The local heroes

Royston Vasey's grotesque inhabitants are about to be bumped off on the big screen. But the League of Gentlemen promise its next creations will be just as twisted, says James Rampton
Click to follow

Television spin-off movies have a long and inglorious history. Cinema audiences have been experiencing that sinking feeling for several decades in front of everything from the movie version of Bless This House to Ali G in Da House.

Television spin-off movies have a long and inglorious history. Cinema audiences have been experiencing that sinking feeling for several decades in front of everything from the movie version of Bless This House to Ali G in Da House.

All too cognisant of these unhappy precedents, The League of Gentlemen, best known for three series of its award-winning BBC2 comedy, is stepping with caution from small screen to big.

The Gents - writer-performers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith and writer Jeremy Dyson - have come up with The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse, a hugely ambitious project that trades on what Hollywood calls a "high concept". In the film, the characters - grotesque inhabitants of the made-up town of Royston Vasey - have become aware that they are fictional creations. On discovering they are about to be killed off, they cross over into the writers' world and make their case for survival.

To add another meta-textual level, the characters and creators spill over in to the realm of another film on which the writers are working, a historical drama set in 1690 and called The King's Evil.

Shearsmith, who writes with Pemberton, describes the potential pitfalls of a TV spin-off. "You know the sort of thing - all the characters go on holiday to Spain together and one of them gets mistaken by the Mafia for a rival gangster and they all get chased round the resort for an hour and a half." Pemberton, who plays the homicidal shopkeeper Tubbs, the paedophile German teacher Herr Lipp and the pen-obsessed restart officer Pauline, adds: "A lot of them are just extended episodes from the TV series - 30 minutes of comedy with an extra hour laboriously tacked on. The ones you really admire are stand-alone films like Monty Python's Holy Grail and Life of Brian."

So their solution was to aim high. "You have to try to make something with wider appeal," says Shearsmith, the alter ego of the unhinged shop owner Edward, the wife-abducting circus act Papa Lararou, the vicious vicar Bernice and the washed-up businessman Geoff. "With cinema, both the themes and the canvas should be bigger and bolder."

Dyson, whose writing partner is Gatiss, says: "That's why we went with this idea... This seemed like a big concept - it's vertical as well as horizontal. That's what makes it a movie."

It's all well and good to have grand plans, but is there a risk that merging fiction and reality will be viewed as self-indulgent? "Initially, we thought, 'We can't do this because it's too up its own arse and self-aggrandising,'" Dyson concedes. "But when Steve and Reece first presented Mark and me with it, we roared with laughter - which is always a good compass. So from there we thought, 'What can we do to denude this of the pitfalls of self-indulgence?' Whenever the creators were in the script, we thought it was pompous, so we pared them right down and presented them in an unsympathetic light."

Shearsmith says that he and Pemberton struck on the idea after several unproductive weeks of trying to create something totally fresh, a pastiche of a movie set in the 17th century (which became The King's Evil in the finished version).

The four met in Yorkshire in the early 1990s when Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith were at drama college in Wakefield and Dyson was studying philosophy at Leeds University. They bonded over a shared love of Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan's Claw, The Draughtsman's Contract, The Poseidon Adventure, The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and Toy Story - all of which are referenced in The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse.

Despite these myriad allusions, it is very much a movie in its own right. Gatiss, who plays the bloody butcher Briss, the hopeless vet Dr Chinnery and the terminally unemployable youth Mickey, says the danger lies in telling the audience too much. "Jimmy McGovern has said that 'as long as the viewers are 30 seconds behind you rather than five minutes ahead, you're all right'. You have to intrigue people and not give it to them on a plate."

The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse is intriguing because it dramatises the difficulties of the creative process. Shearsmith says: "The whole conceit of the film is about the pitfalls of writing a spin-off TV movie." Like Pleasantville, Adaptation, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Truman Show and Six Characters in Search of an Author, it reflects the fuzziness of the line between an author and his art. "There's all kinds of stuff in the film about the relationship of the created to the creator," Dyson says.

The Gents insist that their vision for the £4m film has not been tampered with. "We wrote the script on spec and then told producers, 'take it or leave it'," says Gatiss.

The four are also to embark on a live tour in the autumn. The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You will be a spoof Royston Vasey panto in which Pauline will appear as Widow Twanky. After that, they are promising something completely different. Shearsmith says: "We'd hate anyone to think we're lazy and just churning out catch-phrases. That's why we thought, 'Edward and Tubbs are really popular. Let's be bold and kill them off.'"

The one thing that won't change is the darkness visible in their work. When I first saw their show at the tiny Canal Café Theatre in west London nearly a decade ago, it featured a tour guide (played by Gatiss) showing visitors round a cave where a young boy had died in an accident for which he felt responsible. "We've lived with the word 'dark' for 10 years now," Gatiss smiles. "I remember that a website, called Some of The Corpses Are Amusing, did a spoof Edinburgh poster one year for a show called Dark: Chris Morris and The League of Gentlemen sit in a dark room and throw blood at each other. I'd pay money to see that.

"But it's not unusual to see dark comedy these days - look at Nighty Night or Shirley Ghostman. If we've done anything, we've made the grotesque, the bizarre and the gothic more mainstream. No doubt there'll now be an enormous backlash and channels will start commissioning Terry and June and Seaside Special again."

"Hence our panto," Pemberton says. "You see, we're still setting trends!"

'The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse' opens tomorrow