The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002) debuted on television exactly 18 years ago today, January 11th.
The League of Gentlemen is a franchise created by Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson, Reece Shearsmith, and Steve Pemberton. It includes three seasons of a TV show, a Christmas special, a radio show, a movie, and live panto on DVD. Gatiss, Shearsmith, and Pemberton play almost every character in this horror-comedy. It is available on DVD region 2/PAL.
If Dante or Chaucer would have had access to a cinematographer who wants to make everything look like Kes, they would have made The League of Gentlemen. While Dante Alighieri condemned his least favorite people in life to a parchment hell upon his exile and Geoffrey Chaucer eviscerated his enemies in fiction—every pimple, every character flaw—the stage play quartet known as the League of Gentlemen drags their friends, neighbors, and relatives into theatre, radio, television, and film in the form of Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, and Steve Pemberton in silly wigs.
Enter Pauline Campbell-Jones, one of the first people immortalized by Shearsmith and Pemberton. This restart course teacher, based on a real restart course teacher Shearsmith had when he was looking for a new job, was originally meant to be played by Shearsmith and be both black and ginger. She wound up as Steve Pemberton in a horn-hair wig. The abuse she causes her students is legendary, her war with her student Ross epic, her soft spot for the dope Mickey heartwarming. She also has the most complex sexuality in the show. As a self proclaimed lesbian, she has a carnal desire for Ross and winds up falling in love with Mickey. There is a sex scene where Pemberton (man) as Pauline (woman) dressed in costume as a man has sex with Gatiss (man) as Mickey (man) dressed in costume as a woman. It is not a mainstream romance.
But nothing is mainstream in the town of Royston Vasey (the town is called Spent in the radio show). The local cabbie is a transvestite named Barbara Dixon who goes in to have a sex operation, but the doctors are so unsure which sex she was to begin with, they go the wrong direction. Not to worry though: She’s still able to have children…with a werewolf (though on the radio, her boyfriend was a dwarf). Barbara, along with the Denton twin girls, is one of the only characters (out of 100) who is not played by Shearsmith, Pemberton, or Gatiss. In that sense, it’s Monty Python with exploding pets and transexual nude musical numbers.
“The trouble with Barbara is we’ve strung a load of innuendos together and called it a character.” -Reece Shearsmith
The League of Gentlemen is not for everyone. It’s too dark for mainstream sitcom lovers. It’s too silly for classic horror aficionados. But the characters will keep you coming back. The League has found a soap opera thread through which to sew together their sketches about seemingly unrelated characters. Season 1 has very little character depth or cross over between storylines. Season 2 takes the characters into an arc, developing some of the best. Pauline takes her revenge on Ross by kidnapping him and taping him to a chair. The most iconic characters—Edward and Tubbs, xenophobic brother-sister/husband-wife owners of the local shop—start to think about the future of their tatty empire. They embark on a quest to abduct a woman from town to force into marriage with their son David. After a few failed attempts, they wind up kidnapping Barbara.
Season 3 takes it one step further away from sketch and closer to sitcom. Each of the six episodes revolves around one main character, all of which wind up involved in the same road collision at the end. Minor characters like Alvin, who is based on a real bed and breakfast owner in Bristol, are revealed to have depth and backstory. This unremarkable man with an incongruent knock-out wife has an affair with a drab lady who works at the garden center and inadvertently involves her in a ridiculous plot of sexually asphyxiated orgy classmates in giant rubber suits, not unlike those of the Vogons in the Disney H2G2 film. Likewise, in season 3, the League rescues earlier sketches that failed to hit the mark. Season 2 introduced Pamela Doove, an actress who delivers the line, “Does anybody have a bottle of orange juice,” with absurd delivery during her audition. This sketch is based on a real life person who says this line all the time in a grocery store, but that means only the people in that store will get the joke. The vital information—that Pam delivers this line in this way because someone told her that that is what acting is—is left out. However, in season 3 when Geoff’s friend Mike implies that Pamela actually got the job and that the director (whose look is based on the League’s real director) is now famous for this commercial, a misfired joke becomes the funniest callback in League history.
With the exception of Jeremy Dyson, the League is made up of actors, so it’s no wonder that so many of their characters are also actors. Beyond Pamela Doove, there is also Legz Akimbo Theatre Company, a mash-up of the various theatre companies that the League had all been in earlier in their careers. The leader of Legz is Ollie Plimsolls, based on a real Ollie that had led the theatre troupe Shearsmith had been a part of. When Shearsmith announced he was leaving the company because he’d gotten an acting gig elsewhere, Ollie introduced him to their audience, saying Reece was going off to be a proper actor. His speech is immortalized word-for-word in Ollie Plimsolls’ first scene. Legz Akimbo appears in all three seasons, and Ollie appears in the live shows in exaggerated form.
Finally, there’s the circus performers. Although Papa Lazarou only appears in two episodes and the movie, he has become just as iconic as Edward and Tubbs who appeared in at least a dozen episodes. He is a ring master, a thief, and a master of disguise. In tribute to the Elephant Man, he locks stolen wives in a cage, later stuffing them into elephants and other circus animal costumes, as he lacks real animals. Papa Lazarou was inspired by Papalazarou, Shearsmith and Pemberton’s landlord who called both Steve and Reece “Steve.”
Other highlights include the card game Go Johnny Go Go Go Go, which is based on Dyson being bullied by his brother via too-complicated rules to card games; and Gatiss’ morgue speech in season 3, which should be used in edgy auditions everywhere.
The best place to get a hold of The League of Gentlemen is on DVD (region 2/Pal). There are three seasons, a Christmas special, a film, and a live show. The DVDs are chalk full of extra features. Most of them are just filler (do you really need to watch the finale in the wrong order?), but there are great commentary tracks and behind-the-scenes features. Honestly, even just the diary footage of Steve and Reece arguing over how Reece accidentally installed the wrong version of Windows on his computer is worth the purchase of the special features.
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