A few months back I watched all three series, the Christmas special and the film of The League of Gentlemen. I remember the first series airing on television because it was endlessly advertised on the Beeb and I thought it looked brilliant. Sadly I wasn’t able to watch it as I was too young at the time, it being on past the watershed and, frankly, it is still terrifying. I was intrigued however and picked it up on repeats when I was a little older and managed to watch the whole 2nd series which was a gem. By the time series 3 rolled around I was a grown up and it blew me away. I have been a firm fan ever since and have followed what the four of them have done since with great pleasure. But what I didn’t notice at the time was their sophisticated subtext.
The League of Gentlemen from their humble beginnings where they payed to hire out a venue as a residency, to winning the Perrier, to the radio show, to television and onwards were very much seated in the Comedy bracket. Specifically the Dark Comedy bracket. This, to my mind, plays down the more extreme edges of the show, in that it is not far fetched to refer to the series as Horror. The Christmas special is a doffing of the cap to the portmanteau horror films of the past and a delight to watch but the series itself deals with the depraved depths of humanity at every turn. Incest, murder, rape, racism, ableism, masturbation, sexism, terrorism, homophobia, amputation, disease, the list is endless of the things that the League of Gentlemen use as a basis for characters and situations to shakily stand their comedy on. I’ve said in the past how Horror should reflect a real worry or fear and the League accomplish that in a very unique way: they use social commentary.
Upon a rewatch of their entire output (minus the radio program, most of which was translated to the TV show anyway) the League’s scattergun approach encompasses every social strata of Royston Vasey from the cleaner in a council estate with 12 kids and the unemployed restart office, through the middle class suburbia of John Lewis shoppers and management retreats, to the mayor himself, doctors, mob bosses and more. The pitch black comedy they derive from each character is founded in their social position: Stella & Charlie in their council estate house make barbed comments at one another while one goes to the arcades and gambles while the other takes up line dancing and is stifled in his attraction to another man. Pauline mocks the unemployed men (they’re all men) in her restart class everyday, lording her superiority over them and physically assaulting them. Doctor Chinnery, flop haired and well spoken, attends to rich over-fed pets, farmyard animals, Kes-styled birds to be released and more besides. The town itself hopes to benefit from the “New Road” being built to increase business and tourism too. A cruel doctor manipulates a group of patients into a bizarre games evening as a form of Private Healthcare. At all turns the League pursue their own brand of macabre whilst simultaneously confronting us with the horror of our own class system. It is uniquely British in that sense. The sort of class divide Britain endures is singular to our little island and is only getting worse. There were many moments that have lost their humour due to their closeness to reality in recent years. For me it is the characters of Mrs Levinson and Iris that seemingly epitomise this.
Iris lives in atrocious living conditions in a forgotten council estate with her brood of 12 children and is cleaner for the well-to-do Mrs Levinson. When ever they meet, at the supermarket, at their homes, they spar, Mrs L lording her wealth courtesy of the unseen Mr Levinson over Iris, while Iris wearyingly accepts these condescensions as she too explains the life of abandon and sexual ecstasy she enjoys at home. To me this is the most explicit example of the League’s intent to display the disparity in class we have here in the UK, both live equally squalid lives but both equally live lives of pleasure whereas they do their best to hide one half behind the other. The final ‘punchline’ of their relationship is not only hilarious but unpleasantly sharp.
By the third series they had dispensed with the incongruous laugh track and trimmed the episodes back to focus on individual arcs. Each episode, instead of dealing with sketches, now dealt with three stories of three separate characters. Each episode however was connected by a vehicle crash at the end of each episode where the main character of each episode found themselves. It is a tour de force of performance, direction and, most importantly, writing. It bowled me over afresh upon rewatch and it still amazes me as to why it is not better remembered. Admittedly the tone is dark and subject matters tough, but there has never been anything like it on television before or since. It beats most dramas hands down for sheer weight but equally has more actual laughs per episode than any episode of My Family et al.
The film is something to behold too. Whilst it never quite hangs together as a sustained narrative for me, it’s ambition and ideas are second to none. It is the logical conclusion of such a wild and varied and mad television series. Since then the four of them have split to create such equal delights as Funland, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Psychoville, Inside No.9 and more but for me the League is yet to be surpassed. In the same way as Python lampooned the strata of British class with pure silliness the League do so with the tropes and standards of the Horror genre. With that as a template they weave humour, pathos, suspense and even a little hope into the stories and lives of the people we see all around us every day.
On my way to work I walk past a Hotel. It is white walled and wide. I think it tries to look like a Greek house in some way. It is only two floors and every evening I can see into the bar and entrance lobby. They are always empty at whatever time I pass. Signs occasionally hang outside advertising a 70s or Disco night. It is opposite a railway station and on the main road from London. But it is the car park at the front that draws my attention. Everyday, in front of this grotty little Hotel, there are variety of cars. Little european hatchbacks and swish modern audis, run down old bangers to rag top Jaguars, groaning scuffed Transits to blacked out Bentleys and four wheeled drives next to a Chopper and at the back sits a tiny red Ford that has never moved and is covered in a layer of green filth showered from the tree that overhangs it. I have resisted the temptation to look up its website or online presence, its physical presence is enough to instil curiosity. I have no idea who uses this Hotel. Commuters? Wealthy businessmen? Labourers on a late or early morning job? Adulterers? People soliciting sex? The unassuming, rather ugly facade could suggest all these things or none. Is it simply a Fawlty Towers-esque seaside B&B where The Major and the little old ladies enjoy their twilight years along with travelling guests? I have no idea but I often think it would be an ideal situation for a story as it seems, from the outside at least, a microcosm of British society. In the same way that little northern town of Royston Vasey tell us all the horrors inherent in our class struggle behind every closed door. And that is something sorely lacking in modern popular British culture: commentary. After all, you’ll never leave…