In 1999, after a Perrier award-winning stage show and an incredibly successful BBC Radio series, The League of Gentlemen made their television debut. The four-piece comedy troupe – made up of Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith – are renowned for their darkly comic humour, that is inspired just as much by the horror movies that they all love, as the classic comedies they grew up with. And it was this television show – that spanned for three series and a wickedly good Christmas special – that sparked a furore so big, that they soon had a cult following on their hands.
The show is situated in the fictional town of Royston Vasey; a stark Northern English village that is home to an array of peculiar, and often rather twisted characters – most of whom are played by either Gatiss, Pemberton or Shearsmith and form the basis of the sketches in each episode. Among the League’s iconic cast of characters are the stranger-fearing proprietors of the local shop, Tubbs And Edward, wife-stealing circus master Papa Lazarou and unfortunate vet, Mr Chinnery. Unlike other comedies of the time – such as Absolutely Fabulous and Men Behaving Badly – the League’s sense of humour was much more of an acquired taste. Mixed in with the humour, are several referential elements to the macabre and darkly horrific; Murder, the grooming of teenage boys (by Pemberton’s creepy German tour guide, Herr Lipp) and even some eerily vague cannibalism (courtesy of demon butcher, Hilary Briss) feature in the sitcom. That and the grotesque appearance of several residents – most predominantly Tubbs and Edward with their yellowed teeth and pig-like noses – made the show starkly unique.
The first and second series followed a sketch-like structure, in which all the characters were permitted their own comic sequence, per episode. In the third series, however the League took a slightly different approach, and plotted out a more elongated story, focused on a select handful of characters – who each got their own episode to tell their small part in the bigger picture. The show, which ran from 1999 to 2002, garnered considerable critical acclaim – winning accolades such as the BAFTA for Best Comedy Programme/Series in 2000 and the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreau in 1999. Their television run was then followed by a 2005 feature film, entitled The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, which featured cameos from comedians such as Victoria Wood, Simon Pegg and Peter Kay. As well as this the League also took the characters on tour twice – first in 2001 with The League of Gentlemen Live and then in 2006 with their ‘The League of Gentlemen are behind you!‘ pantomime tour.
Since then, the residents of Royston Vasey have been put to one side, with the group disbanding to take on other acting/writing projects; Gatiss has been incredibly successful as a writer for Doctor Who and is now infamous for playing Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock – his co-creation with Steven Moffat. Pemberton and Shearsmith, meanwhile have developed on their aptitude for the dark comedy genre, producing critically acclaimed shows like Psychoville and Inside No.9, as well as pursuing various credible acting roles. The non-actor of the troupe, Dyson, has since worked as a script editor on comedies such as Grandma’s House and The Wrong Mans and as the director for his Sky Arts series Psychobitches (in which all of his League cohorts have guest-starred). Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith also reunited in 2010 to film a series of sketches for CBBC’s Horrible Histories.
Given that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the League’s formation in 1995, whether we’ll see anything new from the comedy troupe is questionable. Hints have been made, and the group are certainly amiable towards each other. But for now, all we can do is hope that this classic show, and it’s iconic characters might just pop up again some time soon.
The League of Gentlemen was distributed by BBC Worldwide