An everyday story of local folk

Comic outfit The League of Gentlemen break all the taboos. On the eve of their live tour, founder member Jeremy Dyson explains the origins of their peculiarly dark brand of humour
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When I was 13 years old my best friend Alex Agbamu and I bought a small green jotter from the school shop with the intention of writing our own comedy book. We passed it back and forth between us over a series of nights and began to fill it with spoofs of TV programmes, caricatures of teachers and a series of cartoons of escalating crudity. These portrayed superheroes caught with their tights down indulging in various acts of depravity. The final one, as I remember it, depicted Superman buggering a dog. We titled this work The Goat Book and kept it to ourselves, not for fear of our obscenity being sanctioned, but simply because this was a private joke. Somehow, one night, my parents discovered the slim volume with its degenerate illustrations in scratchy blue Pentel. They were so appalled that, in an uncharacteristic act of theatrical violence, they took the book into the woods and burnt it.

When I was 13 years old my best friend Alex Agbamu and I bought a small green jotter from the school shop with the intention of writing our own comedy book. We passed it back and forth between us over a series of nights and began to fill it with spoofs of TV programmes, caricatures of teachers and a series of cartoons of escalating crudity. These portrayed superheroes caught with their tights down indulging in various acts of depravity. The final one, as I remember it, depicted Superman buggering a dog. We titled this work The Goat Book and kept it to ourselves, not for fear of our obscenity being sanctioned, but simply because this was a private joke. Somehow, one night, my parents discovered the slim volume with its degenerate illustrations in scratchy blue Pentel. They were so appalled that, in an uncharacteristic act of theatrical violence, they took the book into the woods and burnt it.

Twenty years later I found myself hunched over the table in my flat with another friend, Mark Gatiss, who together with Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, is my partner in the comedy group The League of Gentlemen. This particular afternoon we were labouring on an item for A Local Book for Local People (after live performances, radio and a BBC2 series, it is our first collective foray into print). We were sticking little cut-out tags containing place names such as "Sorehole", "Stink" and "Clitterhouse" onto a map of the area surrounding Royston Vasey - the fictional northern town where our show is set. As Mark passed me another labelled "C--tbubble" it occurred to me that I now earn my living from what is essentially The Goat Book writ large.

The League of Gentlemen's sense of humour has been called black and ghoulish, and we agree with one reviewer that it is "barely on nodding terms with conventional comedy". Sketches about a grief-stricken cave guide haunted by a tragic school trip accident, or a homosexual German exchange teacher who buries his amour in his front garden are not the stuff of Russ Abbott's Madhouse. We are often asked "why is your humour so dark?", the thinly veiled subtext being "what's wrong with you?". The mundane truth is that I don't think there is anything wrong with us at all.

It's true that we share a love of horror films. Although we didn't meet until our college years, there are moments we can locate in our collective childhood that we all shared. On 5 November 1975 I saw Carry on Screaming for the first time. Both Mark and Reece can remember watching the same screening, both terrified and tickled by the spectre of Odd Bodd Junior. Later, in 1981, we were simultaneously exposed to Robert Wise's terrifying The Haunting. And it wasn't just the TV. More than one of us had received Alan Frank's glossy book Horror Movies and pored over its images so many times that they had become embedded as archetypes. It was in these shiny pages that we first saw an image from The Wicker Man, a film to which all four of us formed a passionate attachment. There is a scene in the first episode of The League of Gentlemen where Tubbs and Edward (the murderous keepers of the Local Shop) are questioned by a suspicious policeman that is a comic reworking of The Wicker Man's premise.

It wasn't only the macabre that we had a taste for. We'd discovered Alan Bennett via a series of TV plays later bound as Objects of Affection and The Writer in Disguise. Here was a different kind of horror, although no less intense. The horror of social discomfort and embarrassment. The West Yorkshire setting of Bennett's work made it seem even more real. And these plays were funny. They shouldn't have been since they were about people dying ( Intensive Care), or loneliness ( A Woman of No Importance) or the mentally ill ( Our Winnie), but somehow the combination of discomfort and pathos only emphasised the jokes. I thought these were some of the funniest things I'd ever seen. And the fact that the gags were delivered by brilliant character actors made them even funnier.

Bennett's plays seemed to confirm something else too - that there was something about the North, when presented authentically, that was intrinsically funny. Rising Damp, Les Dawson and Victoria Wood all corroborated this. But equally there is something about the North when it is presented as cliché that is excruciating. Since we are all from the North (Chorley, Leeds, Northumberland, Hull) we recognised when others got it right. Never is the phrase "write what you know" truer than when applied to comedy and that's why The League has its northern setting too.

Thanks to BBC repeats, we discovered other work we admired - particularly Mike Leigh's incomparable Nuts in May. Gradually we each developed our own consensus of what was good. Then we met - Mark, Steve and Reece were all studying drama at Bretton Hall near Wakefield, while I was a philosophy student just up the M1 in Leeds.

After five years we finally came together to work as a group. A mutual friend had a slot to fill in a fringe festival at the end of 1994. He was canny enough to suggest we pool resources and put on a show. During the process, we discovered our shared likes and dislikes, and a creative shorthand that we all understood: "it's like that bit in John Cassavetes' Husbands" or "you know in Halloween when Michael Myers covers himself with the sheet?". And then we began to find that we were the living disproof of every criticism our parents and teachers had slung at us - it was precisely because we'd watched so much television that we were beginning to succeed.

But now it wasn't just about what we found on television but also what we found in the world. Steve and Reece used to share a flat in Highgate. Here there was a noticeboard stuck with the strangest combination of objets trouvés. Pride of place was their collection of lost passport photographs. A host of anonymous faces stared down from the red felt, all with the slightly frightened, ill-looking bleachiness of the photo-booth. Displayed together they became inexplicably comic - the fat girl with the lazy eye, the shifty-looking tourist with the dirty beard - and endlessly fascinating. No less fascinating was their anthology of curious videos - moments grabbed from TV news reports, or editions of Kilroy or Video Nation: PC Jerry Allen abortively demonstrating the Met's new pepper spray on himself; a hypnotist with extraordinary hair on The Time, The Place talking about women having their breasts pinched by other unscrupulous mesmerists. Gradually these things were added to the soup with observation made directly from life. Tubbs and Edward were inspired by a real visit to a nick-nack shop in Rottingdean where a genteel shopkeeper cowered in terror as we browsed her sea-shells and snow-storms. Papa Lazarou's name and bizarre patois were culled from Steve and Reece's landlord, Mr Papalazarou. The Dentons' fastidiousness and house rules were inspired by a difficult stay I had with relatives.

As we developed our characters some of them began to feel constricted by the bounds of the three minute sketch. This encouraged us to work with narrative. Somehow, by letting go of the need for punchlines and set-up gags, they began to feel funnier. For our Christmas special we've gone the whole hog and devised an hour-long portmanteau ghost story along the lines of the Ealing film Dead of Night. We've all found the experience so satisfying that it may point the way forward.

There are many ways to elicit laughter. One of them is to prod an area of discomfort or uncertainty until you get a response. As Carlos Castandeda observed, when you need release you must either cry or laugh - it doesn't really matter which. The reason my friend Alex Agbamu drew Superman sodomising that dog was because he knew it would make me laugh. And I laughed at the image for the very reason that my parents felt compelled to burn it.

The League of Gentlemen nationwide tour (info line 09068 400200) 30 October to 10 December. 'A Local Book for Local People' (Fourth Estate, £12.99) is published on Thursday. The first BBC2 series is now available on video, £15.99

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