Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

League of Gentlemen Classic black comedy on comeback tour

29 1536678942
Matt Crockett.

It could be argued that the 1990s were a golden age of British TV comedy. Certainly some pretty subversive, alternative shows managed to give the gatekeepers the slip during that decade after finding their feet on the radio or the stage. One of these was the League of Gentlemen, a macabre, black-as-hell comedy set in the fictional northern town of Royston Vasey, which debuted on BBC2 in 1999.

Three TV series, two stage shows and a few specials later, the League - comprising Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson - has spawned nearly 100 characters, each as morbidly curious as the next and almost entirely played by just three actors. The show recently made a come-back after 12 years in the form of three 20th anniversary specials to much critical acclaim.

I chatted to Jeremy Dyson, behind-the-scenes writer-member of the League since the beginning, ahead of the launch of the League of Gentlemen Live Again! stage show, which comes to Sheffield City Hall later this month.

How did it feel bringing the League of Gentlemen back for the anniversary episodes last year?

The whole thing was quite dream-like for us, to be honest. We kept pinching ourselves. It was a while since we'd all worked together, a good 12 years. Obviously we see each other, as we're friends, and we'd been talking vaguely about it for a couple of years, and then suddenly we found we were doing it. There was a craziness to it, a sort of hysteria about it, which definitely fed into the shows themselves; a lot of the four of us being in a room, writing together and crying with laughter. So it was a joyous process, and one that we all thoroughly enjoyed.

I think the thing that really bowled us over is that there was such an enthusiastic reception for it, and a lot of love for it, which was very emotional for us.

Was it hard striking a balance between pleasing the audience with the return of certain characters and wanting to keep it feeling fresh?

To be honest, it happened at such a lick that there wasn't a lot of thinking about it. It had its own life. It was not a struggle to write it, because we'd been away from those characters for a long time, and what we all found was obviously our subconscious had been brewing in the meantime, so that when it came to sit down and do it, it really did kind of pour out.

Mark Gatiss has said that he felt that Brexit was a suitable backdrop for the return of the show, and Steve Coogan has said a similar thing about the return of Alan Partridge to the BBC. Obviously the League is a different beast, but for those comedies that explore the darker side of Britain, why is Brexit a good creative starting point?

Well, we're not a political satire, and so we didn't sit down with any political agenda at all. For us it was about the characters and about Royston Vasey. What you found is that inevitably it came into it, particularly because of [popular characters] Tubbs and Edward, and because of how we used to portray the town. It's an insular place. The show's catchphrase was, 'A local shop for local people', which then became, 'A local everything for local everything'. That just sits naturally, because the current political discussion is all about boundaries. It just bled into it, because it felt completely appropriate. And it made us laugh - that was the bottom line.

What can audiences expect from the new stage show? Does it take up where the anniversary specials left off?

There's definitely an element of that. It definitely fits in with what you've seen in the new specials. You can also expect to see all your favourite characters. You're not going to be disappointed. They will be appearing live on stage, before your very eyes. And there's... [laughs knowingly] It's a really good show. There's a lot going on, so it's value for money. We really are proud of it and we can't wait to put it in front of an audience.

Again, just like the TV shows, it's been a very natural process. There's nothing like live comedy. It's where comedy sits best.

Obviously the League started out on the stage originally, but do the characters translate well to the stage today and what are the challenges in that regard?

There's always the technical challenge of: there's only three performers playing a multiplicity of characters. From hard-won experience, we know that's a massive part of building a show. But other than that, it's not a challenge, because most of those big characters, as you say, were born pre-TV, in a live environment, so you've always got that in your mind.

It's a show in itself watching what goes on backstage. The quick changes are extraordinary. They've earnt their money by the end of the night. It's like The Krypton Factor, from a technical point of view of getting in and out of their costumes and making their entrances in time. Often they've only got a minute, a minute and a half at most, and they're big costumes.

You've also had great West End success recently with Ghost Stories, and Steve and Reece on TV with Inside No 9. Have your collective experiences fed into the new League material?

Everyone's done a lot of work in the interim period, and so we all acquired individually lots of experience doing other things. It was very nice to then bring that to bear coming back to do this, because we're all more experienced as writers and we've all directed. It makes it easy to get your vision up there on stage.

What's lovely I think about the work we've individually enjoyed success with is that, just like the League, it's all with the things that we love the most: Mark with Sherlock, Steve and Reece with Inside No 9 and Psychoville, me with Ghost Stories. They're kind of branches of the same tree, as it were.

Do you have any favourite characters or performances from the League?

I love Mark doing Les McQueen - he's a character close to my heart - I love Steve doing Pop, because it's terrifying, and I love Reece doing Bernice. I love the magic trick of them becoming all those different people. I've been doing it with them for 20 years - 24 years if you go back to the very beginning - and I never tire of what amazing comic actors they are, how they can conjure a character with a posture, with what they do with their voice.

That pure actor's magic to me is a miracle, and it's such a privilege. It's a thing I realised going away from it and then coming back, not that I ever took it for granted; just how special they are as comic actors, and the wonderful privilege of being able to work so closely with people like that as a writer. I always had an inkling of that, but I know it for sure 20 years later.

League of Gentlemen Live Again! runs at Sheffield City Hall from 19 to 21 September 2018, with tickets on sale via SIV.

All three series of the League of Gentlemen and the 2017 anniversary specials are currently available on BBC iPlayer.

Content from our allies

Now Then is funded by our allies - independent traders, community groups, charities and local government - who share our values. This content was produced independently of them. Ally mentioned in this article:

Filed under: 

Next article in issue 126

More News & Views

More News & Views