Psychoville - Dark side of the loons

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, the creators of 'The League of Gentlemen', have conjured up another bizarre bunch of misfits for 'Psychoville'. But, as they tell Gerard Gilbert, their new horror comedy's inspirations go beyond Royston Vasey

In a recently decommissioned NHS hospital beside the elevated section of the M4 motorway in west London, Dawn French is standing next to a birthing pool and pretending to give an antenatal class. The female extras are genuinely and very obviously pregnant, which can't make their morning's work particularly pleasant as French's midwife, the misnamed 'Joy', describes with great glee the agonies of childbirth. Joy is seen to have a decidedly unhealthy relationship with her demonstration doll, which is for her, it becomes clear, some sort of surrogate baby boy. How much so becomes shockingly clear later on.

For astute connoisseurs of British TV comedy, an unsympathetic and plainly barking midwife might carry echoes of a certain Pauline, the mad, bad and "dole scum"-hating restart officer at the Royston Vasey job centre in The League of Gentlemen. Pyschoville, the BBC2 sitcom I was watching being filmed, is indeed twinned with Royston Vasey. It's the brainchild of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, one half of The League of Gentlemen, the award-winning carnival of gurning and grotesquery that spawned three television series and a cinema film before grinding to a halt in 2005.

"The League of Gentleman seemed to have reached a standstill really and there was a feeling that we should have some time off from doing that... because we'd been doing that solidly for 10 years", says Pemberton. "There was no animosity or anything – we said we'd like to carry on writing and get a new show off the ground. We didn't know what that would be, whether it would be a sitcom or a sketch show or what..."

Or what, as it turned out. Unlike The League of Gentlemen, which, despite creating its own hermetic world, was essentially sketch-based, Pyschoville has a distinct plot arcing over seven half-hour episodes. It's a dark comedy mystery peopled with the sort of bizarre characters that fans of The League (as both Pemberton and Shearsmith refer to their former creation) would hope for and expect. But what unites Joy the midwife, Mr Jelly the vile-tempered children's entertainer, David the serial-killer fixated mother's boy, Oscar the old and blind millionaire, and Robert, the pantomime dwarf who's in love with the actress playing Snow White, is not a fictional village in the North of England. Instead, they are all recipients of a threatening letter, inscribed in old-fashioned florid quill-and-ink writing with the words, "I know what you did".

But what have they done? Pemberton and Shearsmith say they didn't have a clue at first. "We just started writing characters and then we wrote an episode with this premise about the letter," says Pemberton. "And at that point, we didn't know what they'd done, who they were and what it would lead to. We raised lots of questions we didn't have answers for.

"In the event, it was a very rewarding thing to do. Very often you know what your end point is and you're working towards it. If the writer knows where it's going the audience can quite often second-guess them. When the writers genuinely have not a clue what's going on you can't second-guess it. We were making it up as we went along."

"They have a past that is slowly drawing them back together," says Shearsmith, having a stab at explication. "It's a sort of comedy version of Heroes, Lost and 24, hopefully. We're fans of those big American shows where you're required to buy into it, where people are drawn in by the mystery of it. We're much more drawn towards that than just your characters with one joke."

The title Psychoville refers not a geographical location, like Royston Vasey. "It was a working title that stuck, as they tend to do," says Pemberton. "When The League of Gentlemen was sold to Korea they renamed it Psychoville because it's this mad place. So in this show it's not a place as such, it's more a state of mind. It sounded intriguing... and I thought it was really nice that there was a link with The League of Gentlemen... that there was a little bridge between the two."

It helped that Pemberton and Shearsmith were used to writing together. "We used to write The League in pairs," says Shearsmith. "Steve and I would write together and Mark (Gatiss) and Jeremy (Dyson) would do their stuff. The difficulty came in trying to mesh those stories, so this has been easier to write in a way. This has more of a flow."

And fewer characters for each of them to play. Pemberton and Shearsmith took over 60 roles between them in The League of Gentlemen, whereas here they play only three of the five leading parts (and admittedly twice as many again subsidiary ones). "We didn't actually want to play that many characters in this, we thought it really important that fleshed them out," says Pemberton. "We've had brilliant people coming in. We've got Dawn (French) in today, we've got Eileen Atkins coming in at the end of the week, all different kinds of people from Christopher Biggins (as a panto director who casts himself as Prince Charming) to Janet McTeer and Nicholas Le Prevost." "It's strange to act with different human beings not just with ourselves," interjects Shearsmith. "When we're working together we tell each other exactly what to do. You can't do that with somebody else."

As with The League of Gentlemen, so Psychoville is full of homage, not least an entire episode filmed in one take, in tribute to Hitchcock's Rope. "We wanted it to have that old-fashioned Hitchcocky feel," says Pemberton, "so it wasn't filmed with a steady-cam, it was on a dolly so when the camera moved forward the furniture had to be moved out and moved back in again when the camera panned back... It's an amazing thing to watch actually because you don't quite realise it but the tension is amazing because it never cuts." "It's a little gem bang in the middle of the series," says Shearsmith, the quieter of the pair. "It's quite an achievement. People will probably be bored by it... ".

Few of their influences are in fact comedic. Joy's relationship with her doll is inspired by Michael Redgrave's with his ventriloquist's dummy in the classic Ealing portmanteau thriller Dead of Night, while 10 Rillington Place ("I play Richard Attenborough playing the murderer John Christie," says Pemberton) is another source. "We love all those films where teams of people get sent on missions," says Shearsmith. "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is one of our favourites, where you have all those different types... Monte Carlo or Bust! – ours ends a bit like that."

"Rather than having comic influences I'd say we draw on films," says Pemberton. "We draw on dramas and documentaries... you don't want to be drawing on other comedies because then you're just going to be a carbon copy of something else."

And you couldn't accuse Psychoville of being a carbon copy of anything, not even The League of Gentlemen, although Pemberton and Shearsmith are aware that comparisons will be drawn. "Absolutely, although that's not anything we're shy of. It, of course, has elements of that because that's our sense of humour."

And that sense of humour has proved influential for other comedians. Little Britain, the first series of which was shot by The League of Gentleman's director, Steve Bendelack, and script-edited by Mark Gatiss, takes obvious inspiration from the denizens of Royston Vasey.

"I'm sure they'd say that themselves," says Pemberton. "We hear it very often. They've gone down the route of making it very mainstream and BBC1 and are now in America and conquering the world. That's not to say this couldn't do well in America, or anything like that. We had a lot of interest in this project from America, but you just know that entails a lot more spoons in the bowl. We have an awful lot of control, which suits us and pleases us."

In the meantime, what chance of a reunion with their erstwhile colleagues, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson? "We keep talking about it, there's certainly not been any split or anything like that," says Pemberton. "We see each other, but it's just being all busy in different directions. But I certainly think we'll make that happen in the future."

"We've talked about making another film," says Shearsmith. "The will is there... Us four writing something under the banner of The League, but not as characters... creating a new thing together."

"A career is a long thing and you don't want people to be sick of you," says Pemberton. "It wouldn't bother us if it took five years to get back together. We just hope that people remember and that there might be some distant memory of 'oh, that was quite good wasn't it?'."

'Psychoville' starts on BBC2 on June 11

Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
Arts and Entertainment
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, wrote a blog post attacking the app and questioning its apparent 'strong Christian bias'
Arts and Entertainment
Leading light: Sharma in London

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
Brooke Magnanti believes her reputation has been damaged by the claim
Arts and Entertainment
A large fire has broken out in London's historic Battersea Arts Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Orla Brady as Anne Meredith, MyAnna Buring as Elizabeth Quinn and Joanna Vanderham as Katherine McVitie in Banished
tvReview: Despite the gritty setting, this drama is as fluffy and soppy as a soap opera
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and co-director Richard Glatzer, standing, on the set during the filming of ‘Still Alice’ in New York
Arts and Entertainment
Great British Sewing Bee finalist Matt Chapple
tvReview: He wowed the judges with an avant garde dress
Arts and Entertainment
Driven to the edge: 'Top Gear' producer Oisin Tymon is said to have had a row with Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Nazi officer Matthias Schoenaerts embarks on an affair with married French woman Michelle Williams in 'Suite Francaise'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Prime movers: Caitriona Balfe (centre) and the cast of Outlander
Feasting with panthers: Keynes
Arts and Entertainment
Strung out: Mumford & Sons
Arts and Entertainment
Avant-garde: Bjork
Arts and Entertainment
Despite a decade of reform, prosecutions and convictions of rape has remained consistently low
arts + entsAcademic and author Joanna Bourke in warning to arts world
Arts and Entertainment
Electro Velvet, made up of Alex Larke and Bianca Nicholas, will represent the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
    Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

    Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

    A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
    Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

    Election 2015

    Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May
    Countdown to the election: Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear as the SNP target his Commons seat

    Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear

    The Chief Secretary to the Treasury didn’t forget his Highland roots in the Budget. But the SNP is after his Commons seat
    The US economy is under threat because of its neglected infrastructure

    The US is getting frayed at the edges

    Public spending on infrastructure is only half of Europe’s, and some say the nation’s very prosperity is threatened, says Rupert Cornwell
    Mad Men final episodes: Museum exhibition just part of the hoopla greeting end of 1960s-set TV hit

    New Yorkers raise a glass to Mad Men

    A museum exhibition is just part of the hoopla greeting the final run of the 1960s-set TV hit
    Land speed record: British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    Bloodhound SSC will attempt to set a new standard in South Africa's Kalahari desert
    Housebuilders go back to basics by using traditional methods and materials

    Housebuilders go back to basics - throwing mud at the wall until it sticks

    Traditional materials are ticking all the construction boxes: they are cheap, green – and anyone can use them
    Daniel Brühl: 'When you have success abroad, you become a traitor. Envy is very German'

    Daniel Brühl: 'Envy is very German'

    He's got stick for his golden acting career and for his beloved restaurant - but Daniel Brühl is staying put in Berlin (where at least the grannies love him)
    How Leica transformed photography for ever: Celebrating 100 years of the famous camera

    Celebrating 100 years of Leica

    A new book reveals how this elegant, lightweight box of tricks would transform the way we saw life on the street and in fashion, on the battlefield and across the world