In the 2004 film Shaun of the Dead (written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, directed by Edgar Wright), we get a brief glimpse into an alternate reality, one that is fronted by a courageous and intelligent young woman rather than a loser. Yvonne is an old friend of Shaun. It’s implied that his absence in her life allows her to be ambitious and successful, in the same way that his presence in his girlfriend Liz’s life holds her back. Yvonne is accompanied by friends and relatives: her boyfriend Declan, Mark & Maggie, her mum, and cousin Tom. These characters are mirror’s of Shaun’s gang: his girlfriend Liz, David & Dianne, his mum, and flatmate Ed. People like to talk about how successful the core of Shaun of the Dead has become, but they don’t always realize that it’s Yvonne’s gang that holds the group together.
Yvonne is played by Jessica Stevenson, Declan by Martin Freeman, Mark by Reece Shearsmith, Maggie by Tamsin Greig, mum by Julia Deakin, and cousin Tom by Matt Lucas.
In Britain, “pants” refers to underpants, not your Jeans or corduroy trousers like here in America. It was in 1995 that Jessica Stevenson and Simon Pegg occupied two of six pairs of pants in the sketch show Six Pairs of Pants. (The other four pairs of pants belonged to Katy Carmichael, Neil Mullarkey, Sally Phillips, and Simon Schatzberger.) In this three-episode show, you might find police officers playing hide-and-seek in other people’s houses or Jessica Stevenson scaring twitchy tele-florists. Her request for fertilizer and flower seeds causes them to faint.
The following year, Jessica Stevenson hopped to a different sketch show called Mash and Peas. The show was written by David Walliams and Matt Lucas (who would together go on to create the legendary Little Britain one day) and was directed by Edgar Wright, who at this point had directed nothing save a comedy western starring Graham Low (better known as the Living Statue from Hot Fuzz). According to an interview with Wright at the Vulture Festival 2017, Wright had first met Walliams and Lucas because the pair had seen Wright’s film in a cinema and liked it. Each episode of Mash and Peas featured a parody of a different genre, such as American sitcoms (starring Reece Shearsmith as Jerry Seinfeld) and boy band documentaries. The parodies were introduced by Danny Mash and Gareth Peas (Lucas and Walliams).
Later that year, Edgar Wright found himself directing a slightly un-PC hybrid sketch/narrative comedy called Asylum with Simon Pegg (who had gone to the same college as David Wallliams, who wrote for Asylum). It was essentially a vehicle for rising standups, like Adam Bloom and Julian Barratt, to test their comedy chops on television… with the backdrop of an insane asylum. When three originally casted actors, including Tim Vine, dropped out due to fear of tasteless portrayals of the mentally ill, Simon Pegg suggested his fellow Pants star Jessica Stevenson to come on board. Stevenson wound up playing not one but two roles: both a schoolmaster-esque hospital administrator and a patient with an unhealthy relationship to the TV show Countdown. This show fused the Pegg-Stevenson-Wright relationship that would become important later.
While all of this was going on, David Walliams and Matt Lucas embarked on their next project together, a sketch show called Barking, which starred Catherine Tate, Tony Way, McKenzie Crook, among others. It’s now available on DVD. This led immediately into other Lucas/Walliams projects like the film You Are Here and TV show Sir Bernard’s Stately Homes, in which they both wrote and acted.
In 1998, Simon Pegg switched to a different kind of sketch show, one that was less dark and less controversial. It was Graham Linehan’s Big Train, named after a sketch where someone can’t grasp the concept that a model town (with a toy train) is not proposed to be to scale. Ironically, in between season 1 (1998) and season 2 (2002), Pegg’s four Big Train colleagues (Mark Heap, Kevin Eldon, Amelia Bullmore, and Julia Davis) went off to do Chris Morris’ sketch show Jam, which was a thousand times more controversial than Asylum ever was. Pegg did not follow them into the dark, though. He didn’t need to. In 1999, Paramount Comedy, the company behind Asylum, offered Pegg and Jessica Stevenson their own comedy vehicle. They proposed a nerdy, homage-heavy sitcom called Spaced, and brought Asylum director Edgar Wright onboard. To round out the cast, they signed up Katy Carmichael from Six Pairs of Pants to play Daisy’s best friend Twist, Big Train star Mark Heap to play the neighbor downstairs (even though the part had been written for Asylum star Julian Barratt), and Julia Deakin and Nick Frost, both of whom had cameos in Big Train. Deakin by this point had had a long history of acting, but Frost was no actor. He was the friend of Pegg’s ex girlfriend, but the army-obsessed “Mike” was a part Pegg wrote for Frost, and it launched a lucrative acting career. Spaced also featured cameos from their friends, like Asylum writer David Walliams, as Brian’s former collaborator Vulva, who is intimidating, gender neutral, and dressed in purple paint, leading to one of the greatest Spaced lines, “It’s hard to comprehend the love story between two straight men, one of whom is the most divine woman alive,”; and Reece Shearsmith, as Mike’s nemesis Dexter in my favorite episode, a mash-up of Robot Wars, Fight Club, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But Reece Shearsmith was carving out his own dominion at the same time as Spaced was rooting itself as a cult classic. 1999 saw the TV incarnation of the comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen, which was written by Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss, and Jeremy Dyson, and starred the former three. It was an audience comedy/horror sketch/narrative hybrid about a town filled with the oddest people, including a butcher selling dodgy bags of something, an incompetent veterinarian, a jobs trainer obsessed with pens, and a pig-like couple guarding their town to the death from non-locals. It’s essentially the British Welcome to Night Vale before Welcome to Night Vale. For years to come, Gentlemen would spawn not just TV episodes but also radio episodes, live performances, and a film. The League even played the voices of Vogons in the Disney version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, starring Martin Freeman. It exists on a scale even larger than Spaced. And it will be returning to screens with new episodes this Christmas.
Dylan Moran (Shaun‘s David) got his own comedy vehicle in 2000, Black Books, which he co-wrote with Big Train‘s writer Graham Linehan (all right, also the mastermind behind Father Ted, among other things), at least for the first of three seasons. Moran co-starred with Bill Bailey (who plays Tim’s boss Bilbo in Spaced) and Tamsin Greig. The show centered around a bookshop and its misanthropic owner Bernard Black (played by Moran), who sells The Little Book of Calm to a stressed out accountant Manny (Bailey), who winds up swallowing the book, causing him to visit the doctor, who is played by Martin Freeman (*inhale*). The show also includes bit parts played by Jessica Stevenson, as Fran’s (Greig) hippie dippy friend, and Simon Pegg, as the tightly wound bookseller next door.
2001 was a big year. Spaced was ending, but The Office had just started. Unless you count “season zero” of their Xfm radio show, this was the first project Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant did together. (Incidentally, Gervais had played a small role as a newspaper ad salesman in the penultimate episode of Spaced, while Merchant would later go on to appear in Hot Fuzz as a swan-owner with the hilarious name P. I. Staker.) At the heart of The Office was the romance between Tim and Dawn, played by Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis (Dianne in Shaun). While Freeman had been acting before this–most recently in Bruiser, which starred Olivia Colman and Mitchell & Webb and was written in part by Ricky Gervais–it was The Office that launched Freeman’s stardom. Directly following The Office, he had major roles in Hollywood films like Love Actually and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
In 2003, David Walliams and Matt Lucas hit it big with Little Britain. Like The League of Gentlemen, Little Britain would spur multiple incarnations over the coming decade, including a live show, a video game, and a U.S. version. It moved into the mainstream so much that I don’t think I really need to explain it to you here. You’re probably familiar.
In 2004, the year of Shaun of the Dead, Matt Lucas and Reece Shearsmith appeared together in Catterick, a Reeves and Mortimer comedy program where Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer play brothers. Lucas plays a castrated and ponytailed hotel manager in pink boots. Shearsmith plays a robber with an oral hygiene fixation. This same year, Green Wing aired. In this surreal hospital sitcom, Tamsin Grieg played opposite Spaced star Mark Heap. In this show, Doctor Who‘s Michelle Gomez would occasionally grow extra long arms or give birth to a lion, while Stephen Mangan’s and Julian Rhind-Tutt’s characters fought for the affection of Caroline (Greig). This show was loaded with stars and bit parts, including a cameo from Nick Frost. Meanwhile, Jessica Stevenson was off doing the sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary, Martin Freeman staring in another work-based show (Hardware), and Julia Deakin doing 14 episodes of Coronation Street. And they still made time for one scene in Shaun of the Dead. What a busy bunch!
This isn’t the last time we’d see these guys together, though. In 2006, Jessica Stevenson and Martin Freeman starred in Confetti, alongside Spaced‘s Mark Heap and, perplexingly, comedian Jimmy Carr. According to a RHLSTP interview with co-star Robert Webb, this film was supposed to be improvised but inexplicably didn’t include the usual rehearsals you get in an improvised film.
2007 was the year of Hot Fuzz, what would later be dubbed as the second in the Cornetto Trilogy, following Shaun of the Dead. Though the characters are different, these three films (along with the final, The World’s End) are bound together by Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Edgar Wright, and various flavors of Cornetto ice creams. This cop comedy plays off the old theme of big city cop vs. little village cop (Pegg plays the former, Frost plays the latter), which evolves into a buddy flick and then into… something else. Martin Freeman plays a London cop at the beginning of the movie (alongside Steve Coogan and Bill Nighy), and Julia Deakin plays a bar owner who’s cross that the local paper got her age wrong. It’s distressing to see that Jessica Stevenson has not made the cast list, but when you consider that this same year she was in Son of Rambow, Mitchell & Webb’s Magicians, and Doctor Who, you can forgive it. (Stevenson isn’t the first Yvonne of the Dead to be in Doctor Who. In season 1, Tamsin Greig played the doctor who installed unsightly upgrades to temporary companion Adam.)
Everyone went their separate ways for a while. Both Reece Shearsmith and Matt Lucas moved on to their next projects with their respective collaborators: Shearsmith and Pemberton launched Psychoville on the back of Gentlemen, and Lucas and Walliams launched Come Fly with Me off the back of Little Britain. Neither was a far cry from the previouses. Matt Lucas also came to the Hollywood screen with the roles of Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum in Alice in Wonderland in 2010. Jessica Stevenson and Simon Pegg reunited in Burke & Hare, a film that should have been funnier than it was, given the spectacular cast (least of all an appearance by Shearsmith). By this point, Stevenson had gotten married and changed her name to Jessica Hynes, which isn’t too surprising when you learn that Jessica isn’t her given name either (it’s Talula). Also in 2010, Tamsin Greig was busy doing the Terry Pratchett film Going Postal, and Martin Freeman had just stepped into the boots of John Watson in Sherlock, which incidentally was co-written by Gentleman Mark Gatiss.
From here, everyone’s careers exploded (in a good way). In 2011, Matt Lucas was back in Hollywood doing Bridesmaids, Jessica Hynes surpassed her previous roles by becoming PR guru Siobhan Sharpe in Twenty Twelve, Julia Deakin performed in a whopping 54 episodes of House of Anubis over the next two years, Tamsin Greig started in two phenomenal sitcoms–Friday Night Dinner, which also starred Spaced‘s Mark Heap, and Episodes, where she reunited with Green Wing‘s Stephen Mangan–and Martin Freeman stepped into yet another legendary role, this time as Bilbo in The Hobbit. Jessica Hynes also wrote and starred in her own TV show, Up the Women, and Reece Shearsmith played Patrick Troughton in the Doctor Who biopic An Adventure in Space and Time.
Finally, it was time to reunite for the final Cornetto Trilogy film, The World’s End. Here, Martin Freeman takes a starring role, alongside Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, making Freeman the first Cornetto hat trick (meaning he appears in all three parts of the trilogy). He plays Oliver, who, like the others, resists Gary King’s invitation to revisit their old drinking grounds. Julia Deakin also appears, as the bed & breakfast landlady, making her the second hat trick. (Other hat tricks include Bill Nighy and Rafe Spall.) Reece Shearsmith also has a part in the film, though doesn’t quite make the hat trick, unless you count Spaced instead of Hot Fuzz, in which case you could also count in Michael Smiley. This movie is neither a zombie romantic comedy nor an action-packed cop shoot ’em up. It’s a nostalgic alien invasion story with a touch of Douglas Adams.
Next year, while Martin Freeman was starring in the thrilling TV adaptation of Fargo and Jessica Hynes in the Twenty Twelve sequel series W1A, Tamsin Greig had a lead role in one episode of Reece Shearsmith‘s new Pemberton collaboration, Inside No. 9, another dark and twisted series of horror stories, this one about a pop star’s dying breath being captured in a party balloon. Unfortunately, it was one of the lesser episodes of the season. In 2015, both Reece Shearsmith and Matt Lucas were cast in Doctor Who, the former as the eerie sleep scientist in Mark Gatiss’s “Sleep No More,” and the second as Nardole, a returning companion. Just last year, both Shearsmith and Julia Deakin appeared in the film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise. Deakin plays Robert’s secretary, and Shearsmith gets to play yet another dental hygiene obsessee, as the orthodontic surgeon who goes nuts as soon as the rules are taken away, and winds up taping teeth and jaws to his orthodontist’s uniform.
If you’re as much a Jessica Hynes fan as I am, I recommend her RHLSTP episode. If you like Reece Shearsmith and his scary tales, I also recommend the short film he stars in called Him Indoors, or his “Dog” story in Dead Funny. If you like Martin Freeman, check out Neil Daniels’ book The Unexpected Adventures of Martin Freeman. If you purchase it at the Powell’s link below, you’ll help fund Anglonerd magazine with no extra cost to you.
Apologies for any errors in this article. Please write your corrections in comments.