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.
“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.
“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.
“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.