Odd men out
So this is what comes of a childhood spent decapitating Action Man, watching too much television and skipping double PE? You become evilly funny writer/performers, take the nation by storm with your gallery of comic grotesques and emerge as TV stars. Gareth McLean digs to the scary roots of the League of Gentlemen
Saturday February 10, 2001
Once upon a time, in the seaside town of Rottingdean, there was a wishing stone. One day, some six years ago, four men visiting the town solicited good luck from the stone shortly before they went into a shop looking for fossils.
"I collect fossils, so we went into this shop looking for trilobites," one of the men explains. "It was full of snowstorms and seaside junk, and the woman behind the counter was really defensive. She never said anything, but she looked at us as though one of us was going to steal something. After we left, we joked about her saying something like "I have a husband upstairs" or "I have guns" to scare us."
Whether the woman in the Rottingdean shop near the wishing stone killed strangers, ate hair sandwiches and danced naked in the moonlight remains unclear. She would, after all, become the inspiration for one of the quartet's greatest creations: the murderous, incestuous and porcine owners of Royston Vasey's Local Shop - 'for local people' - whose stock of Precious Things includes tinned peaches, carbolic soap, bundles of sticks, James Hadley Chase novels and, of course, snowstorms.
The potency of the wishing stone, on the other hand, seems apparent: "I really did wish that we could get to Edinburgh and the show really took off," recalls one of the men. "And now you've remembered it, the spell will be broken," another adds ominously. "You shouldn't have said it out loud," sighs another, narrowing his eyes. I half-expect the sky to blacken and lightning to rip across it, even though it's 11 o'clock on a bright Wednesday morning. The League of Gentlemen have that effect.
They look so normal, too. Mark Gatiss is a tall, warm-hearted chap who carries a battered, brown briefcase. He could be an academic. Reece Shearsmith looks like your sister's boyfriend, and is wearing natty Camper shoes. Steve Pemberton apologises profusely for being late, something to do with trains or buses. And Jeremy Dyson reminds me of my lawyer cousin Andrew, who, for a while, built Daleks out of cardboard and stuck split peas on the sides to emulate the rivets.
Sitting in the office of the producer of their tour - A Local Show For Local People, which next month starts a three-week run in London - the fossil- collecting Gatiss proudly recounts how one review of their first series said that the Local Shop says more about modern Britain than anything in Bill Bryson's Notes From A Small Island. "It's the universality of it," he adds. "It's not just a northern town, because people will say, 'Ooh, Wales is like that', or 'I know someone like that from Sussex'. Plus, it has done terribly well abroad, so the Local Shop particularly, and the town in general, must say something about those countries, too. There is some element of Royston Vasey in everyone."
Which would be a worrying thought, given that Royston Vasey is populated by murderers and monsters, sadists and saddos, freaks and fetishists, and maybe even cannibals. An everyday tale of country folks it ain't. The characters that The League of Gentlemen have created range from the Rottingdean-inspired Tubbs and Edward, who run the Local Shop, through Babs, the pre-transsexual cab driver ('with nipples like bullets') to Hillary Briss, the black-hearted butcher who trades in 'special stuff'.
They have introduced an unsuspecting public to the misanthropic Reverend Bernice Woodall, who conceals contraband cigarettes in the confession booths; the toad-obsessed, anal-retentive Denton family; Pauline Campbell Jones, scourge of the unemployed, despite the fact that she's a restart officer; and the chilling ringmaster, Papa Lazarou, whose shibboleth, 'You're my wife now, Dave', makes no sense whatsoever, but is knicker-wettingly frightening nonetheless.
It is difficult to categorise a show about such people simply as comedy, as Dyson readily admits: "Sketches about a grief-stricken cave guide haunted by a tragic accident on a school trip, or about a German homosexual exchange teacher are not the stuff of Russ Abbott's Madhouse."
Nor is the League's frame of reference typical in contemporary British comedy. Their shows have an incredible pedigree, with nods to comedy, horror, melodrama, literature and comic books. In their cracking Christmas special alone, there were references to a host of books and films, from the familiar Salem's Lot, Eyes Wide Shut and The Railway Children, to the more obscure, such as the Ealing thriller Dead Of Night and WW Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw.
Their blend of gothic drama and gallows humour has led to comparisons with everything from Monty Python to Twin Peaks, and seen them described as Tod Browning meets Peak Practice - Freak Practice, if you will. But, in the end, The League of Gentlemen are simply The League of Gentlemen: comparisons and descriptions are futile. Perverse geniuses, they have to be seen to be believed. The Brothers Grimmer.
All of this you will already know if you've seen the television show. You'll also know that Royston Vasey and its idiosyncratic inhabitants have caught the strangeness of Britain - its insularity, hypocrisies and freakishness - in gloriously minute detail. You may even be planning to join the hardcore fans' pilgrimage to Hadfield, Derbyshire, where the TV show is filmed (costume is optional) or logging on to one of the burgeoning websites and chat groups. If you haven't seen The League of Gentlemen, however, all of this will mean absolutely nothing to you. And you really should stay in more.
Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith met while studying drama at Bretton Hall College in Wakefield. "We bonded over Brecht," says Gatiss, initially the most genial of the three. "Steve and I were in the same year, and they had put up the photos of the new intake, one of whom was Reece. We were laughing, not just at his photo but at his name, too. We thought 'Reece Shearsmith' was like a Little Lord Fauntleroy character."
"I think the first time we met, we were doing a musical production of The Taming Of The Shrew," Pemberton recalls. "Not Kiss Me Kate - that would have made sense - but it was a sung-through version of the play. It was absolutely dreadful." At the same time, Gatiss was introduced to Dyson, who was studying philosophy in Leeds, by a mutual friend.
"The guy I shared a flat with when we left school went to Bretton Hall to do drama, and in his first or second week he rang me and said I had to meet this bloke because he was just like me," says Dyson. "Normally, I cringe when people say that: it's a recipe for disaster. I met him and resisted liking him for half an hour, but as soon as he started talking about the lost John Inman sitcom I had been trying to remember the name of for three years - it was around for one season in 1977 and was set in a factory - I knew we were destined to get on." (It took Gatiss and Dyson another three years to find out that the sitcom was called Odd Man Out.)
Through Gatiss, Dyson met Pemberton and Shearsmith, and it wasn't long before the four of them established collective memories and shared experiences. When I ask each of them individually to tell me about their childhoods, Pemberton smiles and says, "It's probably the same story four times."
"We all watched Carry On Screaming on the same night," says Gatiss. "Bonfire Night, 1976." Are you trying to find some childhood trauma to explain why we do The League of Gentlemen? Shearsmith eyes me suspiciously. "I don't remember any savage incident that would turn me into what you think I am."
So, I ask, you're just four northern lads with typical childhoods? They bristle at the N word. "We always get 'four northern lads'," says Reece. "If we were from anywhere else, no one would say 'four southern lads'." He is right, but perhaps in a comedy landscape that is more commonly the habitat of Oxbridge types, their northernness really is seen as a break from the norm. Whatever, they get annoyed at the fetishisation of the north (of England) as a place that is both twee and picture-postcard and harsh and cruel.
"I remember we went to see Road [Jim Cart-wright's acclaimed 1986 play] on a London trip from Bretton Hall. It was a promenade performance, and I actually got quite caught up in it," Pemberton recalls. "We went back the next day to speak to the actors. They had been playing skinheads and were all, 'Let's get pissed tonight. There's dust in my knickers and poverty wants me', and we came into the theatre and they were like, 'Can I bum a ciggy off someone?' I thought, 'God, they were putting it on.' And then you became aware of these dreadful John Godber clichés, and that has become a real bugbear."
It has become such a bugbear that the League have written a sketch for the stage show (it also features in their book), featuring the Legz Akimbo Theatre Company, called Scumbelina - it begins in a "northern" living room and ends by asking the question, "Who made us this way?" to which the answer provided is, "Willy Russell, John Godber, Jim Cartwright."
Gatiss relates a story to illustrate their point. "There was a BBC2 winter launch [for the League's new series] in December 1999, and they had done a trailer, which is always a source of concern to us, especially when it's done by monkeys. So a clip of the show came on in this lump of other stuff and, despite the great music the show has, they had put a brass band soundtrack on it. Because it was from 'up north'. We were appalled, because we hate that kind of thing. It had been put in a little box as 'the new northern one'."
"There was a brilliant bit in Alan Bennett's diaries, when he recalls when he was rung up about Thatcher's resignation," Gatiss continues. "He said something, and when it was printed, all the aitches were systematically dropped. He says he was glad it didn't say, 'Eee, A'm reet glad she slung 'er hook.'"
Shearsmith: "Having said that, a fair proportion of the audience think it's set in Wales."
Gatiss: "It's the Welsh accents."
Pemberton, as is often the case, turns serious. "Our intention was to create a believable place that just had this twist that all our characters have," he says. "They are rooted in real people, sometimes literally. If the characters were totally outlandish with no trace of humanity, they become stereotypes or funny-catchphrase types. Having trained as actors, you want to invest the characters with a little more than that. That's why the town is more than just a place where the characters live. We've all grown up in places like that with just that little twist and we're aware of what they are like."
Born in 1969, Reece Shearsmith grew up in Hull. where he used to decapitate his Action Men. "Is that the kind of thing you're after?" he asks. "And my mum hit me in the face with a shovel when I was five. Well, I ran into it, actually. I think it was because I thought I was getting a Curly Wurly. I've still got the scar. It's still got coal dust in it that never came out."
He says he was a teacher's pet, and tried to be funny to make the bad boys like him. "It didn't really work," he admits. "There was one particular boy who bullied me and once he viciously kneed me in the knackers. In French - with Miss Kemp - I tried to be horrible to get in with them, and she took me outside and said, 'No', so my one attempt to be part of the gang failed."
Instead of persevering with applications for gang membership, he used to sit inside and read. "I'm quite a good drawer, too - I was going to do art, and this drama thing was last-minute - so I used to draw my own cartoons. I still do. I never used to play out a lot."
It was always the same, he says. "Curtains drawn, Robinson Crusoe or The Singing Ringing Tree on the television, drawing and your mum coming in saying, 'Why don't you go out? They've come for you.'"
"Lovely sunny day," Pemberton chimes in mumsy tones. "And you've got the curtains shut!"
"Morbid!" Gatiss pronounces. "That was the abiding word of my childhood."
Gatiss, now 34, grew up in County Durham opposite a Victorian psychiatric hospital where his parents used to work. "I had never really given it a second thought until one of my friends came to see me when I was 16. He was really spooked. I had been used to it and some of my best friends were absolutely out of their minds. It was natural, in a gothic kind of way."
He was never bullied, but was always silly at school. "I look upon The League of Gentlemen as our revenge on double PE. Those boys who walked around the football pitch talking about films instead of getting the football leathered in their faces have been vindicated. We've ploughed our furrow for years, and finally it has worked out."
Dyson, who was born in Leeds in 1966, agrees. "We are the living embodiment of every accusation that was slung at us: 'You'll never make anything of yourself because you sit on your arse watching television all day.' We have succeeded precisely because we did sit on our arses and watch television all day."
Dyson is the only Gentleman who doesn't perform - "Our stuff is so character-based that it requires good actors, and I'm simply not one. I confine myself to writing, though I do try and get on-screen at every available opportunity" - and he had quite an unremarkable childhood, he says. "I went to Leeds Grammar School, which was a third-rate fee-paying school. It was a very unimaginative place, and I was never encouraged to do anything creative, so I did all that after school. I grew up loving comedy, and I discovered Monty Python when I was about seven. I wasn't supposed to watch it, but I sneaked down and did. I fell in love with the records, I used to play the albums to death, put them on to tape, reproduce sketches and then do my own sketches."
Dyson then graduated to creating The Goat Book, a school jotter filled with crude cartoons and caricatures, spoof TV programmes and illustrations of the rudeness that passes for the daily thoughts of 13-year-old boys.
While he was doing this, over in County Durham Gatiss was writing out the Hackenthorpe Book Of Lies, inspired by Monty Python's Book. "I compiled a whole book of lies. I loved doing the spines," he says. Shearsmith, meanwhile, was making up volumes of imagined dodges perpetrated by Roger. "You remember, in the cartoon, he had books of all the dodges he had done?"
Steve Pemberton was born in Blackburn in 1967, and grew up around Chorley. He says he has "nothing to tell, other than that, from an early age, I loved performing and dressing up. When my grandma or grandad came round, I used to love putting their coats and hats on and getting a huge laugh."
He, too, loved staying in and watching as much television as he could. He would also make comics and books - "I did like football, though". When he got a portable TV for the bedroom he shared with his brother, they would watch the horror double bills on Saturday nights. "We'd be close enough to switch it off if they came in, but it was one of those TVs that took five or six seconds for the picture to fade away." And then there were the video nasties: "We would go to the video library and ask how many killings were in a film and what were the best ones. We saw I Spit On Your Grave, but I remember I couldn't watch The Exorcist - I had to leave the room I was so frightened. We used to watch Theatre Of Blood over and over again, fast forwarding through the acting and just watch the killings. Which are every five minutes, after all."
Gatiss also had a penchant for horror films. His first, at five, was Brides Of Dracula. "I remember Peter Cushing moving the windmill's sails into the shape of a cross to destroy Baron Meinster," he says fondly, before relating how his obsession informed his schoolwork. "My essays would start like, 'A day at the beach', but then giant squid would appear..."
After discussing the Dick Smith Horror Make-Up Set, which they each possessed ("He did the make-up on The Godfather and The Exorcist, and you poured the latex into moulds and all the scars were wonderful for about a second until they dried and became as hard as glass"), the League are unanimous: "Any kids at that age seek that kind of thrill - we wanted to be scared," says Pemberton. "I don't think we are unique, but we've remembered and channelled it."
Indeed they did. So, when Pemberton says that he wants things he's written to make audiences feel the way he felt when he watched The Wicker Man and Don't Look Now, both League favourites, you understand how perfectly and precisely they have channelled those childhood experiences. "You watched the film for 90 minutes, and in the last five, 10 minutes the rug is completely pulled out from under your feet. I found that completely terrifying."
The first record Shearsmith ever bought was the theme to the Hammer House Of Horror films. "And Nelly The Elephant. I thought that was really sinister." Most of us wheel out such collective memories only when reminiscing down the pub - Chorlton & The Wheelies! Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Child Catcher! The vortex in The Adventure Game! - and The League of Gentlemen, too, only gradually decided to hone and polish theirs, and then to put them on stage. Previously, Gatiss and Dyson had been writing together, even penning a sitcom that they gave to Charlie Higson to have a look at. Today, they have just written an episode of the Higson- produced Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased).
"I met him once at a signing in Waterstone's when he was promoting one of his crime novels in 1993," says Dyson. "We had written this spoof Avengers thing called The Correctors, and I plucked up the courage and asked him to have a look at it. I didn't hear anything for three months, then he wrote back with this amazing, detailed letter, a four- or five-page breakdown of how good he thought it was, what worked and what didn't. Now that people send me things, I know what a nice thing it is for someone to sit down and do that. It was very encouraging."
Pemberton, meanwhile, had founded a theatre company, as Shearsmith fattened up his CV with acting and writing.
Thanks to a friend who had a slot to fill in on the comedy fringe, the quartet got together for their first show in 1994. The result was a five-night run at the Cockpit Theatre, London. Even Dyson performed. After that, the League found themselves at a crossroads. "It wasn't until the opportunity presented itself with a real theatre and a real slot that it became a real thing," says Pemberton. "We learned that you can talk about something for two years, but if you're going to do it, you have to book something. After these five days, we spent a year talking about how we should carry it on, without actually carrying it on. Then we decided to book somewhere and do it."
So they booked the Canal Cafe Theatre in London every Monday night for three months, knowing that, to bring an audience back, they had to change the material. Each week, they would alter a quarter of the material and by the end of a month they had a whole new show. "That's where a lot of the narratives in the first series came from," says Shearsmith. "We worked like mad for six months writing loads and loads of material, and we've been using it ever since."
"The Christmas special was probably the first thing completely written for television," adds Pemberton, "whereas parts of the first and second series we'd written before."
Right from the outset, they attracted loyal fans from what Dyson calls "a surprisingly wide demographic". "The first regular fans we had were this very respectable family," he continues. "The father, who was probably in his 50s, was a headteacher at a private school, and he used to bring his 18-year-old kids and his wife along. They lived in Shropshire or somewhere, and they saw one of the first shows in Edinburgh and came to the Canal Cafe three or four times. We were bemused. Then we noticed we'd be getting young people in, people your parents' age in. When you're playing big venues, you really notice it." (And you really do notice it: on the recent tour that culminates in the West End run, the audience has been extraordinarily diverse, from older women to young gay skinheads.)
Then, in 1996, the quartet took what they call "our first big leap of faith". They took themselves to the Edinburgh Festival, where they promoted their show in a tiny space at the Pleasance. The next year, with a radio show already in the bag, they won the Perrier. "We were always slightly outside the whole comedy thing because it was very stand-up based," says Pemberton. "Everyone seemed to be with an agent or a promoter, and we didn't have anyone backing us, no one knew us, so it was a real stamp of approval. When you've done it all yourself, you haven't had anyone helping you, it was very nice that people liked it."
"I think the Perrier is the best award we've won just from the way it felt on the night," adds Shearsmith. "We've won a lot of awards since then, but that was a real feeling of being recognised."
"And," Gatiss concludes, grinning cheekily, "anyone who carps about awards should wait till they win one. It changes your entire attitude towards them, I discovered."
Initially, the foursome wrote together for the League, but now they write in pairs - Dyson and Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith. They say writing and performing are intertwined, because they know who they are writing for. They constantly rewrite and, sometimes, when they rehearse - a relic of their Bretton Hall training, says Gatiss - they become much more aware of what needs to be said and what doesn't. "You know you don't need a joke every three lines. You know something might be funny even though it doesn't look funny on the page."
"Our scripts don't look funny on the page," one of the others notes deadpan. Of course, some would say they aren't funny on television, either. The League of Gentlemen are undoubtedly an acquired taste, and some viewers may baulk at their forays into politically incorrect humour. While the TV show is extremely popular, the League are first to admit that they haven't made the leap into the mainstream like The Royle Family, say. Nor are they likely to. "We've done this big tour, but no one would know we had done it apart from the people who'd seen it," says Shearsmith.
Gatiss, who seems bemused that Room 101, by contrast, easily gets five million viewers, adds, "So many people have never heard of us... I'd love to think we could move to BBC1, but I'd like to think the channel could change around us. Which I think it is. Who would have thought that The Royle Family would be the nation's favourite sitcom. When it started, it was such a risk, and now it's a Christmas Day fixture. We'd never be interested in doing it if they said we'd have to tone it down. What would be the point? If it was totally compromised, it's not what we do."
The League have always had a firm belief in what they were doing, adds Dyson, though they never thought it had anything to do with whether it was going to be successful or not. "Up until then, it seemed quite arbitrary - when you see stuff on telly that you don't like, you wonder why it's on at all. So even when the first series started to go out, even though we were very proud of it, we weren't necessarily convinced it would take off in a huge way. By then, we thought we would find an audience, but really it wasn't until we went on tour that we realised how popular it was."
To give you some idea of The League of Gentlemen's popularity and their critical kudos, consider that they won a Sony Silver Award for their radio show, On The Town With The League Of Gentlemen, as well as that Perrier, a Royal Television Society award, the Golden Rose of Montreux in 1999, and a Bafta for Best Comedy in 2000. On their recent tour, they have played to full houses from Edinburgh southwards, including a crowd of 4,800 at Birmingham NEC. The video of the League's first series sold some 100,000 copies.
Despite Gatiss dropping and breaking his Bafta on the tube ("It fell out of the bag like a monster") and the BBC confiscating their Golden Rose at the airport ("They said they were going to make us tin ones," Pemberton says. "I imagine them being like Take Hart - folding wire and spraying it with gold paint - but they never materialised."), that wishing stone at Rottingdean seems to have done the trick. "If I could go back and visit my nine-year-old self and tell me what I'd be doing when I was 34, I would have exploded with disbelief and excitement," says Dyson.
But with such success comes pressure. Not that the four haven't experienced it already. Gatiss once opened mail for Rolf Harris's Cartoon Time ("At that time, it was bigger than anything in the world. It was extraordinary: thousands and thousands of children writing in") and, Shearsmith says, forged Rolf's signature for the kids. "They think they've got Rolf's, but they don't."
But the "difficult" third series syndrome is something else. Added to that, The League of Gentlemen is also taking off abroad. It is already huge in Poland and Scandinavia, and has a cult following in America, too. "When we first started out, we were like, 'Can you imagine if we had our own TV series?' and I can't believe we are now talking about doing our third," says Shearsmith. "We have to consolidate and be as funny. We know only too well the 'third series is rubbish' syndrome, and you realise it is difficult because it is really hard to do."
"And," Gatiss offers, "people forget that John Cleese and Connie Booth took four years to write each series of Fawlty Towers, and that's why it's the best thing ever made."
Whatever, the League won't begin work proper on the third series until April. "More and more we are veering into narrative, reveals Dyson.
"We all enjoyed having the space to tell the stories we did in the Christmas special, and I think it is the best thing we've done. You do sketches for so long and they can begin to feel a bit limiting, particularly when it is so character-driven. The natural thing to do with character is cement it to a narrative. We haven't resolved how we will make that work, or what the stories will be. That is still to come.
In the meantime, they have the stage show with which to occupy themselves. It is a riotous blend of new material and more familiar sketches from the TV show. The first half sees the League return to their roots ("It's a theatrical revue, Pemberton says defiantly), while the second half is a trip to Royston Vasey with the three performing Gentlemen playing 45 characters in all.
"We don't want it to be another TV show doing the cash-in stage show,says Pemberton, who has now hit his stride after initially seeming quite awkward. "We want theatre critics to see it because there are references to Sondheim, Jean Genet, Shakespeare and Jim Cartwright. It's very theatrical. As well as having lots of wanking jokes.The League share a conspiratorial smile.
Then it is time for photographs, something none of them enjoys. "Not as ourselves, anyway,Shearsmith grimaces. Before braving the camera, Gatiss produces a copy of the Department of Social Security's in-house newsletter. On page 6, there is a photo of Pauline, Ross and Mickey. It is there to illustrate how a new initiative works better than Pauline's fascistic approach, which she bases on her knowledge of pens: "If they don't work, you shake them, and if they still don't work, you chuck them away.
"My sister-in-law works for the DSS,he explains. "She sent it to me.The boys are very impressed, oohing and aahing as if they are all of 12.
And then they are off. Pemberton, whose heart attack in Germany at 25 inspired the birth of Herr Lipp ("The hospital chaplain gave me a beige towel on Christmas Day); Dyson, who was forced to touch an electric fence when he was young by a gang of bad boys; Shearsmith, who once went to an orphan's birthday party and blew out the candles by mistake; and Gatiss, who was the boy next door - if you lived in a psychiatric hospital. They have places to go and people to see. One more photograph for the road. You're going to hate this one, the photographer warns them. "Bare arses?Gatiss guesses, a bit too excited at the prospect. Normal, like Tubbs and Edward, is relative
• The League Of Gentlemen's A Local Show For Local People plays Mon-Sat from March 12 for three weeks at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, 020-7494 5000. ©The Guardian