Saturday, 13 April 2013

L is for The League of Gentlemen

In 1999, in the final year of my degree, I spent some time sworn off television. I had become disillusioned with what was being broadcast and I had to face that fact that I had a dissertation to write, and watching hours of daytime television really wouldn't help. I had the notion that this decision would give me the opportunity to do so many other life-enriching things with the time I had spent glued to the box. It didn't. I spent more time playing computer games and in the pub - neither of which helped me complete my dissertation or develop more skills. Perhaps more unfortunately, just as I turned my back on a medium that felt it was doing very little to entertain me, several new programmes started that would be ripe for doing just that.
Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson &
Steve Pemberton.

Having been a regular visitor to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since my childhood, I had heard of The League of Gentlemen and with their Perrier Award win in 1997, I always intended to find out more about them. In 1997, their radio series On The Town with The League of Gentlemen aired, which introduced many of the characters that would eventually appear in the television series. I only heard this after seeing some of the television series, but it includes one of my favourite characters - Mr. Ingleby, the infeasibly tiny shopkeeper, a character perhaps most effectively portrayed in a non-visual medium of radio.

The League themselves are made up of writer, Jeremy Dyson, and writer-performers, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. Whilst Dyson's writing should not be dismissed, as it is key to the success of their work, Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith's performances are incredible. Each character is entirely distinct, with their own voice, mannerisms, expressions and posture and almost all parts within the series are played by these three actors alone. The fact that we, as an audience, come to see the female characters as 'women' within such a short amount of time is just one of the wonders they weave with their careful construction of believable individuals in this almost too real environment.

Overwhelmingly dark in nature, this comedy series and the resulting live performances, film and specials are always funny, sometimes sad and terrifically unsettling. It sparks precisely the right balance between those jokes that a part of you feels maybe you shouldn't really laugh at and full-on, almost slapstick situations and sketches.

Some of the characters from the show became cult fixtures for my generation. Papa Lazarou and his terrifying circus became very well-known, even amongst those unfamiliar with the series, but he was just one of the many ingeniously crafted characters we meet in Royston Vasey, the fictional village the series is set in. One of my favourites is Pauline Campbell-Jones, Restart Officer at the Job Centre in the town. In this one, monstrous, woman, so many of the patronising, belittling and ineffective processes developed to 'support' the unemployed in recent times, as well as the small-minded and judgemental attitudes of many towards those out of work, are expertly parodied. A woman who thrives on humiliating those she is supposed to be helping, she is cruel, spiteful and manipulative - sadly echoing many people in similar positions of responsibility who choose to use their minimal power to gain a sense of advantage over others. Across the story arc we see her get what may be seen as her comeuppance, including the humiliation of having to join a Restart course herself when she loses her job, but, by the end of series 3 the audience find compassion for this damaged woman and she is very much be one of the mainstays of the series.

Having lived in several small communities during my life, Tubbs and Edward and their notion
of the importance of being 'local' is certainly familiar. The insular nature of small remote villages and towns is so well portrayed in the series, from the bitter old women in the charity shop, right through to the bumptious town councillor, Maurice Evans, the dark tales of real-life communities gone bad seem to echo off the walls of Royston Vasey. Indeed, filmed in a variety of locations within Derbyshire and West Yorkshire - both places I've lived during my life - the streets, buildings and moorland that have been effortlessly stitched together to create the fictional town make it feel like a very 'real' place.

The pathos of Les McQueen and his tales of unfulfilled rock stardom or the chaotic, crumbling relationship of Charlie and Stella Hull carefully build characters with a very real background and history, inviting us to see a brief, bleak snapshot of their lives. These are not cardboard cut-out, roughly drawn shadows of people that we are invited to laugh at, they are given the depth and detail of a past - their own subtleties and personalities. Les' stories of his former glory are just as moving as they are funny, whilst Charlie and Stella bicker relentlessly, only to find sudden peace at the end of the sketch when they are united in a mis-understanding.

Legz Akimbo Theatre Company or, as Rev. Bernice
Woodhall, the cynical God-less minister of Royston Vasey
calls them 'AIDS in a van'.
Legs Akimbo, the theatre group who arrive at the school in Royston Vasey 'Everybody Out!' their 'show about sexuality aimed at 9 to 12 year olds' strike a particular chord with me. Having sat through many well-meaning 'plays about issues' during my own time at school, I then went on to study theatre in education within my degree and the horror of such trite, patronising nonsense was all around me. Everything within this particular scene clearly echoes the performer's similar experiences, from the walking on the spot 'technique' to the clumsy attempts at symbolism and the ill-conceived 'tableaus'.

Mark Gatiss' monologue as the tour guide of Stump Hole Cavern is not only a superb piece of writing, but also fabulously performed, with the weary acceptance of a tour guide who tells his tale many times a day, whilst revealing a story of horror. Performed just as movingly on stage in a tuxedo, as in full costume on location, this is a comedic masterpiece.

Frustrated street magician Dean Tavalouris
from series 3 - another of my favourite characters.
Series 3 of the show, the last made for television, took a turn in style and moved much more towards comedy-drama than the sketch format of previous two series. It showcased the team's ability to weave a complex multi-stranded narrative around the characters we had grown to love. Each episode occurred concurrently, climaxing in the same incident each week, but from a different character's perspective. Through this device the truth behind the incident, its cause and implications are all revealed slowly and it is a fabulous method for creating intrigue as well as providing us with an insight into each individual's place as part of a whole.

I could write forever about this series, from the joy of the interstitial scenes that continue throughout episodes to the vaguely haunting theme tune and richly layered cultural references, it is all a treat. Not humour for the faint-hearted, this thoughtfully and lovingly nurtured body of work remains endlessly watchable.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.