I absolutely freaking loved League of Gentlemen. Unlike Little Britain which it inspired, it wasn’t just a collection of catchphrases, though it had those – “This is a local shop for local people, your kind are not welcome here” or “You’re my wife now” – it was a whole, dark little world within the village of Royston Vasey. It was an extension of that uncomfortable scene in American Werewolf in London where the Americans enter a local British pub; or like that ‘50s sci-fi film where the village is cut off from the world by a glass dome, but in this case it’s an invisible force-field of weirdness.
Some nights, watching the black-faced Papa Lazarou, or the sex-change cabbie, or the sinister mystery meat that made everyone’s noses bleed, you just couldn’t believe the BBC had let them get away with this. They very nearly didn’t.
“They were terrified,” said Steve Pemberton at the London Screenwriters’ Festival recently. “They just didn’t get it. But we had influential people like Jon Plowman and Geoffrey Perkins protecting us, and saying you must back this.”
He and Reece Shearsmith did a Q&A session, where they described how they had got on straight away when they made lists of the funny things their parents said, and had many of the same things on there. Like what? “I don’t know,” said Pemberton, “like if you say you’re going to the cinema, and my dad says ‘I’ll bloody cinema you!’”
Shearsmith, incidentally, revealed how he’d agreed to play the part of a cannibalistic serial killer with agoraphobia last year in the short film Him Indoors. Quite simply, the director Tweeted him, and he said yes. “I liked the joke,” explained Shearsmith. “He couldn’t go out to get his victims so he had to get them to come to him. If these shorts are good, I’ll always do them. If not, I’ll pretend I’m busy!”
After the Q&A, I got some time alone with Pemberton, to quiz him about his latest project with Shearsmith – their most recent series Psychoville having come to an end last year after just two series. “The first thing we knew about it was we went in for a meeting, expecting it to be about the third series, and they said, ‘So, what’s next?’ We came up with a Tales of the Unexpected style thing called Inside No 9.”
It’s a surreal experience to sit on a bench in the courtyard of Regent’s Park College with the man who dreamed up and played such amiable grotesques as David Sowerbutts, Oscar Lomax, Tubbs Tattsyrup, Pauline and Herr Lipp, as well as Strackman Lux in Doctor Who and Edward Buchan in Whitechapel. And though he is happy to admit to his misfires – such as the League of Gentlemen film – he seems hugely enthusiastic about Inside No 9.
“Each episode takes place inside a different No 9,” he explains: “a theatre dressing room, a big country house, above a shop. Otherwise there’s no link between them. We were inspired by setting one episode of Psychoville in one room – as a cost-cutting exercise. We based it on Hitchcock’s Rope, shot in just two takes. It was exciting and liberating to do that, it harked back to our being on stage [where League of Gentlemen began]. The craft of writing becomes more important.
“We wanted to make this series simple. There’s so much fast cutting in TV, we felt we’d done enough of that. We’re thinking of Pinter here, or Ayckbourn. We’ve enjoyed placing our own restrictions on the show.
“In one of the episodes of Inside No 9, it actually all takes place inside a single wardrobe! It’s during a game of sardines: one by one, 12 people end up in there.
“Another one, called A Quiet Night In, is all physical, there’s no dialogue. It takes place during a heist, so the burglars have to be quiet, while the couple are having a row and not speaking to each other.
“Steve and I are not always in it, or we’re playing smaller characters, to showcase the writing more. But we’ve got a terrific cast: Gemma Arterton, Denis Lawson, Oona Chaplin, Tamsin Greig, Julia Davis, Anna Chancellor, Anna Reid… their commitment is just a week, so they are easier to get. It’s all in the can: I’m very, very excited, I can’t wait for people to see it. There’s an awful anticipation until next year when it’s shown.”
In the meantime, he says, Edward and Tubbs will man the tills of their local shop one last time: at a benefit gig at the Adelphi Theatre on December 1 in aid of the Royal Free Hospital. Also on the bill are Rowan Atkinson, Jo Brand, Julian Clary, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Matt Lucas, Mitchell & Webb and Paul Whitehouse.
Call it the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.