The League of Gentlemen's Metapocalypse
In the latest entry for his Horror in the Britcom series, writer A.J. Black explores the transition from beloved television comedy to the big screen with 2005's The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse...
While it was always easy for critics and audiences to write off The League of Gentlemen as innuendo laden grotesquery, it was a comedy series that contained an enormous amount of awareness and self-awareness coursing under the surface.
After debuting on radio in the mid-1990s, the town and characters of Royston Vasey, a fictional hamlet in the north of England, burst onto screen performed and written by the trio of Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Mark Gatiss (plus Jeremy Dyson, who remained off camera) and immediately became a bizarre, pop-culture phenomenon in the late-90s spawning a legion of memorable catchphrases, a rogue’s gallery of strange and at points downright scary characters who passed into comedy legend, and a unique balance of risqué, populist sketch humour with throwback horror, often to the nightmarish British visages of the ‘60s and ‘70s with inspirations such as The Wicker Man or the Hammer productions stable. It was a series made by horror film fans laced with references, nods and winks.
Two hit series in that format eventually broached a third which, in the inimitable style of the League, saw them play around with how to portray the show. Depicting a domino-effect of a car accident in Royston Vasey, six episodes spooled out, Rashomon-style, to tell the story leading up to the accident with six characters, some new, some very minor in previous seasons, and all without the customary laughter tracks. While that season stands, in retrospect, among the best the series had to offer, the approach polarised as did the key element they were fighting against: using the fan favourite characters audiences wanted to see. The very first episode of the season opens with breakout characters Edward & Tubbs Tattsyrup—inbred, murderous owners of the ‘local’ shop—escaping what appeared to be a fire that killed them off at the end of the previous season, only to be immediately flattened for good by a speeding modern train. It was the League making a point: we’re moving on.
This is central to what the troupe choose to do in The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (Steve Bendelack, 2005), a film built on metafictional tropes as a means of both embracing their beloved creations and finding peace with leaving them behind once and for all.
If you look at the majority of Britain’s well known or beloved sitcoms between the 1960s to 1980s, you will see how almost all of them transitioned from television origins to the big screen.
Are You Being Served? (BBC, 1972-85), Dad’s Army (BBC, 1968-77), Porridge (BBC, 1974-77), Up Pompeii (BBC, 1969-70), Steptoe & Son (BBC, 1962-74), Rising Damp (ITV, 1974-78) – these are just a few examples of a trend that elevated some of Britain’s immortalised comic creations to a broader canvas and, in almost every case, provided diminishing returns. The jokes that worked well in half an hour week in week out would struggle to translate over a longer running time, sans audience laughter track, with the complication of needing to deliver a more substantial narrative alongside Fletch or Rigsby or Captain Mainwaring making audiences laugh. The trend fell apart as the 1980s came to a close, with Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-2003) serving as an example of how you could tell feature-length stories on a TV canvas, and so the 60-90-minute special—often at Christmas—was born and extended into the 1990s. Most hit TV comedy creations stopped going to the movies.
The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse understands this keenly, the writers fully aware that audiences never get the satisfaction when great comedy TV characters make the jump to cinema screens, and they work to provide the audience directly with a comment on that very truth. Late on in Apocalypse, in which some of the memorable creations from Royston Vasey learn the League are no longer planning to write more stories for them and breach the ‘real’ world in order to save their own, psychotic JobCentre restart worker, Pauline Campbell-Jones presents Mark Gatiss with a list of Royston Vasey movie ideas the characters have thought up, including all of them going on holiday to Spain. ‘When they get there, the hotel’s not finished, no one speaks the lingo’ Pauline says, both thinking it’s the funniest idea in the world and unaware this is both the plot to the Are You Being Served? movie and even Carry on Abroad (Gerald Thomas, 1972). Hapless vet Dr. Chinnery’s suggestion is ‘one of the characters is mistaken for someone in the Mafia and gets chased around with a bag of money’, which is very close to the plot of Only Fools’ biggest TV special, Miami Twice, aired on television but shot on film.
This is intentional. The League understand that doing justice on the big screen to small screen comedy characters who connected with audiences is extraordinarily difficult, and many of the attempts to do were lazy and cheap, often placing characters in different scenarios and locations while missing the point that audiences loved them precisely because of where they were – the prison, the department store, the rag & bone yard etc… This is why Apocalypse is a clever inversion of that evolution of that small screen to big, employing the meta-fictional conflagration of beloved characters, newly created characters and the writers themselves, to provide audiences with a unique fusion of the League series’ comedy and horror all brewed together. While it wasn’t planned originally as such, it feels the natural extension of that unusual third season, as the League team work to try and keep both audience expectations alive while pushing themselves to try new things as creatives.
Jeremy Dyson has discussed the genesis of the film idea and how it began to coalesce:
‘There was quite a bit of talking about what the idea would be. We were talking about historical things, that’s for sure, and we were toying with doing a portmanteau thing, possibly. There was just a sense of it would be nice to move up and work on a bigger canvas without necessarily having a sense of what it was.’ What if you saw Pauline in Budgens? led to the idea of putting the characters into the real world and seeing what would happen. ‘Conceptually, that was a big idea. Once we came up with it, we wrote it quite quickly… It was a delicious idea from our point of view, putting the characters into parts of our own lives.’ (1)
Crucially, the League had decided by this point after the third season to stop writing Royston Vasey characters and instead were attempting to pen a straight horror movie called The King’s Evil, set in 1690 and involving a plot by Catholic fops in league with a John Dee-esque occultist to kill the Protestant King William with a demonic entity called a ‘homunculus’. Amidst writers’ block in bringing this new project to life, they end up working that very narrative into Apocalypse as the primary threat not to our world, but that of Royston Vasey and the characters on who they made their names and reputations. Vasey is literally crumbling at the seams, fire and brimstone raining down on their world as their creators—their Gods—abandon them.
Ironically, in Apocalypse, Dyson is the writer who is less willing to let Royston Vasey go, and in time-honoured fashion of the scribe not appearing on camera, the version of Dyson here is fictional, played by the ever-versatile Michael Sheen in an opening sequence which immediately plays with and subverts tropes. Joby Talbot’s broad, cinematic score, transforming the TV show theme tune into an orchestral sweep, segues into Dyson’s ring tone on his phone. Where we see Steve keeps his memorabilia and work on the TV show in his attic, Dyson remains surrounded by it, working up ideas for these characters from a remote coastal retreat his colleagues ignore. ‘I just don’t think they’re ready to go yet’ he admits, before the opening sequence climaxes with a frantic, intentionally farcical chase between a terrified Dyson and the monstrous visages of Edward, Tubbs and later black face painted circus owner & abductor Papa Lazarou, which plays into their accentuated positions in the TV series as sinister, murderous characters, despite how in Apocalypse their motives are divorced from the series.
This perhaps accounts for why they, and certain other of the show’s more bizarre characters, do not quite track with their portrayal in the show. Divorced from their roles as written by the League, operating ostensibly with their own free will to protect their fictional world, Edward, Tubbs & Lazarou are intentionally designed primarily for exposition rather than playing to their weirdest attributes. The same is true of the profane, Godless female vicar, Bernice Woodall, who serves largely to bring the primary trio of the story into the narrative. ‘We are three of the more… bizarre characters’ Edward states, an admission he never would have made in the TV series as he lacked self-awareness, and this is where Apocalypse plays into the central subversion of horror. In this narrative, he, Tubbs and Lazarou are recast as brave warriors infiltrating a parallel universe on a mission to find their creators and save their world. They are not our protagonists, but they are, in their own way, heroes.
By that logic, the characters the League choose in Apocalypse to centralise the narrative around are highly interesting. The anti-heroic lead, in a sense, is Hilary Briss (as played by Gatiss), a butcher who led a secret, underground trade in meat that was heavily intimated to be human flesh, through which he compromised everyone from local businessmen to politicians before he was unmasked and went on the run. The TV show saw him, in a coda to the second season, having escaped to the Caribbean where he, devilishly, began to ply his dark trade again, but Apocalypse intersects following his exposure with him on the run in Vasey. He unwittingly leads his two eventual compatriots into the church containing the doorway into our world, or that of the writer’s minds, and is forced to take on a role in no way meant for him. Hilary’s self-interest gradually morphs into the defence of a sense of place, and he sacrifices himself—in the cinematic language of the redeemed hero—to save Royston Vasey. His character arc is among the more predictable but, given Hilary is one of the arch supervillains of the TV series’ tapestry, it works surprisingly well.
Alongside him for the ride is Geoff Tipps, as played by Shearsmith, who would be in the running as the League’s funniest and most tragic, complex character. Ugly, ill-educated and driven by prejudices, Geoff throughout the series is a caricatured play on the blue-collar worker full of near-psychotic anger management issues, who frequently loses his cool with his male colleagues and threatens to kill them. In the third season, Geoff even tries his hand as a stand-up comedian, moving to the big city in London, and this adds to his pathos. Apocalypse presents him as the mid-point between Hilary and Herr Lipp; the clownish buffoon who bulldozes his way into situations and, through his own self-aggrandisement, writes himself into The King’s Evil as the hero and attracts the attention of the ultimate villain, Dr. Pea (the great cult character actor David Warner, hamming up a storm). Geoff worked so well precisely because he was uncouth, sexist, bigoted, homophobic and full of rage at how the world treated him like an idiot, yet there remained something strangely charming about him. This is the case with Apocalypse. His intersection within the post-Elizabethan seriousness and royal whimsy of The King’s Evil (where he goes by the name ‘George of ASDA’) are among the film’s funniest moments.
Completing this triumvirate of compromised grotesques is Herr Lipp (as played by Pemberton), one of the broadest characters in the TV series; a German scout leader on an exchange trip who speaks largely in sexual innuendo and shows a disturbing, constant predilection for young boys. The superb Christmas special, transposing many of these characters as part of portmanteau horror stories, even recasts Lipp as a literal vampire, preying on the blood and innocence of children. Yet Lipp, remarkably, undergoes the most significant transformation across Apocalypse. Going undercover (it has to be said rather unconvincingly) as Pemberton, Lipp not only discovers Steve’s wife and children are being neglected by his devotion to his work, he discovers an affinity for living Steve’s life, caring for his wife and loving his children, not in a sexual and predatory but instead fatherly way. In a film of heightened conceptual ideas and comic interludes, Lipp’s story is riven with a surprising amount of dramatic pathos, particularly for a character who in the TV series is among the creepiest and most suggestively perverted and dark monsters in Royston Vasey.
The biggest surprise within Apocalypse is how successfully it manages to turn our expectations of these characters on their heads while retaining the comedic horror inherent in who they are. Lazarou might be on a heroic quest but we still watch him cough up a literal black furball in a bizarre aside. Tubbs, again, gives Geoff a literal shit sandwich like it’s perfectly normal. Even the writers themselves in this metafictional world are monstrous, at points even more so, deliberately, than their ghoulish creations. Steve, as mentioned, doesn’t care for his family; Reece treats production assistants poorly and considers attending a charity benefit for ‘mongoloids’ a chore. Only Mark has a vestige of humanity and care for these characters. All of them, however, are dispatched in theatrical death scenes the League clearly revel in showing, in a literal case of on-screen suicide whereby fate intervenes to kill the creators of a world they have sundered, a world where they have condemned their characters to destruction.
Apocalypse, interestingly, confronts the idea of narrative free will. This is an idea explored in meta-fiction such as the Jasper Fforde lexicon but in the world of the League, the cue is more from Charlie Kaufman. The door into ‘our’ world beneath the church recalls the door in Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999) into the mind of the titular actor. As the characters in Royston Vasey become aware that they are fictional creations, as indeed does Dr Pea in The King’s Evil, it is left to Lipp to confront the possibility that killing Mark could prove their own existence. He makes the point that their fictional personas will never evolve if written by writers playing the same jokes and situations with them, such as Bernice never believing in God or Chinnery never saving the life of an animal. ‘What is the quality of our life if we cannot change who we are?’ Lipp asks after Mark comments ‘you’re just such an easy character to write for.’ This is the point – the League had, before Apocalypse, felt they had exhausted all of the possibilities from grotesque creations who, by definition of being built for comedy, are never supposed to change. The point is that they remain fixed and, consequently, at what point does their purpose outlive itself.
On one level, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse prefigures the pop culture trend of the late 2010s, still evident today, for nostalgia and the inability of writers and franchises to leave behind characters who audiences adore. The League did eventually return to Royston Vasey in 2017 for a three-part ‘conclusion’ to the storylines and threads of the earlier series (the ending of which even extended to a successful, second stage show that served as an entertaining coda), and while the magic was largely recaptured, it was nowhere near as intriguing a finale for this strange world of classic horror and Gothic homage as Apocalypse’s intentional reckoning with fictional ideas, tropes, language and the very conception of writing turned out to be. In their desire to let go of the world they had created, and of characters who had achieved a position within the cultural conversation beyond the show or their creators, the League successfully manage to explore their own desire to move on, service their signature creations and comment directly on the transference of television to cinema in one skilled, clever fell swoop.
Even better, the final moment further extends the Kaufmanesque idea of where and in what context Apocalypse takes place, leaving us with one metafictional suggestion: that perhaps as much as we may try to consign the comic horror of Royston Vasey in the past, the town lives up to its moniker.
You’ll never leave.