“Welcome to Royston Vasey. You’ll never leave.” That sign greeted visitors to The League of Gentlemen’s fictional home town. And it’s proving true for the cult sketch show’s creators, who have been drawn back there for three Christmas specials after more than a decade away.
Mark Gatiss has a grey dressing gown over a bare chest, and is wearing a long ginger wig. Reece Shearsmith is next to him in blue and white striped pyjamas.
It’s daytime and the League of Gentlemen co-stars are in a meeting room in central Manchester. But they are dressed like this because they’ve just come from Royston Vasey.
Or, rather, they’ve just come from another part of the building, where the show’s sets have been recreated for three new episodes – 15 years after the last series ended.
Their co-star Steve Pemberton is in the meeting room doing press interviews too, as is League of Gentlemen co-creator and co-writer Jeremy Dyson.
Gatiss, Shearsmith and Pemberton are taking a break from filming a scene as the Dentons, the strange, strict family who are obsessed with toads and bathroom habits.
Gatiss, who is also known for writing and acting in Doctor Who and Sherlock, and for roles in Game of Thrones and Gunpowder, says they had no trouble slipping back into the characters that made them famous.
“I thought it would take us a couple of days just to get back into the swing of it, and it didn’t,” he says.
The first new scene they shot was as Legz Akimbo, the cringeworthy school drama troupe, using real pupils as extras.
“We had a group of 60 kids who didn’t know the characters, obviously, because they were all 15-year-olds,” Pemberton says.
“And we bounded out. Mark started doing a rap all about stranger danger with his baseball cap on, and I was standing in the wings watching him.
“I just had this big smile on my face thinking, I can’t believe we’re back here doing this.”
During three award-winning TV series, a film and a stage show, the twilight zone of Royston Vasey was home to a collection of sinister, twisted and wickedly funny characters, including:
- The grotesque Tubbs and Edward, fiercely protective of their “local shop for local people”, who warned unfortunate visitors “we’ll have no trouble here”
- Demonic carnival ringmaster Papa Lazarou, who kidnapped women, calling them all Dave and telling them “you’re my wife now”
- Sadistic pen-pushing Job Centre trainer Pauline and her loyal trainee Mickey
- Hilary Briss, the butcher who sold illicit, addictive and unspecified meat known as his “special stuff”
- Herr Lipp, the German schoolmaster whose poor English skills and predilection for teenage boys threw up lots of double entendres
The co-stars have reunited for the 20th anniversary of two things – winning the Perrier, the top comedy award at the Edinburgh Fringe, and their first national exposure with a series on BBC Radio 4.
The League of Gentlemen were last seen on tour in 2005, after which they decided to take time off. But the quartet didn’t fall out and often worked together on other projects.
“There was never any unpleasantness or any acrimony,” Dyson says.
After enjoying successful post-League careers, they wanted to see what had become of Royston Vasey.
“The lovely thing is it’s born of wanting to do it not having to do it,” Gatiss says of the comeback. “We’re not wanting to feel like a ’90s band going back on the road, like Bros or something.
“We’ve had a really good laugh. You have to be relaxed to feel funny – to feel that you can just do what you like.”
Fans will have high expectations, but Shearsmith says the scripts “sort of poured out of us” and they avoided getting “trapped in the headlights of the enormity of what it could be”.
Which is just as well, given that Shane Allen, the BBC’s controller of comedy commissioning, has added to the pressure by describing them as “the most original, distinct and influential writer-performers since Monty Python”.
Pemberton says: “There’s always pressure going back to something.
“I remember reading an article with John Cleese where he said the longer ago something was, people remember the best bits and they edit out all the boring bits of Monty Python or Fawlty Towers, so in peoples’ heads it becomes a highlights show.”
So fans will be expecting the specials to live up to what’s in their heads.
“All the episodes of The League of Gentlemen had great moments, and what we’ve tried to do in these specials is give as many characters those special great moments over three episodes as possible,” Pemberton adds.
The specials will pick up with the Dentons and the other characters 15 years on.
“Part of the main story arc is about Royston Vasey now and how it’s even further in decline than it was before,” Shearsmith says.
Gatiss bats away a suggestion that the comeback was inspired by Brexit. In October 2016, he told BBC 6 Music he had an idea for a Brexit theme because Britain had “become a local country for local people”.
At the TV studio, he simply says: “The people of Royston Vasey are so strange, many of them can’t vote, can’t eat, can’t see.
“I wouldn’t like to presume the politics of Royston Vasey. It’s a weird bunch of strange people roped together for a concept.”
In the three new episodes, local residents will rise up to battle “administrative annihilation” after boundary changes threaten to wipe the town off the map.
In showing us how the town and its inhabitants have changed, the specials could also tell us something about how public tastes and humour have altered in the last 15 years.
Some of the old characters feel like they would sit uneasily in a modern show. For instance, the deep-voiced, high-heeled taxi driver Barbara, who jokes about having what we now call gender affirmation surgery.
‘We stand by all those characters’
“Certain things that we would make jokes about are now more difficult areas, and we’ve tackled that head on,” Pemberton says.
But he adds: “Even the original series, there’s nothing in there now where we go: ‘God I wish we’d never done that’ or ‘that makes me a bit uncomfortable’.
“I think we can stand by all those characters because they’re rounded characters.”
In the age of social media, the reaction to Papa Lazarou – played by Shearsmith with a blacked-up face – could perhaps be more swift and vocal than anything they dealt with first time around.
Pemberton pre-empts any outrage by insisting the character “was clearly not a thing about race – it never was”.
Social media age
“Someone could create a whole campaign taking that out of context,” he says. “This is something that we’ll have to deal with because now we’re doing the shows in the Twitter age and we never were at the time.
“We’re confident in our characters and we feel they’re rounded characters and we’re not trying to upset anyone.”
After these three specials, The League of Gentlemen’s four members will escape Royston Vasey again – for a while at least.
But, as they talk about their affection for their characters and each other, it sounds like they’ll never truly leave.