Reece Shearsmith: ‘League of Gentlemen was shocking to some people – other people thought it was silly’

The actor-writer talks to James Mottram about spending two weeks in a secluded forest for the new Ben Wheatley film, the snobbery around sketch shows, and why it was ‘horrifying’ that people thought the character of Papa Lazarou was racially inspired

Sunday 13 June 2021 08:00 BST
Reece Shearsmith: ‘There’s some snobbery about actors that have come from a sketch show, that they can’t do it’
Reece Shearsmith: ‘There’s some snobbery about actors that have come from a sketch show, that they can’t do it’ (Scott Garfitt/Shutterstock for Bafta)

In August last year, Reece Shearsmith spent two weeks in a secluded forest. The actor-writer, famed for his work on the highly original BBC comedies The League of Gentleman and Inside No 9, had been called up two months earlier, in the height of lockdown, by Ben Wheatley. The acclaimed director wanted him for In the Earth, a twisted folk horror tale set in a world that has been ravaged by – yes – a virus pandemic.

“We were the 25 people that crept out of hiding and went outside into the woods and made this thing and it was liberating,” says Shearsmith. Filming took place in Bristol, largely outside and under strict Covid-19 safety protocols. It was an eerie experience after months of lockdown. “It felt such an achievement and a ray of hope to think it was possible.”

Shearsmith plays Zach, a hermit-like figure who has been living on his own in the woods as the world enters meltdown. When he encounters Joel Fry’s scientist and Ellora Torchia’s guide, sent into the forests on a government-sponsored expedition, things start to get weird and wild in a story that has a similar psychedelic feel to A Field in England – the director’s hallucinogenic 2013 English Civil War tale, in which Shearsmith played the “coward” Whitehead.

While it taps into pagan folklore, it’s also a stark reminder that as bad as Covid has been, the pandemic could’ve been even more horrifying. “This film is not very far removed, I think, from such a desolate outcome.”

Uttering his words with an almost Zen-like calm, Zach was “chilling” to play, says Shearsmith. “I think the interesting thing about Zach is that he’s an extreme, in that he’s left the world as we knew it and has completely immersed himself in the freedom of being beholden to no one. And a lot of what Ben was talking about in this film [is about] the stories we tell ourselves – a narrative that the human animal needs to give itself to explain what on earth is this world about, especially in something as extreme as this notion [that a] pandemic has ravaged the world.”

Today, Shearsmith, 51, is looking far removed from his character. The scraggly beard and wild stare are gone; instead he is clean-shaven and wearing a smart blue shirt. He looks respectable, like a clean-living accountant, but beneath the surface lurks the boy who grew up in Kingston upon Hull. He had a “teenage love” of Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe and compares himself to the child in King’s vampire tale Salem’s Lot, with Dracula posters on the wall – “not going out in the sun” and reading EC Comics. “I’m the classic little horror monster kid.”

It’s undoubtedly why he connected with Wheatley, but also Mark Gatiss and Steve Pemberton (who he met while studying at Bretton Hall Theatre School) and Jeremy Dyson, the founding members of The League of Gentleman. “We had this strange cross sensibility where we all appeared to have had the same childhood where we would watch the horror double bill on BBC2 [at nights].”

Shearsmith in Ben Wheatley’s ‘In the Earth'
Shearsmith in Ben Wheatley’s ‘In the Earth' (Universal)

The show won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997 and was followed by three TV series and a 2005 movie, The League of Gentleman’s Apocalypse. It also came to the stage back in 2018 for a series of shows, a year after the gang reunited for three new episodes on BBC2 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their first appearance on Radio 4. Last year, however, it hit the headlines for other reasons, when Netflix removed it from its platform – with concerns over Shearsmith’s character Papa Lazarou and the use of blackface. Shearsmith has always vehemently denied that the character, a demonic circus ringmaster, was in any way racially inspired.

“I mean, it was horrifying to think that people have ever thought that. And we’ve never had any complaints about it as well.” Pointing out that the Netflix deal was expiring in four days anyway, he says “it wasn’t really a thing for us. We were not disappointed.” Shearsmith praises the way the BBC handled the situation, keeping the show on iPlayer but adding a content warning beforehand. “That was sensitively done in a very emotional moment in time, I think.”

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While some are infuriated by what’s being called “cancel culture” – in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last year, other shows like Little Britain were removed from platforms – Shearsmith isn’t one of them. “I think you have to look forward and be in the present and listen. And that’s the takeaway, I think, from all of this. You’ve got to accept that we’re not in the times when things would have been different. And there is a moving on of culture and of sensibility.”

Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton during the ‘League of Gentlemen’ live tour in 2005
Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton during the ‘League of Gentlemen’ live tour in 2005 (Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock)

Is there anything from his back catalogue that he regrets? “I think we’ve always been very careful,” he replies. “And our show was shocking, I suppose, to some people; other people thought it was silly – like Mrs Tiggy Winkle! I suppose it’s just the sensibility. It’s your threshold, and perhaps ours is slightly more down than the ghoulish route. But we’ve been careful, I think. And because we were careful, to use shock and swearing judiciously, then it becomes powerful. We don’t use it willy-nilly.”

Outside of comedy, Shearsmith has always been determined to flex his acting muscles wherever possible. In 2002, he, Gatiss and Pemberton starred in the final West End cast of Yasmina Reza’s hugely successful play Art. Years ago, when we met previously, Shearsmith told me how “peed off” he was when critics questioned whether any of them could act.

“There is some, I think, snobbery about actors that have come from a sketch show, that they can’t do it. And it’s a very surface thing,” he says now. “I hope that we’ve, over time, proved that we are able to go into different genres.” Certainly, Shearsmith has shown a huge range, from Wheatley’s movies to stage musicals – like The Producers and Betty Blue Eyes. Last year, he gained a Laurence Olivier nomination for playing President Putin in Lucy Prebble’s play A Very Expensive Poison, about the Alexander Litvinenko case, at the Old Vic.

Still, comedy has always been the arena where he has flourished. After League, he and Pemberton have expanded their repertoire, creating the horror-comedy show Psychoville (Shearsmith’s daughter Holly – he and his wife Jane also have a son, Danny – even popped up in one episode). There followed Inside No 9, an anthology of darkly twisted comic tales that’s now in its sixth season. The success of the show has been “fantastic”, says Shearsmith, especially given it revitalised the idea of the anthology format.

“You don’t get them anymore. They were so out of favour – that notion of the one-off. Commissioners were very wary of having anything that began and ended in the same half-hour. The wisdom was that you should grow an audience by having stories that you have to return to and characters that you’re building on. And that’s the reason to go back. But I think we’ve gone the other way now and it’s enjoyable to be able to have no commitment, and [in] half an hour, be told a little black story, little black joke, comedically, or [something] grizzly.”

Shearsmith and Derek Jacobi in the new series of ‘Inside No 9'
Shearsmith and Derek Jacobi in the new series of ‘Inside No 9' (BBC/Sophie Mutevelian)

Shearsmith and Pemberton are set to shoot the seventh series in August, and there are plans afoot to bring it to the stage. “Inside No 9 is suited very well to a theatrical setting, I think, because they’re [like] one-act plays,” he says. “They’re very claustrophobic. And I could very easily see them put on stage and maybe we do three in an evening. That’s something we’d like to do. We’d always enjoyed returning to the stage. I think I probably enjoy the stage more than any of the [other] mediums [I’ve worked in].”

Since wrapping In the Earth, Shearsmith has shot another as-yet-untitled film with Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan and Adrien Brody, with This Country’s Tom George at the helm. “A sort of murder mystery,” he reveals, “set in the Fifties in London’s theatreland, around the 100th anniversary performance of The Mousetrap. It’s quite meta-textual.” It sounds entirely up his own very cine-literate street.

Is he looking to go behind the camera himself? Perhaps for something non-comedic?

He has directed episodes of Inside No 9, he notes. “But I’m always slightly squeamish because I’m in it as well. And I feel like it doesn’t get my full attention if I’m trying to step out of it with the director’s hat on. It feels Orson Welles-ian – you’ve got this megalomaniacal person doing everything. But to just direct – something that would be your vision – would be very exciting to do. Yeah, maybe that’s the next step.”

‘In the Earth’ opens in cinemas on 18 June, with previews on 17 June

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