In January 1999 I was working for a small theatre company touring a play about sexual health to Year 10 students in secondary schools in the Yorkshire area. One evening, sat in the living room of our dreary Huddersfield guest house flicking through the TV channels not really knowing what was on, we chanced upon a new show just about to start on BBC2 and decided to give it a go. A funeral procession passes solemnly by a church. The hearse rolls into shot, carrying a wreath spelling the word "B*st*rd"... During the course of the next half-hour, our jaws dropped and our sides split. The sheer darkness of it ("We didn't burn him!"), the bizarre and monstrous characters, the virtuoso performances of the three men who played them all, the quality of the writing, was of such an unusually high standard for what we had come to expect from the majority of current British comedy. We were hooked.
Reading up on The League Of Gentlemen over the next few days, I discovered to my delight that they had studied drama at the same place I had studied - Bretton Hall. Suddenly I understood... especially when the episode featuring Legz Akimbo Theatre Company aired towards the end of our tour. A frighteningly accurate portrayal of the somewhat unique experience of working in Theatre In Education (although I should be fair here and point out that our play was genuinely very good!), which also contained several hallmarks of the Bretton experience. Thank God we weren't alone! Somebody understood - kindred spirits! The reaction we got the next day from our teenage audience, who had obviously also seen the show the night before, was predictable enough but a strange joy was to be had in it...
The scenarios played out follow a fairly standard comedy format - one normal person confronted by two caricatures (or vice versa) with the time-honoured hilarious consequences. The difference here is that this standard format is pushed up several notches to a grotesque level, and the consequences genuinely are hilarious.
For example, Benjamin's stay at the Dentons is a classic simple set-piece revolving around being unsure how to conduct oneself as a guest in someone's house. Except here the League crank it up considerably - the Dentons are lethally exacting, have some disturbing household routines and are obsessed with the idea that Benjamin is a compulsive masturbator (which of course he isn't). Add to this their hobby of toad-rearing and their disconcerting children (twin girls based on the twins in "The Shining") and you have a typical League treatment of a comedy standard.
Then there's businessmen Geoff, Mike and Brian. Mike and Brian are the normal ones, Geoff is the bitter and unstable psychopath who hates the pair of them and carries a gun. Job Centre Restart Officer Pauline is as monstrous and unsympathetic to the cause of her charges as could possibly be - and then some. Her scenes with the hopelessly retarded but devoted Mickey and sullen newcomer Ross are priceless. Then of course we have Edward and Tubbs, fearful of anything from the outside world and murderously protective of all that is "local". And let's not forget the pre-op transexual cab driver Barbara, the most un-feminine woman you are likely to meet, and keen to explain to passengers the more gory elements of his/her forthcoming operation in unremitting detail.
You get the picture. The League draw on their shared love of Hammer horror films and a whole host of other influences to create a wonderfully atmospheric and macabre world. Anyone who has ever struggled with life in a remote small town will find much to enjoy here, and the League's morbid twist on the concept is inspired. This is by no means a run-of-the-mill sketch show - there is a plot and storyline running throughout the whole series, although there are one or two one-off characters who appear in their own scenes outside the storyline. The guilt-ridden and clinically depressed cave tour guide who appears in one episode delivers what is for me one of the finest comic monologues I have ever heard.
The DVD commentary by the group is extremely frank and reveals many of the concepts and influences that helped shape the programme, as well as a great deal of anecdotes about the real people who provided inspiration for some of the characters. It also contains several Bretton Hall references, so that people like me can get all smug because we know exactly what they're talking about...!
Make no mistake, this is a top quality programme. Superbly written and beautifully performed, it never underestimates its audience or compromises material for the sake of dumbing down or an easy laugh. Some people found the blackness of the humour and relentlessly bleak tone a bit too much to take. Some found it offensive. Some people missed the point and just latched on to the catchphrases, repeating them interminably throughout the land. Others just missed the point altogether. This is intelligent comedy that requires something of its audience other than to just sit there and blindly expect to be made to laugh, which is all too rare these days. I cannot recommend this highly enough.