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Gentlemen in a league of their own: Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton discuss their new series

The League of Gentleman writers are back with more television scare stories

Few TV shows have inspired cultish devotion quite like The League of Gentlemen, the nightmarish sketch series set around the perverted provincial backwater of Royston Vasey. And so it is that I have good news and bad news for its many fans. The illustrious team of Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and non-performing member Jeremy Dyson will be reuniting to do something else for television. Just not for a while.  

At the moment, as Pemberton and Shearsmith explain, they are all too busy to dust off Vasey’s sadistic shopkeepers Edward and Tubbs, wife-snatching Papa Lazarou and co. Gatiss is tied up with a seemingly constant stream of projects, not least writing and starring in Sherlock, while Dyson has recently been kept busy working as a script editor on James Corden’s comedy-thriller The Wrong Mans. Meanwhile Shearsmith and Pemberton have just completed Inside No.9, which is the reason for me meeting the duo in a cluttered BBC office. An anthology series, featuring their usual distinctive brand of macabre humour, it is comprised of a sextet of self-contained parables each set in a distinctive location, connected only by the fact that each story takes place in a house or room numbered 9. Acting alongside them, an all-star cast includes Gemma Arterton, Helen McCrory and Tim Key.    

This is the duo’s first television series together since Psychoville, their Grand Guignol murder-mystery comedy, which the BBC decided not to recommission after two brilliant series. “We set up a meeting [knowing that] if the BBC didn’t want a third series of Psychoville we had Inside No.9 to pitch,” Pemberton explains. I sense more than a hint of frustration over how their previous series was treated. The series two finale was shifted in the schedules to accommodate the new series of Mock The Week; Shearsmith felt Psychoville was “deemed not as important”.

But there was a happy ending of sorts, with Inside No.9 being picked up instead. Its premise was inspired by one particularly unusual Psychoville episode – itself inspired by the Hitchcock thriller Rope – which was shot in one room, in only two takes. “It was enjoyable to have the constraint of the claustrophobia,” says Pemberton. 

However, the series that Inside No.9 most recalls is Tales of the Unexpected, ITV’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s dark short stories, which ran from 1979 to 1988. In fact, they were delighted to land Timothy West for the opening episode, “Sardines”, partly because West starred in one of their favourite Tales, “Royal Jelly”, as a beekeeper whose baby ends up turning into a bee.

Inside No.9’s pocket-chillers often have a similar sting in the tail. The style, however, varies. Some are gothic in tone, others more cartoonish. The opener, “Sardines”, set in a rambling country house, is very teasing, with the darkness building slowly, in complete contrast with the more immediate knockabout humour of the second episode, “A Quiet Night In”, an entirely wordless piece featuring Pemberton and Shearsmith as a pair of hapless burglars attempting to rob a modernist home. The result in the latter is part Chuckle Brothers-esque slapstick, part Tarantino-esque blood-letting. In a satisfying nod to silent cinema, Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter, Oona, is a co-star – and there are also a couple of breathtaking reveals.

“We hope there’s an ‘oh my God’ moment. There is always a desire to wrong-foot the viewer. That’s what you strive to do,” says Pemberton. “These stories are not just about cheap shocks though,” continues Shearsmith. Structurally, there was a conscious decision to set themselves a new challenge: “It was all about ‘regenerating’, if we can use that word.” It is also interesting to note that this time round the duo frequently take small parts or none at all, allowing the guests to get stuck into their foregrounded roles. “We didn’t write this for us to be in. We wrote the stories first then thought, could we be in them?” says Shearsmith.

It is a testament to the duo’s status that the BBC, having been tough on Psychoville, welcomed its creators back, even though Inside No.9 faces an even greater challenge than its predecessor in the ratings game - in that, unlike a conventionally structured series, there is no recurring character to embrace. No Miranda or Mrs Brown to get hooked on, as Pemberton acknowledges: he imagines many commissioners saying “where is the continuity, where is the commitment?” What’s more,  the BBC’s faith in the series is so strong that they  have already commissioned a second run, as Shearsmith confirmed last week.

The only downside of Inside No.9’s renewal is that it may shunt the tantalising prospect of a League of Gentlemen TV reunion further into the future. But it is being talked about, as the pair confirm. There was a chance of them doing something new about a year ago when there were mutterings of a LoG-themed night combining classic clips with new material. Then, last December, the three performers revived some sketches onstage at the Adelphi Theatre in London as part of a benefit gig. 

Shearsmith says they were gobsmacked to find themselves topping the bill ahead of Rowan Atkinson. “We thought we’d be away before the second half, and Rowan would headline. I wasn’t even sure if people would know who we are because these bills are such a mixed bag.” Yet they got the biggest cheer of the night when they walked on in the tuxedos they used to wear when they started out in the mid-Eighties after Shearsmith, Pemberton and Gatiss met at Bretton Hall Drama College in West Yorkshire. “ It’s weird because they were just sketches at the time and now they have become “classic” sketches … we had to get the script book out in the dressing room,” recalls Pemberton, “but it was amazing how quickly it all came back to us.”

If and when The League does return, though, it could be with an entirely new set of characters. “It might not be Royston Vasey,” teases Shearsmith. But as the duo’s post-League work confirms, they will have no difficulty in coming up with new monsters to make us laugh during our nightmares.

‘Inside No.9’ is broadcast on BBC2, starting on Wednesday at 10pm.

Inside stories: An episode guide

1: ‘Sardines’

Set in a grand country house, this opening episode centres on an engagement party and a game of sardines, which sees a cast, including Katherine Parkinson, Anna Chancellor and Tim Key, packed into a wardrobe – and dealing with uncomfortable revelations.

2: ‘A quiet night in'

A silent farce, set in the beautiful, Modernist home of Gerald (Denis Lawson) and Sabrina (Oona Chaplin), who find themselves the targets of an audacious criminal enterprise.

3: ‘Tom and Gerri'

This psychological thriller, set in a one-bedroom flat, sees Pemberton play Tom, a primary school teacher with ambitions of becoming an author. He is done a good turn by a mysterious late-night caller, but when he tries to repay the favour, he becomes a victim of his own generosity. With Gemma Arterton.

4: ‘Lart Gasp'

Psychoville fans will know the duo have a way with a children’s-party-gone-wrong – and so it proves in this suburbia-set tale, in which a sick girls’ parents get a legendary singer to make an appearance at her birthday party. But events take a sudden, unexpected turn.

5: ‘The understudy'

A West End dressing room is the scene for this bloody tale of a successful actor giving a tour-de-force performance as Macbeth – and Jim, his ever-hopeful understudy .... The wonderful Julia Davis is among the guest stars.

6: ‘The harrowing'

The darkest tale of them all, set in a gothic mansion in which a brother and sister (Shearsmith and Helen McCrory) shut themselves away from the outside world – until one special night, when they decide to go out, and hire a babysitter for their disabled, elderly brother, Andras.