Apocalypse now

The League of Gentlemen talk about their big-screen debut

The League Of Gentlemen’s first movie Apocalypse opens next month; and yesterday some of the team held a Q&A session for invited journalists in central London. Chortle was there, and here Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson talk about their move to toe big screen…

As dedicated film fans, The League Of Gentlemen know only too well the perils of converting a successful sitcom for the big screen. Indeed the script to Apocalypse contains typical knowing reference to the best-forgotten likes of the feature-length Are You Being Served?

In fact, so struck were they by this chequered history of sitcom transfers that their first thought was not to return to the nightmarish world of Royston Vasey at all.

“At the very beginning we thought we could start completely afresh, that it wouldn’t have to have any connection want all with the work we’d done before,” says Dyson

“We were very struck by the success of the Monty Python films because they are one of the very few TV comedy teams who have successfully crossed over to cinema,” Pemeberton adds. “And we realised they’d created their own world by using period.”

So the lads settled on the 17th Century world of Gothic horror, and started work on a script with a whole new cast of grotesque characters.

“We chose that period because of how much we loved other films set in that time, like Blood On Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General,” says Gatiss. “Hammer films were one of our chief influences.

“We’re always talking about the feel of things – and there was a unanimous vote to go late 17th Century for precisely those reasons.”

But despite the foursome’s passion for the era, the script just wasn’t coming together.

“Although we started off trying to write something without the Royston Vasey characters, they were always in the back of out minds,” says Dyson. I found it very hard to shake off the notion that we really should be using them. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be funny if our characters came after us, wanted to know why we wanted to kill them off?’”

The idea gelled when, in a break from grappling with their period script, Pemberton bumped into a dead ringer for his spiteful Restart officer Pauline.

“Steve came in one day and said he’d seen Pauline in Budgens in Muswell Hill,” Dyson recalls. “And Reece said, ‘What do you mean? You’ve seen someone who looks like Pauline?’ Steve said, ‘No, I’ve seen the real Pauline staring at me’

“It was a hysterical idea and it was the first time in three weeks we’d genuinely laughed.”

“It was a good sign,” says Pemberton. “To be honest, at the time I thought it was too self-indulgent and would never really amount to anything. But when we thought about it, there were so many ideas there. We knew we had to go back to Royston Vasey.”

As they started working on this new idea, that the people of Royston Vasey suddenly became aware they were fictional, Dyson began to realise that the 17th Century material could come in handy. What if they found out they were being abandoned by their creators because they wanted to write a film set in the 17th Century, called The King’s Evil (right)?

“Jeremy came up with the idea of jumping between genres,” says Pemberton. “So because we’d done the reading and didn’t want to waste that research, we put that into the mix.

“So we settled on three worlds: Rosyton Vasey, our world and the film-within-a-film and just enjoyed the fact that the characters could move between all three. It’s a film that’s easier to watch than describe.”

Thus the creations cross over to modern Britain to track down their writers; with Pemberton, Gatiss and Shearsmith all playing themselves, and Dyson – who never appears on screen – being portrayed in a couple of brief-but-pivotal scenes by actor Michael Sheen.

“Our own characters were the hardest to write,” says Pemberton. “We experimented with ways of writing, giving ourselves different names, but we always knew which one of us was, say, 'Kevin'.”

“At the script stage, we took most of us out of it,” Shearsmith reveals. “We felt it was too self-referential.” But then they changed the emphasis, and it worked. “The film could have been us encountering our creations through our eyes, but the way we did it was the other way round, through their eyes, through their peril,” says Shearsmith. “We had to become phantoms, ” Gatiss adds, finishing the thought.

“We’d like to think you don’t have to know the series to get it,” he adds. “We knew early on that if we just tried to do a spin-off, it would only appeal to the TV viewers and it wouldn’t work as a movie. We struggled very hard to make it 'gettable'”

“By taking the characters out of Roston Vasey, fans and non-fans are in the same position,” Pemberton agrees. “No one’s quite sure how the characters are going to react.”

Work began on the script in May 2003, and by the end of the year they had a draft they were happy to hawk around production companies.

“We wrote this film on spec,” says Pemberton, “Because we didn't want anyone to look at it halfway through and try to shape it.”

Producer Greg Brenman snapped it up for Tiger Aspect. “They brought a pretty well developed script to us, which we worked on for four or five months before looking to finance it.” he said.

Despite the TV series being on the BBC, Film Four put up some of the money, alongside Universal.

“When we sent the film out the be budgeted, the guy doing the costing said ‘which do you want, the £40 million version or the £4 million version?’,” Brenman says. “As you can imagine, we’re at the lower end of the scale.

“But it’s still unbelievably ambitious. I’ve never worked on a project so complicated in terms of the separate elements it needs, from straightforward live action, to digitally post-produced CGI effects and Ray Harryhausenn-style stop-frame animation. Set-wise, we’re going from Royston Vasey to the real world of Britain today then back in time to 1690, with all its period requirements. So it’s a terrifically challenging film.”

“Its an extremely ambitious film for the money,” Gatiss agrees. “And that really does sharpen your comedy instincts as well as your film instincts.

“We have an apocalypse that was shot on a shoestring and it looks amazing. You wouldn’t believe what they can do with a pile of burning car tyres.”

Despite the technical requirements, the making of the film was relatively stress-free, Dyson says. “We’ve not had any studio execs breathing down our necks saying, ‘You have to change this, you have to change that’. People would give us the odd note, but to be honest there’s something about the four of us combined that people seem to trust.

“I think they know what they’re getting, otherwise they wouldn’t want to be involved in the first place.”

“What we discovered is that we could give it a bit more room to breathe on the big screen, just in the scale of the shots and the depth” Gatiss adds. “I was reading Whisky Galore director Alexander Mackendrick’s fantastic notes on film comedy and he says comedy always plays best in wide shot. In fact, I think when you see a film and it’s full of close-ups you just think, ‘Hmm telly’.”

Pemberton adds that the team’s love of cinema helped them in creating Apocalypse. “We spent an awful lot of time watching telly and being told to play out by our mum - now it's paying off,” he said.

One of the first things the team had to consider in writing the film was which of Rosyton Vasey’s many inhabitants to focus on.

“We did 100 characters in the life of League of Gentlemen,” says Pemberton. “So we quickly decided that we had to have a small group of characters.”

In the end, some of the best-known figures, such as Tubbs and Edward or Pauline took a back seat to the movie’s main protagonists: butcher Hilary Briss, predatory homosexual Herr Lipp and broken-down white-collar worker Geoff.

“We knew very early on that we couldn’t have a story about Tubbs and Edward or Papa Lazarou,” Gatiss explains Even though people love them, they’re very odd. In terms of what the story needs you need to care for the characters, and those three would be too extreme.”

“The more extreme characters couldn't exist in the real world,” Pemberton agrees. “And this way it felt less spin-offy, and more universal.

“I guess we were looking for characters who could handle a story, having, for want of a better word, a ‘journey’.”

“It worked out that we had a sort of Abbott and Costello pairing of Herr Lipp and Geoff, and we needed a leader who was quite together, so Hilary was quite natural for that. We thought of him as being a bit like Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, someone who’s a bit of a dangerous figure. You’re not sure about his morality, or what he’s going to do, but he can drive things along.”

Not that the film exclusively concentrates on this trio – and many of the Royston Vasey favourites make an appearance; plus there are cameos from the likes of Victoria Wood, Simon Pegg and Peter Kay.

“Victoria had almost nothing to go on. She made every line up - and then we cut most of them out,” says Pemberton.

“Simon Pegg and Peter Kay were happy to do it,” adds Shearsmith. “Even though it meant travelling to Ireland. Peter did a lot more stuff that we cut out - that will be the third disc on the DVD!,” he joked.

But, of course, the emphasis remains on the not-so good citizens of Royston Vasey.

“We did have half an eye on the knowledge there would be certain expectations that we really had to fulfil, or else we weren’t being fair to the audience,” says Dyson.

“Looking back, the whole conceit of the film, I suppose, is the pitfalls of writing a spin-off TV move,” Shearsmith says. “We finally arrived at that as the basis for the story because it absolutely came from the struggle that we had of trying to ditch the characters and write something new.”

But the team feel that even though the film revisits Royston Vasey, it does have a different, lighter, feel than the bleakness of the TV series (it’s not for nothing that the Japanese renamed the show Psychoville when it was rebroadcast there).

“One of the biggest differences between sketch comedy and a 90-minute narrative is that sketch comedy is about exploring characters rather than developing story,” Brenman says. “So if you’re exploring character it’s much more likely to lead you into more extreme places. But when you’re serving the story, it needs to be more accessible and therefore lighter, less dark.”

“The difference between the series and the film is that in the series you go into Royston Vasey as an outsider and you encounter these grotesque people. But in the film, the characters are the outsiders and we’re asking the audience to sympathise with them.”

So, after making a film about how they couldn’t abandon the characters of Roston Vasey, even though they wanted to, will the League now be putting their best-known creations to rest?

Not a bit of it. In fact, the team are going on tour this autumn with all the old favourites. “The film's in a bubble of its own,” says Pemberton. “The tour’s called The League Of Gentlemen Are Behind You; there's a panto feel to it, enjoying the live performance.”

Live is where the Gentlemen realised they had created a phenomenon, rather than simply a good show, because of the crowd reactions to their last tour in 2000. “When Edward and Tubbs rose up out of the smoke, there was this eruption of cheering and applause. North of Watford, especially, we got a fantastic response,” Pemberton says.

“That’s when we knew we had something; that’s different from people coming up to tell us they enjoyed the show.”

And after the tour, well the BBC is keen for them to make another TV series, although they are not so sure.

“The BBC offered us another series but we'll have to wait and see,” Gatiss says. “We’d love to do another movie nut we have to see how this one does.

“We're at a natural crossroads after ten years performing together. We’ll have a break [after the tour] and think about another film; even then it'll be another three years.”

“If you keep your work interesting enough, hopefully people will come,” Pemberton says.

The League Of Gentelmen's Apocalypse opens on June 3. First published: May 18, 2005

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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