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 11Reuse content