Welcome to the real Royston Vasey - You'll never leave

Home of simpletons, sadists, fetishists, xenophobes, thugs, psychopaths, nudists, nosebleeders, kidnappers, toad worshippers, mass-murderers (and other well-adjusted residents of a typical small town in the north of England) by Brian Viner

The number 397 bus - destination Hyde - rattles along Station Road, Hadfield, followed, from a ramshackle Manchester Evening News hoarding, by the eyes of Harold Shipman. Here, it seems, is conclusive proof that fact is far grislier and more macabre than fiction. But in Hadfield, a north Derbyshire village sprawled across a Pennine valley, fact and fiction have collided with a terrible crash. For Hadfield doubles as Royston Vasey, put firmly on the map by BBC2's The League of Gentlemen, and populated by an extraordinary assortment of weirdos. The fictional locals are so weird that when a freak show came to town, it quickly scarpered, out-freaked by such characters as Hilary Briss, the apparently cannibalistic butcher. Yet according to some, Royston Vasey is but a pale shadow of Hadfield.

The number 397 bus - destination Hyde - rattles along Station Road, Hadfield, followed, from a ramshackle Manchester Evening News hoarding, by the eyes of Harold Shipman. Here, it seems, is conclusive proof that fact is far grislier and more macabre than fiction. But in Hadfield, a north Derbyshire village sprawled across a Pennine valley, fact and fiction have collided with a terrible crash. For Hadfield doubles as Royston Vasey, put firmly on the map by BBC2's The League of Gentlemen, and populated by an extraordinary assortment of weirdos. The fictional locals are so weird that when a freak show came to town, it quickly scarpered, out-freaked by such characters as Hilary Briss, the apparently cannibalistic butcher. Yet according to some, Royston Vasey is but a pale shadow of Hadfield.

"If you put the cast in the street next to the locals, and I'm not ruling myself out, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart," says Barbara Hollingworth, plain-speaking, chain-smoking, twinkle-eyed owner of the village haberdashery. "There was a man outside the post office the other day and his nose turned up all on its own. He didn't need Sellotape. And on the day the TV crew changed the sign above Mettrick the butcher's to H Briss, a woman popped her head round my door and said, 'Barbara, has Mettrick sold 'is shop?' I said, 'No, it's for the filming', and she said, 'Oh.' The next day they'd moved the sign, and the same woman came in and said, 'I see Mettrick's bought 'is shop back.' So, you see, they don't need to write scripts. They just need to sit in the back of my shop for a morning."

William Hall, a clothing salesman visiting Hadfield on business, overhears this, and recalls with a chuckle that he once stopped to ask directions to Hadfield and was advised to continue on the same road for a mile "then 'turn right by the black and white cow', as if the cow was a permanent flipping fixture". Mr Hall lives near Holmfirth, the location, 15 miles away, for the venerable BBC comedy Last of the Summer Wine, and now home to the likes of Summer Wine Taxis, Summer Wine Car Hire, Compo's Cafe, even the Wrinkled Stocking Cafe. The association has been milked beyond reason, Mr Hall believes, and warns Hadfield traders not to make the same mistakes.

Of course, the nation is unlikely to embrace Tubbs and Edward, mad porcine proprietors of Royston Vasey's Local Shop, quite as it has Nora Batty. And yet The League of Gentlemen - the second series of which concludes tomorrow - already has a following devoted enough to make the pilgrimage to Royston Vasey. A coach party from Nottingham University recently descended on the Mason's Arms, which conveniently doubles on the telly as the Mason's Arms ("I think they would have changed the name, but it's on the windows," explains landlady Linda Grogan, happily). And fans have come from as far afield as Holland and Germany in search of the Local Shop, which in fact is a three-sided, purpose-built edifice on remote Marsden Moor.

Some shopkeepers grumbled when filming forced them to close for a day or two, but they're not grumbling now. Indeed, Gina Alexander, who runs the sandwich shop, Frank's Place (better known to League of Gentlemen enthusiasts as the fast-food joint Burger Me) has started opening on Sundays to catch the growing tourist trade. Might she actually change the shop's name to Burger Me? William Hall of Holmfirth would recognise it as the start of a descent down a slippery slope. But she has been giving it serious consideration. "I don't know, I might just put it in brackets," she says. "I'm not sure. When you see them spitting on the burgers and bursting spots on them, well, it's not such a good advert, is it? Actually, the girl who works here on a Saturday morning hadn't seen that particular episode the night before, and she was quite offended when people came in the next day and asked her not to spit on their butties."

That was life's imitation of art, but in Hadfield, art also imitates life. An anonymous source assures me that five members of The League of Gentlemen crew "were freaked" when an eccentric local café owner told them menacingly that, "I can't do you any food... but I can make you a tuna sandwich."

However, to be fair to Hadfield, its quirks are typical of any small community, especially in the north of England. As a small-town northerner myself, I write with authority. And the League of Gentlemen themselves - namely Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson - are northerners too, from Darlington, Chorley, Hull and Leeds respectively. They revisited their roots to create the characters of Royston Vasey. Harvey and Val, for instance, who make life a toad-infested hell for their nephew Benjamin, sprang from "that thing of having a difficult stay with relatives, when you're feeling awkward even though they keep telling you to make yourself at home. But we did that joke and it only lasted half a page, so then we added this non sequitur, 'Perhaps you'd like to see Harvey's toads?' and it grew from there."

So says Jeremy Dyson, the only member of the quartet who does not appear on screen. I am now safely back in Crouch End, north London, having lunch with the League of Gentlemen. Aged between 30 and 33 they are, most disappointingly, affable, charming and ordinary, related only by the odd dimple or slight mannerism to their gallery of grotesques. With unfailing good humour they fend off suggestions that the second series is not only dark, but in places too dark, pointing out that they have only once been referred to the Broadcasting Standards Council "and we got off". They have not yet been courted by advertising agencies, they tell me, but given the growing popularity of some of the show's catchphrases - "This is a local shop, for local people, there's nothing for you here" - it seems only a matter of time. There must be some manufacturers brazen enough to be associated with death, torture and kidnapping. "Maybe Benetton," says Dyson.

Endearingly, they rattle off a bizarrely eclectic list of the show's celebrity fans, including Sir Paul McCartney, Steve Coogan, Toyah Willcox, Charles Dance, Ronnie Corbett and Sir John Birt - who recently cited it, along with The Human Body and The Cops, as one of the three shows that reflected the breadth of his achievements at the BBC. Better still, they share with me their sources of inspiration. The restart officer Pauline - who damned her charges as "a work-shy set of bastards!" during a workshop on self-esteem for the long-term unemployed - was, apparently, based on a real restart officer. "Wood Green, 1992, and she was called Pauline too," says Shearsmith. "I hear writs flying," says Gatiss. "You don't honestly think that anyone would admit to being the model for Pauline, do you?" counters Shearsmith.

More pertinently, the fact that Shearsmith was engaged on a restart course in 1992 shows how far they have all come in a relatively short time. They met at college, formed a live comedy act and called themselves the League of Gentlemen after the film starring Jack Hawkins - "a kind of genteel Reservoir Dogs," Gatiss explains. There followed a classic case of comedy evolution. Success at the Edinburgh Fringe begat a successful radio series which in turn begat the hit TV series. On radio, the bleak northern town was called Spent. When they moved to telly, having tired of the joke, they renamed it Royston Vasey. Which, rather wonderfully, is the real name of the notoriously ribald stand-up comedian Roy "Chubby" Brown. "We read it somewhere, and thought it sounded like a place," says Pemberton. A "dead chuffed" Chubby Brown duly accepted a cameo role as the mayor (and was spotted proudly having his photograph taken next to the sign that declares "Welcome to Royston Vasey - You'll Never Leave").

So Chubby Brown, not Hadfield, is the real Royston Vasey. Although it is Hadfield, not Chubby Brown, that seems born to it. Originally, though, Hadfield was merely one of several towns and villages being considered. For a while, Todmorden in Lancashire was the hot favourite, especially when the Gentlemen spotted a drunk, who had been standing in the street for hours roaring abuse at passers-by, lurching into the dentist's. "We had visions of him actually being the dentist," says Gatiss, "and going in to find him politely saying 'next please'."

Still, anything Todmorden can do, Hadfield can do better. The driver of the Royston Vasey taxi, Barbara, is a butch man with a gruff voice, saving up for a sex-change operation. "And there's a real transsexual in Hadfield," Gatiss adds. "He invited me in for a cup of tea, and told me he lived in Back Bottoms. You couldn't write it, could you?" But, of course, the League of Gentlemen could. And probably will.

 

The final episode of the second series of 'The League of Gentlemen' is on BBC2, tomorrow, 10pm

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