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In my humble opinion, The League of Gentlemen is a comedy masterpiece. Conceived and performed by Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss, together with their writing partner Jeremy Dyson, it is set in the fictional town of Royston Vasey (a homage to the Gents' favourite comedian, Roy 'Chubby' Brown - Royston Vasey being his real name) and features the every day lives of some of its inhabitants.
Essentially, the programme is a character sketch show, but unlike many of its counterparts (The Fast Show, Little Britain etc.) it has an ongoing story which runs through it, linking some of the characters together and also allowing the characters to develop a lot more than standalone sketches would do, whilst still allowing for some hilariously funny one off characters and sketches (my personal favourite, for the benefit of any other fans, being aspiring actress, Pam Doove). The good thing about the format is that there hasn't really been anything comparable made since, so it still seems fresh and innovative now, several years on from its inception, whereas something like The Fast Show, whilst excellent in its time, now looks somewhat dated and tired in comparison to more recent sketch shows.
The characters in Royston Vasey range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some are very subtle, well observed portrayals of people you could expect to meet in your own town or village: the constantly arguing, unhappily married couple; Mike, Geoff and Brian, the three local businessmen who go out for a curry on a Friday night; Legz Akimbo, the youth theatre company who perform plays on some very cutting edge issues, not to mention having the unbelievably unfortunate slogan of "Put Yourself in a Child" (which I did toy with for the title of this review, but decided against it); aging rocker Les McQueen, who never quite made it with his band Crème Brulee; and Judee Levinson, the rich lady who employs a cleaner from her local council estate (who happens to be the mother of ten children). Others are slightly more caricatured, fairly believable, but with some characteristics exaggerated to varying extents: the toad loving Harvey and Val, whose obsession with hygiene, particularly the perils of masturbation, makes their nephew Benjamin's short stay with them almost unbearable; Mr. Chinnery the incompetent vet whose lack of any discernible medical skill results in the demise of several unfortunate animals during the series; and Pauline, the slightly sadistic restart officer who actually doesn't seem to want her jobseekers to ever find a job (anyone who watches Little Britain may wonder if Pauline provided just a little inspiration for Fat Fighters leader Marjorie Dawes). Finally, there are a few outrageous characters: the mysterious circus ringmaster, Papa Lazarou, the source of the title of this review; Babs, the original unconvincing transvestite; and the totally bizarre Tubbs and Edward who run the local shop for local people, bear a slightly worrying resemblance to each other, and distrust anyone who is not local.
The characters really do develop as time goes on, and sometimes what originally seemed like a fairly innocent character or situation has become extremely dark and sinister by the end of the series. There is a general sense of foreboding hanging over the show at all times, and a feeling that something in Royston Vasey really just isn't quite right! Prime examples of this are the seemingly respectable couple who run a B&B, which on closer inspection is actually a venue for some very hardcore swingers' parties, and the slightly over-friendly landlord who turns out to have surveillance cameras in the bedrooms of all his tenants!
There have been three series so far, the first two were very similar, although the second introduced some new characters. In the first series, the ongoing theme was that of the aforementioned Benjamin, who arrives to stay with his aunt and uncle for one night, whilst he waits to meet his friend David. Following a fateful visit to the Local Shop, David never arrives, and more and more strange goings on start to occur around Royston Vasey - many of which seem to be emanating from the Local Shop - and could perhaps have something to do with the main road that is being built in the area. Incidentally, series one opened with what has to be one of my all-time favourite comedy moments, as Benjamin travels to Royston Vasey on the train and reads a letter from his aunt. I won't spoil it for anyone who may not have seen it, as it is one of those moments which is never quite as funny again as it was the first time when you didn't have any idea of what was going to happen.
The second series featured an outbreak of nosebleeds in the town, this time with blame for the unusual activity lying at the door of Hilary Briss, the local butcher, who is often able to procure some of the 'special stuff' for his clients.
The third took a different approach, with each episode focusing primarily on one or two characters. This was slightly less enjoyable, but nevertheless very clever, as it only became clear towards the end of the series that the episodes were actually taking place in parallel time, and all culminated in the same disastrous event, in which each of the featured characters played a part. It did mean, however, that if you were not a fan of the featured character, you wouldn't enjoy the episode.
Probably more so than with any other comedy show, the League of Gentlemen most certainly does not have universal appeal. A lot of the comedy is extremely dark, much of it in quite poor taste (see Legz Akimbo and their unfortunate slogan!) and all of it is definitely an acquired taste. So, why do I like it so much, when so much of it makes me cringe with discomfort and watch from behind my fingers?
Well, the thing I like most about the show is that it is just so incredibly clever. All of the Gents are clearly extremely intelligent people - you only have to listen to their commentary on the DVD or see the occasional interview with them to pick up on this, and it shines through in their carefully observed, cleverly constructed comedy. The way in which they manage to weave together seemingly unrelated events between unrelated characters is extremely clever. Their performances are spectacular too. All the main characters are played by the three of them, but the way they change their appearance and voice is unbelievable. There is also something slightly Monty Python-esque about some of their performances as women, which to me can only be a good thing! Also, like me, they are film fans, and manage to weave clever film references into the plot at every available opportunity. Finally, I'm always a fan of contrasts, and the way that this sophisticated form of comedy is very occasionally broken up by a moment of completely basic, childish humour only adds to its charm.
Going back to the film references, there is a particular reference to horror films, with The Wicker Man and The Shining cropping up amongst others. The way in which the series developed to become darker and more sinister suggests that it was always intended to be a sort of comedy horror, and I think it is possibly unique in this - at least on the small screen.
There has recently been a film version of the series, which, sadly, I understand was absolutely dire. I didn't go and see it myself, and am not planning to buy the DVD, as I believe that the show was at its best in the first two series, when it remained a comedy sketch show - all be it one with a difference - and didn't try to become TOO clever.
As I've said before, this show really will not appeal to everyone. It is an acquired taste, and bits of it will doubtless shock and appal. However, if from reading this review you think that any of it may appeal to you then I'd strongly suggest that you give it a go. It's repeated from time to time on BBC2 or BBC3, and DVDs of all three series, plus a Christmas special and a live performance, are available on Amazon.