vasey – the location unknown yet singularly identifiable to anyone au fait with England’s rural towns.
It’s a matter of taste whether or not you like The League of Gentlemen’s idiosyncrasies, it’s dark demeanour. That, though, is perhaps the harshest criticism that can be levelled at the show and the talent involved in creating and executing it. It’s astonishingly complex, absolutely brilliant at conjuring up bizarrely lovable, instantly unique and immediately iconic characters. Superlatives which I don’t throw out at random, rewatching The League was sheer joy. Horrific, funny, odd joy.
My kind of joy.
Every character in the show has a richly devised past – almost all of them horrific. The League make every traumatic backstory utterly side-splitting. It’s not just a self-contained episode by episode structure, the show boasts some wonderfully clever character arcs. There are favourites who it’s always a joy to see again (Tubbs and Edward, Pauline and Mickey, Geoff, Dr. Chinnery and Herr Lipp… the list goes on) but with a fresh eye, it’s pleasing to realise how many you haven’t remembered so clearly.
Gatiss, Shearsmith and Pemberton play each and every role so convincingly, no matter how incidental, so much so, you forget it’s just three men. A lot of credit must go to the make-up department here too. Not only is Royston Vasey surreal, but paradoxically The League of Gentlemen as a creation is brilliant human observation. Perceptive, understanding and even compassionate of humanity’s many flaws.
However, the team are undoubtedly responsible for some of the most spectacularly creepy characters ever to grace the screen. Any screen, anywhere. People always jump to Papa Lazarou, but for me Pops the pervy Greek fraudster is sickeningly funny and skin crawling. Herr Lipp much the same, only they somehow find empathy in him. Goodness knows how. And although he’s much loved, local butcher/cannibal Hilary Briss is also very subtly displayed with a sexual attitude which would be a #MeToo lightning rod.
Finally, while merely awful, rather than nasty, the passive-aggressive local drama group, Legs Akimbo (“Put yourself into a child”!) and their eye-wateringly cringe plays about ‘issues’ are so close to believable as to be a David Brent like horror. The League of Gentlemen precedes The Office just by the by.
The fourth series (coming much later in 2017), is still funny, but perhaps unsurprisingly, doesn’t carry the weight of genius and originality that its predecessors did. The comedy is telegraphed a bit in series four, not doing so in series past was a part of the greatness. The League are playing up to fans, sure they’re doing it well, but it’s transparent and far from their best material. However, that doesn’t diminish the greatness of the other three series or mean that four isn’t funny.
Even after two decades of watching The League of Gentlemen, there’s still so much to it. A rewarding endeavour, far from a travail. New laughs with new details always to be found in the insane world created for your viewing pleasure and no doubt the amusement of the team behind it. Intricate to the point of obsession, much of the humour lies in spotting tiny details or in just having paid attention.
The League of Gentlemen is edgy, even two decades later. The League taught me the word onanism and I’m not sure there has ever been a show like it. Now or ever. It’s hard not to be in awe of every aspect of The League of Gentlemen’s creativity. Twenty years on it remains one of the weirdest, funniest, most unique comedies Britain has ever produced. More than three series of hilarious horror, the show is still unrivalled and something utterly vital those who haven’t seen should make the effort to do so.
This is a grand compliment, but The League of Gentlemen is my generation’s Monty Python. Mould-breaking genius.