How the BBC almost cancelled The League Of Gentlemen before it hit TV | Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton at the BBC Comedy Festival © BBC/James Stack

How the BBC almost cancelled The League Of Gentlemen before it hit TV

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton at the BBC Comedy Festival

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton received a standing ovation at the end of their appearance at the BBC Comedy Festival – but the corporation wasn't always so convinced of their brilliance.

Shearsmith revealed that their television breakthrough, The League Of Gentlemen, which they created with Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson, was actually cancelled while they were on recce scouting locations for its fictional town of Royston Vasey.

'[Producer] Sarah Smith got a call saying, "We're not doing it, we're not doing it"', Shearsmith recalled. But she kept the information to herself and 'kindly went ahead with the day’.

'It had gone, it was off. But then it was back on again' he added. 'She went and fought for it again and it came back. But she didn't tell us.'

In the BBC's defence, it had commissioned The League for a Radio 4 and BBC Two series at the same time, which Pemberton described as 'an incredible act of faith' and retrospectively 'sickening' given the current slowdown of comedy orders. And that 'from that point we have just been blessed by having been given this creative freedom'.

Indeed, Shearsmith struggled to recall a time when The League were given notes from executives, telling the Glasgow audience: 'It was pretty much undiluted.

'It was so singular and it hit the ground running, I don't felt that they wanted to get their claws in and dampen it because that was the thing that was unique about it, I guess, our voices.'

However, he remembered 'them trying to steer it to [adopts stock northern accent] "four northern lads have come and created a programme!"’ And he recalled that their first trailer had the sound of a brass band added without their knowledge, and said he couldn’t conceive an equivalent patronising note for 'four southern men'.

Returning to this theme at the close of this interview about  anthology series Inside No.9, he added: 'The best things are singular and authored and have been undiluted and not been made by committees. And we've been really lucky to not have that in our lives as writers and I know that it's not the norm.'

Pushed by journalist Muriel Gray, who was conducting the episode, Shearsmith identified his favourite of Inside No. 9’s 55 episodes as Wise Owl, the dark, animated pastiche of 1970s public information films and the Christmas instalment, Bones Of St Nicholas, below. 

Bones Of St Nicholas Inside No 9

Pemberton plumped for Paraskevidekatriaphobia, about the fear of Friday the 13th, albeit with a searching glance at the sign language interpreter behind him, curious as to how she'd cope with the translation.

Far more interesting, perhaps, were those ideas that never made it to screen. Pemberton recalled being 'really excited' about the notion of a static camera on an eyeball 'and taking half an hour just to pull back', perhaps revealing other parts of a face or that someone else had been speaking the whole time. He also regretted that they'd never made a musical episode.

'We did the episode in the karaoke booth, which was a kind of really beautiful mini-musical where the songs were informing the story, but the characters weren't breaking into song for no reason' he said. 'So in a way we've ticked that box. But I did think, watching something like La La Land, wouldn't it have been amazing to have the characters just dance and sing?

'We tried and we did write a script. But I'm really glad now that we didn't make it' he recalled. 'It was called 2020, which was dominated by Brexit at the time and was touching on that.'

Unfortunately, of course, coronavirus became the dominant narrative of that year. And as the episode was set in No. 9 Downing Street, 'you can't satirise or make funny that, not a lot of laughs.

'But you know, there's always the future and we don't know what we're going to do next …'

A suggestion on which his writing partner immediately jumped, pointing out that they were adapting Inside No. 9 for the stage with a run at London's Wyndham Theatre in January. When Gray asked if there would be a UK tour, Shearsmith replied 'not at the moment', but with enough ambiguity to afford fans living outside the capital some mild hope.

Of insights into their creative partnership and writing process, Pemberton's body language undermined Shearsmith's assertion that they divide their time spent typing on the laptop equally. And they revealed that Sardines, the debut episode of the show set more-or-less entirely in a wardrobe, was directly inspired by their 'monastic' writing room in a 'granny flat', which previously contained little but that item of furniture.

Inside No 9 Sardines

Despite the starry cast they've attracted to appear across the anthology's nine series – 'the idea of Gemma Arterton playing my girlfriend!' Shearsmith marvelled – they 'never wrote for people, we wrote good characters’, Pemberton explained, to the extent that their own roles in many episodes were often an afterthought and even, on occasion, settled on the toss of a coin.

Every character, no matter how minor, ought to have something unique about the role to compel the actor. Write every role as if you're going to play it' Pemberton advised aspiring writer-performers.

- by Jay Richardson

• In a separate interview today, Steve Pemberton talks about how being cast in for the role of Robbie Williams’ father in an upcoming biopic – which portrays the former singer as a CGI monkey, with all the other characters as humans.  

He told Kate Thornton’s White Wine Question Time that actor Damien Herriman – who plays Take That’s manager in the film – told director Michael Gracey to cast him after watching the  Inside No.9 epsiode Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room  

‘He’s gone to immediately get a hold of DVD, put it on in a room for Michael and Michael said "that’s our guy",’ Pemberton recalled. ‘It was offered to me immediately’.

The film, Better Man, in which Williams voices himself, opens early next year.

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Published: 24 May 2024

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