The League of Gentlemen
(By Steve Suttie – first published in Northern Life Magazine June 2012 Edition)
As the 1990s drew to a close, lots of normal people stock piled tins of beans and chicken soup amid the ever present worry that the Millenium Bug was about to end civilisation as we knew it. Fortunately at the BBC, it was business as usual and they launched an experimental dark comedy sketch show that was to turn a sleepy Northern town into a cult sightseeing location. It was also about to turn four ordinary, unknown Northern blokes into superstar TV award winners.
People from all four corners of the world have since become keen aficionados of “The League of Gentlemen” TV series. The most enthusiastic fans have travelled from places all across the globe to visit its filming location.
The fictional town where more than 100 memorable new characters would be introduced over just 18 episodes is called Royston Vasey. In reality The League of Gentlemen was filmed in the quiet hamlet of Hadfield. The old cotton mill town is just north of Glossop on the very edge of Greater Manchester where it meets with Derbyshire, in a Pennine Valley at the foot of the Peak District.
The programme that began in January 1999 and ran for three seasons is about as “cult” as it is possible for any comedy show to be. Viewers either love the programme or hate it. There are no inbetweeners. And in fact programmes that stretch the very fabric of taste and decency, such as Channel 4’s “The Inbetweeners” owe a great debt to the residents of Royston Vasey for paving the way and making disturbingly grotesque the new “tasteful” in TV comedy.
This completely original and unique production was the work of four proud Northerners who came up with the League of Gentlemen concept. Steve Pemberton, Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith launched and developed the idea at the Edinburgh fringe festival in 1995 and won the festivals much coveted Perrier award in 1997. A BBC Radio 4 series was to follow, and eventually in January 1999 the TV series hit our screens.
This dark, weird sketch show was to fly in the face of all British sketch shows that had gone before it. Firstly, it was unmistakably Northern and had the unique grit that our soaps, films and dramas provide. It was to reinvent the “Fast Show” concept with a complete disregard for the rulebook. No comedy show had previously risked introducing some of the most peculiar people ever seen on TV; and from the very first episode too. It was a very bold risk which paid off brilliantly.
The characters really did make an impact. Who can forget Tubbs and Edward who sold the precious things in the local shop? (for local people) Or how about Harvey and Val Denton and their pet toads? Cab driver Babs, Angry friend Geoff, Butcher Hilary, to name just a few. There was certainly no shortage of bonkers folk. And the characters were to get even weirder and more bizarre as the first series progressed and the subsequent 2nd and 3rd series aired in 2000 and 2001.
There was also plenty of loveable characters too. My particular favourite was optimistic musician Les McQueen whose band “Crème Brulee” enjoyed some minor success in the 70s at Eurovision (heats.) And there were several other characters that found their way into your heart – like Mickey, who attended job-club alongside Ross but dreamed of being a Fireman. And then there was Iris Krell, the hapless cleaner for upper class Mrs Levinson, who turned out to be Iris’ daughter. Told you it was weird.
Of course if you never watched the programme, there is still the opportunity to revisit the DVDs and occasional re-runs on TV. And a fourth series has never been ruled out by the four men made famous by the indiscriminate goings on in the hills above Glossop. Ironically, the then relatively unknown lads had so much individual success off the back of the series that they have all been too busy with other projects to sit down and create a much anticipated fourth instalment.
Three of the four writers play the main characters. Steve Pemberton hails from Blackburn and has spent the past few years playing the under pressure family man Mick Garvey in “Benidorm.” Most recently Steve has been seen as the oddball local crime expert in ITVs murder mystery drama Whitechapel.
Hull born Reece Shearsmith has also been kept very busy since the League of Gentlemen, most notably teaming up with Pemberton writing and acting in BBC2’s Pyschoville as well as keeping busy on the stage. Reece also enjoyed a part in one of most successful British films of recent times “Shaun of the Dead.”
The third actor of the team is Mark Gatiss who has since gone on to achieve his genuine childhood dream of writing episodes of Doctor Who. Mark hails from Sedgefield in the North East and keeps himself occupied writing, appearing on the stage and in numerous BBC radio plays. The critically acclaimed “Sherlock” TV series was written by Mark.
Jeremy Dyson never officially played a character but the most enthusiastic fans have spotted him in lots of background cameo appearances. Jeremy is from Leeds and lives in Ilkley. Just like his colleagues, he has enjoyed continued success since the League, which includes co-writing the smash hit West End play Ghost Stories.
Whether another series is to be created is unclear, but Hadfield is still receiving visitors who wander around quoting the characters and generally making a pleasant nuisance of themselves. In fact interest has been sufficient that local shop keepers have generated extra revenue by selling all kinds of souvenirs like cups, T shirts and fridge magnets bearing the slogan “Welcome To Royston Vasey – You’ll never Leave.” But the strangest and most popular keepsakes are the “Special Stuff” sausages from the butchers on Station Road.
Things are finally starting to die down now and the exciting days when their town centre was turned into a television set are little more than a distant memory for most locals. But despite the ongoing joking and teasing of Hadfields people – there is still a lot of hope amongst them that the film crews will once again return to this beautifully normal little Northern town. But even if they don’t, the show will remain in peoples hearts for a long time to come. One thing is certain, it was one of the most memorable programmes to be made in the North, even to those who didn’t actually watch it.
The fact that people are still quoting the show over a decade after it first aired is testament to its far reaching success. “Are You Local?” “it’s a sh*t business” and “Good morning Jobseekers” spring immediately to mind. But there were so many great catch-phrases, characters, stories and sub plots that its impossible to recall them all here. Indeed when I enquired about writing an article on the League of Gentlemen, Northern Lifes production department erupted into what can only be described as “Royston Vasey Tourettes” and I was battered by a volley of memorable quotes. I just wish I’d had the presence of mind to counter with “Whats all this shouting? We’ll have no trouble here!” But alas you always think of these things on the way home.