**THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS**
Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith reunited this week for three special episodes of The League of Gentlemen. But after approximately “twelvety” years away, is this still a local show for local people?
Naturally, Doctor Who fans will know these performers for very different reasons. Shearsmith played Rassmussen in Sleep No More and Patrick Troughton in An Adventure in Space and Time. Pemberton played Strackman Lux in Silence in the Library. And, of course, Gatiss has regularly written episodes for the revived series – and can also be seen as The Captain in next week’s Twice Upon a Time. But before that, they were known for The League of Gentlemen. This dark, twisted comedy set in the town of Royston Vasey ran for three series (and a film) until 2005. After all this time though, does it still have the same black magic that made it so beloved?
League’s final series shook up the formula by focusing on one set of characters per episode, connected by an over-arching narrative thread. If we’re honest, it didn’t quite work. Wisely then, these anniversary specials return to the sketch-style format of Series 1 and 2 – and are all the better for it. We begin with Benjamin Denton on the train, coming back to Royston Vasey after fifteen years for his Uncle Harvey’s funeral (or so he thinks). As he arrives – and indeed, even before that – we’re reintroduced to the weird and wonderful characters that make up the town. The show wastes no time reminding us it’s not for the easily offended. Within the first few seconds we see Gatiss (un)dressed as a nude woman, and it only gets crasser from there. However, it’s this squeamish satisfaction that League thrives on, and it makes the most of every opportunity it’s given.
Hokey Cokey, Pig in a Pokey
For the most part, the characters have you remember have all remained the same. Herr Lipp is still stalking schoolboys. Ollie of Legz Akimbo is still aimlessly chasing his dreams of stardom. And Mr Chinnery is still a thoroughly terrible vet. But there have been a few modern changes: cab driver Barbara, for instance, now insists on using politically correct acronyms. Cleverly, League plays with these mixed expectations. Take Pauline, who we last saw happily married to simpleton Mickey. At first it appears she’s undergone a total reset. She’s back to where she started, coaching Mickey and Ross about job-seeking. But something isn’t right, and the truth hits hard when it comes. She’s got dementia, and this is all just memory-based therapy. Considering it’s a comedy, it’s surprisingly emotional stuff. The gut-punch gets even worse later when she’s unceremoniously (and mistakenly) smothered to death by the hapless Geoff Tipps.
It’s things like this that make the show stand out from its peers. Unlike, say, Little Britain where every sketch is self-contained, here things intertwine. Not always, admittedly – but when they do, there are significant consequences. Each series has an ongoing arc and something lurking beneath its surface (quite literally in this case). The arc we get here is not unlike the “new road” from Series 1, complete with a focus on Edward and Tubbs. Yes, those strange, staunchly local shopkeepers are back, and just as odd as ever. They’re the big reveal of Episode 1’s climax, and their significance only heightens as the story unravels. After being all-but-absent from Series 3, it’s great to see such iconic characters get another fair crack of the whip. Tubbs with an iPhone is pure comedy gold.
There’s Nothing For You Here
It’s perhaps fitting then, that The League of Gentlemen puts a big emphasis on the importance of local things for local people. Or perhaps, rather, in-jokes and references for the die-hards. These specials were clearly made for the fans, and because of the ongoing narratives, newcomers might get lost in the shuffle. Plotlines like the Dentons’ heavily rely on previous events, while others (like Pauline’s) lack emotion without the right amount of knowledge. Similar can be said for other character’s “endings” too, like Pop and Les McQueen. Yet, we can hardly use that as a criticism. These are, after all, anniversary specials – greatest hits compendiums lovingly and carefully crafted by their creators. Not everything is entirely fresh, but really, it doesn’t need to be. Like the “special stuff” once served up by Hilary Briss, these are short, sweet hits of nostalgia. And boy, do they taste as good as ever.
Really, it’s a testament to the show that its bizarrely memorable cast of misfits still stands strong to this day. The writers’ meticulous attention to detail hasn’t gone away, either. Even the smallest of details mean something by the end, generously rewarding those watching for the faintest clues. The photo booth was a perfect example: what acts as a throwaway visual gag in Episode 1 turns into a sinister re-occurrence, culminating in one of the most anticipated moments of the specials. And if you know your League, you know who’s behind it. Papa Lazarou may only get one line after all the build-up – but it’s an absolute cracker.
Farewell Royston Vasey
Returning to Royston Vasey was a deliciously dark delight, and our only complaint is that we could have done with more. These three special episodes were more than worth the wait, taking viewers back to Royston Vasey in spectacular fashion – and as the town’s sign says, you’ll never leave. It’s a shame then that this is the last we’ll probably see of the show for a while, as a lot of what happens to the characters here feels very final. Still, Benjamin sums it up perfectly to Auntie Val at the end: “sometimes you can’t go back… but you can visit”. Perhaps we’ll never get another full series again, but we’ll always have the memories. And maybe, just maybe, if we’re really lucky, we’ll have another catch-up in the future.
Needless to say, those who bagged tickets for the live tour next year are in for a treat…