Teeth, wigs and humps

Straight stand-up? Traditional sketches? Using their theatrical background, The League of Gentlemen have found a third way
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A poster on a lamp-post proclaims: "Lost - have you seen my finger?" A butcher throws offal onto the pavement at the feet of passers-by. A florist sells dead flowers under the sign "everything must go". Youths roaming the streets chuck milk-bottles at locals who don't bat a eyelid. A hearse drives by, containing a coffin bedecked with wreaths that spell out the word BASTARD. And outsiders who visit the local shop on the hill have a nasty habit of disappearing without trace...

Welcome to Royston Vasey, a fictional town in the north of England which is the setting for The League of Gentlemen, a dark new BBC2 comedy show. The word "weird" doesn't do justice to this town, which is populated entirely with sadistic parents and monstrous officials. Imagine a creative collaboration between Roy Clarke and the Davids Lynch and Cronenberg - and you're some way towards understanding where the four members of The League of Gentlemen are coming from.

But won't some viewers be put off by a comedy in which torture and murder are everyday occurrences? After all, people have been offended by the live show of The League (which consists of writer Jeremy Dyson and writer/performers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, who each take 21 different parts in the TV series).

"The day after we'd won the Perrier Award in Edinburgh, some bloke came to see the show and walked out after two minutes saying `tripe'," Shearsmith recalls. "But Ronnie Corbett, who was also there, stayed and loved it. Afterwards he wrote a review saying `Some of the areas were darker than I would have gone into.' Except in Sorry, of course."

"There was a debate about what it's legitimate to show," adds Pemberton. "There's a bit in the TV show where the female shopkeeper is breast-feeding a pig and saying `Strangers wouldn't understand our ways'. We wondered about that, but the studio audience pissed themselves laughing."

"The series will be too strong for some people," Gatiss admits, "but not strong enough for others. The larger, darker things will pass people by, but they'll ring up Points of View about exploding tortoises. But that's missing the point - we're not shock jocks. On television you can kill as many hitchhikers as you like, but you can't kill a dog. In Apocalypse Now, nobody minded when they slaughtered all those people, but they were really upset about that little puppy."

"In a way, we're providing a service - pointing out people's hypocritical attitude to violence," Dyson chips in. "Darkness is a term that's bandied about in the listings. But actually it just means that something was shot in the dark."

The League's humour may be based on such apparently unhumorous ideas as cruelty and embarrassment, but that is because the team have made the crucial realisation that, in Gatiss's words, "Good comedy is where something is at stake, where someone has something to lose - whether it's their sense of pride or nine Maverick bars. You could watch Fawlty Towers or I'm Alan Partridge and think `That's excruciating'. But thanks to skilful writing, it's always funny, too."

In working up their densely packed, theatrical routines, The League have understood that the devil is in the detail. In the TV series, viewers are likely to miss much of the most meticulous work. A poster in the high street, glimpsed in passing, advertises "The Skull Monty - the North's premier thin strip troupe". And the front-room of obsessive toad-breeder Harvey Denton is adorned with 32 different toad-related ornaments, including a framed jigsaw of a lily pond on the wall. His front-lawn is graced with a topiary toad that is only visible to eagle-eyed viewers for a split- second.

The quartet met studying drama at Bretton Hall, where they began developing their idiosyncratic style of comedy. "Traditionally, sketch comedy had meant an Oxbridge revue doing a skit about the NHS or a song called `Gordon Brown' to the tune of `Golden Brown'," says Pemberton.

"We weren't interested in traditional sketches or straight stand-up or `Have you ever noticed?' mini-cab driver monologues," Gatiss chimes in. "It helped knowing how you could use theatre to create big moments that would hold people. `Sketch' sounds like it's just casually sketched in, but our stuff has more substance than `Man goes into doctor'. Ours is more `Doctor goes into man'."

Critics have suggested that The League's portrait of small-town madness is in some way political. "We have experience of being on the dole and living fags-and-booze-fuelled lives," says Gatiss. "But our work is not a comment on that - it's not saying, `Isn't this terrible?' You could say The Royle Family is political because it's about a sub-stratum of society. But it's just what Caroline Aherne grew up with, and it's about finding humanity in that. We'd rather write about people than politics."

The League are wary of over-analysing their humour. "Comedy evaporates when you wax lyrical about it. All we want is for people to come away from our show happy. We don't have these sort of conversations unless there's a journalist there," says Shearsmith, pointedly.

"All we talk about when we're on our own is teeth, wigs, glasses, humps, and how on earth do I make 21 characters look different?"

`The League of Gentlemen' starts on BBC2 on Monday

James Rampton