Celebrating The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You

As it’s nearly Christmas, and I sit impatiently waiting for the return of The League of Gentlemen, I thought I’d use this opportunity to write about one of their less-championed works.

The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You was the group’s final live tour – and final project together – before taking some well-earned time off. And it remains a festive delight that’s well worth your attention this, and every, Christmas. It is, quite simply, far better than it ever needed to be.

You can’t hear the words ‘adult pantomime’ without picturing a VHS showcasing Jim Davidson’s dead-eyed grimace presiding over a blonde underpaid model in cheap lingerie contorting herself into an unnatural pose. But I urge you to try. Yes, The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You is an adult panto – but it is one brimming with ideas, invention, humour and the sort of attention to stagecraft that can only be expected from the League.

Touring in 2005, the show came quick on the heels of the League’s cinematic debut. While The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse was all that any fan could talk about that year – and rightly so, it remains an under appreciated gem – it’s easy to forget that they also embarked on this, their second and possibly even more ambitious national tour.

“I want to fill this stage with DEAD BABIES!”

As with their first live DVD – The League of Gentlemen Live at Drury Lane – it is very much a show of two halves.

The first takes the form of a series of auditions, as various Royston Vasonians compete for starring roles in this years’ Communativity (COMMUNE-NA-TIVITY!) led by the despotic Ollie Plimsolls of Legz Akimbo Theatre Company.

Like a lot of the League’s work, this simple framing device manages to be both a nifty format and also an ingenious foundation on which to build a lot of interesting character work. As with the new road in Series One, or the nosebleed epidemic in Series Two, the nativity audition process opens the doors to a variety of weird and wonderful digressions.

And what digressions they are. Starting strong with a ‘naked’ rendition of their house rules, are Harvey and Val Denton with their nephew Benjamin (and even a surprise cameo from Chloe and Radcliffe). It’s a strong start that gives their Series Two anthem a more fitting showcase – and it certainly sets the tone for everything to come. It’s big, silly and knockabout but with a surprise sting, the sort we’ve come to expect from the four gents.

What follows, is a series of sketches from some of the most loved Vasey characters, all getting an outing that feels suitably festive.

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“That Simon Callow, he’s a bugger, int he?”

Highlights in the first half include Herr Lipp who gets the usual barrage of double entendre – not so much giving a panto a run for it’s money, as steamrollering Widow Twanky while brandishing hard-core porn mags. But despite his mouthful of smut, the sketch also plays out as one of the more heartfelt pieces, giving Herr Lipp a bleak but oddly beautiful end.

Similarly with Les McQueen. The former rhythm guitarist for Crème Brulee (Eurovision finals 1981. Heats.) gets a lovely airing here. As much as I loved his appearance in the pervious live show, it’s nice to get him back out, centre stage, revelling in his tragicomic adventures. And this sketch brings a touch of the supernatural to the proceedings (never too far away when the League are in charge). It’s funny, sad, filled with obscure references, and a fitting finale for our lovable loser.

Speaking of endings, once of the real joys of the League’s live work is the way they play about with their reverence to the show itself. Some sketches feel like genuine continuations of what has come before, while others are unique takes on these characters, special treats crafted just for the live experience, like a joke about bumming entombed in amber. It’s hard to know which sketches genuinely spell the end for characters, and which are exciting digressions from the canon.

“Hear no evil, see you evil and… fucking evil”

The highlight for me has to be the businessmen, Geoff, Mike and Brian. Always a firm favourite, the series saw Geoff step out of the group to become a real hero of Vasey, but this show brings him back to where he belongs, as an embittered stooge to two tactless friends. Bringing the focus back to Geoff’s obsession with jokes – it’s a perfect merging of the festive setting with the characters’ long-running themes. It somehow manages to be both reassuringly familiar and full of twists so you never quite know where it’s going. Like Herr Lipp, the ending is a magical piece of misdirection that uses simple stage tricks to devastating effect.

It’s a testament to the League’s quality control that this show works as well as it does. Considering it came after a particularly gruelling year of brining a film to screen, the amount of new material Jeremy, Steve, Mark and Reece created is simply staggering. And the sketchy nature of the first half evokes a real sense of how it must have been to see them in their tuxedoed infancy each week at the Canal Café Theatre.

The finale to Act One is a real feat: the birth of Jesus as recreated by the inhabitants of the weirdest town in the north. Some characters only get a very small role (Alvin, Pops, Judy and Iris) but it works, making each one more powerful for their brevity.

As the curtain, and the backdrop, comes down on Legz Akimbo and their slapdash nativity, the stage is set for Royston Vasey’s biggest pantomime yet.

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“Oh yes I fucking am”

Casting obnoxious restart officer Pauline as the ultimate panto dame was a masterstroke in what unravels as a series of masterstrokes; Mickey as the hopeless hero; Papa Lazarou as the nefarious villain (complete with pantomimic name, Papa Labanazarou); and Charlie and Stella as the bickering halves of the same panto horse (possibly the most perfect pairing of season and characters).

Weaving together strands from several fairy tales, the show is more than just a passing nod to the genre, but a genuine embracing of all those elements. From beanstalks and crystal moon boots, to audience participation and traditional set pieces; it’s hard not to be swept along on the goodwill it creates.

Speaking of audience participation, the show offers up two attempts. The first, a pretend version that provides the perfect airing for Papa Lazarou’s ‘telekapathic’ powers – “George are you alright?” “Yeah, I’m alright yeah…” – the second, a hands-on session with the useless veterinary himself, Dr Chinnery.

While this segment isn’t as strong as the Herr Lipp sketch from the first tour, Gatiss makes it work with his easy charm. The element holding it back from being truly rip-roaring, is that knowledge that you probably can’t get away with actually drenching a fan with rotting cow’s innards, but the anticipation beforehand is wonderful. You really believe you’re going to witness a gruesome Chinnery sketch up-close with an unsuspecting victim on the other end of a bovine umbilical cord (do they have those?).

Having seen this show live (hence my inability to stay even remotely unbiased) it’s fair to say that the scenes omitted from the DVD do mean that you miss out on some choice League moments – hazy memories of Pauline and Cathy Carter-Smith singing Sisters for one – but that only aids the panto’s forward momentum, as it never outstays it’s welcome.

How nice it is too, to see characters from the ‘controversial’ third series, a particular favourite of mine. Dean Tavalouris, Ann, Barry Baggs and Lisgoe, Dr Carlton and even Neds and Maxi Power (in a perfectly timed cameo) help to round out the cast and show that there’s no character the League haven’t considered in this theatrical adaptation.

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“An illusion so terrifying that if you witness it you will literally shit yourself…”

While I could go on, I doubt anyone is still reading such an ashamedly gushing review, so it feels only right that, like Tubbs, I give my epilogue an airing.

Die-hard League fans with undoubtedly already know how excellent this show is, but for those passing acquaintances, it remains a funny, unique and overlooked entry in The League of Gentlemen’s back catalogue. And more than that, it is an ideal festive treat, one that manages to infuse itself with as much good will as the types of shows it seeks to parody.

If you’re awaiting these new episodes, or dreading the thought of spending two hours in the theatre with an ex-I’m a Celeb-er and a reject from Emmerdale Farm, then you could do much worse that dipping into The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You.

Although the show is over ten years old, it still feels new. And what’s more, it’s reassuring to see writers and performers working so hard to keep their material fresh, relevant and unexpected. While little is known about these new episodes, it’s safe to say that Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are sure to deliver on the considerable expectations.

Oh yes they fucking are.

 

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Thoughts on BBC’s Comedy Playhouse – Hospital People

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So, where do I start with Hospital People? I have a lot of conflicting views about this episode of the latest Comedy Playhouse series. Not least because it’s the type of show I’ve spent most of my comedy career trying to create.

And now, having seen it, I’m glad I never did.

That’s not to say that Hospital People is bad, far from it. It has a lot of potential with some great lines and performances from character comedian, Tom Binns. However, for me, the biggest selling points of this show are also the reasons it doesn’t quite hold together.

Firstly, multiple characters. When I said this was the type of show I’ve always wanted to create, I say that as a former character comedian who spent far too much time trying to create personas that could work both on stage, and in a narrative show. In fact, I’m still writing scripts for these characters now, even though the chances of me playing them are slipping away faster than a greased up turd on a glacier.

But as for Hospital People, the collection of characters – while strong in their own right – feel like they struggle when in competition with each other. Some feel crowbarred in for the sake of it, especially the hypochondriac patient, while other larger than life ones, particularly live-favourite Ian D Montford, feel chronically undersold.

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Taking the psychic character away from all the trappings of that world – cold readings, healings, messages from beyond – strip him of a rich source of comic material. While these elements do feature, they seem more of like lip service instead of being the foundations of a character that’s either exploiting vulnerable people or who genuinely believes he has a connection to the other side. Both of which feel like fascinating, untapped subject matter.

And that’s my issue with the use of multiple characters, while I’ve always loved that as a concept, I feel these characters would be better served at the centre of several strong sitcoms, as opposed to juggling them in a documentary/sketch format.

This is especially clear when you get to Ivan Brackenbury. I’m a huge fan of Binns’ live work, and it’s great to finally see Brackenbury on TV. However, what worked for him live – his radio broadcasts – hold him back in this show.

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To have Ivan sitting behind a desk interacting with jingles and little else gives his segments an inert feeling that’s very tangible. While there are traces of story coming through, especially with his ambitious assistant Shaz played by Mandeep Dhillon, it’s not enough to really let us gain insight into who he is. Any pieces to camera feel like another opportunity to drop in a bit of stand-up, as opposed to revealing more about his goals and aims. In addition to this, his passion for Hospital Radio means that he has nothing to aim for, as he’s already achieved everything he wants to aspire to. The writers (Binns and Matt Morgan) are clearly setting up conflict with the arrival of the new ward TVs, but it comes so late in the episode that it’s not enough to feel like a mission for him.

Now, an Ivan Brackenbury sitcom in which he loses his position at the hospital within the first few minutes, then spends the rest of the episodes trying to claw it back – or better still, aim for a job on national radio – would help us invest in the character and his struggle. Especially for such a sad character, seeing him try and fail would make the comedy even stronger and add weight to his inherent tragedy. He feels bound by the restrictive nature of a workplace documentary.

And this comes to my second major issue with this show – the documentary format.

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As someone who’s recently re-binged the entirety of The Office: An American Workplace, I still feel like there’s a lot of life left in the format, however that usually goes hand-in-hand with having something to say about it.

The documentary, as set up by Hospital People, doesn’t feel real. I’m not convinced we really have documentaries like this nowadays, the real format has moved on, so the parody versions should do the same.

The difficulty is, when you look at The Hotel, First Dates or Educating Yorkshire, they’re pitched and structured like a narrative comedy so they leave very little space for parodies to occupy. But even then, reshaping Hospital People as a show like The Hotel would let you hit the ground running with a voice over that could easily drive the plot forward while connecting the dots between each character.

Ultimately, a documentary doesn’t feel right for these characters. The format seems to have been chosen as a way of bringing disparate characters together in one location, and giving them the opportunity to deliver jokes direct to camera. And it’s this reluctance to let go of that live format that hinders the show – and in particular Ivan Brackenbury.

Comedy Playhouse: Hospital People
Programme Name: Comedy Playhouse: Hospital People – TX: 26/02/2016 – Episode: Comedy Playhouse: Hospital People (No. n/a) – Picture Shows: Susan Mitchell (TOM BINNS) – (C) Roughcut Televison Limited – Photographer: Andy Hollingworth

Going back to my character comedy past, no matter how I detailed I was when creating characters, the difficulty would always be the jump from joke delivery to funny dialogue with other characters. It’s a tough act to juggle and, inevitably, you end up clinging to the material you know will work. But unless your character is Alan Partridge, you really can’t get away with reciting reams of hilarious monologues.

In writing scripts for my characters, the one thing I’ve come to understand is that in order to let your show flourish, you have to be willing to sacrifice certain elements you initially loved. And for all of Hospital People’s merits, it doesn’t seem willing to euthanise it’s flaws.

Thoughts on BBC’s Comedy Playhouse – Stop/Start

The other night I finally caught up with the recent series of Comedy Playhouse. I say ‘finally’ but truth be told, I didn’t even realise I’d missed it.

I don’t want to go full rant, but I love BBC comedy and feel like I’m pretty good at keeping on top of current developments, so it concerns me that the Beeb can launch a new series of pilots, and yet, it can completely pass me by. I’m not saying I’m the demographic they should be chasing, I just worry that if I can miss these shows on their first run, then the majority of casual viewers will miss out too. That’s a worry, seeing as this new series of Comedy Playhouse has a bit of something for everyone.

Firstly, Stop/Start, a new multi-camera sitcom from Jack Docherty. It follows the lives of three couples as they share their intimate moments with the audience, while dealing with the complications of being part of a committed relationship. A lot of people have compared it to Peep Show, and I can see why, but I actually think it’s closer in approach to How Not to Live Your Life. And even Craig David’s Seven Days video.

The show plays out like a standard sitcom, only at various times the characters ‘stop’ the action to explain their feelings to the audience. While the show has already enjoyed some success of radio, I personally struggled with its television format. I haven’t heard the radio show but I can image how the ‘stop-starting’ sounds, and that it feels natural within the context of the show, hearing internal monologues like Peep Show, yet when you’re watching it acted out in front of you, the constant pausing has a jarring effect, halting the action and character repartee in favour of jokes that don’t really add anything.

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Miranda was another show which routinely paused the action for direct to camera sections, and yet managed to pull it off with ease. I think the reason for that has to do, not only with Miranda’s character – which felt big enough to have an understanding of life outside the show – but also because it featured one clear P.O.V.

At any one time, Stop/Start offers up six opinions while trying to seamlessly tie them into a unifying narrative. It’s a tough job and while I did enjoy lots of elements within the show, I actually felt this hook was its undoing. There was something odd about characters competitively sharing their inner thoughts that actually made the show feel less ‘real’, stripping these relationships of warmth and honesty. A couple of moments really stuck out as being somewhat bluntly horrible; revelations I couldn’t accept as believable (even though they were) because I hadn’t warmed to the characters and format.

With Peep Show you’re privy to Mark and Jeremy’s thoughts, but they are informed by, and in turn inform, their actions. Large chunks of this show seemed to use these ‘asides’ to simply play out longer stand-up routines on a variety of topics, or to show that characters had conflicting views, which should be the least we’d expect from a sitcom anyway.

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All this sounds very negative, but actually, there was a warmth and playfulness that kept me onside for the episode. While it seemed to rely too heavily on the well-worn idiotic husband and nagging wife trope, often to the detriment of having anything interesting to say about relationships, the cast were uniformly great (although Laura Aikman seems miscast and struggled to generate the laughs she’s capable of).

For me, the stand out was Nigel Havers who really seems to have embraced self-mockery. That could be because he had a little more definition to his character than just ‘a bloke’. While there was nothing particularly remarkable about Docherty’s character, I’ll admit as a performer he’s endlessly watchable, and with stronger material he’d be an incredibly safe pair of hands to lead any ensemble.

I did feel the performances were pitched slightly too high for the show. I get that it’s a studio sitcom, but it does feel like we’ve lost the ability to combine subtle acting with broad humour. Despite bigger moments, Only Fools and Horses always managed to deftly balance ‘real’ performances. With a hook that’s designed to draw you out of the action, softer performances may have helped ease those transitions.

In addition to that, I did feel the show lacked any real diversity. What could easily have been written as a similar set up to Modern Family; pitting different character lifestyles against each other, Stop/Start chose to focus on three middle class, middle aged, white relationships. I’ve nothing against that, but especially with these broadly drawn characters, it seemingly offers less to play with in the grand scheme of things.

I do hope they make more of Stop/Start as I feel it has the potential to become a strong studio sitcom contender for BBC1, I just hope they can soften the characters a little and find some genuinely revelatory things to say about relationships.

Because, that’s the thing with opinions, they’re only worth hearing if they’re interesting.

I’ll be back later to discuss the other two episodes from the series, Hospital People and Broken Biscuits.