“This a local shop for local people. There’s nothing for you here.” Those words will conjure up a smile from a certain group of TV watchers who found themselves visiting the small village of Royston Vasey back in 1999 – and a few nightmares too. For this was the regular haunt of The League of Gentlemen, four men whose twisted imagination and disturbing sense of humour populated the town with all manner of frightful creations.
As the series returns to our screens, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its debut as a radio show, those terrors still linger fresh in the memory – a testament to how unsettling the programme remains to this day. Written and performed by Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss (the quartet’s fourth member, Jeremy Dyson, co-wrote but never appeared on screen), it mined the depths of rural Britain to depraved extremes, fusing the everyday observations of Ken Loach with the eeriness of The Wicker Man. At a time when the UK is preparing to leave the European Union, that possessive, xenophobic sense of community has never felt so creepily realistic – soon, all of our shops will be local shops for local people. But whenever you watch it, the show’s knack for picking up on familiar faces in a backwards high street, unearthing the dark weirdness behind British life, is at once hysterical and unnerving.
There’s Hilary Briss (a heavily sideburned Gatiss), a butcher who serves meat that definitely isn’t beef to special customers; Harvey and Ann Denton (Pemberton and Gatiss), who have a thing for toads, not frogs (“we don’t use the F-word in this house…”), and a fanatical fondness for bathroom hygiene; Dr. Chinnery (Gatiss), the vet who ends up killing every animal he touches. The colourful cast list goes on.
What’s remarkable is how the group manage to humanise each of them. Part sketch show and part something else, there’s a loose narrative that builds up over its first two seasons, leaving you unexpectedly emotionally engaged with the residents. Tubs and Edward (Shearsmith and Pemberton), the keepers of the local shop, become tragic figures, scared of the wider world on their borders and trying to do the best by their son, David, a monster who lives unseen in their attic. And yet these are the same people we see conduct barbaric rituals involving oil, pigs, archery and fire. (“We didn’t burn him!” cries Tubbs to a suspicious police officer.) Even Pauline (Pemberton), the sadistic job centre employee who despises “dole scum” and loves pens, becomes a pitiful figure, as she bonds with Mickey (Gatiss), an unemployed manchild who dreams of being a fireman – and spars with Ross (Shearsmith), the sarcastic group member who is clearly smarter than her.
By the time you hear her catchphrase – “Okey Cokey! Pig in a pokey!” – on her answering machine in Season 2, you genuinely feel sorry for her. You even sympathise with the sons of Pop, a maniacal newsagent owner and pervy landlord, after they accidentally let someone steal a Maverick bar from a newsstand.
And, through it all, run people such as Papa Lazarou (Shearsmith), a gloriously over-the-top carnival ringmaster, who parades about his freaks with a made-up language, a terrible psychic act and a hobby of collecting women as his “wives”. He’s a monstrous man, and yet still brings endless chuckles, as he calls everyone “Dave” and tries to make extra money by selling pegs to people.
Director Steve Bendelack (who gave us the surrealism of The Mighty Boosh and, most recently, the dark comedy of Sam Bain’s Ill Behaviour) is a master of that balance, managing to jangle your nerves and tickle your funny bone in one easy motion. He shares the group’s love of horror, rooting every episode in references to Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, Nosferatu and more (Joby Talbot’s score, and Hammer-inflected orchestral main theme, add to the mix). Together, you can sense their collective ambition to experiment and play with genre and form, culminating in the uneven Season 3, which turns the whole thing into interlocking instalments featuring celebrity cameos.
That diversity and ambition is even more impressive two decades on: each member of the gang has gone on to do their own projects in vastly different fields. Gatiss has done much theatre work and penned the delicious Lucifer Box novels, but also given us the BBC’s modern take on Sherlock, not to mention episodes of Doctor Who; Shearsmith and Pemberton have both delivered varied performances on stage and screen, and also paired up to produce Psychoville and its spiritual cousin, Inside No. 9, one of the best anthology series you’ll ever see. They’re all national treasures in their own right, the closest thing to the next Monty Python – just look at the arguing old women who run Roston Vasey’s charity shop. If you’ve enjoyed anything remotely spooky, funny or disturbing in British TV or cinema in the last decade, the chances are that one of The League of Gentlemen were involved. And even in 2017, seeing that talent colliding is enough to send a chill up your spine. Theirs is a local shop for local people – and there’s still so much to see.
The League of Gentlemen: Season 1 to 3 is available on BBC iPlayer until 7th December 2018. It is also available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.