The League of Gentlemen Series 1
Written by Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith & Jeremy Dyson
Directed by Steve Bendelack
The fictional Northern England village of Royston Vasey is not a place you would want to spend much time in. This does not bode well in the opening scene for young Benjamin Denton who has come by train to visit his Uncle Harvey and Aunt Val. But he is just one character (the majority played by Gatiss, Pemberton, and Shearsmith) that make up this mosaic of depravity and dark humor. There is Mr. Chinnery, the veterinarian with a long accidental kill streak, Pauline the brutal jobs trainer for citizens on the government dole, and the trio of Brian, Geoff, and Mike, lads who were friends since school but have risen to very different levels of success. The worst though is high on the hills outside of town, operating a local shop for local people: Edward and Tubbs, a terrifying duo of inbred killers. Did I mention this show is a comedy?
The League of Gentlemen began as a stage show and moved onto radio in 1997. Along the way, the glue of Royston Vasey sparked as a way to connect the different skits into a single location. The television series is where this concept gained much traction, and the group was able to draw on many horror film influences to shape the look and tone. League has much more in common with the original Wicker Man and The Shining than other comedy shows or films. Watching the series for the first time can be an incredibly shocking experience as the creators show no fear when it comes to sex and violence. Yet, they don’t wallow in mindless chaos, there is deep pathos underlying even the most gruesome of characters.
Certain characters lend themselves to a natural pathos without having to be contrasted with grotesquery. Les McQueen, a former guitarist for Crème Brulee, is an excellent example of this. He is a man in his fifties who was part of a band in the 1970s and early 80s who never achieved his dream of rock stardom. While there is comedy in his elaborate, rambling anecdotes about the “glory days” there is also always a moment of self-realization wherein Les still putting on a grin realizes he’s caught up in a time that he can never recapture. There’s also genuine empathy with a character as obscene as Tubbs, the pig-nosed wife of Edward in the local shop. We find out later in series one that they had a child but drove him away. Tubbs wants to leave to go to London with their now adult son but Edward undermines her, and she forlornly submits. Tubbs is the same character who helps Edward burn and butcher characters throughout this series, but somehow the writers and actors make us feel her broken pain when Edward plots to keep her in Royston Vasey.
One of my personal favorites is the Legz Akimbo traveling theater. This trio goes to schools and performs plays about topical social issues, typically displaying a lack of understanding about the topic at hand. In series one they arrive at an Anglican high school to deliver a performance about being gay as a teen. During the performance, the writer-director finds out the two actors have each been seeking out better paying, more lucrative gigs that would take them away from the troupe. It’s also in this sketch that the writer-director reveals his wife left him for a woman which leads what was supposed to be a positive support message for LGBT youth into something much darker and funnier.
Series One often feels incredibly disconnected, with each recurring sketch existing in a pocket unto itself. There may be a transition scene in the opening panorama of the village, but otherwise, we just cut between skits. There is also a difference between interiors and exterior shots in this opening six episodes. Interiors filmed on a stage while exteriors on done on location. A laugh track underlies the series as well. These elements would last for the first two seasons but be thrown out for a significant retooling of the show’s format in its third and final season. The League is NOT Monty Python, the stalwart of British comedy. I genuinely believe the League did something remarkably different with the sketch format and, if you like some horror mixed with your comedy, this is worth checking out.