Horror in the Britcom
The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special
In a special festive edition of Horror in the Britcom, A.J. Black explores the singularly hilarious and disturbing portmanteau, The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special…
Welcome to Royston Vasey: Yule Never Leave
What do you traditionally associate with Christmas? Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Jack Frost nipping at your nose? Or if you’re British, rain on Christmas Day and, probably, television that produces one or more special, seasonally devoted episodes of your favourite shows.
Without strolling too heavily into ‘the good old days’, the reality is that they just don’t make Christmas TV like they used to anymore. Call the Midwife (BBC, 2012-), Mrs Brown’s Boys (BBC, 2011-) and Gavin & Stacey (BBC, 2007-19) can’t hold a candle to Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-2003) & Morecambe & Wise. Even Doctor Who BBC, 1963-) has been given the boot to New Year’s Day. The Christmas Special is becoming an artefact of a different era before satellite television evolved into streaming and catch-up services which now indulge our every demand. The days we would crowd around the TV after Christmas lunch and endless calorie-counting snacks to share a funny or moving experience with our favourite or beloved characters.
One Christmas special, which aired at 10pm on December 27th, twenty years ago today in the year 2000, bucked that warm, cosy trend. The League of Gentlemen, by this point well-established as a bizarre combination of sketch show, sitcom and updated Hammer horror series, brought us their skewed take on the Christmas Special with ‘Yule Never Leave’, forty minutes of the most terrifying, and often hilarious, Christmas fodder ever aired on British television. Yule Never Leave is the apex of a beautifully unique example of horror in the Britcom and a masterful expression of how to weave terror and rib-ticking mundanity together in a near-perfect package. Two decades on, it still resonates. It remains haunting, unique, chilling and clever. Nor does it ever depreciate in value.
Finish that mince pie. Grab a hearty bottle of port. Turn out the lights and stoke the fire until it’s roaring. And let’s head to the darkest corner of Royston Vasey as snow falls, an icy wind chills the air, and a local Vicar prepares to lock up her church on Christmas night…
‘Yule Never Leave’ operates differently to the previous two seasons of The League of Gentlemen before it, structured as a portmanteau piece as opposed to the sketch format of the first two seasons, or the loosely connected anthology format of the later third.
Portmanteau is a largely cinematic sub-genre long under-utilised by filmmakers but serves as a staple of the Hammer-era horror the eponymous League, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss (and the off-screen Jeremy Dyson) grew up absorbing. Portmanteau is defined as a form of anthology, but unlike how the third season of the show stitches together two narratives in a condensed whole, Yule Never Leave structures itself as flashback anthology telling four narratives – a framing device set in the village church as foul-mouthed, God-hating Reverend Bernice Woodall is visited on Christmas Eve by a succession of parishioners, and the stories they recount set across the mythological history of the League universe going back over a century.
Nicholas Barber invokes one of the classic portmanteau examples Yule Never Leave draws from in discussing the format:
Every section has to stand or fall on its own merits, as well as complement the whole. If one segment doesn’t entertain, it risks being cut out: the other segments will survive without it. Sub-Altman hyperlink films, on the other hand, can use their constant back-and-forthing to disguise the weakness of the individual strands. You don’t get such shilly-shallying from Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (Freddie Francis,1965), where every gruesome story packs a punch and has a twist to remember. Great title, too. 
Great title, indeed!
‘Yule Never Leave’ is entirely aware of this cinematic canon of ‘60s and ‘70s horror pictures such as The House That Dripped Blood (Peter Duffell, 1970) or Tales From The Crypt (Freddie Francis, 1972) which dabbled in such a style, often to great effect, and mashes them together in a cocktail which feels like the ultimate expression, in some respects, of what the League wanted to put on television. This is darker and more twisted than the seasons before it, less broad, eschewing a laughter track for the first time (the third season continues this level of confidence), and combines genuine horror tropes with comedic payoff. It is, crucially, scary. It understands that horror and comedy need not be strangers, and for every joke, there is a dark homage or creepy image lurking around the corner.
Take what is perhaps the strongest of the portmanteau stories, the origin story of Herr Lipp set in 1970s Duisburg.
Lipp established himself in the second season as one of the League’s breakout monstrosities. One part Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? (BBC, 1972-85), another part one of the camp Nazi officers from Allo, Allo (BBC, 1982-92), and a final part which evoked the most terrifying of human monsters: the predatory, male in a position of authority with children—in this case, a German scoutmaster on a Royston Vasey exchange—who becomes obsessed with a teenage boy called Justin, eventually reaching a point where he abducts and buries him alive essentially once he’s at risk of exposure. While Lipp is played for innuendo-based laughs, the show is explicit about what he is, and the Christmas special—in how it actualises implicit human horror into twisted monstrous forms—develops Lipp one step further by revealing him to be a literal predator: a vampire who preys alongside his stout German wife Lotte, sucking the blood of the innocent.
This is key, the lateralisation. That’s what Yule Never Leave does and, why, it perhaps exists as outside of established series canon in the same manner as The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (Steve Bendelack, 2005), despite the fact according to Jeremy Dyson the portmanteau style was initially developed as the feature experience. The third season does, gently, suggest that the terrifying final moment of Yule Never Leave did actually happen but it nonetheless feels designed, as an episode, to deliberately suggest actual physical horror as the cause behind several of the established jokes and gags within the series. Lipp’s Duisburg story, therefore, is loaded with F. W. Murnau’s immortal Nosferatu (1922) imagery, with the character even stealing the line “The absence of love is the most abject pain” from Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake. There is even a sense of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) in the fusion of performative innocence with dark, malevolent violence, and a dash of Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) in the frightening moment where Lipp spies on the young man staying in his home through a peephole. It is chilling and icky stuff.
If we look at the other two portmanteau stories, they also apply to this same horror actualisation thesis.
My favourite of the three stories is the first, set in Royston Vasey’s modern-day and revolving around Charlie and Stella Hull. While not one of the League’s most standout pair of creations in the previous two seasons, they were arguably loaded with among the greatest pathos; a deeply unhappy traditional Northern couple, fuelled by sexual inadequacy and want, both repeatedly channel their existential anxieties and fears and loathing of each other into people they encounter, such as Luigi the waiter or Julie their daughter, building to a heightened, emotional boiling point before the gag sees them quickly return to normality once they’ve scared the person off. It’s a good recurring joke but one built on rivers of interpersonal pain that the League build out into a short story of Stella, amidst an affair with her friend’s husband Lee, becoming indoctrinated into a secret Royston Vasey society of women who use voodoo practices, able to rid her of Charlie and escape her marriage.
While voodoo is not a feature of the film, Stella’s journey into this secret collective visually recalls Stanley Kubrick’s final picture Eyes Wide Shut (1999), released just a year before this episode in 1999. The women in the group all wear the same anonymised, theatrical Greek masks as they induct Stella into their world, with the joke being that none of them are anonymous at all; each of them very clearly represents the various female grotesques from Royston Vasey, such as toad-obsessed, fastidious matriarch Val Denton; pen-loving sociopathic jobcentre restart officer Pauline Campbell-Jones and budding actress prone to recite her lines in gobbledygook Pam Doove. Stella has no idea who any of these people are, but we do, and it adds a deeper layer to the comedic suggestion that all of the women of Royston Vasey are plotting against their nightmarish, boorish or just plain psychopathic husbands. It’s a fun inversion of Kubrick’s anonymisation of hedonistic power. Yet their help comes with a cost Stella does not understand, as Val puts it: “The price cannot be made known to you until the job is completed.”
That price ultimately turns out to be Stella’s undoing, as she uses voodoo to ritually humiliate Charlie as he performs his passion of line dancing, but later watches helplessly as her secret lover is murdered, via supernatural means, before her eyes and she is set up by her friend Donna (guest star Liza Tarbuck) for her infidelity. “This is the price”. The story avoids issues of continuity and canon by revealing the horror as part of Charlie’s existential dream, a recurring nightmare he fruitlessly comes to Bernice to try and understand. She just writes it off as a ‘cheese dream’. “But Reverend, you don’t understand. I feel so alone!” Charlie declares before the Vicar kicks him out, using his pain to mirror her own as flashbacks steady unfurl her own traumatic childhood narrative as her mother is kidnapped, before her very eyes, by a nightmarish figure dressed as Santa Claus. We will return to this but in telling these short stories, within the portmanteau style of horror-based extractions of these established comedy characters, the League writers steadily begin to construct an added narrative for Bernice even as she exists within the framing device. It prevents her simply remaining the crypt keeper receiving these stories, and she serves as part of the narrative herself.
The most obvious and traditional story of the three revolves around the lineage of Dr. Chinnery, Royston Vasey’s pleasant but eternally unlucky vet who ends up killing almost every animal he comes into contact with, often through a cosmic sense of misfortune.
In a story that takes place at the end of the Victorian era, first in London and then a period version of Royston Vasey, focusing on Chinnery’s ancestor Dr. Edmund Chinnery, we learn that Chinnery’s family and subsequent generations of the Chinnery line have suffered from the Curse of Karrit Poor, in which the Maharajah of a 19th-century Indian province cursed an old doctor, Purblind (played by cult actor Freddie Jones), after he accidentally destroyed the King’s pet monkey’s testicles. This applies a classical, traditional supernatural cause on Chinnery’s effect, which tracks with every other example of these portmanteau stories where the exaggerated tropes and characters of Royston Vasey become literal avatars of nightmarish realities. Chinnery ascribes his bad fortune with animals (which only further extends the joke as to why every Chinnery descendant became a vet in the first place) to a curse which Bernice, in her counsel, casts off as she has done with every other visitor to her church. “I’ve learned a lot of things tonight – about people, about myself, about the nature of fear! And it’s all up here… It’s all in your mind! Whatever’s happened in the past is over and done! It’s up to us all to face the future.”
Operating as the framing device, as per her character, Bernice casts off the fears of her parishioners with their terrifying dreams, experiences and historical records in the off-hand way we are used to as an audience. “Well, you think you’re the only person that’s ever had a shit Christmas? You’ve no idea!” she tells Matthew, again recalling her traumatic experience, one ‘Yule Never Leave’ suggests shaped her aggressive, North Eastern disbelief in God, counter to her work. Bernice had worked previously as a comic caricature—the Priest who hates organised religion and swears like a trouper—but here we witness the character undergo a transformation, Ebenezer Scrooge-like. By the end of her encounter with Chinnery, she has banished her own fears, seemingly, through imbuing her parishioners with the belief to face their own. The episode leads us toward the possibility of a hopeful, happy ending which, as an audience, we should expect to be undercut by the League’s penchant for comic darkness.
Bernice sees who appears to be a local Santa Claus in the doorway of her church who she, at the beginning of the episode, threw a snowball at malevolently. “I was hoping to see you again! Hey, I’m sorry about the snowball before. I was in a bit of a mood, but I’m happy now!” she says cheerily before the League, in one of the finest moments of terrifying comic horror the show ever delivers, the writers provide the ultimate subversion combined with audience payoff. Bernice suffers the same fate as her mother, abducted by a malevolent Father Christmas, who turns out to be… Papa Lazarou, who bellows “you’re my wife nowwwww!” his singular catchphrase. It’s a great narrative choice because Lazarou, despite appearing only once before in the first episode of Season Two, made such a vivid impression. Shearsmith, decked out in minstrel-esque face paint, adopting a cod-Eastern European accent, Lazarou is the mysterious ringmaster of a travelling church who kidnaps women to serve as wives, with a hint implied that he has powers that go beyond the rational. This is borne out in his next appearance beyond this but Yule Never Leave confirms him as the series’ ultimate, monstrous supervillain, corrupting Christmas itself and stealing away Royston Vasey’s representative of goodness, charity and faith who had redeemed herself.
In this, we find the ultimate expression of Yule Never Leave’s twisted visage of the traditional Christmas special. Where most comedy series deliver festive cheer, a hopeful message or just a plain level of sentiment, The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special takes Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (BBC, 1988) —in which the good Ebenezer Blackadder turns evil in one night, as Charles Dickens’ classic story is inverted—one step further, turning inside out the basic precepts of Christmas fare and morphing the result into a blend of Hammer horror, portmanteau structure, and a host of cinematic and TV horror references (everything from Dead of Night (various, 1945) through to 1970s The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries)) and provides a frequently hilarious, frequently nightmarish and frequently chilling rejoinder on what audiences expect from Christmas storytelling. It is the kind of bleak, Gothic concoction only members of the League could make work and sell with such aplomb.
The title of the episode, a play on Royston Vasey’s ironic village motto “you’ll never leave”, also serves as a pointed truth about the League’s Christmas outing. Once you’ve seen it, it will never leave you.