Reece Shearsmith: 'Magic at a kids' party was the scariest thing I've ever done'

The co-creator of 'Psychoville' and Mr Jelly is the model of charm – just so long as you don't unleash his psychotic librarian. Susie Mesure meets Reece Shearsmith
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Few value first impressions more than Reece Shearsmith. The new series of Psychoville revels in the unexpected and thrives on wrong-footing the viewer. As with those long narrative dramas, such as 24 and Lost, that the show seeks to emulate, fans of this twisted comedy thriller will be kept guessing until the final credits roll on the last of its six episodes.

And yet a Twitter contretemps the day before we meet at the Novello Theatre, where he is starring in Betty Blue Eyes, has left us both pretty sure what to expect from each other. Me: a grumpy, "stony-faced" (and here I quote his friend Jeremy Dyson) misanthrope. Him: a clueless hack with a poor appreciation of the subtleties of his new creation, or co-creation, I should say, as Shearsmith co-wrote the series with his League of Gentlemen writing buddy Steve Pemberton.

"This doesn't bode well," @RealReeceShears fired back at my plea for "help understanding" the surreal world that is Psychoville. We hadn't even said hello and already Shearsmith was living up to the grouchy reputation he's earned since first making his mark with the League back in the mid-1990s.

I enter his dressing room with serious misgivings, unsure how to deal the double blow that I'm hardly a paid-up member of the League cult either. It doesn't help that sitting there in his grey suit jacket and dark jeans he looks the spitting image of one of the new Psychoville characters: Jeremy Goode, a deranged librarian with the sort of over-zealous approach to his work that sees him go to extreme lengths to recover an overdue book.

I break the ice by telling him I'm five episodes into the second series (although even with only one left to go I'm still struggling with the plot).

"Are you really?" he squeals. "Oh my goodness! You know, you're the only person that's seen it in the world, apart from us." I sense that I made the right decision to persevere through the first couple of discs because suddenly the atmosphere melts, leaving me wondering if the grumpiness is just a façade.

Bizarrely, having managed to get my head around his odd creation, the danger quickly turns to one of knowing too much. He admits being obsessive about not giving away spoilers. "That's all we've ever really cared about: that the cliffhanger endings are the things that enthral. One of the things we enjoyed when watching 24 or Lost is that you just can't wait to watch the next one. And that was kind of the inspiration to write Psychoville; the idea of 'Could we do a comedy thriller in that way?'"

But the 41-year-old actor-cum-comedian knows total surprises are a big ask these days. "It's virtually impossible to keep a lid on it."

Keeping a storyline going is one of Psychoville's many quirks: it's unusual for a comedy show to demand viewers invest the time and attention needed to keep track of the narrative. This, along with its knowing references to horror classics, helps to explain its cult appeal. "You'd have to know your stuff," he says of scenes that pay homage to the likes of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, or the "very sparse" Kubrick-esque series end. He likes the show's alternative appeal, but isn't happy with the thought of it "being Marmite" – something people either absolutely love or hate. "I think you can watch it and take some things from it. Because of the stuff we did with League, there'd be some very silly traditional sketches in there and then we'd do something that's a bit darker. If it was all the lighter stuff, maybe it would be more palatable. But then we pull the rope from people and maybe that's what some people don't like."

As with the first series of Psychoville, the duo embarked on the second without really knowing what would happen. "We had a vague idea, but it was very loose." First of all, Psychoville's one million fans will want to know which characters survived the bomb blast that ended things last time round. I could of course tell you, but frankly I'm a little scared of unleashing Shearsmith's psychotic librarian, although even admitting that is probably revealing too much.

I can confirm that fans are in for a treat, character-wise: as well as the aforementioned librarian, other standouts include Imelda Staunton playing Grace Andrews, a Judi Dench-style M-type character who is spearheading some sort of investigation but is more worried about her lack of a plasma touchscreen. Then there's Hattie, the make-up artist played by Pemberton, who takes a sham wedding to secure a visa for her gay friend's Iranian boyfriend far too seriously.

Anything and anyone can apparently inspire one of their characters, from someone they've spotted in a coffee shop to a story they've heard. "A lot of characters begin life as something that could easily be in a sketch show as a one-off situation: a clown who is nasty to children; a midwife who's not very sympathetic to pregnant women," Shearsmith says, sipping coffee from a Now Panic and Freak Out mug. "You could repeat that each week with the same joke, but we try to take our characters out of the original situation and give them a life beyond that, so the plot then drives where that character goes. It's not just about repeating the joke."

This, he reckons, is "what sets apart our writing now" compared with the days of the League, which ended not because the quartet had fallen out, but because after 10 years they felt they "were at the bottom of the barrel and should have a break".

He adds that the four are as amenable as ever to the idea of reuniting for a fresh outing. "We always meet up and say we should do something together." If anything, it would be another film. "But it wouldn't be Royston Vasey because we've done that. We'd try to think of a new thing. But there's nothing in the pipeline. There's too many demands on other people, like Mark [Gatiss, who is busy with Sherlock and Doctor Who], to write things."

Speaking personally, Shearsmith, who was born in Hull but retains little of his northern accent, says he "couldn't think of anything worse than writing something and then not being in it". For him, writing is "just a thing to get through to then actually act it". Not that the considerable success he has had acting fulfils any sort of childhood dream: as a skilled cartoonist, he initially set his sights on becoming an artist but gave up his place on a post-school graphic art course after a last-minute epiphany that "I must try acting". He adds: "I hedged my bets anyway, because I went to Bretton Hall, which was a degree in drama, which is like having a degree in washing up." His other calling was make-up: he worked with The Elephant Man artist Christopher Tucker. "I used to love doing my own grisly make-up."

He also loves magic: his "massive magic collection" goes down a treat with his two children, Holly, eight, and Danny, six. "I'm on tap to do tricks, but not like Mr Jelly," he says of his disturbed Psychoville creation.

He recalls one party he did, as a straight magician rather than a clown. "Not the make-up, it was just me. And a bow tie. And clothes," he chuckles. "That was the most terrifying performance I've ever given. You've got to be brilliant with children because they just go: 'What's that in your hand?' They're not polite; they just try to give away everything."

The nature of the work – and its author's general obsession with serial killers – means it's not exactly child-friendly stuff. Watching him play Gilbert in Betty Blue Eyes was the first time his kids had seen him act, although weirdly Holly appeared in the first series of Psychoville. Mr Jelly, the scary clown, needed a little girl's hair to pull and Shearsmith said he'd ask Holly. "She said: 'Can I get back to you?' She actually did say that." Cameos to look out for this time round include John Landis, the original comedy-horror genius: the pair met when Shearsmith played a part in Landis's Burke and Hare.

With the clock ticking until his afternoon matinee, I tackle the issue of grumpiness. "People always say that to me," he admits, confessing that he plays up to it. This presumably explains the "sombre side" our photographer later grumbles Shearsmith showed during the photo shoot, because he's been the very model of charm with me, proving my initial fears were ill-founded. "I'm very happy with my lot in life and that the things we are doing are a success," he adds. "I'd be much grumpier if I was failing."

Curriculum vitae

1969 Shearsmith is born on 27 August, in Hull. With a father who worked in the building trade, a mother who was a doctor's receptionist and two brothers who wound up being a fisherman and a carpenter, he is the only one who eventually treads the boards.

1979 Attends Hull's Andrew Marvell Junior High where he shows an aptitude for drawing (but not sport: he's the boy with asthma at the back of long-distance runs).

1986 A last-minute change of heart sees him abandon his place on a graphic arts course in favour of a drama degree at Bretton Hall College, which was later merged with the University of Leeds. Meets Mark Gatiss and Steve Pemberton while studying there.

1995 The trio, now joined by Jeremy Dyson, form The League of Gentlemen comedy collective, getting their first big break with a show at the Edinburgh Festival the following year.

1999 BBC2 commissions the League, ushering in a new vogue for warped comedy.

2001 Marries Jane. They later have two children, Holly and Danny.

2005 Goes on tour with the League before the quartet pull the plug on the successful series.

2006 Lands his first musical role in The Producers.

2009 First series of Psychoville, which he co-writes with Pemberton, airs on BBC2.

2011 Stars in Betty Blue Eyes as Gilbert. Series two of Psychoville begins this Thursday on BBC2.