We might be on the crest of an unlikely new wave in popular British cinema: the TV horror comedy spin-off. The unexpected international success of Shaun of the Dead (2004, spawned by Channel 4’s Spaced) paved the way, and Film Four currently have a big-screen outing for spoof horror novelist Garth Marenghi (from last year’s sorely underrated Darkplace) on the starting blocks. Indeed, there’s some irony that the League of Gentlemen are just now getting their shot at cinema. Their TV show, which first appeared back in 1999, was, with its blackly comic, cinematic style, well ahead of the game in many respects. Sadly, the end result isn’t the unqualified success it should have been.
The League’s fortunes have certainly been chequered. Their original stage show won the Perrier Award in 1997, and lead to a radio series, which in turn transferred to television. The TV version was remarkable and innovative, and became a cult hit. But in the aftermath of their second series, it’s said the team butted heads with the BBC. Rather than churn out the established catch-phrases and characters, the League were keen to move on – whereas the BBC were after more of the same. The eventual third series was ambitious and brave, taking the Royston Vasey regulars out of the sketch format and into six full half-hour narratives, all of which interlocked in the final instalment. But mutterings suggested that this was essentially a compromise, and the team were upfront about the severe writer’s block they’d encountered along the way. Sure enough, the series had terrific moments, but some material showed the strain. Almost simultaneously, BBC2 aired the second series of The Office, and the League seemed lost in its wake. In the meantime, a host of other comedy shows have drawn on their dark, parochial template and stolen their thunder (hello, Little Britain).
Given their collective love of cult cinema, it’s no surprise that they’ve elected to decamp to the big screen. Indeed, the project’s been mooted for years. What’s surprising, though, it that the result’s the least cinematic thing they’ve ever done. In addition, the problems that dogged the last TV series are mottled through Apocalypse too. Tales have emerged about the project’s troubled gestation period, with potential scripts being abandoned by a disenchanted team. In the event, the whole enterprise has fed very visibly into the end result. In Apocalypse, the real members of the League appear as characters, struggling to adapt the TV series into a film. (One of those abortive feature ideas, ‘The King’s Evil’, set in 1690, crops up as an unfinished film-within-a-film.) But the familiar folk of Royston Vasey haunt the League members, escaping from their fictional world to stalk their creators, threatening trouble unless the film script features them.
Early on during its making, the (real) League dubbed the film ‘The League of Gentlemen meets The Matrix’. At heart, the League are writers and performers, rather than light entertainers. They’re far more concerned with character, ideas and tone than belly laughs. Arguably, though, belly laughs are what Apocalypse lacks. The concept is wonderful, and they’re to be applauded for their willingness to avoid the path of least resistance. But like that troubled third TV series, there’s a sense of jittery compromise here. It’s as though, say, Monty Python had made a film about the problems of making of Life of Brian rather than simply making the film. (The ‘King’s Evil’ interlude, all powdered wigs and diabolic pacts, is actually the most appealing part of the whole, full of unrealised promise.) League virgins may well be left somewhat mystified.
Aside from the brave, mind-bending premise, there’s still much to admire here, not least the performances. Unexpectedly, Reece Shearsmith steals the show as the hopelessly rage-addled Geoff Tipps, formerly an unexceptional Royston Vasey citizen who rises to the occasion when his whole reality’s threatened. Less overtly funny, but oddly beguiling, is Steve Pemberton’s Herr Lipp, a comic German child molester who undergoes a quiet epiphany when he realises his real-life creator is a happy family man. In many ways, the characters that get most screen time are amongst the team’s most one-dimensional creations, allowing for some intriguing moments when the characters themselves realise that that’s exactly what they’re meant to be. But coupled with the appearances by the ‘real’ League – who depict themselves as every bit as shallow – there’s scarcely one rounded, likeable figure for audiences to engage with. There are plenty of nicely-turned lines, sight gags and smart ideas in here: they’re just in too much of an inaccessible jumble. There’s some handsome design work – the team have always appreciated the importance of getting costumes, set and make-up right – but visually the film lacks the stark simplicity of the TV series at its best. (Somewhere down the line, though, a feature-packed DVD release could be a treat, especially if the extras illuminate the project’s complex genesis.)
There’s no question that the League are remarkably gifted, but as an attempt to bring their talents to film, this is an unsatisfying misfire, a touch too clever – rather than funny and engaging – for its own good. They can certainly do better, and so it seems their great film outing, whether as a team or apart, is still yet to come.