The early to mid-nineties was a glorious time for British TV comedy, but by the time the decade was coming to a close many of those shows were at an end and several new comedians were making their presence known, welcome or otherwise. I can’t remember how or where I first heard about The League Of Gentlemen – whether it was advertised beforehand, but regardless I was there on the first day it was shown on BBC 2. And mah gawd how I laughed. For many years since, I proclaimed the pilot episode as the single greatest pilot episode of any comedy show I had ever seen. And it only got better. Running for three Seasons and having one special Christmas episode and one movie, The League Of Gentlemen was based off a radio show, features three men playing multiple roles, and is obviously one of the best shows to ever grace the small screen.
The League Of Gentlemen are Mark Gatiss (Game Of Thrones), Steve Pemberton (Benidorm), Reece Sheersmith (A Field In England), and Jeremy Dyson, forming when they were in Theatre school together. Fast forward a few years and their show made it to television – a low budget mixture of horror and comedy, movie and TV references, sketch show and sitcom, packed with memorable characters, quotes, and moments – many of which I’m still amazed were allowed past the censors. Each of the three series deals with the various inhabitants of a fictional grim Northern England town called Royston Vasey, with each series a loose continuation of what has gone before and dealing with the aftermath of such things. Series 1 follows an outsider called Benjamin who decides to visit his aunt and uncle in Royston Vasey, an event which both triggers and symbolizes the central theme of the series – staying local, and keeping outsiders out. Series 2 deals with the town being infected by a horrific disease, while Series 3 takes a different spin, dealing with a different group of characters in each episode within the same 24 hour period and how they all tie together to a car crash. Meanwhile, the Christmas episode is an anthology horror featuring three blood-curdling tales involving many of your favourite characters.
It’s difficult to explain the show’s charm to others without giving too much away – if you are a fan of horror or very dark comedy, then you will absolutely love this. There is a massive cast of zany, bizarre, ugly, and yet lovable characters. Many of these are not too subtle variations on people the actors and writers met in real life and who you have likely encountered, while some are nightmarish creations which can only be a pastiche of horror villains and WTF dreams. We have the angry, violent, middle-aged Pauline – a restart officer for ‘dole scum’, we have the sinister Butcher Hilary Briss, we have Tubbs and Edward, the pig-nosed, murderous weirdos who run The Local Shop and enjoy hunting and killing anyone who strays into the village, Barbara the taxi driver in the middle of a sex change, vet Doctor Chinnery who accidentally kills and maims any animal he comes into contact with, Rev. Bernice the local atheist Vicar, Herr Lipp the German Pedophile, Papa Lazarou the Circus ringmaster who steals wives for his Circus, and many many many more. There are close to 100 characters and most of them are gold – even if they only appear in one scene, you can be sure they will have some hilarious one-liner or joke.
The dialogue in the show is fantastic and quotable from the popular ‘Hello, Dave’ to the more obscure ‘We didn’t burn him!’, everyone gets something memorable to say. In the grand tradition of sketch shows, the characters live and die by their catchphrases and this show has so many it would be ludicrous to try to list them. When the show first aired in 1999, indeed when the first episode aired, I was already quoting the dialogue. There was only one other guy in school who I knew watched from the start and we were both entirely smitten. Others caught up quickly, but it has taken until recent years for the show to be recognised as a cult classic. Never a day passes without some ad for a t-shirt website displaying a shirt with a quote from the show on my Facebook. But it is much more than simple catchphrases. The narratives which weave through each episode are expertly handled, and the show is twisting and turning and surprising, packed with scares, tension, and laugh out loud moments – hell there is even some pathos in there. Again, for my predominantly US based readers I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, but if anything I’ve said so far has intrigued you, then find and watch the show now. I’ve no idea if the show made it over there or if it is known at all outside of the UK, but I think enough of the humour is universal that anyone could enjoy it. It’s hardly a surprise that the writers have gone on to work on, star in, and help create some of TV’s most popular shows – Dr Who, Sherlock, Game Of Thrones, Shaun Of The Dead, Benidorm, etc.
Seasons 1 and 2, and the Christmas episode are some of my favourite television ever, and I was sorely disappointed by Season 3. In fact, I’ve only watched it once compared to the multiple viewings of the others. Season 3 lost much of the sketch based action and instead became a more detailed character piece, more often than not dealing with characters from the previous seasons that weren’t as interesting to me, changing the characters too much so that they felt like different people, and introducing several new people who I didn’t find funny or engaging. However, I think the initial shock put me off and I need to go back and watch again. It would be like watching a Season 5 episode of The Simpsons versus a Season 20 – one is funny and memorable and brilliant, while the other is just some show written by some guy. I’m probably being too harsh so I do intend to watch it again. Likewise, the movie wasn’t great – I saw it in the cinema as soon as it was released, and while there are laughs it simply didn’t translate well to the big screen. That has always been strange to me as a movie based on those characters seems like it could and should have been the easiest thing in the world to do, especially given the cast’s affinity for movies. I must go back and watch it too.
When I planned this post in my head, I was laughing about all the things I could write and talk about, but then I thought that I would rather leave it up to you to decide if you’d like to watch it, while I go and hunt down my DVDs (and VHS) of the series. For those of you who have seen it, feel free to share your favourite moments and quotes in the comments section – I have too many to count, from Pam Doove’s audition, to the ‘Bummers are deaf’ discussion, to the gassy dog, to anything with Papa Lazarou, and so on, and so on…