Why is the sinister northern town still talked about in such a revered manner? Well let’s peel back the tatted dubiously stained veneer, roll up our sleeves and dip our hand (Flash Gordon like) in the dank dark crevice to prod about at the gooey viscera that makes The League of Gentlemen tick.
What’s All This Shouting?
Yes, we all know the ‘Your my wife now’ sketches and a lot of us know that this is indeed a local shop for local people but catchphrases aside there was a whole lot more going on in the show than first seems. Initially hitting our screens in 1999 the League of Gentlemen television show was named after the comedy troupe (no not Legz Akimbo) that consisted of Mark Gaitss Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and the (well in the show anyway) invisible Jeremy Dyson all of which thanks to the likes of Dr Who, Benidorm and the recent The Widower have become household names when it comes to television. The sinister surroundings of Royston Vasey first came into existence on radio where the ‘hero’ of the first season Ben visits his aunt and uncle in the town of Spent – however with the move to television Spent became Royston Vasey (the real name of blue comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown) and Ben and friend Martin instead spend some more quality time in the company of his aunt and uncle Harvey and Val and of course the Tattsyrups – better known as Tubbs and Edward.
When the first episode launched it was unlike anything that had been on before – filmed in and around the northern western town of Hadfield (which is commuter distance away from Manchester) on the edge of the peak district the show focused on the weird and wonderful inhabitants of the town and the day to day goings on with the initial overlying story arc of a new road being built through the town and it isn’t long until we find that Bens Harvey and Val eccentricities are relatively mild in comparison to some of the goings-on in the town – and unlucky for Martin too whose quest for a can of coke leads him into something much too nightmarish to share (involving pigs and far far too much nakedness).
This Is A Local Show For Local People
While all this seems like a ‘typical’ sitcom scenario admittedly one that’s a little dark (ok a lot dark) in tone, the show was far from the standard six half-hour episode affair – the show had nearly thirty main characters and over one hundred characters in it – most of which were played by the shows three main stars. The complexity and ingenuity of interlocking stories, mini-arcs and character interaction would give shows such as The Wire or Game of Thrones a run for its money as essentially then show runs more like a min soap opera than a sitcom with characters stories interlinking, sub-plots and setups, choices and decisions all affecting other characters later on in the episode or even later in the series and us the viewer through the six episodes only get a mere taster into goings-on of the town – a snapshot of the place for these 19 episodes but are left with the knowledge that there is so much more crawling underneath unseen. This tight and cohesive ‘shared universe’ meant that characters from the jobcentre could be ‘sen’ in the video shop later in the episode and then chatting away to the butcher in the pub later on.
This clever use of character, location and interweaving plots became even more prevalent in season three where the writing became even tighter and linked (which is astonishing as the show for the first two seasons was crafted with near German engineering precisions anyway) and nearly every scene and plotline all linked together and the iconic red plastic bag showing everyone that every episode happened in the same time-frame.
We’ll Have No Trouble Here
But it’s not just the intricate storytelling techniques that make the show stand out, no amount of clever writing can make up for poor or ill thought out characters but again this is something the makers of the show excelled at. The characters range from the pure slapstick out and out obvious Victorian sideshow grotesques such as Herr Lipp, Tubbs and Edward, Papa Lazarou who are more walking talking cartoon characters to the much more subtle but equally repugnant Jeff, Bernice and Pauline. But rather than just having a show full of hateful and vindictive characters there is also a set of characters you can actually feel a lot of sympathy for – whether it’s the accident-prone Mr Chinnery to simple Mickey (I want to be a fire engine) to the complicated relationship between Judee and Isis and finally the tragic series of events that is Les McQueen’s life there are those characters whose world is filled with horror rather than just being horrific and shows the writers can use more than just shock value to repulse, adding just a little pathos here and there with even shades of kitchen sink drama being thrown in for good measure.
But of course, it’s the viscera, slime and horror filled tropes that steal the show. From the sinister house of the Dentons and its toads, twins and inappropriate touching to the questionable products of Hilary Briss to the sinister cult seen in the Christmas special then it’s obvious that the writers submerged themselves with genre television, film and music before writing the show – taking inspiration from not only ‘mainstream’ Hollywood (Something Wicked this Way comes, The Shining, Wicker Man, Eyes Wide Shut etc) but also 1960-1970s television (Tales of the Unexpected, Quatermass, Hammer House of Horror, Public Information Warnings and even a bit of northern rambling courtesy of Alan Bennett) there is such a glut of dark and twisted comedic ideas here that the writers must have spent their childhood and teen years glued to the television with a diet of Ray Harryhausen, Larry Grayson, Dick Emery, On The Buses and Kenny Everett all mixed together with Nicholas Roeg and Terence Fisher movies with a final sprinkling of An American Werewolf in London.
We Didn’t Burn Him
There is a saying that nothing is as serious as comedy and the writing, timing and dedication it took the writers to create the living breathing world of Royston Vasey is superb. From the obvious use of the beautiful locations in and around Hadfield such as the Hope Valley, the Derbyshire Dales and the caves (I can still hear his screams in the darkness) they used for Stump Hole Cavern to the actual workings of the town – with its fake signs, tatty corner shops and dowdy fashion sense this is a real place, its grim up north as they say and the faded facades of the shops, hunched shouldered residents and general feel of a town gone to seed are there and hit a little too close to home at times to be comfortable. With a lot of city centres now boarded up, towns losing their industry or vocation the League manage to capture that depressed decaying and abandoned feel of a place past its prime and going tatty around the edges whose residents carry on but without the drive or purpose that kept the town alive, it’s close to home making you think that maybe in that little town of yours a circus might well turn up and your wife may well disappear when they eventually roll out of town.
So why is a show filmed to show the depressing decay of former northern towns topped up with burying people alive, grilling toads and creating chimaeras from the murdered circus animals still seen as one of the best comedies to come out of the UK in the best 30 years? Well, the way I see it is that we British are a dark lot when it comes to comedy and like out laughs with a mix of awkwardness, slapstick and sheer outright shock value and that’s something the League managed to provide perfectly. The show tickled our funny bone while at the same time touched the gag reflex and having a show that allowed us to take a rummage around the recesses and cavities of the grotesque and often hilariously dark comedic world that is just a little close to home thanks to the eccentricities of everyday life – something which the League themselves said was a huge inspiration for the show meant that no matter how weird, bizarre or horrifically out there the show was it was in some ways grounded in workings of real life.