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League of Gentlemen, The (1999-2002)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of League of Gentlemen, The (1999-2002)
DirectorSteve Bendelack
ProducersSarah Smith
 Jemma Rodgers
Executive ProducerJon Plowman
Written byJeremy Dyson
 Mark Gatiss
 Steve Pemberton
 Reece Shearsmith
PhotographyRob Kitzmann
MusicJoby Talbot

Cast: Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith

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All is not quite well in the determinedly 'local' town of Royston Vasey.

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While much new television comedy was embracing a closely-observed 'reality' (The Royle Family, BBC, 1998-2000; The Office, BBC, 2001-03), The League of Gentlemen turned its back on suburban normality and mined a rich seam of gothic inspiration in the fictional North England town of Royston Vasey, paving the way for similarly dark humour from Nighty Night (BBC, 2004-06) to Funland (BBC, 2005).

Taking their name from a 1959 heist comedy, the League (Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith) followed a time-honoured route to television via an Edinburgh Fringe show and Radio 4. For the screen, the black tie minimalism of their live revue became a panoramic sketch/sitcom hybrid, with longer character-based scenes punctuated by sight gags and 'quickies'. Except for Dyson, each writer-performer played numerous characters, frequently in drag or behind heavy prosthetic make-up.

Among Royston Vasey's numerous grotesques are pig-snouted shopkeepers Edward and Tubbs, who fear (and usually kill) anyone not 'local'; mild but deadly vet Dr. Chinnery; Pauline, a bullying, pen-obsessed Jobcentre advisor; and the demonic Hilary Briss, who triggers a nosebleed epidemic with the addictive 'special stuff' sold under-the-counter at his butcher's shop. Perhaps most unforgettable is Papa Lazarou, a blackface kidnapper whose rasping catchphrase, "You're my wife now", is the stuff of nightmares.

The show's cinematic aspirations, evident from its regular allusions to horror classics such as The Elephant Man (d. David Lynch, 1980) and Don't Look Now (d. Nicolas Roeg, 1973), were serviced by extensive location filming around Hadfield, Derbyshire, now a site of pilgrimage for League devotees. A lavish 2000 Christmas Special was still more filmic, telling three ghoulish supernatural tales through a linking narrative, in a nod both to British television's dormant tradition of Yuletide ghost stories and to 'portmanteau' horror compendium films such as Dead of Night (1945). Recognisable comedy cues were all-but discarded, with no laughter track and little in the way of actual jokes.

The humour turned even darker in the third series, each episode of which focused on the tribulations of a single character, including Alvin the guesthouse proprietor, whose wife and friends die in a botched experiment in autoerotic asphyxiation. Though a critical success, the minimal promotion it received betrayed an anxiety that the League's grand guignol was becoming increasingly baffling to the uninitiated.

The League's big-screen ambitions were finally realised in 2005 with The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse (d. Steve Bendelack).

James Donohue

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Video Clips
Complete episode (29:51)
Cicerones, The (2002)
Don't Look Now (1973)
Elephant Man, The (1980)
League of Gentlemen, The (1960)
Office, The (2001-03)
Royle Family, The (1998-2000)