'It does us a disservice to think that we are just shock merchants' | The League Of Gentlemen on their long-awaited return © BBC

'It does us a disservice to think that we are just shock merchants'

The League Of Gentlemen on their long-awaited return

As the League Of Gentlemen are about to make their long-awaited return, the stars and their co-writer talk about getting back together to revive their characters – and address the question of bad taste.

Mark Gatiss

Have you enjoyed making these specials?

It's been genuinely lovely, honestly. I said the other day, you know, if this all went south, and suddenly we’d lost the money or something, it would still have been worth it because it has just been such a good laugh. We’ve had a great time getting back together.

You’ve been discussing this for a long time. What was the thing that finally prompted you to do it now?

We just set aside the time to do it - and we knew the 20th anniversary of us winning the Perrier Award and ding our radio series was coming up. We never split up. We just stopped for a break - like Abba! We’ve talked about it for ages and said that we would love to do something

We didn't want to feel like a 90’s band getting back together! But the lovely thing actually is that we are doing it because we want to, not because we have to. The thing that finally made a difference was the question: "Oh, I wonder what happened to…?" That’s the logical question which takes care of a lot of it. That immediately gives you somewhere to go.

Did the characters instantly come flooding back to you?

Pretty much. It didn’t feel strange shooting here in Hadfield. The first day was in the Town Hall with Bernice and Murray. The first shot was on some stairs, and it felt like we’d just stopped two minutes ago! We were immediately back in the flow of it. Weird but great.

What is the premise of the specials?

Right at the beginning of The League of Gentlemen, we linked it with the idea of a new road coming. We wanted that to be the most basic sort of thing, like a little bit of connective tissue. What we found, to our astonishment, was that people would say, ‘What’s happening about the road?’ It’s amazing - you can do a lot with a little thread like that. Then the second series was the nose bleed epidemic. So for the specials, we wanted something like that which is simple. Royston Vasey under threat.

Is there an overriding theme to the specials?

Mortality, I suppose! Inevitably if you go back to something that you last did 15 years ago, then it’s about all of us getting older. Looking at people’s responses to the announcement that we were going to do it, inevitably, like all these things, it’s actually a reminder of happier times for some people. It seems extraordinary for The League of Gentlemen to be like that!

Which characters do you personally love the most?

Les McQueen, probably. I love the tragicomedy of his life! I also love Geoff, Mike and Brian, the businessmen. Dare I say it, I think over the years Geoff’s tragedy has developed a lovely richness to it. I just love it. It makes me laugh a lot. And Pauline, Mickey and Ross. I’ve always loved playing Mickey, and it’s one of those ones where once the teeth are in, he’s back!

Steve Pemberton

How did you go about the writing process?

The good thing is we didn’t over-think it. We just said, "Let’s just go away, think of a character, start writing some scenes and let’s see what we generate." That’s how we always worked.

Did you find it immediately easy returning to play the characters?

Yes and no. You do the rehearsal and the first take, and then you say, ‘Is that right? Is that the voice?’ You’re never quite sure. But actually it’s a muscle memory, something that’s been in there. We didn’t have a load of time for rehearsal. We had to launch straight into these scenes, and it has come flooding back.

Did you listen to the fans’ clamour for the return of Edward and Tubbs?

No, we didn’t really read what fans were saying. We chose the characters ourselves. Edward and Tubbs are very iconic, and we felt it was important that they had a life beyond being nearly hit by a train in series three!

Can you outline the set-up?

I was reading about The Boundary Commission, and it was there in the back of my mind that a lot of places are up in arms that they’re going to be incorporated into other towns. People are generally very proud of their little plot of land and the name of it. So we wondered what the Royston Vasonians would think of that.

Jeremy Dyson doesn’t perform, but can you talk about his strengths as a writer?

He absolutely drove a lot of the writing. He was the first one to come up with ideas. What I love in particular is doing a character like Pop, where I haven’t had to think about the writing. So I can get Jeremy’s scripts like a treat, like a little Christmas present. His scripts are always brilliant, they’re such a joy to play.

Jeremy has a great use of language - remember the very particular way Harvey Denton spoke? - and he understands character brilliantly. There is a great trick for a writer - if you cover up the names of the characters and just read the dialogue, you should always be able to know who is saying what. That’s absolutely the case with Jeremy.

Do you feel emotional about the fact that all four of you are still so close after nearly three decades?

Yes. It’s very moving that we are all still great mates and that we get to work together like this. But what is also really moving is the warmth with which the news that it’s coming back has been embraced. And, you know, coming onto the set, a lot of the crew said, "‘I fought tooth and nail to get on this job."’ I find that really touching, too.

Reece Shearsmith

How did you find time to reunite?

We finally did the thing that we had never done before, which was decide a point in the future when we would do this. Because time rolls on, and another thing happens and then you’re not free. So we thought, ‘Right, let’s really decide we will all write The League of Gentlemen and do it in this timeframe.’ And we did; we stopped things happening and this became the project that we were doing. So it had to happen then!

Have you all enjoyed the reunion?

Absolutely. It took a long time to get us back together again. But, it’s been joyful and the writing process has been completely easy, organic. It flowed out of us without it being a difficult process. We weren’t thinking, "Well, what would we do if we brought it back?"

Why did you decide to do it as three half-hour episodes?

It actually worked better that way round for the unfolding story because we could make it more cliff-hangery. We could make it so you can’t wait to see the next one, hopefully.  And it fitted with the idea that we wanted people to feel that when it comes back on, it’s like it’s never been away.

How did you choose which characters to include and which ones to exclude?

Well, that was hard. Certain ones presented themselves that we thought we should bring back and that it would be remiss for the audience’s sake to leave out. Sadly, we couldn’t fit them all in. We had story lines for some and we had to completely extract them because of time pressures.

Which characters do you enjoy performing most?

I do enjoy doing Geoff. He’s a funny character. I also like doing Legz Akimbo, the theatre company. We could do a whole series of them touring - that would be fantastic. That’s next!

Was it essential that Edward and Tubbs appeared in the specials?

It would be strange to not have some sort of return from those two as they were very iconic to the show, so we’ve given that some thought. They have struck such a chord over the years. You see our catchphrase, ‘a local shop for local people,’ everywhere now, with no irony.

Is there a worry that critics might carp that it was a mistake to bring it back?

Yes, there is that worry, but if you thought too long about that, you wouldn’t do it. Of course, even if this was better than the original League of Gentlemen, there’d be some who would say, "They should never have done it and it’s terrible now." Because to them, it’s in aspic as this brilliant thing and you meddle with it at your peril. They think you should just remain enigmatic. But then you’d never do anything.

Is it hard to know if you have gone too far in certain scenes?

Not really. I think we have always been very diligent about how we do that and about how we shock - if we do shock - and what line you cross. We learned very early on that we have a responsibility as we are piped into people’s homes.

I think we earn it if we do something shocking. We’ve always tried to have you care about the characters, so if something happens, it matters. And if we swear, we do it for a reason, not willy-nilly.

 In this, we’ve just tried to be really truthful to the story we’re telling and hopefully it won’t feel like it’s gratuitous. It does us a disservice to think that we are just shock merchants. We really try quite hard to craft it.

Jeremy Dyson

Are you nervous because there is a lot of expectation about this revival?

I think we’ve been good at keeping the expectation at arm’s length, because if you let it in for a second, it would be terribly poisonous. So actually, we’ve just tried to make it as it was originally, which is about trying to make the others laugh. Trying to entertain each other was always the best policy.

The set-up is that Royston Vasey might be wiped off the map. Was that the initial premise for you?

Well, don’t forget, Royston Vasey has been wiped off the map at least three times before, so we know it works! The issue of boundaries and statehood seemed very topical as well and was on all our minds. That fits with Royston Vasey which has always been quite an inward-looking place. So, yes, that was in the air as well.

These are deeply loved characters. Why do you think that is when they are so strange and murderous?

I don’t know, it’s a complete mystery to me! I think it is to do with the charm of the performers and the performance because, you know, you’ve got three very warm actors at the heart of the show who are all very emotional.

How do you know where to draw the line in terms of taste?

We have always been quite conscious of it. We have never been censored by the powers that be. We have always had those conversations ourselves, so we have always had a sense between us of where that line is, even if you couldn’t lay it out as a set of rules. It’s more of a feeling.

Could you talk a bit about the strength of Mark, Steve and Reece as performers?

That’s the other thing about coming back after some time away from it - I really appreciated their performances. The first time round for me, inevitably there was a lot I took for granted. It was the first thing I’d done. It was only after going to work with actors where the set-up was different that I suddenly realised what an extraordinary thing it is to work with actors who write material, know that material inside out and then bring it to life.

Do you have favourite performances?

I love Steve doing Pop. I love Mark doing Les. I love Reece doing Bernice. They’ve all got their own strengths. They are all capable of incredible detail, truth and comedy, obviously, but the overriding thing is the humanity. It’s an extraordinary thing when you put them all together.

These characters should be monsters, but the performances bring out their humanity.. That’s always the joy of it.

• The 20th anniversary shows will air on Monday December 18, Tuesday December 19 and Wednesday December at 10pm on BBC Two. Click here for a gallery of images from the specials.

Published: 7 Dec 2017

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