As the second series of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Psychoville draws to a conclusion on BBC2, now would seem as good a time as any to take a look back at the TV series that first brought their unique comedy talents, along with those of Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson, to the attention of a freaked out nation.
The League of Gentlemen, a combination of situation comedy and sketches featuring a cast of weirdos, psychopaths, cannibals and cross-dressers, was set in the fictional northern town of Royston Vasey and, over three series and one Christmas special, told a whole host of stories that were often as macabre as they were funny.
While subsequent comedies may have attempted to match its vast array of comic grotesques, none has managed to transcend caricature in quite the way that The League of Gentlemen did. Despite initially appearing to be a population of monsters, the inhabitants of Royston Vasey were also surprisingly human. In their own way they loved, they learned and they feared all of those things that they didn’t understand, becoming in the process characters for whom fans of the show felt very real affection.
Now over 12 years old it still seems as fresh and unique today as it did back in 1999, its subject matter and humour never really replicated in a comedy until Shearsmith and Pemberton created Psychoville. And like Psychoville, The League of Gentlemen wore its love of movies on its sleeve, managing to draw on a myriad of film influences and styles while successfully creating something that was utterly unique in television comedy.
Here then, in celebration of four writers and performers towards whom I’m constantly seething with jealousy, is a look back at some of the characters they brought to life, along with the movies and genres that they joyously reference.
Jaws – Series 2, episode 4
Mayor Larry Vaughn is introduced in series 2 in the midst of an outbreak of fatal nose bleeds amongst the people of Royston Vasey, and like his namesake in Jaws he is dealing with a public relations disaster that he is struggling to get to grips with.
In a homage to the scene in Spielberg’s film where the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) is speaking to television news in an attempt to allay fears that the shark is still at large, Royston Vasey's Mayor speaks to a reporter from Look North, with chunks of his dialogue lifted straight from the movie. "Yes, well as you can see, it’s a beautiful day - the sun is shining...No need to panic."
Played by stand up comedian Roy 'Chubby' Brown, Mayor Vaughn is a constant headache for his advisors, prone as he is to liberally peppering his interviews with unintentional expletives. Given Brown's reputation for using the ripest of language in his act, it would have been more obvious (but nowhere near as funny) to cast Brown as a character who abhors swearing. Instead the League exploited the strengths of one of the finest potty mouths in the business by putting a slight spin on his persona, inferring that he doesn't want to swear but just can't help it.
His finest moment comes when he makes it all the way through his interview with the local news crew, while his advisor Murray (another nod to the actor in Jaws) grins desperately in the background, hoping Vaughn will complete the interview without swearing. Vaughn himself looks relieved as the interview comes to an end and he is thanked by the reporter, only to respond with the immortal line, "It's a fucking pleasure". Brown's subsequent shamefaced look into camera is pure comedy gold.
The Wicker Man – Series 1, episode 1
Given the often professed love that The League of Gentlemen have for Robin Hardy’s sublime 1973 film, it’s not surprising that it was one of the first that they referenced when their show made its television debut in 1999 (and any Wicker Man fan who has listened to Steve Pemberton’s heartfelt summation of the effect the movie’s devastating finale has on him may well find themselves nodding enthusiastically along in agreement).
The strangeness of Royston Vasey as a whole evokes the feel of the Summerisle community in The Wicker Man (a sign on the outskirts telling visitors ‘You’ll Never Leave’) but it is in the characters of Edward and Tubbs Tattsyrup, the serial killing, pug-nosed, in-bred owners of the Local Shop, that the Wicker Man allusions find their fullest expression.
There is a moment towards the end of The Wicker Man when Rowan Martin, having lured Sergeant Howie to the place of sacrifice, asks Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) “Did I do right?” His response, “You did it beautifully!” is echoed with note perfect precision by Edward when Tubbs asks him the same question, after she has stonewalled the Scottish policeman who has called on them in his search for a missing backpacker.
However, Tubbs loses her nerve just as the increasingly suspicious copper bids them good evening and is about to leave the shop. Her desperate but hilarious cry of “We didn’t burn him!” is met with a realisation of dawning horror from the policeman and a world weary look of resignation from her husband. Cut to a shot of the policeman’s hat being thrown onto a bonfire and the porcine pair chalk up the latest in a long line of victims.
Night of the Hunter – Series 2, episode 2
In Charles Laughton’s fairytale nightmare, Night of the Hunter, a superb Robert Mitcham plays the Reverend Harry Powell, a psychopathic preacher on the trail of two children he is convinced hold the secrets to the whereabouts of stolen money. One of his most notable physical traits was the ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattoos on his knuckles, something to which the League of Gentlemen pay tribute with Royston Vasey’s own woman of the cloth, The Reverend Bernice Woodall.
In the opening titles of this particular epsiode we see Bernice sat in a tattoo parlour having just had her knuckles similarly adorned to those of Mitcham’s character. Like Powell, she demonstrates a rather unconventional approach to spreading the word of God when we witness the following outburst towards members of her flock in episode 4 of series 1.
Bernice: “You cowards! You whoremongers! Idolaters, liars! Your place is in the lake of fire and sulphur where you will die the second death! The death that burns and tears for all eternity!”
As the camera pulls back we see that she has in fact been preaching to a room full of small school children, many of whom are deeply traumatized by her rhetoric. But as hate-filled as Bernice is, she does achieve a sort of redemption in the Christmas Special. Unfortunately for her, it comes at a terrible price. But more on that later.
The Shining – Series 1, episode 4
The Denton twins, Chloe and Radcliffe, make frequent appearances throughout the first two series of The League of Gentlemen, often showing up as unexpectedly (and as disconcertingly) as the Grady twins in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Just like the Grady twins they have the unsettling habit of speaking in unison. Their arrival is usually bad news for their cousin Benjamin, as their main purpose seems to be to torment him during his stay with his Aunty Val and Uncle Harvey.
We first meet the twins when Benjamin is left alone to look after them and they are supposed to be in their room playing. He picks up a newspaper to read but as he lowers it there they are, their sudden appearance accompanied by a suitably spooky sound effect. Desperate to play a game, they threaten to tell their father that Benjamin has been “shaking hands with the Governor of love” if he won’t join in. Blackmailed and flustered, he is forced to participate in a round of blind man’s bluff that results in the deaths of his Uncle Harvey’s two prize winning toads, Sonny and Cher. The girls make their escape just as their parents return home, leaving Benjamin alone with Sonny melting on the electric fire and Cher squashed flat on the sole of his shoe.
Throughout his stay with the Dentons, apart from having to deal with Chloe and Radcliffe, Benjamin is forced to endure his Uncle’s obsessive compulsive cleaning regime, decline invitations to drink urine at breakfast and deal with the indignities of ‘nude day’. It is some measure of his appalling bad luck that when he does manage to make his escape he ends up heading for the local shop of Tubbs and Edward.
Kes – Series 2, episode 6
Ken Loach’s 1969 classic Kes tells the heart breaking story of Billy, a lonely and emotionally neglected young Yorkshire lad, who discovers a purpose in life when, after hand rearing a kestrel he finds, he takes up falconry. The League of Gentlemen version from series 2 tells the side splitting story of what happens when hapless but well meaning Vet, Dr Chinnery, gets involved with a similar boy and his bird.
Dr Chinnery, young John and his kestrel ‘Heinz’ all appear in a scene similar to one in Kes that takes place on a wind swept hillside overlooking the town, in which Billy’s falconry skills are admired by his astonished teacher, Mr Farthing.
Chinnery, having successfully repaired the bird’s broken wing, hands her over to John, so that he can be the one to give Heinz her freedom. Keeping her on a leash so that she can "get the feel of the wind beneath her wings" before they let her go, Chinnery walks off to call the bird sanctuary in order to get the all clear for her release.
John bids Heinz farewell, “Well, this is it, lass. I’m going to miss you…you’ve been a right good friend”. Unfortunately, because Chinnery has made the leash too long, John releases her straight into an electric pylon, frying both himself and the bird.
As a horrified Chinnery stares at a blackened John with smoke billowing from the top of his head, he tells the person on the other end of the phone, “Yes…yes, I think we will have trouble separating them”.
Dead Poet’s Society – Series 2, episode 1
Remember the scene in Dead Poet’s Society where John Keating (Robin Williams), having been fired, returns to his classroom to pick up some possessions and his former pupils stand on their desks as he leaves, shouting out their tribute “O Captain, My Captain”? Moving wasn’t it? Got you right there didn’t it?
Well, the emotion of that scene was as nothing compared to Mickey Michaels’ show of defiance when former Re-Start officer and pen obsessive Pauline Campbell Jones is thrown out of Job Club by her replacement, "tubby little tit-witch" Cathy Carter Smith.
Having been sacked for her unconventional approach to helping the unemployed in series 1, Pauline now finds herself having to sit amongst her former charges as her replacement attempts to get the job seekers familiar with computers.
When Pauline states that "They don’t need computers, they’ve got pens”, a confrontation is inevitable:
Pauline: Just who do you think you’re talking to?
Cathy: Well according to my report, a psychotic fifty-year-old lesbian!
Pauline: How dare you! I’m forty eight!
Cathy: Oh, what do you want me to do? Roll over and shit Mars bars?
After things turn physical and they trade blows, Cathy orders Pauline to leave but as she exits Mickey jumps up onto his desk and issues a heartfelt cry of “Pauline!” An acid faced Cathy demands that he "get down this instant" but Pauline is clearly moved as she responds with an emotional “Thank you Mickey love”.
It was the first inkling we would have of the emotional bond between Pauline and Mickey, but for the time being Pauline was forced to leave with as much dignity as she could muster, returning to a life of getting up at dinner time and “flicking herself off to ‘Trisha’”.
Silence of the Lambs – Series 2, episode 5
Another appearance from Tubbs and Edward as we see them adopt the modus operandi used by Buffalo Bill in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. Needing a wife for their monstrous son David, they drive a stolen ambulance to a shopping centre car park in order to attempt the kidnapping of a ‘no tail’ (woman). After some discussion as to the sort of person they’re looking for, they soon identify a female they deem suitable.
In Silence of the Lambs we see Jame Gumb kidnap Catherine Martin by posing as a man with a broken arm who is having difficulty loading furniture into the back of his van. Adopting the same technique, Edward puts his arm in a sling and makes a great show of struggling to carry two shopping bags filled with hay. As his intended victim offers him assistance and helps him lift the bags into the back of the vehicle, the expression and posture he adopts is pure Lon Chaney as he readies himself to pounce. However, an over eager Tubbs foils his plans once again when she hears the woman confirm that she is indeed ‘local’ (one of the pre requisites for David’s bride to be) and floors the accelerator before Edward can bundle the woman in. The woman gives Edward a perplexed look and he, smiling politely, can only shake his head at Tubbs.
One of the many strange things about Royston Vasey is that even when we encounter seemingly normal human beings like the woman in this scene, they are often completely unfazed by the psychopathic freaks they come into contact with. This unblinking acceptance of the bizarre adds a whole other layer of wrong to the Royston Vasey landscape.
The Exorcist – Series 3, episode 6
The League pay several tributes to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (listen out for the ice cream van that plays the theme from Tubular Bells) but their finest came courtesy of one of their most memorable characters, Papa Lazarou. His two previous appearances (the first in episode 1 of Series 2 and then again in the Christmas Special) were notable as much for the chills they inspired as for the laughs they provoked. Even The League of Gentlemen themselves were rather startled at how far they'd pushed the horror with his appearance in their Christmas special.
So when he makes an appearance in the conclusion to series 3, it really felt like the return of one of the great monsters of the small screen. Having returned to Royston Vasey to kidnap yet more housewives, he is knocked unconscious by Reenie and Brian, a couple of characters intent on foiling his nefarious plans. Unsure what they should do with him, he is restrained by being tied to the bed in the room above Reenie’s charity shop. It is then that we get a wonderful reference to the scene in The Exorcist when the demon Pazazu senses the arrival of Father Merrin and we hear its rasping, challenging cry of "MERRIN!" emanating from Regan's bedroom, a cry that momentarily stops the old priest in his tracks.
In Papa Lazarou's case he overhears Reenie complaining about the often mentioned but never seen shop assistant Merrill, prompting him to writhe and shriek on the bed in much the same manner as Linda Blair throughout Regans' worst torments, his cries of "MERRILL!" as funny as they are unnerving.
Don’t Look Now – Series 3, episode 6
Occurring in the same episode as the Exorcist pastiche, here we see Reenie and Brian pursuing Papa Lazarou back to his hideout in the hope of getting some idea of what has happened to Brian’s wife. As they split up to search the house, Reenie is distracted by the sound of what she thinks is a little girl crying. She pursues the diminutive figure into a room where it stands in a corner, facing the wall and seemingly in need of comfort. But as Reenie slowly approaches offering words of reassurance, the little girl turns around and is revealed to be one of the Papa Lazarou's dwarf sidekicks who, just before he and his cohorts bundle Reenie into a sack, tells her “I can’t believe you fell for that one!”
It is of course inspired by that spine tingling sequence in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now when John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) pursues a tiny figure through the deserted alleys and canals of Venice, in the mistaken belief that it is the ghost of his dead daughter. Like Reenie, he manages to corner the figure only to realise too late that it is a murderous dwarf who proceeds to brutally slay him with a big machete.
There is also an earlier reference to Don’t Look Now in episode 1 of series 3, one that foreshadows imminent danger and doom. Mickey Michaels spills red paint over a picture he is painting for Pauline, who is at that very moment running into the path of a speeding van. Sutherland’s character does much the same thing when spilling water on a photo in Don’t Look Now, a sequence that hints at his daughter’s imminent drowning and his own grisly demise in the near future.
Amicus and Hammer Horror – The Christmas Special
Admittedly this is a bit of a cheat as I’m not focusing on one reference in particular but a whole load of them. However, The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special is such a fantastic piece of television that to focus on one individual moment out of 55 minutes of TV perfection would be a crime that I’ll have no part in thank you very much.
Adopting the framing device of the Amicus Studios Horror anthologies of the 1970s, the Christmas Special tells the story of local Vicar Bernice Woodall as she is visited on Christmas Eve by three characters, each of them needing advice due to the horrors that have befallen them. So we are treated to tales of witches, curses, voodoo and vampires in segments that manage to include nods to films as diverse as Eyes Wide Shut, Nosferatu, Psycho, Salem’s Lot and The Railway Children.
The second story in particular is a brilliant homage to many of the Hammer vampire flicks of the 50s and 60s while still managing to be a wonderfully unsettling piece in its own right. And in case we forget that it is also a comedy, it features some of the episode’s funniest lines, such as when Herr Lipp (the sexually deviant choirmaster with an uncertain grasp of English), suggests the choir sing the Christmas hymn, "Oh Come in my face full".
The Christmas Special also offers a very twisted take on A Christmas Carol as Bernice gradually becomes a better person as a result of the advice and guidance that she gives to each of her visitors. Unfortunately, her salvation is brief as the episode ends with as disturbing a piece of television as you could imagine appearing in the British yuletide schedules. When millions of viewers would have expected to go to bed dreaming dreams of love, laughter and seasonal goodwill, they did in fact go to bed with this image fresh in their minds.
Thanks for that, lads.