Trick or treat? | Steve Bennett meets Psychoville's Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith

Trick or treat?

Steve Bennett meets Psychoville's Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith

Shadows of a thousand years rise again unseen… and warped imaginations of the boys from Psychoville also makes an appearence. Halloween, after all, is the one time of year they can almost be guaranteed an outlet for their macabre humour.

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith return to BBC Two on October 31 for a spine-tingling one-off special, featuring four short-but-spooky stories about the twisted former inmates of Ravenhill mental hospital – an approach very much in the vein of The Simpsons’ Halloween specials.

But, horror geeks that they are, they cite their references as being more obscure than that.

We tapped into the portmanteau horror film thing that Amicus did so well, or EC Comics’ says Shearsmith, referencing the Sixties British film producers behind Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors and the publishers of Tales From The Crypt. ‘It was a nice way to explore some of the characters we already had. It fits in with having a haunted location.’

Pemberton agrees: ‘We were offered a Christmas special, but we said we’d do a Halloween one, because it suited our sensibilities a bit more. We thought it would be really good to play with all that Halloween iconography – trick or treating, pumpkins, and almost do these urban myths with our characters. That’s what The Simpsons do, not that we based it on that, because the history of that portmanteau horror goes far back.

It allows you to do little self-contained stories that don’t go on too long and that’s very good for horror, I think, to make your mark and then get out.

They weren’t meant to be things that really happened, they are stories told about the characters. I think everyone grew up near something like an abandoned mental hospital so we’re tapping into the mythology of a place like that and the stories that it throws up. Also, it couldn’t advance the story from what happens at the end of series one, because we wanted to do that in series two. It had to be self-contained.’

The device they chose was having a location scout for a ghost-hunting TV series visit Ravenhill, where a local young man called Drew regales him with four dark, if apocryphal, stories linked to the foreboding building.

I’m obsessed with Most Haunted,’ Shearsmith says. ‘I love watching the mediums, especially Derek Acorah, I mean, they’re all so terrible. Knowing a bit about cold reading, I find it bizarre that anyone could believe it. So initially, we thought we’d actually make it Most Haunted, and get Yvette Fielding.’

They have connections with the presenter, as they were once, as the League Of Gentlemen, asked to appear on a ghost-hunting show with her. ‘But we got dumped for the Dingles,’ says Shearsmith. ‘In the end the Emmerdale characters didn’t to it, either. It was Girls Aloud.’

Pemberton says the script slowly moved away from the Most Haunted pastiche, ‘We started with the idea that these three teenagers would break into Ravenhill Hospital and spook each other by telling these scary stories. But when we tried to write this teenage speak, we found we were completely out of our depth.’

Writing flesh-crawling horror, on the other hand, was something that came a little more naturally.

It was great to completely embrace the horror again,’ said Shearsmith. ‘TV could do with a nice, light sitcom, but we’re not the people to write it. It doesn’t come easy to us. It’s not funny to us if someone’s not being drained of blood.

With the Psychoville series, the horror takes you by surprise because you’re not quite expecting it; you’re in a domestic or very ordinary situation and the horror comes out of nowhere. Whereas with the Halloween special, you’re expecting the horror, so it was tricker in a way to be surprising, because the expectation is that it’s going to be scary.’

And he said the pair tried to embrace different styles of horror in the show. ‘We thought we had to do a Maureen and David story, and thought that urban myth of the car running out of petrol and someone picking a hitchhiker up were quite familiar,’ he said. ‘And for the story about Mr Lomax, the blind soft-toy collector, we looked at Japanese horror, where you have the sense of creping dread.’

As well as perfectly suiting their comic sensibilities, the Halloween special also acts as bridge between the first series, which aired from June last year, and the second – which is in the can but not expected to air until late next spring.

I think that’s why they gave it to us because there was going to be a two-year gap,’ Pemberton says. ‘It was good to have something special we could plug that gap with.’

Also for people who haven’t seen series one – who were foolish enough to miss it – then it’s quite a good introduction to the characters because you don’t really need to know the back story, really. But you get to know the characters in these little spooky stories.’

The pair got some backlash from their fans at the end of the first run as once the mystery of the characters and their connections was resolved, the final scene featured a previously-unmentioned locket – a cliffhanger suggesting an entirely new storyline that hadn’t been explored.

We got quite a lot of stick for the end of the first series because it wasn’t, apparently, “resolved” enough for some people’s tastes,’ says Shearshmith, somewhat tetchily. ‘But we needed to leave a crack in the door open to the possibility that there may be a second series.’

I suggest the debate may have been a positive thing, indicating the audience had become so involved in the show, they became so passionate about how it unfolded. ‘That’s a good way of looking at it,’ Pemberton agrees, ‘That they’ve got into it so much that it’s inflamed lots of debate, with websites and forums set up. We take that on board.

At the start of series two one of the characters said, “I’m sorry, it was a pathetic ending.” Which is just us saying to the fans, “OK we’ve acknowledged what you’ve said.” We enjoy playing with the whole genre.

It was only the last two minutes, really. It was all resolved and then we threw in this red herring of a locket. What’s all that about? That’s what series two is going to be.’

Not that getting a second series was a foregone conclusion. ‘We had to re-pitch it,’ says Shearsmith. ‘We had to go in and reconvince the powers that be.;

We are sworn to secrecy about any season two secrets, but it will contain a few new characters – a punctilious librarian prone to stress-related visions; a TV make-up lady who enters a marriage of convenience, and Imelda Staunton playing a powerful cross between Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison and James Bond’s M.

Pemberton says the idea for a new character can come from something as simple as their voice. ‘That can give you a way into somebody, their personality,’ he says.

Other times it can be putting two quite separate things together, like with Mr Lomax. I used to work reading to a blind man when I was a student and always thought that was a fertile idea, and then I was in this taxi once with a man who collected Beanie Babies and he was being very macho about it, so we put those things together.

But what really kicked it off was that first line, “Get your claw out of my holy of holies” which is a line one of Reece’s friends’ dad said once. So you draw these things together and you’ve got a character who seems very rounded.’

Shearsmith is keen to point out, though, that they are keen to develop their characters beyond a catchprhase. ‘What makes it not just a sketch so is that it’s not just that same joke again, again and again,’ he says.

That’s the initial idea, but then events overtake them and you go into a story with the character. Hopefully you care a little bit more than if it just the same things repeated. We’re trying to invest more in the characters so it matters what happens to them, even if they are horrible.

This is arrogant to say but I don’t care because it’s true – it’s so much more than a comedy programme. You do really go on a journey with these characters.’

They both agree that they have been lucky to develop their ideas largely unfettered by interference from the BBC, helped by the fact that – despite the show’s lavish looks – it comes in at a normal comedy budget, while the scripts, though dark, are not offensive in terms of things like bad language, which tend to cause concern for broadcasting executives.

We don’t cost a fortune, so we don’t have a lot of interference,’ Pemberton says. ‘It does look fantastic, I think, for a comedy budget. But we get the same as everyone else. For a drama, of course, the budget’s far more, but we know what our limits are. Sticking to it gives us autonomy. People leave us alone. Generally speaking, we don’t have reams of notes, we don’t have lots of interference.

We don’t want to give that up, so we don’t push it in the scripts, really, we don’t want to challenge too much. We’re good on bad language. Of course, there’s images like a goat giving a blow-job to a clown, but we don’t think twice about that.’

Shearsmith agrees: ‘Because it’s undiluted, it retains its heart. League was very much like that, it arrived on television very sure of itself and with not a lot of fingers trying to make it cater for everyone and therefore ruin it. Everything that hits is someone’s vision, untampered-with, I think. I think that’s what we’ve been allowed to do, and it’s really fortunate.’

The cult success of League Of Gentlemen helped the pair get Psychoville commissioned, but it wasn’t an easy ride, Pemberton says. ‘We we still had to prove ourselves, we had to jump through all the same hoops of read-throughs and script approvals They could easily have said they didn’t want Psychoville because they’d seen that sort of thing before, and that would have been a big shame.

Psychoville does have shades of the League, but I think it’s different enough, it has more narrative and has a flavour of its own.’

Shearsmith – whose Halloween exposure also includes appearing in the comedy-horror film Burke And Hare out on Friday, and taking over in Jeremy Dyson’s West End show Ghost Stories next week – likewise accepts that comparisons with their earlier work are inevitable, though he defends Psychoville as a strong piece of work on its own terms.

You can only arrive once, when people are surprised by your tone,’ he said. ‘Then it’s lessened each time because people know what you do, “Oh, these are the guys that do the dark scary stuff” That’s a given that takes the edge off.

Psychoville I always feared would be in the shadow of the League but it feels like it’s its own thing. I’d hate to think we were treading water because we worked so hard to move things on and never repeat ourselves. We may do in tone, because that’s the furrow we’re ploughing, but Psychoville is good enough on its own.’

Find out if you agree, by watching BBC Two at 10pm on Sunday. You might want to keep the lights on…

Here's a clip to whet the appetite:

  • The League Of Gentlemen also reunited to spend a night in one of Britain’s most haunted houses, for a show to air on Radio 4 tomorrow (Thursday 28) at 11.30am.

Published: 27 Oct 2010

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