“Welcome to Royston Vasey, you’ll never leave!” once proclaimed the sign on the edge of The League of Gentlemen’s creepy rural hamlet, a nightmarish place of unknown terrors and terrifyingly recognisable eccentrics. Returning in 2017 for three 20th anniversary special episodes, it almost immediately feels like we never did.
That, of course, is the risk behind bringing back much-loved cult classics, which can become overly familiar with time. But Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith create something genuinely special here, precisely because they find new meanings behind every catchphrase, as their town and characters age and warp over time.
Indeed, Royston Vasey itself may soon cease to exist, as country boundaries threaten to effectively wipe the place off the face of the UK – a framing device that is just enough of an excuse for a reporter to visit and uncover the state of the locals. It’s a bold move, deciding not to shield such a consciously reclusive universe from, well, the universe, and it’s one that turns the show into a more prescient and topical satire of isolationist communities than ever. The local shop for local people may no longer exist – fear not, Tubbs and Edward have moved to a derelict council estate, where they hole up inside flat No. 9 (a nice touch from Shearsmith and Pemberton) – but Britain is, in many ways, in perfect step with Royston’s flagship married couple, as Brexit-echoing talk of reclaiming one’s land sparks national news coverage of this most backward of backward towns.
Political references in The League of Gentlemen? The thought may make you bristle, but our quartet have lost none of their ability to unsettle for much more disturbing, timeless reasons. There’s Dr. Chinnery and his ever-fatal veterinary practice (a porcupine gets on the explosive end of his skills), or a phone booth that conceals a much more lethal purpose, and, of course, the disquieting domestic intimidation of newspaper tyrant Pop (in the hands of Steve Pemberton, a manic creation worthy of Harold Pinter), who appears on the doorstep of his long-suffering son to wreak fresh, bullying havoc.
Darkest of all is a glorious subplot involving the return visit of Benjamin, as his Aunt Val (a deliciously delicate Gatiss) and the twins (now grown-up, still full of The Shining-esque eeriness) prepare for Uncle Harvey’s funeral. In no time at all, toads and a bunch of freaky rituals have taken over the whole storyline, reminding us just how otherworldly The League of Gentlemen can be when it wishes – a versatility matched by the cast, who are now so at home in their character’s skins they can even start impersonating each other.
Part of the joy of the show’s return is just the chance to see them all together once more – in the years since Season 3, each member of The League has gone on to become something of a national treasure in their own right, which has cemented their position in modern TV as our generation’s answer to Monty Python. Sure enough, underneath the shocks sits their typically glib sense of humour, with the now rundown Royston consisting mostly of shops boarded up with pun-filled notices (and food bank ATMs), all driven past by Barbara, who’s given a politically correct update that redeems her character from what could have been a dated, one-dimensional gag. With local businessman Mike also reversing his usual gun-toting rants, the scripts’ ability to play on expectations and send up the series’ own traditions is all part of what keeps it so funny – somewhere between The Wicker Man and The Flying Circus, The League of Gentlemen still has the ability to make you guffaw and shiver (shuffaw?) simultaneously.
The show, notably, has wisely done away with its laughter track, which accompanied the first two seasons, allowing the cast to drift seamlessly between the amusing and the unnerving without pausing to raise an eyebrow – in the way it blurs genres, tones and form (this remains a unique blend of sketch show and drama), The League of Gentlemen is arguably Britain’s answer to Twin Peaks: The Return, with an identity that’s just as much its own.
Also like Twin Peaks’ revival, The League of Gentlemen’s anniversary succeeds because it’s confident enough to insert a shot of sentiment to accompany the scares. Witness Les McQueen’s brief taste of actual fame (the only upbeat plot line in the whole miserable town), the hint of almost-closure for Legz Akimbo director Ollie, or the surprisingly moving treatment of Pauline, who finds herself still re-enacting the same old job centre routine, but for different, tragic reasons. It all culminates in an inspired reinterpretation of the “You’re my wife now” line that made Papa Lazarou an instant favourite (despite only being in a couple of episodes – a sign of a truly traumatising figure), which is worth tuning in for alone. The fact that you get 90 flawlessly judged minutes beforehand is a bonus, right down to the hairy opening homage to the show’s very first episode.
“You can’t go back,” Benjamin concludes of the past, with a poignant sigh of nostalgia. “But you can visit.” With just the right balance of irreverence and respect, this delightfully dark three-parter is a piece of wickedly entertaining television that will have you wishing The League of Gentlemen never leaves again.
The League of Gentlemen: Anniversary Specials are available on BBC iPlayer until 7th December 2018.