Psychoville wasn't in a League of its own

The creators are cursed by their history, says Andy Murray

The second series of Psychoville has just finished its run on BBC Two. It was deftly written, wonderfully performed and elegantly made. It was funny, it was engrossing, it was all-round impressive. And so its makers, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, are probably a bit hacked off that viewing figures fell away so sharply as the series went on.

But I'll confess, for all its merits, I too came away from the series feeling a bit... meh. Somehow I didn't care enough about it. And I think that's squarely down to the curse of the League of Gentlemen.

The fact's been lost in the mists of time now, but when the League of Gentlemen's first TV series came along in 1999, it was genuinely different. It was a curious blend of sketch show and sitcom, featuring a string of unlikely cameos (from Christopher Eccleston to Don Estelle and – Lord help us – Roy 'Chubby' Brown). It took place in a remote fictional setting, a middle-of-nowhere closed community inhabited by eccentrics and downright weirdos. It was shot on location, without a studio audience, with attention lavished on every aspect of design.

And it was dark. Lord, it was dark. Darker by far than the prototype radio version two years earlier: that had featured a tiny shopkeeper called Mr Ingleby who used Curly Wurlies as ladders. The TV version replaced him with the mad, murderous and quite possibly incestuous Tubbs and Edward.

Soon it seemed like every TV comedy show going had been filching from the same template. Look back over the years since and you'll see oodles of shows that did just that. Anyone remember Dead Man Weds? Dave Spikey's post-Phoenix Nights solo venture starred him as a new editor making waves at a local newspaper. It featured a middle-of-nowhere closed community inhabited by eccentrics and downright weirdos. It was lavishly shot. And it was dark. How about Fun at the Funeral Parlour? Rhys Thomas' TV debut, on BBC Choice (soon to be BBC Three), was set in and around a Welsh funeral directors, and,as per the title, it blended the silly with, yes, the dark.

In fact, for the first few years of its existence, BBC Three seemed to exist entirely to churn out sub-League of Gentlemen comedy shows. Funny and dark. Oddballs. Closed communities. Even its first big hit, Little Britain, resembles the League with the edges taken off. Brighten up the dark corners; ramp up the gags and catchphrases.

So ubiquitous did this approach become that even the League themselves seemed to struggle under it. For their third series, they abandoned many of their best-known characters, and ventured beyond the Royston Vasey setting. Previously second-string characters got a turn in the limelight and entirely new ones were conjured up to join them. But it wasn't entirely a departure from what they'd established before; just a game wrestle with it. Their Apocalypse feature film went much the same way, actually dramatising the team's desire to escape from their creations, rather than simply taking the leap and doing it.

In the meantime, League member Mark Gatiss has developed into an estimable actor and writer – even, most recently, a presenter for BBC Four. Jeremy Dyson has written prose and stage productions to great acclaim, and kept his hand in with comedy by script-editing for Armstrong and Miller. Pemberton and Shearsmith have done great performing work elsewhere too, but they, alone of their fellow Gentlemen, have attempted to follow up their TV comedy success so directly.

But for all its merits Psychoville can't help but feel like it's paddling in the wake of the former show. It's nowhere near as desperate as, say, Bottom was in the way it scraped the, um, bottom of the Young Ones barrel. But it remains overshadowed at all times: The League of Gentlemen Redux.

Now, considering the world and his wife ripped off the mighty League, it's only fair that the team's members should be entitled to as well. And on one level, it can be argued that the similarities between the two shows are perfectly allowable because, well, they're made by some of the same people. That's their preoccupations, their creative vision. But the problem is, that vision was so very distinctive, and so hugely influential in its day, that it now risks looking out of date. Perhaps Psychoville is the end result of all that struggling to break free that characterised the full League's later outings. It's the League... but different. Sort of.

All of which feels very cruel, as Pemberton and Shearsmith are immensely talented writers and performers, and Psychoville is actually an impressive piece of work in its own right. Trouble is, they're weighed down by their own legacy, and anything that even smacks of retreading old ground will feel underwhelming.

Perhaps the solution is for the pair to embark on something so totally unlike what they've done before that such a suggestion would never occur. They've conquered the post-watershed BBC Two thing now. Imagine if they tried something completely mainstream: an original comedy film. A sitcom at 8pm on BBC One. Or even something for younger viewers on CBBC. Very unlikely given their track record, I know – but wouldn't that be the appeal?

Published: 17 Jun 2011

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