In 2017, four of Britain’s best comic talents united to bring back The League of Gentlemen, a horrifying, disturbing, twisted slice of uniquely dark Britishness. It was the first time Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton worked together on the Royston Vasey-set rural series in years. But two of the quartet have been working with each other regularly since The League of Gentlemen’s heyday: Shearsmith and Pemberton,, whose Inside No. 9 recently concluded a fourth season, leaving a gap in the nation’s Tuesday evening TV schedule.
Before Inside No. 9, though, came another show that also balanced spookiness and humour: the underrated Psychoville. It turned out to be an essential stepping stone between the two masterpieces, as the duo developed The League’s loosely-connected sketch format into something more substantial; while Royston Vasey was a mish-mash of characters, catchphrases and creepiness, united by a strong sense of community and location, Pyschoville uses narrative to bring its tapestry of eccentric figures together. The premise? A letter, warning “I know what you did”, that gets sent to five strangers across the UK.
There’s Robert, a dwarf actor with a crush on the actress who’s playing Snow White in his panto. There’s Oscar Lomax, a blind millionaire who collects a rare “commodity” with a ruthless, sinister fanaticism. There’s David Sowerbutts, a mother’s boy who lives with his doting, protective matriach, while harbouring an obsession with serial killers. There’s Joy, a midwife with a baby doll she actually thinks is real. And there’s Mr. Jelly, a children’s entertainer who would be a great clown, if it weren’t for the fact that he lost a hand and can’t overcome his injury without a large helping of booze, cynicism and cruelty.
It’s a wonderfully diverse line-up, as you can sense the partners finding new ways to extend their horizons and try new ideas. There’s a stronger sense of surreal silliness, as we witness parades of clowns at a funeral and a high-security room full of Beanie Babies. That versatility is a big part of what makes Psychoville successful, as Shearsmith and Pemberton sink their acting chops into each part: the bitter Mr. Jelly is a perfect fit for Reece’s abrasive delivery, contrasted sweetly with David Sowerbutts’ equally caustic, but far more caring, parent; Pemberton, meanwhile, is clearly having a ball as the bullying Lomax, but is heartbreakingly vulnerable as the naive David.
Crucially, though, they bolster their performances with a slew of supporting actors who make them raise their game. Front and centre is Dawn French, whose turn as Joy is wonderfully manic, worryingly intense and tragically motivated. Daniel Kaluuya, before his rise to fame took him to the leading role in Oscar contender Get Out, is as brilliantly realistic and understated as ever, playing Lomax’s “Tea Leaf” assistant, whose community service helping an elderly member of the neighbourhood takes some seriously weird turns. By the time a Halloween Special and Season 2 has arrived, we’re also faced with the ever-excellent Jason Watkins, who steals scenes as an antique toy seller, and none other than Imelda Staunton as a picky head of a shady tech firm.
The plot helps give a structure to the wayward string of events, climaxing in a psychiatric institute and a mystery involving a supernatural locket – and Season 2 doubles down on the unpredictable twists, introducing the frozen, preserved brain of a Nazi. If anything, the story gets too daft, as the show struggles to find a way to wrap everything up – it’s telling that Shearsmith and Pemberton start bumping off characters randomly as the second run goes on.
But that haphazard feel helps to make the moments when Psychoville stumbles into perfect clarity all the more special. The Silent Singer, a mute apparition of a man holding a microphone, is the kind of haunting image you simply can’t unsee, while Mr. Jelly’s journey into misanthropy is juxtaposed strikingly with the kind, composed Mr. Jolly (Adrian Scarborough), whom Mr. Jelly resents for supposedly stealing his act. In the Halloween Special, a seasonal one-off, you can see the kernel of Inside No. 9’s anthology taking shape, not unlike the similarly sublime The League of Gentlemen Halloween offering, which cuts together several standalone stories into one chilling hour.
If you want precisely gripping horror, though, Psychoville’s peak is in Season 1, when an inspired riff on Hitchcock’s rope is taken to glorious extremes. Directed by Matt Lipsey, the all-in-one-take episode sees David and his mum try to conceal a dead body as an inspector calls for a cup of tea – performed with a slight glint of suspicion by the inimitable Mark Gatiss. From the absurd, laugh-out-loud use of dance and music, to the edgy dialogue and impeccable camerawork, it’s a flawlessly conceived and executed 30 minutes of television – exactly the kind of standalone TV gems that would come to define Inside No. 9. Not quite at that latter masterpiece’s heights, and not always living up to the towering reputation of The League of Gentlemen before it, that doesn’t mean this series isn’t worth watching: it’s like saying Sergio Aguero is no Lionel Messi, or Nutella isn’t as good as Biscoff biscuit spread. If you’re missing your slice of horror comedy on a Tuesday evening, Psychoville is the ideal show to fill the Inside No. 9-shaped hole in your life. The scariest thing of all? How under-appreciated it is.