In a League of their own

The League of Gentlemen's debut feature film shows up Little Britain for the inferior rip-off it is.

Neil Davenport

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Sometimes you have to wonder what all the fuss is about: a grotesque ‘comedy’ supposedly set in Britain featuring grown men dressing as women or council estate ‘chavs’ and usually spouting infuriating catchphrases. I’m referring, of course, to Matt Lucas and David Walliams’ vastly overrated BBC comedy, Little Britain. Over the past 18 months, the show has ‘yeah, but no, but yeah’d its way into the comedy premier league.

But why? Anyone who had seen and enjoyed The League of Gentlemen on BBC 2 between 1999 and 2002 would see Little Britain for what it is – a well-behaved rip-off without a tenth of the inspiration or daring that the League’s Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith can conjure up.

A few minutes into their debut feature film, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, the superior talents on display become abundantly clear. The League draws on arcane British horror films and the uncomfortable looking grime found in 1970s sitcoms. Most of all, the characters and phrases are purloined from acute observations of real people and bizarre news stories. For instance, the show’s strapline – ‘You’ll Never Leave!’ – was nicked from Gloucestershire council, which believed that that phrase would off-set the grim negativity surrounding the Fred West murders.

Such fertile writing is brilliantly bought to life with thundering performances from the League itself (bar the non-acting Dyson). And by using horror within a comedy format, they constantly pushed the boundaries of bad taste to bursting point. Nevertheless, such devices are rarely used in a gratuitous or clumsily schlock horror way. Instead the carnival of grotesque is integral to the dank, hermetically sealed world of fictional northern town, Royston Vasey (itself set in Hadfield, Derbyshire).

The League’s dismissal of polite comedy convention means they often have an uneasy relationship with the BBC. They’ve never received the kind of blanket promotion given to Little Britain or The Office. To this day, the third series of The League of Gentlemen from 2002 has never been repeated on any TV channel; it is considered too vicious and off-beam for broadcasting.

In Apocalypse, the series’ most famous creations, incestuous siblings Tubbs and Edward, are back after being killed off in the last TV series. Royston Vasey is threatened with impending destruction (namely that the writers are writing it off) and in order to survive the characters enter our world to force the League’s writers to think again. It sounds chaotic and unworkable, but for the most part it works. It’s tightly written, visually rich and – let’s not forget – laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, some of the gags are the sharpest they’ve done, while the extravagant sets (even by their standards) have taken their eye for comedy detail to Olympian heights.

As the film switches between our world, Royston Vasey and medieval England (a subplot within a plot), this is one TV comedy spin-off that demands concentration throughout. What they haven’t quite mastered, however, is how to end a linear narrative (the same problem surfaced in the third TV series) – thus the attempt to wrap the film up is overwrought and overlong.

Although funnier and better than last year’s Brit comedy success, Shaun of the Dead, it seems unlikely that Apocalypse will enjoy crossover success (already it has performed only modestly at British box offices). An acquaintance with the League’s characters – petty dole bureaucrat Pauline, psychotic factory worker Geoff Tibbs, cannibal meat trader Hilary Briss, and German paedophile Herr Lipp (dubbed a ‘one pun character’ in the film) – is needed just to grapple with the sprawling and sometimes impenetrable plot.

Even so, it is hard not to be impressed by the twisted and absorbing scenarios on display (all masterfully directed by Steve Bendelack). At its best, Apocalypse confirms why the League is the most dazzlingly original British comedy outfit in 30 years. More importantly, they’re still brimming with enough fresh ideas and laughs to keep them in ‘special stuff’ for the rest of the decade. Whether they’ll be allowed to, though, is another matter. With the BBC winning awards and viewing figures for the sanitised offspring Little Britain, its riskier and darker mentor might not be allowed to escape Royston Vasey after all.

Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and freelance writer.

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