Reece Shearsmith: ‘We were nerds in that vicious way’

The League of Gentlemen ‘would be a hard sell now because it’s so distinctively its own thing’

The last time I met Reece Shearsmith, horror-comedy maestro, was on a stationary bus in central Dublin. We were enjoying one of those excellent film-set lunches amid the folk gothic of The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse. The great David Warner was floating around. Weird creatures spouted from the concrete. Of all that eerie company's emanations – direct and indirect – that big-screen translation seems the most underrated. It was great. Why didn't people get on with it?

“Oh, yes. We shot that in Dublin. Was that 2003?” he says. “Yes, people did say it was a bit Curate’s Eggy. We tried hard to make it more than a spin-off film. But people still said: ‘No, it’s just the telly programme on film.’ So, maybe we didn’t quite get it over the line. But there were really funny things in it.”

Reece can afford to be philosophical about the film's mixed reception. We have room for only a cursory survey of his work since the start of the century. He appeared in the stage production of The Producers. He was in Dr Who. He returned for live revivals and TV specials of the still vaguely extant League. His most significant achievements were, however, the two TV series he co-created with fellow Leaguer Steve Pemberton: Psychoville and Inside No 9. The sixth season of the latter anthology series is just coming to a triumphant halt.

Now we get to barely recognise him as a bearded weirdo in Ben Wheatley’s bracingly odd In the Earth. The director of Kill List and A Field in England wrote and directed the project over just a few weeks last summer. Set during the current pandemic, the picture concerns a scientist being overpowered by a class of complex natural malignity while researching fungi in a remote forest. Shearsmith is a solitary loon in the bower.


I missed my wife's 50th birthday because they didn't want us to leave the bubble

“I think I first heard of this in April of last year,” he says. “He had started writing this thing in lockdown – sort of about the pandemic. He felt the before-times had gone and how could he not address that. He is so prolific. He said we will do it in August and I thought: ‘We won’t.’ He sent me another draft and the next thing we were getting Covid testing and it seemed it was happening. Covid was low in the environment back then. It had almost gone away. But we were tested every other day. I missed my wife’s 50th birthday because they didn’t want us to leave the bubble.”

Shearsmith, raised in Hull, goes on to discuss the practical effects that help summon up a very English class of psychedelia in the film’s bizarre closing moments.

All four members of the League are, of course, experts on folk horror and related British macabre. During our previous encounter, we discussed shared childhoods watching classic horror on Friday nights during the mid-1970s. We made those Aurora model kits of Universal Studio’s monsters. We pored over Denis Gifford’s essential book A Pictorial History of Horror.

“The green one? Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says. “I’m sure we had exactly the same childhood. But it didn’t really stretch to anyone else. It didn’t seem like it was anyone else’s taste. I didn’t mind. But then, when I later found that Jeremy, Mark and Steve were having the same childhoods, I didn’t feel so strange anymore. It was fantastic. Not quite so lonely. But it was a very interesting childhood – discovering all those films, probably too young, and yet loving them and being intrigued by the storytelling.”

Jeremy, Mark and Steve are Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gattis and Steve Pemberton. The four Gentlemen, all from the north or northeast of England, met up when studying Theatre Arts at Bretton Hall College of Education in West Yorkshire. Pemberton and Gattis had already developed a reputation for plays and sketches when Shearsmith arrived. They quickly bonded over a shared taste for all things bloody and seedy. To this day, they bow down before 1970s British horror classics such as Blood on Satan's Claw.

“We were nerds in that vicious way,” he says. “Oh, finally. Someone has seen Blood on Satan’s Claw or whatever it was.”

Anyone first happening upon The League of Gentleman TV show – a busy mix of grotesques moving about the lovingly realised town of Royston Vasey – might reasonably be astonished to learn that it began life as a group stand-up act performed in dinner jackets. And an act that worked. In 1997, the boys won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe for the first incarnation. Considering how visually and aurally rich the series turned out, it is fair to ask if TV was always their assumed destination.

“It was genuinely a thing in itself,” he says. “I think history has been slightly rewritten because I never remember thinking of the future. I was always in the moment. There was no master plan that we would be seen and get a Radio 4 series. Looking back, it seems stupid to hear there was no trajectory. But I don’t think there was. Maybe Mark was more driven than me. That was not on the cards. We couldn’t not do it. We had to get it out of our systems. Somehow it was connecting. And that was delicious.”

You just have to recognise that we are not in the past

They did indeed secure a BBC Radio 4 series. The BBC television incarnation landed in 1999 and almost immediately kicked up a cult. The characters lodged in the collective consciousness and gave the world a stream of catchphrases. Deranged shopkeepers Edward and Tubbs (“A local shop for local people”). Travelling theatre company Legz Akimbo. Ross and Pauline in the Job centre. The voices and faces became defining and enduring images of millennial Britain.

Rerecent changes in attitudes have closed in upon the League’s early work. We are now in the era of “content warnings” on comedy and some contemporary scowls have been directed towards Shearsmith’s character Papa Lazarou. Last year it was reported that Netflix had removed the series over concerns about the deranged ringmaster (“you’re my wife now!”) being “blacked-up”. The League of Gentleman remains on the BBC iPlayer.

Shearsmith seems relaxed about the ongoing conversation.

“Well, yes. You just have to recognise that we are not in the past. The BBC handled our situation very well. They were careful of avoiding a shotgun response. I think that’s the best way to do it. You are not being made to watch it. The most careful response is that there is a warning on it if there are things you couldn’t do now. I don’t think The League of Gentlemen would be, um . . .”

Is he about to say “I don’t think The League of Gentleman would be made now” and give the world a perfect headline? No. He starts a different sentence.

“It would be a hard sell now because it’s so distinctively its own thing. When we are making Inside No 9 we try to be very careful and mindful that of the fact that this is a powerful thing to be pumped into people’s houses. I think the reason the League is so beloved and the characters so potent is that we were judicious with how we treated the story arcs. It was never: ‘What’s the most shocking thing we could do?’”

Inside No 9, first broadcast in 2014 – and winner of a Bafta earlier this month – has gradually developed into a jewel of the age. A cursory glance at the brief could give the impression this is more of the same from Pemberton and Shearsmith. Each episode tells a comedy horror story told in a confined space.

We are, perhaps, back in another corner of the team's youthful obsessions: "anthology" horror films such as Asylum and Dr Terror's House of Horrors. But there is never a lazy moment here. The two men use the format to play with structure, alter perspectives and take the viewer to the most unexpected places. One episode ends up in Ken Loach territory. Another is in iambic pentameter. They even carried off a live episode in 2018.

“It is the constraints that free you and make you inventive” Shearsmith says. “Part of the joy of the storytelling is how you tell that story on television – it’s about the medium itself. We have started to bleed into that slightly dangerous territory that can look self-indulgent and ‘meta’. But if you do it carefully it can be thrilling. The idea of doing a live show took off when we thought: what if it goes wrong on the night? That became exciting. That was a one-off that only worked on the night.

“We are in a world where you can’t keep secrets. Everything is spoilt. Every week on No 9 the joy is getting there. But it’s hard. It is like doing six pilot episodes every series.”

And he owes it all to Denis Gifford’s big green book.

In the Earth is released on Friday, June 18th