The League of Gentlemen: A league of their own

They came from Royston Vasey. Now they are taking their unique blend of comedy and horror to a town near you. John Walsh goes over to the dark side
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Well you would, wouldn't you? Civic pride being what it is, you'd be happy to live in a place where the local gift shop houses a mad brother-sister couple called Edward and Tubbs who bury murdered strangers on the moors and keep their monstrous, howling offspring in the attic; where the local butcher feeds his feral neighbours under-the-counter sausages made of "special stuff" which precipitates a nosebleed epidemic; and where a German exchange teacher called Herr Lipp nurses a pederastic lust for a schoolboy, whom he feeds black coffee laced with ground-up Mogadon.

The actual village you see in the TV series is Hadfield in Derbyshire's High Peak district, an inoffensive place despite its spookily dark-brown brickwork. "When we first found it," says Pemberton (who plays Tubbs), "it was an isolated little place surrounded by moors, with no cars. Now it's like Last of the Summer Wine has taken hold."

"There are shops now that weren't there before," says Mark Gatiss (who plays the nasty butcher, Hilary Briss) "and shops that have kept the signs that we put up. The café used to be called Jenny's Café, but they kept our sign, the Burger Me Fast Food Restaurant."

Life has been catching up with art. In the TV show, a proposed new road through town precipitated more homicide among the locals. Was there a real-life new road? "Actually," says Pemberton, "after the first series, there were so many complaints about our stopping the traffic to film the High Street, that they built a one-way system."

"They're hoping," adds Gatiss, "for a nosebleed epidemic next year."

Their blend of horror, comedy and drama ushered something new into British comedy - movie-quality Gothic style. The characters and shock effects derive from British horror movies of the Sixties and Seventies ("Top three?" asks Reece Shearsmith, replying without pause. "The Wicker Man, Don't Look Now, Theatre of Blood."). Directed by Steve Bendelack, the series was almost as notable for its swishy production values as for its grotesquely in-your-armpit acting style.

"We're always being told we're obsessed with darkness," says Gatiss. "But lots of our characters are just very silly. The vet [Dr Chinnery] whose patients always die, that's just gore, it's only an exploding dog, it's not, you know, Heart of Darkness. Though I suppose it's true to say our tolerance of dark stuff is different from other people's."

Meeting the League at the Islington chapel where they're rehearsing their new 40-venue live show, you're startled by their boyish ordinariness. Unlike their comic ancestors the Pythons, who wore their comic creations lightly, the League actors disappear so thoroughly inside their characters, they become unrecognisable under a carapace of distended nostrils, blackened teeth, collagened lips and fright wigs. Once - hideous to recall - Gatiss appeared in a full body costume featuring putty-coloured breasts and a vast pubic merkin. "It was made from two beards sewn together," he explains equably. "You just can't get merkins that size."

Stripped of these accessories, they're an appealing trio. Gatiss (from Durham) is tall and waggish, his flickering asides punctuating the conversation. Pemberton (from Blackburn) is blessed with a physiognomy custom-made to express lascivious appetite and fleshy excess. Shearsmith (from Hull) is smaller, dark-haired and intense. They chat like friends meeting in a pub; and if a stranger - a southern interviewer, say - ventures a small pleasantry, they laugh in an indulgent chorus.

They last went on stage in 2001 for a six-week stint at the Drury Lane Theatre, and startled their audience by coming on in tuxedos, singing a song called "Voodoo Lady" (which was popularised by the 1970s band Crème Brulée, whose former rhythm guitarist, Les McQueen, lives in Royston Vasey and - but no, it'll take too long to explain) and performing review sketches with minimal adjustments of costume.

"It was a big risk," admitted Pemberton. "We thought it would be a good thing to show people where we'd come from" - namely, the Edinburgh Fringe, on which they won the Perrier award in 1997.

The tuxes weren't a howling success. "We could hear people getting up and leaving," says Shearsmith, "and harrumphing about us 'not doing the characters'. If only they'd waited 20 minutes. We were just doing things a different way."

"None of our choices since we started has been the easy option," says Steve. "The show isn't supposed to be a series of greatest hits. It's 95 per cent new material. It just seems more creatively ambitious to try something new."

"With a live arena," says Reece, "You need great big, penny-dropping moments where you get laughs. It doesn't mean you have to be coarsened. Some things we do are very subtle for that size of theatre. But you need to go from coarse to subtle, with some guaranteed laughs."

"It's nice," agrees Mark, "to go from pathos to pantomime, from multi-cultured, meta-textual, postmodernist subtlety into a knob joke."

"You can imagine," says Pemberton, "what happens to the pantomime cow."

League fans will be reassured to hear that the Royston freak-show will be represented, including the wonderfully non-PC Papa Lazarou, a strutting, predatory, East-European gypsy in vivid black face whose overcoat lining is festooned with clothes-pegs and who invades people's houses, claims the womenfolk as his own and, with a cry of "You're mah wife now, Dave," bears them away to his Pandemonium Carnival. He is played by Shearsmith, employing a raspingly nasal delivery stolen from real life. "We had this running joke," he says, "about me and Steve's Greek landlord. He used to ring up and say 'Hello, Steve,' no matter who answered the phone, and say things like, 'Steve, I gotta Hoover belanging to you.' And we used to use his voice, like a private joke. And then you discover that everybody's doing his voice."

They certainly are. My teenage son's friends have been doing "Hello Dave" impressions for years. It's even become a popular mobile ringtone, although the League have had it banned. ("It's not me!" says Shearsmith indignantly. "It's not my voice! We didn't know a thing about it until we saw it on television!")

The outrageous Papa is not the only character drawn from life. Pauline, the tough-bitch Restart officer, was someone Shearsmith met and longed to impersonate. ("But in the last week of rehearsals I bottled it, because I knew Steve would do it better.") Olly Plimsolls, the agitprop director, was "a real-life theatre education guy who used to humiliate me in front of the kids," and - before you ask - Edward and Tubbs had their originals in a shop in Rottingdean outside Brighton.

The Gentlemen's attitude to their most popular creations is ambivalent to say the least. They have killed them off twice so far.

"We thought, wouldn't it be really shocking if it looked like you killed off your two favourite characters?" says Shearsmith. "So, at the end of Series Two they burned to death, and at the start of Series Three we brought them back, only to kill them off again straight away."

"It was kind of mission statement," says Gatiss. "Although some of our fans think they're still alive."

"There's a nice idea we had," says Pemberton, "of Edward actually being a member of a gentleman's club in London, and having an entire social life he conceals from Tubbs."

As they talk, you can hear them co-inventing story-lines and plot developments. The only missing element is Jeremy Dyson, the fourth Gentleman - founder member of the group, script-writer and a key figure in its success. He never appears on stage. Was he, I asked, hideously disfigured? Hadn't he been studying drama with them at Bretton Hall in Yorkshire where they all met? "No, he was studying philosophy," says Gatiss. "And he acted at the beginning. In the first five shows, he played the vicar."

"If it had been up to us, he'd be here now," says Pemberton. "We were too polite. But he did it himself. He said, 'Look guys, I can see what you're doing, and I'm bowing out.' He's very happy with the situation, because as a writer you don't usually have a group to work on your stuff."

Dyson came up with the central conceit of their spin-off film, The League of Gentleman's Apocalypse, released in June this year. In it, Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith play themselves, tiring of writing about Royston Vasey and trying to branch out with a costume drama. The characters discover they are, in fact, fictional constructs and set out to fight for their survival. This isn't a wholly original concept (Pirandello, Flann O'Brien and Nicolson Baker got there before).

"It wasn't that we were villains who were trying to kill off the characters, says Shearsmith. "It was worse, because we'd become indifferent to them. We'd just moved on."

Hmmm. And had they by any chance grown tired of Royston Vasey, which was last seen on TV screens in 2002?

"No we weren't sick of writing it," says Pemberton. "The film is like a love letter to the characters and their plight - the fact that they have all these character traits that are beyond their control. Like Herr Lipp, who discovers he's been speaking in gay innuendo all the time. It means you can play with themes of self-awareness."

That didn't sound like a comic riot, did it?

"But you have to remember," says Gatiss patiently, "that you're doing a 90-minute film narrative, and you've got to go somewhere. It wouldn't be worth doing, or any fun, if it was just knob-joke-innuendo-knob-joke-innuendo. All the characters have got to evolve."

And the League of Gentlemen actors - will they ever evolve? After the third and final TV series they flirted with other genres. They acted in the three-hander play Art. They appeared together in the movies This Year's Love and Birthday Girl.

"There was an assumption for a while that we were 'the boys'," says Gatiss. "The producers could say, 'Get the lads in' and we'd come along. In the future there'll be a lot of carving out individual identities."

Gatiss has published a novel and appears in Woody Allen's new London-set movie, Match Point, with Scarlett Johansson. Shearsmith spent the summer on stage, playing Jacques in As You Like It, co-starring with Sienna Miller.

"There was a company of 17 of us," he says. "It was odd to be in the company of actors, with all that pussyfooting around they do about method. Now I'm working with these two again, it's so much more comfortable. Having written the stuff, we know what to do without talking about it. We have the shorthand."

A psychiatrist, I say, would look at the sign that welcomes visitors to Royston Vasey: "You'll Never Leave!" Will you ever leave the village of Each Other, where you've co-existed, clutching each other like Edward and Tubbs, for 10 years?

They looked at each other. "We'd like to keep the coalition together," says Gatiss. "It would be awful to feel you're like a rock band pushing towards the inevitable split. People seem to want that to happen. They say: 'How can you possibly go on like this?' But we're going to be careful about it, because we love working together."

The League of Gentlemen 'Are Behind You' Live Tour 2005 starts in Bristol on 13 October