In some grim and isolated corner of northern England lurks the town of Royston Vasey, where the local cab driver is a hirsute preoperative transsexual, the local butcher sells his special stuff
to select customers, and the local employment counselor thinks people are like pens: "If they don't work, you shake 'em. If they still don't work, you chuck 'em away!" But if you're
not local, you should steer clear of the local shop, no matter how tempted you are by its precious things. To call The League of Gentlemen
a black comedy would be an understatement. Its bleak humor owes as much to Samuel Beckett as it does to Monty Python
, so those who like their laughs served warm are in for a shock. The show is the most wickedly inventive comedy to come out of Britain since Eddie and Patsy staggered onto our screens in Absolutely Fabulous
, and like that groundbreaking series it proudly ignores the boundaries of good taste. Part sketch comedy, part bizarre soap opera, the narrative jumps back and forth between more than a dozen major characters, all played by the three performers who cowrote the show. These characters range from the odd--a vet who accidentally kills all of his patients--to the thoroughly disturbing, like Edward and Tubbs, the inbred proprietors of the Local Shop, who are willing to go to any lengths to prevent the building of a new road through their beloved town. As the first series progresses, many of the plot threads begin to twist together, revealing hints that some deeper and more sinister plot might be unfolding in Royston Vasey. The League of Gentlemen
manages to be both hilarious and chilling, thanks to the terrific writing and performances that are as subtle as they are grotesque.
In the second series, the Gentlemen throw themselves into their many disguises with unbounded enthusiasm. What is even more impressive is that, together with co-writer Jeremy Dyson, the Gentlemen manage to locate these alarming characters within coherent story arcs that interlock over the course of a series as well as inside the individual six episodes. Here we have the apparently inexplicable plague of fatal nosebleeds that affects Royston Vasey, the attempts of the incestuous shopkeepers Edward and Tubbs to find a bride for their monstrous offspring, the misadventures of some lost plastics salesmen, and the hostage crisis at the local Restart center.
A Gothic-comedy masterpiece, The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special is a horrific anthology of three related stories, all set in Royston Vasey, which takes its inspiration as much from the writings of M.R. James and Edgar Allan Poe as the low-budget Hammer and Amicus shockers that the team parodies so affectionately. The stories are all linked by the Dickensian device of Reverend Bernice receiving unexpected guests on Christmas Eve: the first concerns troubled married couple Charlie and Stella becoming unwittingly involved in voodoo and witchcraft; the second features the horrendous Herr Lipp in a Nosferatu skit that reveals the terrible truth about what really goes on in Duisburg; while the third, and best, tells of the horrible hereditary curse that afflicted Dr. Chinnery's great-grandfather. This one-off special distils all the League's penchant for disturbing, twisted characterization and macabre humor into a single hour; the result is one of the most daring "comedies" ever seen on British TV.
The third series takes the portmanteau horror approach of the Christmas Special and extends it daringly across the entire six episodes. Here, each half-hour installment is a self-contained story featuring various familiar and less well-known inhabitants of Royston Vasey. But each individual tale leads--horribly, inevitably--towards a single shocking event, the full circumstances of which are only realized in a final, macabre twist. It's all far too bleak to be called comedy, just too damn funny to be anything else. This is a team that has always defined its own rules, nowhere more boldly than here. Opening with a funky new theme song, the six episodes feature--among others--ex-con Pauline and Mickey in a touching tale of transvestitism; Lance, the one-armed comedy shop owner, yearning for a new limb; foul-tempered Geoff Tipps trying to make it as a stand-up comic in "Lundun"; some eye-popping fetishist behavior at the local B&B; seedy goings-on in the massage parlor; and, most horrendously of all, the dreaded return of Papa Lazarou. It all proved too much for some viewers--too grotesque, too offbeat, too surreal. Packed with knowing references to obscure movies and filled with the most unpleasant characters ever to grace a "sitcom," this is certainly an uncompromising series.
On the DVDs, the cast and co-writer Jeremy Dyson indulge in some "local gossip" on the audio commentaries, happily reminiscing about making the series and discussing the origins of the innumerable characters and sketches, as well as pointing out hidden jokes and movie references galore. Among the other goodies on the discs are behind-the-scenes documentaries, entertaining character biographies (Pop's favorite lunch from Greggs is "Chicken & Mushroom Pie", the sinister Denton twins are happiest when "Courting the Lords of Misrule"), an archive of the show's theatrical origins, a treasure-trove of deleted scenes, video diaries, interviews with costume designer Yves Barre and composer Jody Talbot, a Mike King Enterprises editing suite, the League "In Conversation" with Paul Jackson in the complete Radio 4 broadcast, and a Jackanory special with Mark Gatiss as the Victorian Dr Chinnery telling the Gothic tale of "The Curse of the Karrit Poor," a spot-on Arthur Conan Doyle spoof.