Dark Carnival: your hosts, the League of Gentlemen

Dark Carnival

The rise and rise of the League of Gentlemen

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We meet the stars of the darkest - and funniest - comedy on television

A Shivers interview by David Miller

selected from Shivers #74

The last two years have seen the irresistible rise of The League of Gentlemen from Perrier-award winning fringe stage show to a successful radio series On The Town, to a six-part series on BBC2. This series won the Golden Rose of Montreux and the second season started on BBC2 on 14th January.

The League, comprising writer/performers Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, plus writer Jeremy Dyson have a special place in the hearts of Shivers readers. Before their rise to international fame, both Gatiss and Dyson wrote for Shivers, contributing the memorable Val Lewton spoof They Creep By Night. Gatiss also wrote articles on Jack the Ripper, Tod Browning’s Freaks and James Whale – his acclaimed biography of the British director of Frankenstein was published in 1995.

It’s not surprising then, that the League have brought to the small screen a gallery of grotesques that hark back to some of the great names of Horror. First-season audiences are already familiar with the bizarre town of Royston Vasey and its peculiar inhabitants, all played by the League, like the obsessively tidy, toad-fancying Dentons, or the sinister butcher Hilary Briss, whose ‘speciality’ is a closely-guarded secret for a privileged few.

But already the most popular characters are Tubbs and Edward, the weird, pig-nosed denizens of The Local Shop, who are not beyond a bit of human sacrifice to ensure that the crops do not fail and that their community remains pure. New characters for this season include the wild gypsy showman Papa Lazarou, (who descends on Royston Vasey with his travelling freak show), the German exchange teacher Herr Lipp, who shows an unhealthy interest in his young charges, and the ancient Charity shop workers Vinnie and Reenie.

On stage, the Local Shop was created with Pauline’s clipboard resting across two chairs, but it was no less real. “You create the idea in the imagination of the audience,” Pemberton explains. “Our influences were always filmic, so we just pushed the buttons and the audiences knew what we were talking about. We actually went to a shop where the proprietors were absurdly suspicious. We combined that with the idea of referencing The Wicker Man and having the villagers actually burning strangers.”

The new series features an appearance by the celebrated ‘X-rated’ comedian Roy Chubby Brown, whose real name, Royston Vasey, sounded like the kind of skewed English place-name that the League needed for their fictitious town. “We just contacted him and asked him to appear in it,” explains Shearsmith. “He was a fan of the series and wanted to do it. He plays the Mayor in episodes four and six...”

David Miller

  MARK GATISS
Have a butcher's at Mark Gatiss

“You’ve got to carry on with the things that people are expecting,” says Mark Gatiss of The League's second series. “but you have to give them something new. The Carnival in episode one was originally in episode three – but during the scripting we moved it forward. Now it kicks the series off with something different. If you’re new to it, there’s the idea again of someone or something new coming to the village.”

When told that there seem to be more film references per second in the show than in than any other comedy series, Gatiss agrees. “Except possibly for The Simpsons,” he admits. “But ours are very specific. We only reference films that were made between 1931 and 1932.”

The Carnival is, of course, a somewhat-less-than thinly-veiled reference to Tod Browning’s Freaks, but even that didn’t go quite as far as the League wanted. “We tried very hard,” Gatiss sighs, “to get a man with no limbs in a sock, wriggling through the mud with a knife in his teeth. But, alas…”

For the full version of this feature, get Shivers #74

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Images © BBC • Feature © Visual Imagination Ltd 2000. Not for reproduction