Psychoville is the two-season comedy horror TV series by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. They worked on it after they did The League of Gentlemen but before Inside No. 9. The two writers also play many of the characters. There are 14 episodes, including the Halloween special. It’s available on DVD region 2.
I know what you did, scrawls the mysterious man in black before slipping ominously wax-sealed envelopes and anarchic VHS tapes into the letter boxes of the five misfits who done the deed: an amputee clown, a thespian dwarf, a delusional nurse, a serial killing momma’s boy, and a blind beanie toy collector. How is it that these five seemingly unrelated characters scattered across England are all being accused of the same crime? Well, not even writers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith knew at first. Psychoville is a TV mystery that was written as it went and not ahead of time, so any clues you may spot, remember, were assigned meaning post-shooting.
Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Tealeaf, was a series regular on Skins and The Fades. You can also see him in the second Johnny English movie, the first episode of Black Mirror, and an episode of Doctor Who.
At this stage, Pemberton and Shearsmith were not ready to stop being in every scene of their TV show (along with Mark Gatiss, they played 100 characters in The League of Gentlemen), and neither are they willing to give up the heavy makeup (their later series Inside No. 9 proves they don’t need so much makeup to morph themselves into wildly different characters). Pemberton plays opposite Dawn French as the long-suffering husband of lunatic maternity nurse Joy Aston, who is on a mission to turn a child’s doll into a living baby boy. It’s Pinocchio meets Chucky. Pemberton also plays elderly EBay fanatic Oscar Lomax, who has roped delinquent assistant “Tealeaf” into his self-punishing mission of finding a long-lost crocodile beanie toy. Shearsmith plays an obscene clown called Mr. Jelly who perplexingly never takes off his makeup or clown clothes despite claiming it’s just a job. Despite his crassness, he weirdly because one of the most sympathetic people is this band of disturbing characters. Shearsmith also plays a thespian bent on bullying one of the dwarf actors in the play Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The only storyline where Shearsmith and Pemberton get to regularly play opposite themselves is the mother-son serial killing team David and Maureen Sowerbutts. Shearsmith dons the face & frock of an old lady and Pemberton disguises himself as a socially awkward momma’s boy, who’s been recently fired for doing a “bad murder.”
I can’t say I liked the Sowerbutts much at first, but Pemberton and Shearsmith have a way of giving even the most alien characters depth. Sometimes it is accidental. When it looked like they weren’t going to be able to make the episodes they wanted to make within the budget, they asked for a budget of seven episodes instead of six, which they were granted. This meant that if they could make one of those episodes for extremely cheap, they could allocate the leftover money for the costly finale. What they came up with an episode with minimal characters, just one set, and just one shot (actually two). Two days of actor rehearsal, one day of camera rehearsal. It’s an homage to Hitchcock’s Rope. They even hide an edit, just as Hitchcock did to hide changing out the reels. Pemberton and Shearsmith, as well as Mark Gatiss who they brought in to play the third character, have extensive theatre backgrounds (I saw Shearsmith in The Producers in the West End and Gatiss in the taping of Coriolanus at the National Theatre), so doing a show with no breaks was right in their wheelhouse. What you wind up with is probably the best of all the episodes of Psychoville. The Sowerbutts also get the only Broadway musical song-and-dance number in the show. Because why not.
Psychoville is dark. You have a blood transfusion between an unwilling patient and a baby doll. You have mistreatment of mental patients. There’s misunderstanding after misunderstanding, leading to murders. There’s dark pasts, secrets, and even Nazis. But it’s also funny. A doctor steals his clown patient’s act (and his hand). A creepy old man in a creepy old mansion has the world’s largest collection of beanie toys. A woman with telekinetic powers just happens to be named Kerry (Carrie).
The supporting cast is just as phenomenal as the creators. Daniel Kaluuya’s Tealeaf was probably my favorite character. It’s also great to see familiar faces like Daisy Haggard and Jason Watkins turn up. Jason Tompkins, Dawn French, and Adrian Scarborough also were great in lead roles.
This is one of the shows I wish was more readily available in America. You can get the region 2 DVD, but you’ll need a region 2 or region-free DVD player. I’d recommend the box set because you get the Halloween special for free. The special takes place between the two seasons. It’s not necessary to see it to understand the plot, and it does somewhat exist inside a bubble, but it is very dark and wonderful, like the rest of the series.