The League of Gentlemen (Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith) have never shied away from finding new ways of exploring the grotesquely comic world of Royston Vasey in their cult TV series. Their 2000 Christmas Special used the portmanteau format of Amicus Horror films, and their third series developed more ambitious narratives, character development and unexpected shifts in tone. Their first feature film includes multiple realities, stop-motion monsters and gallons of giraffe semen – what more could one ask for? The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse tells the story of the series’ characters escaping the fictional world of Royston Vasey to confront their creators. Here, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith talk about the film.
Leon Hunt: There seem to be two traditions to adapting British TV Comedy into film; the sitcom movie tradition, which is about opening out a closed format, and the Monty Python tradition, which is about throwing everything away and starting again. The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse seems to combine both of those traditions – would you agree?
Reece Shearsmith: Yeah, I think that’s right – there are such pitfalls with the idea of a film that’s come from a television series. We were very aware of the things that we thought were wrong about the versions that have happened in the past, and we really wanted to try to make a good comedy film regardless of the series, and yet if you also know the series you are rewarded. So it was a double-edged sword.
Steve Pemberton: Hopefully, we’ve bridged the gap between those kinds of spin-off films and something which completely starts again because we didn’t want to lose these characters. We just wanted to use them, but in a different way. So in that way, fans and non-fans alike will be able to enjoy it.
LH: Apocalypse seems to set up an antagonistic relationship between comic creations and comic creators. Does this reflect a kind of love-hate relationship that you have with the characters now?
RS: Well, no … kind of. We’re not sick of them. It was born from the very real thing of trying to write the film and trying to discard those characters and finding that we couldn’t. Or at least the thing that we found funny again was those characters. So suddenly that became a good idea – a new idea – for those characters to find themselves in. It was interesting for us to put them into the realisation that they become self-aware, and that suddenly opened a door that we found funny again and that was a breath of fresh air for us.
SP: I think you can tell when you watch the film that we really do love the characters because it’s a love letter to them and you’ve got a real empathy with them, as opposed to the series when you were meant to find them quite disturbing and scary. You feel warmer towards them, I think, and you want them to survive.
RS: Yes, you’re more on their side and their plight is your plight. You’re feeling their journey with them.
SP: I think anyone in any job will have a love-hate relationship with it. I always remember Vic Reeves saying, ‘If anyone else says "They wouldn’t let it lie"’ he was going to swing for them. There have been times when you think … and it’s more just getting into the make-up and the padding and just going through the whole rigmarole. But nights like tonight when you see an audience really laughing and enjoying what you’ve done, all that miserable time fades from your memory and you just see it for what it is. And this will last and the moment of actually doing it won’t last, but the film will, so that’s why we keep doing it.
LH: The League of Gentlemen has generated a lot of fan fiction, like a lot of cult TV shows. While some of that fiction is about the characters, some of it is about fictionalised versions of the four of you. Have you read that fiction and was it an influence on how you depicted yourselves in the film?
SP: Well, somebody’s already decided that we’re …
RS: … all bastards. (Laughter)
SP: No, we’re not aware (of that), that’s completely news to me.
RS: On the tour, Mark (Gatiss) was sent two pages about Chinnery (the pet-endangering vet from the TV series), a fan fiction thing.
LH: But not the stuff about you?
RS: No, not about us as real people. It was the first idea that we had that we would be ourselves in the (film) because the story’s about the characters meeting their creators and we wanted to be the creators of it. We had to be because we were also playing the parts. Even though we were thinking: is there a way of writing it where we’re not even ourselves in it, and there are versions of ourselves that are not even called Mark, Steve, Reece and Jeremy (Dyson)? But we thought that would be too perverse.
SP: Well, Jeremy is played by Michael Sheen. We’d all have loved to have picked a great actor to portray us. But, we thought, you have moments when the actor and the character come face to face and it’s much more resonant if it’s the same person. But no, we’re not aware of (fan fiction about us) and it certainly had no bearing on our decision to go in this direction.
RS: The portrayal of ourselves in (the film) – we’re not particularly that nasty, I don’t think, but we’re not nice either really. (aside) We are (laughter). We were quite cautious about the whole idea of putting ourselves into the (film), so we thought if we were also quite unpleasant as well, and also not actually the villains of the piece. We’re more malicious by our indifference. We stop writing (the series) because we’re bored of it and want to write something else, and that’s our crime in the film. So I think that’s more interesting to play than twirling moustachioed (villains) … But I actually am a bastard in real life, if that’s the real question. (Laughter)
Xavier Mendik: One of the themes that seems to run through The League of Gentlemen is rural perversity. Why have you been so fascinated by that?
RS: Rural perversity – does that mean wanking off pigs? (Laughter) Well, I think it’s born from our fascination with humour that comes from real-life …
SP: … wanking off pigs. (Laughter)
RS: … the social embarrassment of things, like (Basil) Fawlty’s breakdowns in those mini-half hours, The Office and Larry Sanders, and real comedy of human endeavours and frailty rather than a laugh-out-loud sillier humour (which we all enjoy!) But I think our forte lies in trying to find poignancy and comedy in the same breath. We’re trying to make characters real and you feel for them in all they do. That sounds really profound, and very far from wanking off pigs! (Laughter)
XM: You have worked more than once with the portmanteau narrative structure – why are you so attracted to that?
SP: Well, the Christmas Special was exactly one of those films. I guess just growing up loving the double-bill friday night horrors – that’s what we grew up on, and it’s there in our work and we really enjoy referencing it. This film isn’t so much that, although we do have different realities. But as much as anything, it comes down to the fact that there are four writers and we all want our favourite ideas in, so therefore you have to go into different segments, and sometimes it’s really as simple as that. We didn’t want to have this bloody 17th century stuff …
RS: (adopts Geoff Tipps voice) … all the boring Olde Worlde stuff …
SP: … thee and thou, but, you know, Mark Gatiss is into it so we had to have it! (Laughter).