Friday 19 January 2018

We Don't Go Back #76: The League of Gentlemen (1999-2017)

When The League of Gentlemen was first broadcast, I didn't own a TV, and by the time I owned one, I was living with my Beloved, who didn't have any interest in seeing it. Nonetheless, I could tell you a not insignificant amount about the major characters, and reel off catchphrases. I could tell you what it was like. People cared about it. Partly this was because several of my friends adored it, and it entered the referential lexicon of our conversation. But partly it seemed to be present, part of the furniture of our pop culture.

For example, I remember that at the time the university LGB society (the T or the Q were not yet added, which is related to a point I'll pick up later) used pictures of prominent gay and lesbian people on posters for an anti-homophobia campaign and one of them was Mark Gatiss, and I recognised him as the chap from The League of Gentlemen. It's fair to say that The League of Gentlemen fell firmly into the category of things I'd never seen but which I could take part in a conversation about without getting completely lost.

I never got round to watching The League of Gentlemen.

But now this project is Serious Business, there are some things I can't really get away with leaving out. So I committed myself to watching it. A good friend expressed concern that it might be too late for me to do that. I sort of half understood what he was getting at, but only really got what he was about having worked through it.

The usual caveats about how writing about comedy are the antithesis of funny apply here, by the way (I still think my funniest article was the one about Planet of the Apes, but I digress).

Honest town signs.
The League of Gentlemen are Reese Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson. All four of them write; Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith appear in front of the camera and divide the vast majority of characters, men and women, between them.

It's set in and around the fictional village of Royston Vasey ("You'll never leave!"), in the North of England, where everyone is a grotesque. It's sort of but not entirely sketch comedy.

Some characters appear in most of the episodes: Pauline (Pemberton), who runs a job start course, loves pens and despises the unemployed; Mike (Pemberton), Barry (Gatiss) and their spectacularly messed up mate Geoff (Shearsmith); disappointed musician Les McQueen (Gatiss); Mr Chinnery the vet (Gatiss again), who kills every animal he touches; Hilary Briss the butcher (also Gatiss) who puts something terrible and evil in his delicious sausages; and perhaps the most iconic characters in the show, Edward and Tubbs (Shearsmith and Pemberton), a pair of debased, depraved yokels who run a Local Shop for Local People and who visit unspeakable fates on anyone who comes who isn't Local.
What's all this SHOUTING?
But unlike many sketch shows, the recurring characters' stories progress from episode to episode. So for example, the fate of innocent Benjamin (Shearsmith) at the hands of his finicky aunt Val (Gatiss) and monstrous uncle Harvey (Pemberton) develops and escalates as he realises he might never be able to leave, and begins to formulate a plan of escape. Pauline finds her nemesis in one of her course attendees. Mr Briss's Special Stuff creates an epidemic of nosebleeds.

Many characters appear in no more than a handful of episodes at most, and become the focus of the episodes they're in. The Legz Akimbo theatre company (slogan: "put yourself in a child!") come to visit the local school but their internal tensions destroy the group. A guide leads a party of tourists through the Royston Vasey caves, while replaying a terrible tragedy for which he blames himself. A farmer keeps a man who slept with his wife as a scarecrow in his field. Kenny Harris (Gatiss), owner of the Dog Cinema, engages in a cutthroat business struggle with a rival who's more into cat films.

And then there's Papa Lazarou.
Papa Lazarou (Shearsmith) is the single most nightmarish creation of the League of Gentlemen, and along with Tubbs and Edward, is most representative of the show's folk horror elements. He's the owner of the Pandemonium Carnival, which comes to town early in series 2. Papa Lazarou is a nightmare in human form, his scabrous face caked in black-and-white minstrel makeup. He forces his way into people's houses, insisting on calling them "Dave", and intimidating them through an almost supernatural power of domination into giving him their wedding ring, wherein he spirits them away as his slaves, with the phrase, "You're my wife now."

He is genuinely terrifying, and I wonder how that first episode he's in would play if it didn't have a laugh track (only the first two seasons have laugh tracks). And of course he's one of the two places where people most take offence at The League of Gentlemen.

The most usual objection to Papa Lazarou is that he's in minstrel blackface. But while minstrel makeup is a blot on our culture, it is, it's obvious from the way that Papa Lazarou is framed is that he's supposed to be horrific because he's precisely the sort of person who wears blackface and always wears it.

In his second appearance (the final episode of series 3) there's an insane visual gag revolving around him disguising himself as relatively normal by painting a pale skin tone over his blackface makeup, which I found hilarious. But it's also a bit of a problem for a lot of viewers, evidently, because I've read at least two pieces online that interpret the scene as meaning that he's naturally minstrel-toned, which is... Well, I don't know. I'm starting to doubt my own reading a bit, but part of Papa Lazarou's grotesquerie is that you can see how the black and white paint is caked on his face in closeup, and I'm sort of inclined to go with my original reading, partly because it's much less hard to swallow, and mostly because it's a lot funnier.

The League of Gentlemen is part of a tradition of British comedy and horror alike that deals with grotesque figres: in a show with Geoff, Mr Briss, Pauline, Harvey and, oh God, Edward and Tubbs, Papa Lazarou is just one more of a parade of freaks and monsters. And he is scary, really scary. The episode where Papa Lazarou and his Pandemonium Carnival comes to town (season 2, episode 1) is the point where I moved from a state of "that bit was pretty good" ambivalence to understanding why people consider The League of Gentlemen to be an undisputed classic of British TV comedy. Whatever the framing of Papa Lazarou and his freakshow (and notwithstanding the arguments about whether anyone should be making gags about blackface at all, the politics of freakshows is a subject I am simply not equipped to get into), that whole episode is a delirious comic horror and I have seen little to match it.
I can't go to Dorothy Perkins.
The other point where The League of Gentlemen gets some flak is in the figure of Babs the transgender cabbie. And the joke with Babs is partly that she's butch and hairy, so that she looks like a bloke in drag (specifically that she resembles the other women characters on the show, only more so), and partly that she's excessively forthcoming about the mechanical details of her transition with her clients. It's complicated by the fact that most of the people of Royston Vasey like her and are supportive of her. No one on the show is ever an open bigot about Babs. She's never deadnamed, for instance. And she's essentially one of the most sympathetic characters in the show. But nonetheless she embodies most of the most enduring transphobic stereotypes, simply by being so grotesque (so much so that we never see her face).

And back in 1999, as I mentioned in passing, we still talked about LGB issues and a lot of us hadn't added the T yet. And it's not as if trans people hadn't been there all along, but trans rights are in the general sphere of discourse now in a way that in the UK they weren't in the 90s. And this doesn't mean that a character like Babs isn't a problem, it means that many of the people who might be aware of the problem now weren't then because it hadn't been pointed out to them. And that isn't an excuse either. It's like all the history that comes back, unresolved, to haunt us.

You could tell that it haunted The League of Gentlemen: in the special episodes that aired over the 2017 Christmas season, she's back. She has to be, really: in a lot of ways, Babs acts like a Greek chorus for the unfolding story. So here she is, opening proceedings as ever. Barbara has transitioned successfully now, and she even says that trans people should not be "a source of cheap laughs" just for being who they are, and given that Barbara is a character who has always been framed as having her heart in the right place, as someone you're supposed to sympathise with, it's pretty clear that this is what Dyson, Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith actually think.

But for her to even appear, and it's more or less obligatory that she does, she still has to supply a joke. So now, no longer an Ugly Trans Person, Barbara is an Excessively Touchy Trans Person who seizes on innocuous statements and takes offence to comic effect.

I wonder if Papa Lazarou and Barbara are problems like this because of the way The League of Gentlemen engages with its inspirations.

The League of Gentlemen owes a great deal to classic British TV and cinema of the 60s and 70s, but crucially it engages with that source material in a way that enriches the show. It's instructive here to compare it with Dr Terrible's House of Horrible, which is roughly contemporary and which, unlike The League of Gentlemen, has not entered the annals of classic comedy. They both get their inspiration from similar places, in fact in several cases the same places – I mentioned The League of Gentlemen's odd relationship with sketch comedy, and it's sort of fair to say that it's sketch comedy in the way that an Amicus anthology horror is sketch horror. But where Dr Horrible depended on your being familiar with the source material, at least to some extent, to get the gag, The League of Gentlemen tells a collection of stories that don't depend on any foreknowledge at all. It's not a parody, and it's not entirely an homage either, although it has parodic elements and homage is threaded through the whole thing.

Rather, it's a comedy that focusses on the absurdity of evil and the equal absurdity of despair and that uses the grammar of classic British horror to tell those stories.
A Beast.
For example, a narrative thread in the fourth episode has workers on a proposed road digging up an inexplicable creature. Mr Chinnery comes to examine it, and proves as incompetent as ever. And while the scene carries a bunch of signifiers that come from Nigel Kneale, echoing Quatermass and Beasts in particular, and multiplied by the simple fact that Mr Chinnery looks and acts like Tristan Farnham (Peter Davison's character in All Creatures Great and Small), the joke doesn't depend on that. It depends on a moment of uncanny horror punctured when the vet's incompetence is revealed once more.

For the joke to land, you don't have to have seen Baby or Quatermass and the Pit, and while the whole scene is richer if you imagine Tristan Farnham in a Nigel Kneale script, that's not the joke. No, for the joke to land, you just need to have seen Mr Chinnery in action enough for you to be waiting for the moment when he fails catastrophically.

And throughout The League of Gentlemen, this texture is present. Royston Vasey is a vaguely comical, Northern-sounding name. But it is also the real name of legendarily foul-mouthed comedian Roy "Chubby" Brown, who himself appears later in the series as the town's mayor. And the joke with the mayor is that he's got a swearing problem, and that's a simple enough joke that you don't need to know who Roy "Chubby" Brown is, or that he's guesting as mayor of a town named after him to get it. That other stuff helps, but it isn't essential.

But the problem with the way that The League of Gentlemen mines classic horror and comedy is that sometimes it homages the things that perhaps should be left behind, so you get characters like Babs and Papa Lazarou, who are both beautifully played and well-written comic characters, but who reference stuff that is difficult to justify beyond nostalgia.

The League of Gentlemen is important as the first sign of the folk horror renaissance that we've had in the last few years. Rather than saying "look at all these ropey old films! Aren't they terrible?" The League of Gentlemen embraces them, but crucially makes new things. It's a comedy, but it's also a horror: Edward and Tubbs reference any number of pagan village conspiracies. "We didn't burn him!" blurts Tubbs to the Scottish policeman who comes looking for poor missing Martin, but not before Edward tells Tubbs that she "did it beautifully."  You don't have to know that they're quoting The Wicker Man to think they're funny and scary.
There's nothing for you here.
The members of The League of Gentlemen have taken active part in the rise of folk horror as a recognised genre. Jeremy Dyson scripted the recent film Ghost Stories. Shearsmith of course starred in A Field in England, and with Pemberton continues to make Inside No. 9, an anthology show that combines comedy and drama, and which has had at least a couple of folk horror episodes. The most notable of these is The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge, where Pemberton and Shearsmith play 17th century witch hunters. Just like The League of Gentlemen, The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge isn't a spoof or a parody, it's a black comedy that stands on its own merits, even while it draws inspiration from other sources.

And Reese Shearsmith took part in Folk Horror Revival's 2016 event at the British Museum, hearing about which is how I realised that there was a name for the things I liked.

Mark Gatiss is the man who might be credited for extending the name "folk horror" to a genre (Piers Haggard being the first to apply it consciously to his own film). In his 2010 series History of Horror, Gatiss popularised the idea of the Unholy Trinity, and talked at length about Blood on Satan's Claw, which probably did more to bring about the critical reassessment of that film than anything else. Gatiss also wrote Crooked House, which aired on the BBC in 2008, and the 2013 adaptation of The Tractate Middoth. Together with Shearsmith, Gatiss has remade Blood on Satan's Claw as an audio drama (released January 2018).

You could argue pretty persuasively that without The League of Gentlemen, there might not have been a rebirth of interest in folk horror at all. Without them, it would still be an accidental genre. A local genre, for local people.

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