The League of Brexit Gentlemen: 'Edward looks like Michael Gove, it’s eerie'

Welcome back to comedy’s most eerie, insular town, with its cast of grotesques. For Mark Gatiss and his writing and acting colleagues, it’s become a microcosm of Brexit

"Dearest Benjamin, I'm so pleased you're able to attend your Uncle Harvey's funeral," reads Benjamin on a train, in the opening scene of last year's League of Gentlemen anniversary specials. "Of course, with it being the first Monday of the month, I will be honouring Nude Day as usual, which is what I believe your Uncle Harvey would have wished." Turns out Aunty Val is reading her own letter next to him, boobs exposed from behind her parted hair and, we see as she reaches up to get a suitcase from the rack, it turns out there's only hair to cover her lower half too. Welcome back to Royston Vasey, missing-person capital of the UK, where the gene pool is limited and normal rules do not apply.

Since we last dropped in on the characters in 2005, in the spin-off movie The League of Gentlemen Apocalypse, little has changed about its gothic humour that tampers with the boundaries of tastefulness. Viewers had barely settled down with teas and biscuits before a bloated hedgehog exploded all over Mr Chinnery's veterinary surgery, launching a grenade of spines over its two owners, eyeballs included. In less creative hands, it would result in an eye roll and reach for the remote, but the comedy group – Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson (who writes but doesn't take a main acting role) – have mastered its art to make it less about the shock value than the worryingly believable characters and intricately drawn world which they inhabit.

We speak to Mark Gatiss while he’s in final rehearsals for its companion live shows in Purfleet, Essex. Fringing London, the orbital M25 slices right through it, ensuring a continual flow of wayward traffic and demand for its industrial centre. With these passersby it’s not a fitting choice to recreate the insular world of Royston Vasey – but that’s the beauty of live theatre.

"I'd only known Purfleet as a place name in Dracula," Mark says while on a break (he's also scriptwriting an adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic). "It's a huge, purpose built complex where lots of arena bands practice, with onsite catering. We've only just gone through the second half for the first time, with the bells and whistles and pyros and everything. It flew by in a blur of chaos."


No panic

They’re close to the wire, but we doubt there’s panic at League of Gentlemen HQ. The troupe have been performing live since 1995, once the foursome gathered enough characters to assemble a town. Local shopkeepers Edward and Tubbs were based on an overly fearful woman in a shop in Rottingdean, Sussex; the evil circus ringmaster Papa Lazarou on an old, creepy landlord; the belittling Pauline on a restart officer encountered while they were on the dole. Affirmations include the Perrier Award that came two years later (pipping Milton Jones, Al Murray and Graham Norton to the post), and the three BBC series, after which a whole society spoke in tongues based on their catchphrases (“Crème Brulee!” “You’re my wife now!” “What’s going on? What’s all this shouting? We’ll have no trouble here.” “Would you like to see Harvey’s toads?”). The recent specials proved their not-so-cult-anymore following was still ready and present, leading nicely on to a companion live tour – their first for 12 years – that includes Belfast and Dublin.

“I’m looking forward to seeing Dublin again, we’ve had some great times in previous tours there, I remember,” he says. “The last time we came, I was staying at the Clarence Hotel and [acting legend] Peter O’Toole was there at the same time. I remember spending a whole Sunday morning sitting pretending to read the paper and listening to everything he said.

“We’ve always loved doing the live shows,” he continues. “We started live and it’s as close as we’ve ever got to being in a band. Or Crème Brulee,” he says, referring to the band for which his character of Les McQueen pines. But don’t expect the antics that one might imagine on rock’n’roll arena tours.

“It’s the rock and roll antics of three men in their 50s – or four men, as Jeremy’s here too,” he says. “And that’s the same antics as when there were four men in their early 30s, which is ginger beer, crisps, jelly beans and microwave meals. Then bed.”

What’s changed most since the early days and now?

“We’re old and it’s exhausting,” he replies immediately. “It’s a young man’s game, it really is.”

Of course, British comedy and the society the League of Gentlemen inhabits has also changed over its 21 years, thanks in part to its own influence. Many elements – from combining absurdity with intelligence, to most of the writers playing most of the cast, to the sketch-show style with a weaving narrative (they certainly didn’t make things easy on themselves) – hadn’t been done before, or at least not since the Monty Python days.

Explained Shane Allen, the BBC controller of comedy: “The League arrived from out of nowhere with a fully formed voice unlike anything else in comedy at the time. With their influences rooted in horror they felt like they had come from a more filmic character tradition than sketch shows of the time.”

Natural successors

Undoubtedly it paved the way for Little Britain and The Mighty Boosh as natural successors in the early 2000s. More recently, the tables have turned again: surreal comedy is out of favour and real-life observational comedy (Derry Girls, Catastrophe, Gogglebox) tickles the nation's funny bones.

While Royston Vasey is a universe unto itself, its occasional contemporary references (“We’re going shopping at Harvey Nicks, then we’re going to Leicester Square for a pizza,” Tubbs throws in during one episode) always did a formidable job of anchoring it to reality. But, viewed entirely through today’s real-life prism, it’s no wonder the League of Gentlemen is judged differently now, with many arguing that their character of trans woman Babs felt out of place this time around. “You may not think it, but we’ve always been aware of drawing our own lines,” Gatiss defends. “Things have moved on, but there are parts of the gender debate that remain absurd as they always were.”

Then there are parts where the world’s only just caught up – most notably Edward and Tubbs’s “local shop for local people”, which first surfaced as a joke about inward-looking towns but, much to the worry of their creators, is now the national mood of Brexit Britain.

“The local shop was a premonition of the utter shit-show that we’ve become in this country,” Gatiss says, with more than a hint of disappointment. “I absolutely despair about this thing. It’s become an incredibly insular place. It’s everything that Tubbs and Edward represent. They don’t like change, they don’t like strangers. Plus the fact that Edward looks like Michael Gove, it’s eerie.

“For a lot of people, there’s going to be a huge wake-up call when things like food doesn’t get imported. Or they’ll realise what’s happened when Dover is choked with 38,000 lorries that can’t get in or there’s a 98-mile queue at the airport, and the people in the EU queue are sailing through. It’s no good having the odd scare story – there needs to be something big, something tangible for people to wake up. Because people still don’t believe it, that’s what makes me despair. I’m seriously thinking of taking Irish citizenship because my partner [actor Ian Hallard] and I both have Irish grandparents. It means I’d personally be an EU citizen, which I’d like to remain. I don’t want to be lumped in with this existing crazy, backward looking medieval view of Britain. Also, I think Ireland’s great.”

Indeed the actor, who now lives in North London, took part in a Who Do You Think You Are? episode to uncover his Irish roots. Digging around his heritage in Ashlamaduff, Co Derry, he uncovered that he descended from landowning gentry and, fittingly, vampire-fighting storytellers were found in his O'Kane roots too.

As a writer, he's responsible for a number of episodes of the 2005 Doctor Who reboot and he co-created and penned the globally successful Sherlock, alongside Steven Moffat

"I was in Northern Ireland for a quite a long time when I was doing Who Do You Think You Are?, which was fantastic because I'd only ever been there for previous League tours, so spending time there was so extraordinary," he says. "The landscape is so amazing, I've never seen a place transform so quickly by the weather. It goes from fabulously bleak to utterly beautiful when the sun goes in and out," he recalls.

Northern town

Gatiss was born in Sedgefield, Co Durham, a northern town so post-industrial that he retreated into his books for adventure and fantasy. Opposite his childhood home stood a psychiatric hospital, where both his parents worked, and he was a regular visitor ("I remember watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang [there] and being almost as frightened of the people sitting around me as [of] the Child Catcher," he previously said. "The faces and personalities were true northern Gothic."). He later found work there too, which propelled his fascination with the unusual that continues in the League of Gentlemen, and his prolific career outside of it.

As a writer, he's responsible for a number of episodes of the 2005 Doctor Who reboot and he co-created and penned the globally successful Sherlock, alongside Steven Moffat. They're just the big hitters – there's also a few episodes of Poirot, the eerie Victorian-era drama Crooked House, and a number of passion project documentaries in his repertoire, mostly to do with his fascination for the macabre. Tack on a few major names like Game of Thrones and Wolf Hall into the acting credits, and it's no surprise that high-profile projects are cropping up thick and fast. When probed about his impossible schedule, he graciously underplays it.

"Most of this year I've been writing Dracula, which will be three 90-minute episodes, and this show. Then we're doing the League of Gentlemen live shows in August and September, then I'm in Madness of George III at the Nottingham Playhouse, so I'm performing for the second half of the year. I'm off at Christmas, and then we start shooting Dracula next spring," he explains almost dismissively. "But, as is often the way, a lot of things come out at the same time. Like, I'll be in Christopher Robin [starring Ewan McGregor] and a new film about Queen Anne called The Favourite [produced by Element Pictures, also responsible for The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Deer]. I shot them both about 18 months ago and I only did about three days on each film, but because they come out at the same time it looks like I'm very busy."

Given his prominence in the UK, I wonder if LA’s TV studios have come a-knocking?

“I’ve had a lot of offers for things in the States,” he replies. “But in the old days you’d be expected to move out there, and I’m just absolutely not interested in doing that. My life and career is here. If you’re unattached and 22 you might say you’d give it a crack to see what happens, but I couldn’t do that. It’s nice to visit. Well, it was nice to visit – now it’s terrifying.

"In any case, Sherlock has an international profile and Dracula will be an international co-pro of some kind, so in a way I do it without having to say it's an American show. And you have to do what makes you happy, not what you think you should do."

Knowing that Royston Vasey is a happy place, I can’t help but wonder what comes after these comeback specials and shows. Could we dare hope for more of Edward, Tubbs, Pauline, Barbara and their group of wayward neighbours?

"I very much doubt it," Mark says gently. "The message of our specials was that 'you can't go back but you can visit'. It was lovely to visit, but you can't keep coming back and doing final farewell tours, otherwise it loses some of its magic. Maybe in another 20 years' time when we're all far too old to do it."

The signs are all there

The litany of bizarre characters aren’t the only points of humour in Royston Vasey. Throughout the series, signs in the background might also cause a chuckle to the observant viewer. Here are some of the best.

The town sign: “Welcome to Royston Vasey. You’ll never leave”

“Bra Shop – gone bust”

Fly poster: “The Dull Monty – they take their hats off”

“Sam’s Soups – stock reduced”

In Mr Chinnery’s vet surgery: “Let’s call a spayed a spayed”

“Tyres – prices slashed”

“Earn £110.64 a fortnight – sign on the dole”