One night a twelve year old boy couldn’t sleep. His parents were in bed, so he snuck into the living room and switched on the telly. He hit upon a programme on BBC2. A train arriving in a small Peak District village, yellow grass on drizzling hills, a village shop coming into focus on the horizon and a sign: “Welcome to Royston Vasey “¦ You’ll Never Leave!”
If I couldn’t sleep before hitting upon The League of Gentlemen, I certainly wasn’t going to be able to afterwards. It was a few years before I came across it again when those images, emblazoned on my memory, came back to haunt me and I spent months trying to find out what the programme was that had traumatised me. More mature, with a sharper understanding of what made good comedy, The League instantly became the best thing I’d ever seen. For me, and for anyone else whose taste matters, it has had a lasting influence.
Reece Shearsmith, just a few days into the run of Martin McDonagh’s new play Hangmen at the Royal Court and seeming slightly reluctant to face a gushing fanboy, is apologetic. “Lots of people tell me they saw it really young. It’s horrible. My children haven’t seen it. They don’t know what I do – I can’t show them any of it. But all their friends have seen because of their irresponsible parents, who I’m going to get social services onto.” It was that early exposure to The League that made me slightly nervous about meeting Shearsmith: his characters were always the angriest, always the ones that frightened me the most – Geoff Tipps, Edward Tattsyrup, Papa Lazarou.
He’s neither as frightening nor as angry in real life. “I think maybe I used to be, but I’m too tired to be now. And also it’s in the work, the rage, we manage to get it out in our work. It’s a good outlet.” From a sketch show at the Fringe, to three series on the BBC, The League of Gentlemen spawned not only some of comedy’s greatest characters, but launched four impeccable comic talents. Jeremy Dyson, the dark horse of the quartet, wrote Ghost Stories which closed in the West End in March. Mark Gatiss hit the big time writing episodes of Doctor Who and co-creating Sherlock with Steven Moffatt.
Meanwhile, between various acting roles, Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have continued writing together. There were two series of Psychoville from 2009-11, and their latest project has been the sublime Inside No 9, an anthology series that features a new twisted and twist-heavy story each week. Series 2 finished a few months ago, but it’s unclear what its future will be.
For the moment, though, Shearsmith is back on stage for what, in retrospect, seems like the most natural match: Shearsmith and McDonagh, together at last. His last stage role was in Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends at the Harold Pinter theatre in 2012. TV and theatre satisfy Shearsmith in different ways: “when I’m doing the theatre I remember how much I enjoy it. But any length of time and you start to crave a bit more detail. I think when you’re in the thing you want the other thing. But having had quite a big break I’m really enjoying the response and the technique again, manipulating and manoeuvring the audience into responding the way you hope.” McDonagh’s play, about a hangman just after the abolition of hanging in 1965, needs precise comic timing and careful manipulation of the audience. “It’s quite a slippery thing to get right. But that’s the challenge every night, you get faced with a new set of people with their arms folded to try and convince.”
One moment in particular, when Shearsmith fumbles as a chair is knocked over, comes at a critical moment in the play. It must be so precarious to have to get that right every single night. “I don’t really think about it until it is upon me, and then I just do it. I think it is one of them things that if I began to think about it, it would not work somehow. I think if they sniff that you’re wanting a laugh then it will kill it dead. So we have to instinctively try and live it beat for beat.”
Shearsmith is undoubtedly a strong character actor. He can summon up a recognisable type with just a few words or a facial expression. He gets frustrated when acting ability isn’t recognised because it’s comedy. “It’s so hard to do properly, there’s such a lie about comedy that it’s easy. Comedy is my chief love, I love honing that and working that. I feel like I’m a clown, I’d love to do more physical stuff. And it is maligned. It’s the hardest thing in the world: standing on stage, when you can hear people not laughing, that’s you failing. With drama it’s silent ’til the end and you get a clap. Who knows what they thought.”
Acting is where Shearsmith began, training at Bretton Hall (now part of Leeds Uni) where he met the rest of the League. And everything he and Pemberton have written has included some part for them to play. Though Shearsmith insists that they don’t write with themselves in mind, because they’re wary that it may end up looking like a vanity project. “Of course we must subconsciously have half an eye on it because it always works out. But some of the characters we weren’t sure which way round we’d do it.” Shearsmith was very nearly Pauline in the League. “I used to do it, but I said to Steve ‘I think you should do it, I think you’d be better than me’ so we swapped it quite near the wire to the first of the live shows. The rest is history. It’s mad innit.”
Their work has tended to test the grey area between comedy and horror. The laughs may be there, but they serve a higher purpose. This was particularly true of a couple of episodes of Inside No 9. ’12 Days of Christine’ and ‘Cold Comfort’ are not really comedy – or, put another way, they’re really pushing at what comedy can be. “We’re so proud of it [Christine] and yet it won’t win anything. We can only be put in for comedy, and it won’t win for comedy because it’s not funny. It’s one of those things that will fall through the cracks.” Like McDonagh’s plays, Shearsmith’s writing has been happy to defy categorisation, not to worry about where it fits in. “Awards have to pigeonhole things. And all our things have suffered that. We’re always very new. People still aren’t sure whether League is a sketch show or a sitcom.”
Part of that defiance of being pigeonholed comes from Shearsmith’s desire always to be writing something different, something new. “You only ever really can arrive and shock once, because then people have got their arms folded, kind of knowing what you do.” This is a problem Shearsmith faced when he was writing with The League of Gentlemen: “it becomes your calling card and that is lessened and dulled. All you can try and do is try to reinvent yourself, but with the knowledge that people like what you do, presumably, and want more of the same but not the same. It’s very hard to do that second album thing, and third and fourth and keep going.”
Like McDonagh, who moved away from the Galway village setting of his early plays to the epic and ambiguous world of The Pillowman, and has now turned to a quasi-historical piece (not to mention his films), so Shearsmith’s work shifts in scale and scope. The most stark break in terms of style within Shearsmith’s work is Inside No 9, because there is so much variety within each series, each episode being a different self-contained story.
But even Psychoville is tonally and structurally very different, even if it’s still distinctively Shearsmith’s and Pemberton’s voices. The aim with Psychoville, Shearsmith says, was to break away from sketches, to stick with characters longer and have cliffhanger endings. Then Inside No 9 was a reaction against that, a move away from long sprawling storytelling to “beginning, middle and end each week and who knows what you’re going to get.”
Despite not knowing what to expect in terms of genre – where or when we are going to be – there’s a reassuring and welcome familiarity in its writing – “it’s our world”, as Shearsmith says. The signature of its writers is there. When series two started, there was a distinct moment that brought the audience crashing back into that gratifyingly dark world: as Jack Whitehall and Jessica Gunning are fumbling amorously on the lower bunk of a train’s sleeper carriage, an arm drops down from the bunk above – attached, of course, to a dead body.
Shearsmith laughs. “Hopefully it’s a nice thing, you want that from people you like.” Like McDonagh too, Shearsmith’s writing always earns its right to be grotesque. “We really try to be silly and funny, and that goes by the by a little bit in the wake of people just thinking that we’re only ever about the dark and the grotesque and horrific. But we do it quite carefully.” It’s the same with Hangmen. There is a great deal of grotesquery and a few lines that hit the audience like a brick wall (“If I wanted to hang out with monkeys I’d go to Africa”) but, aside from the Criticism 101 rule that a playwright doesn’t necessarily believe what his characters say, an audience that’s seen McDonagh’s work before will hopefully have built up a store of benefit of the doubt, so that you can trust that he’s written racism, misogyny, violence, brutality into the script for a reason. McDonagh’s previous play, The Pillowman, is essentially a warning not to equate fiction with the reality outside of the text. A writer can write whatever they want.
Still, writing’s only half the battle. The question I’m duty bound to ask, and Shearsmith pre-empts: does he know if there’s going to be a third series of Inside No 9? “No. No, the longer it gets the more I’m fearful of not knowing anything. I don’t think everything they are planning to bring back has been announced yet, so there’s still a thin reed of hope. But it gets harder and harder to do a third of anything I think. Despite great response, they just cull things, they want a fresh pair of eyes and something new.” That seems like a weak argument to make against an anthology series, which creates a new world, a new cast of characters each week.
But anthologies – despite the popularity of shows like Tales of the Unexpected, Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents – offer their own set of problems. Budget, for a start. Each episode of Inside No 9 might be cheap, set in one room with a small cast, but every episode requires a new set and different characters. Most of the BBC’s recent sitcom commissions have only needed one or two locations, especially studio sitcoms: Peter Kay’s Car Share just needed a car, Vic and Bob’s House of Fools had two studio sets, and W1A filmed in Broadcasting House, so they didn’t even have to build a set.
And commissioners are worried about audiences not having a set of characters to grow attached to week on week. “That was the hard sell of doing it,” Shearsmith says, “and yet when you do something narrative-driven they say ‘what if you want to join at Episode 4 and you can’t follow’. So you can’t win.” Maybe it’s enough to be thankful that their writing has had this niche in BBC programming, because it’s not like anything else on TV, and it’s against the tide of what the BBC have seemed to commission in the last few years. For every bold commission – House of Fools, The Trip, Comedy Vehicle – there’s a slew of Mirandas and Mrs Brown’s Boys.
The legacy of the League has evolved over the past couple of decades. It’s no longer just a cult curio, something to make you look cool when making friends in Freshers’ week. Now its influence extends into so much other comedy. It’s become a kind of benchmark for dark or grotesque comedy, the go-to reference point. This is especially true of theatre, so much of which begs comparison to Legz Akimbo in its earnest but ineffectual attempt to tackle ‘issues’. Ollie Plimsolls is one of the characters Shearsmith says he’s most proud of. “I’d like to do a series of them just touring schools and doing plays. it would be so funny to watch the day to day running of Legz Akimbo theatre and see them in the office, getting the bookings.”
The League’s endurance and the way that it has slowly seeped into popular culture should have given its writers a free pass to do pretty much whatever they want. “Weirdly I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s hard to get a television programme made, I think it makes you rigorous and you never take it for granted. Sometimes it’s frustrating when it’s like men in black, red dots on forehead, ‘who are you?’ and you think ‘Oh, we’ve got to prove it all over again’.” He laughs. “But in some ways who should have the right to swan in and go ‘I’m making this and you’re green lighting it’. Very few people have that power, and it makes you work hard I guess.”
Maybe that’s true, but then there is a sense that people at commissioning level must be somewhat out of touch with audiences. You can point to so many comedians who would say that League is a big influence, and yet they still don’t have enough pulling power to get a series when they want it. “I think the legacy of the League has, in a mythical way, grown. For me it never became a household name – it didn’t, we know it didn’t. It was liked, then came the more palatable version of it that was Little Britain. you’ve never any perception of people watching it other than your mum ringing up saying ‘yeah I saw it, they’re all talking about it in the clinic’.”
If they get that greenlight, then Shearsmith and Pemberton already have ideas for episodes. If not, do they know what they’d do next? “We’ve got some things that I’m not allowed to speak about, but a writing thing that we’re both part of doing. We’ve had to put it on hold because we’re both busy doing bits and bobs, but we’ll go back to that. But we have got irons in fires, a few ideas that are up and running, that will gestate and become a thing I think. It’s not a case of us having to think of a brand new thing just yet, we’re already set up for something else, which is good. It’s nice to be in that position, it finally feels like we have got some pedigree.”
With a typical combination of frustration and humility, Shearsmith brings the conversation to an end. “I’m so proud that we’re all still doing it such a long time after. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine what we’d do after the League. People don’t realise that our lives are spent in that interim period. When we return, we haven’t stopped thinking about it, we’ve been writing and trying to work the next thing up. But things come and go so much. No one thinks of it. It’s just tomorrow’s chip paper isn’t it.” Well, yes for a lot of the dross that passes for entertainment. But not for The League. Not for Edmund Chinnery, or Dean Tavalouris, or Maureen Sowerbutts, not for Migg or Christine or Silent Singer any of the pantheon that’s emerged from the dark and beautiful minds of their creators. They may not live on in multi-million DVD sales but instead they endure in every writer who’s been influenced by the League, in every nod to that distinct brand of character and narrative that Shearsmith – along with Pemberton, Gatiss and Dyson – made resolutely their own.
The Royal Court Theatre production of Hangmen directed by Matthew Dunster transfers to the Wyndham’s Theatre from 1st December.
Stewart Pringle’s review of Hangmen
Exeunt on Inside No 9: season 2