Across the Pond: The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville

The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002, 19 episodes)
Psychoville (2009, 7 episodes)
Created by, Written by, and starring Mark Gattis, Steve Pemberton, and Reece Shearsmith

“Black comedy” doesn’t begin to describe the shear depths of depravity the work of Gattis, Pemberton, and Shearsmith reaches. There are moments in the latter seasons of League, and all throughout Psychoville, where the audience has to question if the shows are still comedies, or if they have become some other genre of television. The level of gore and perversity that occurs in the third and final season of League is extraordinary. Its as if the performers had held back for the first two years and then unleashed the show they truly wished to make: one where not a single character is without sexual or psychological damage, yet are painfully sympathetic. So too in Psychoville are characters who are even more disturbed and who you feel even sorrier for by the end of the series. These three British titans of comedy have managed to create an impressively larger fan base for the kind of shows American networks wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.

Gattis, Pemberton, and Shearsmith came together in 1994 and began developing a collection of eccentric and disturbed characters for stage and radio. By the end of the 1990s they had garnered enough attention for their own BBC series. The television show was set in the fictional Northern England town of Royston Vasey, where every citizen seemed to have a dark secret and proclivity. The first season centers around Benjamin, a young man who is visiting his aunt and uncle in Royston while hiking with his friend. Benjamin finds that as hard as he tries he can’t seem to get out of town. Along the way we meet Hilary Briss, the town butcher with a very special selection; Barbara, a pre-op transsexual cab driver; Mr. Chinnery, the town vet who kills every animal he tries to save, and many more. The most famous of the denizens are Edward and Tubbs, a pig-nosed couple who run “a local shop, for local people”. When outsiders wander in they are typically murdered in a brutal fashion by the couple. Needless to say, crews arriving to build a highway from London to Royston are met with some resistance.

The three seasons of League go through many aesthetic changes. In the first series there are a mixture of on location and studio filmed scenes. In series two things become much more on location, but the laugh track remains. By season three, every thing is on location and the laugh track is gone. The result is that season three highlights the darkness of the show’s premise. The creators also amp up the drama and make these characters three dimensional. Psychoville is a continuation of the themes of League with new characters. This time around the five main characters are all being stalked by a masked figure whom sends them letters hinting at a transgression that links them all. British comedy legend Dawn French plays a maternity nurse obsessed with bringing her dummy baby doll to life by feeding it human blood. Pemberton and Shearsmith play multiple roles, in particular an Oedpial mother-son serial killer team. Psychoville is not as collectively strong as League, but some individual episodes really stand out, particularly the fourth which is an homage to Hitchcock’s rope. The entire episode takes place in one room and is filmed in two takes. Pretty impressive.

The entire League of Gentlemen series is available on Netflix
Season One of League of Gentlemen is available for free on YouTube

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