Acclaimed comedy The League Of Gentlemen returned for a brief three episode run this week. Last seen on the small screen in 2002, did the new episodes live up to expectation or was it a case of one visit too many? Simon Tucker reviews.
There really was nothing like it when it first appeared on our screens in 1999. Catching the tail-end of what was a fantastic decade for comedy (The Fast Show, Father Ted, Mrs Merton, The Royle Family, Vic & Bob to name but a few) The League of Gentlemen, created by Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson, was a macabre trip through horror cinema, grotesque caricatures & classic spoof humour. It was one minute laugh out loud funny then equally disturbing. There were touchstones for this kind of sketch humour dating back to Spike Milligan and the Monty Python team but these were but small echoes which were twisted into a show that was ahead of its time.
After three series, a film and a live show the comedy troupe decided to go off onto other projects becoming some of the most influential writers, directors and actors of their generation so when it was announced that they were to return to the fictional town of Royston Vasey it was met by both excitement and trepidation. Would the show live up to its past glories? Would it be presented in the format of the first two series or the lysergic and divisive third? Would they still be able to shock? This last question being the most important as not only have the troupe, and in particular Pemberton and Shearsmith, gone on to make shows that were far more disturbing (Psychoville and the incredible Inside No.9) but we now live in a world where trial by social media is prevalent. Some of the original characters are particularly problematic with Barbara the transgender taxi driver and Papa Lazarou the wife stealing gypsy which sees Shearsmith done up in blackface being the most obvious candidates. With the latter wasn’t it always thus? Just because social media is now far more prevalent does that mean that the character was deemed more ok back in the nineties? Is the character racist or just an evil clown? Papa Lazarou seems to exist purely to stoke fear in people of “strangers” and those who are from outside. Instead of the clown coming and “stealing our jobs” as some on the Right may claim he is actually stealing wives. Far more extreme, far more unsettling. Your reaction to the character depends upon how you view him and he is sure to still cause some debate (please leave comments below).
Then we come to Barbara. The transgender taxi driver with hairy knuckles and a big heart. Barbara was always more of a liaison between the main players taking them around the town and helping us laugh along the way. The issue of transgender rights is particularly prevalent at this current moment in time so it was of some interest of how the team would approach the character. Well the approach they took was to confront the issue head on with Barbara stating that people like her would “no longer be the butt of cheap gags and offensive jokes” then followed by a discussion on which pronoun the passengers (which we will come to in a minute) should use. This moment felt like an acknowledgment by TLOG that they can no longer write the character the same way in 2018 as they did in 1999 but also allowed them to still slightly push buttons and skirt a thin line between laughter and offence. The fact Barbara doesn’t really appear again in the rest of the series’ run also highlighted the fact that TLOG would no longer be ploughing that particular source for gags.
So what of the rest of the series? This new trip into the bowels of Royston Vasey was both full of nodding references to the past plus a clearing of the slate. Starting exactly the same as series one with Benjamin on a train to the town for the funeral of his Uncle Harvey (he of toads and “sticky white love piss” fame) only this time it is not a random lady narrating the message next to him but Aunty Val who is very very naked. As openers go this helped define the show as the people involved were obviously older but they were still somehow stuck in the vacuum of Vasey. The humour in this scene was also a big sign that TLOG were going to stick to their usual style of crassness mixed with meta.
Once we arrive in Vasey and Barbara takes Val and Benjamin to the home of the Dentons we are treated to that theme tune and the always wonderful background sight gags. Depending on where your sense of humour sits these can be the most childish or also the most likely to give you a belly laugh (I’m in the latter camp). Out of the three episodes the two signs that stood out were “LOST: should have ended after Season 1” and the closed down Soup Shop’s sign “All stock reduced”. These gags belong to the lineage of Mel Brooks and Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. They are gags that are so obvious when seen but it takes a special kind of brain to create them in the first place.
Now we have settled in and throughout the episodes some old favourites make a return in various story arcs. Tubbs and Edwards are seen to be alive after narrowly missing the train that we assumed had killed them and are now squatting in a tower block of flats still surrounded by their special things. Pops returns from a “desert island” (really a jail sentence) to terrify and bully his sons and lech all over his daughter in-law and granddaughters. Geoff, Mike and Brian take part in one of the most heartbreaking sections of the entire series. Pauline and Mikey are back as is Ross and we are given brief segments with Ollie (Legz Akimbo) Les McQueen (“it’s a shit business”) Bernice the Vicar is now also the Mayor and Stella and Charlie Hull return for a moment to torment poor Luigi.
The basic overall arc is that there is to be a boundary change thus making Royston Vasey now part of a larger area and Bernice has accidentally signed forms giving the green light for frackers to come in and drill the land. The whole series’ concept is the question of do they fight to save the town or let it die? Now this is the point where TLOG team could have easily made this entire series a satire on current politics and especially a recent referendum. Royston Vasey with its poor, working class and mostly white population could easily have been turned into a Leave heartland. Instead, TLOG blur all edges and present defenses for people of both side of the yes/no vote. No more so is this portrayed by Tubbs and Edwards themselves. The famous line of “local shop for local people” could easily be used to describe those with desires to return back to a UK from the past. Edward himself actually looks like the deviant offspring of Farage and Gove but there is more than an obvious stereotyping at play here. You can watch and think that Edward is pure UKIP especially with the cheeky little lines of dialogue like “we’re taking back control” and “this is a local country for local people” but as they are written with so much nuance and affection you could also see someone who is fighting the gentrification of his area. Someone who sis standing up against big business and greedy councils who wish to push the poor out of the areas that they have lived all their lives. Duality is key in TLOG and it is not only in the narrative but also in the characters that are on our screen. One minute you are utterly disturbed by the fact that Tubbs and Edward have cut off the faces of their hostages then you feel sadness as they become separated and Tubbs falls into Lazarou’s “wife mine”. You feel a deep disliking for Aunty Val for what she is doing to Benjamin then you feel empathy as she realises what she has done, saves the day and ends the show giving Benjamin a loving embrace. Is Val a victim of mental abuse by her spouse and is that why she is so misguided in her attempts to bring him back from the dead?
One of the most upsetting storylines from this series was Restart officer Pauline. Throughout the four series Pauline has become far more than just a pantomime villain. She has shown a real ugliness to her character but also lots of depth and love thanks to her relationship with, her now husband, Mickey. As we are reintroduced to Pauline we find ourselves back in the Restart office with Mickey, Pauline and Ross and at first it is confusing as she doesn’t seem to regonise anyone there. It later turns out that Pauline is suffering with dementia and this is an exercise to help her with her memory. Once again TLOG play with our emotions as you are truly saddened to see Pauline lost and confused outside the room yet when she flips the white board into Ross’ jaw and screams obscenities at him you find yourself cheering that, just like Mickey proclaims, “she’s back”. This throws up much confusion in the audience and is exactly like the end of A Clockwork Orange where Alex proclaims that “I was cured alright”. Again you cheer this ending but slowly you realise that this now means he is back to his murdering, savage self. Cheering Pauline returning back to her old self from the first series means we are happy that this person who looks down on the unemployed and who constantly refers to them as “scum” is now there again. Should we cheer someone like that? Well as the series progressed and the Geoff, Mike, Pauline and Mickey narratives crossed we got our answer. Originally asked by Mike to kill his now chronically obese wife Cheryl (“it’s a mercy killing”) Geoff gets the wrong address and accidentally kills Pauline herself. Seeing Mickey come home, as a fireman no less, and him discovering Pauline’s body before the camera pans to their wedding photo was one of the most sublime moments not just in TLOG but of UK television. A wave of sad tweets were sent out after the show with Pemberton himself saying it best when he tweeted:
“Rest In Pens”
The skill in creating this myriad of emotions that we feel for these characters is not just down to the writing but also to the incredible acting. The whole team has improved in this department thanks to their careers and laced throughout are moments of pure acting gold. Pemberton as the aforementioned Pauline and the down-right awful Pops, Shearsmith as Edward and Ollie both gaining far more empathy from the characters than what they would when looked at written down, and Gatiss who was this series stand out. As Aunty Val he went from kooky to dangerous to loving, as Les McQueen he went from downtrodden to acceptance to dreamer and as Toddy the bingo caller he stole the whole show. This scene alone, where Gatiss delivered a truly devastating monologue about the death of his lover interspersed with suitable bingo calls, deserves to win Gatiss and the writers an award. Beautifully paced and played, the scene held you in rapt attention throughout and what could have been a plain homage to the play-on-words sketches of people like the Two Ronnies was instead an astounding display of comedy-drama pitched perfectly.
Series Four of The League Of Gentlemen proved that it can indeed be a good idea to revisit old favourites. There was a perfect balance of the familiar with the new. It was at once both locked in a time capsule and free to incorporate the world we now live in. Series Four was bold, funny, disturbing and thought provoking. Yes we can grumble that there were only three half-hour episodes but as Benjamin said to Aunty Val before that plastic bag drifted away in the background:
““You know, Auntie Val, sometimes you can’t go back. But you can visit.”