The Everyday Horrors of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith
Sophia Adamowicz explores the distinctive blend of the macabre and the mundane in the work of long-standing writing and acting partners, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith...
Ever since they first appeared together as the pig-nosed owners of the Local Shop, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have bewitched television audiences with their ghoulish charm.
Along with Mark Gatiss and the camera-shy Jeremy Dyson, they form one half of the dark comedy troupe, The League of Gentlemen. Their eponymous show, which first aired in the bleak midwinter of 1999, has been compared to ‘a school horror appreciation club,’ (Wollaston, 2017) with critics highlighting its frequent references to classics of British cinema. Shearsmith and Pemberton teamed up again for Psychoville (2009-11), a comedy-chiller featuring a cast of characters even more grotesque than the residents of Royston Vasey.
While it owes more to Hitchcock than Hammer, Psychoville has been described as ‘a horror show about horror’ (Kurland, 2016). The pair’s latest project, Inside No. 9 (2014-present), draws on a number of genres including tragi-comedy, domestic drama and murder mysteries, but tales of terror also feature prominently in the mix. Despite the number of allusions to horror films in their oeuvre, Shearsmith and Pemberton do not merely stitch disparate fragments into a monstrous whole. The spark of originality that infuses all of their work is what I’d like to term, ‘Local Gothicism’. This is the quality of turning normal places, everyday objects and memories of the past into the stuff of nightmares. Local Gothicism makes the macabre elements of their output earthy, relatable, even loveable, whilst transmuting the mundanities around us into something sinister.
A decent town
Venture far enough into the British countryside, and you’ll find Royston Vasey. Granted, the place at which you arrive may not be populated by polygamous ringmasters, demon butchers or murderous shop-owners (you’d hope), but it’s recognisable as Royston Vasey nevertheless. There’s the war memorial on the street corner! Over there is Luigi’s, a restaurant about as Italian as a tin of Heinz Spaghetti Bolognese on toast. And in the distance, is that …? No, not the Local Shop, but a General Store. There’s one in my parents’ village. I’ve never dared to go inside.
Initially named ‘Spent’ and only later Christened after the comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, the town in The League of Gentlemen is a relic of the Thatcher-era harrowing of the North. In their pitch for the 1998 BBC radio series, Dyson, Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith describe the setting of their show as a place ‘crippled by unemployment, difficult to get to or away from; the perfect backdrop for the League of Gentlemen’s dysfunctional characters’ (Dyson et al., 2003, p. 10).
The sense of entrapment – perfectly captured by Royston Vasey’s motto, ‘You’ll never leave’ – creates ideal conditions for horror-comedy. Both genres are essentially about outsiders who cannot escape from an oppressive situation. This shared ground is partly why there are some darkly comic moments in the horror films that inspired Shearsmith and Pemberton’s brand of Local Gothicism. The hostile silence that greets the hikers as they enter ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ in An American Werewolf in London and Lord Summerisle’s pride in his island in The Wicker Man are as funny as they are unsettling, as they remind us of the all-too-familiar otherness of provincial British communities.
The twisted faces of Gothic Localism are Tubbs (Pemberton) and Edward (Shearsmith): spouses, siblings and mass-murderers. Based on a real-life encounter with an unwelcoming vendor in Rottingdean, the very first Local Shop sketch in The League of Gentlemen establishes the apparent normality of the setting. Martin, a backpacker from out of town, picks up a cheap-looking snow globe from the shelf, gives it a shake and smiles at its quaintness. When he asks Tubbs whether he can buy it, she snatches the snow globe from him, holds it to her breast and caresses it. As she later tells Edward, ‘He covets the precious things of the shop’.
At this point, English eccentricity tips into horror. Edward accuses him of violating the sanctity of all things local and, after trial by striptease, Martin is murdered. Thus begins the spate of torture and death that take place amidst shelves of Ajax detergent and feather dusters. The snow globe, containing an image of the Local Shop and the town sign, appears as a recurring symbol in series 2. The world inside it is a microcosmic version of Royston Vasey: sealed off from external influence, out-dated, yet oddly charming. There’s comfort in its familiarity, warmth in its depiction of a snowy semi-rural scene. At the same time, it represents the savage instinct to preserve the character of a place at all costs.
Never was that concept more relevant than at the time of the 2017 League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials, when Brexit negotiations were underway following the previous year’s EU referendum. In a rare moment of overt satire, Edward announces that ‘it’s time we took back control’ when the existence of the Local Shop is threatened by bureaucrats. Although Edward is pursuing his own agenda by holding a council representative and journalist hostage, his championing of local ways happens to coincide with a wider campaign against the government’s plans to wipe Royston Vasey from the map. Tubbs and Edwards ironically become pin-ups of a populist movement to ‘keep Royston Vasey local’.
We’re even on their side, cheering along with the picketing crowd. Edward’s rallying cry of ‘This is a local town for local people! A local country for local people!’ is set against the backdrop of a grim discovery, however. We follow a policeman (David Morrisey) down a dark corridor of the Shop and into a back room, where he finds the two hostages – blood-drenched, quivering, their faces covered with masks made of paper plates. Just before he lifts one of the masks, the camera switches to Tubbs saying, ‘We didn’t cut their faces off’. The mangled flesh of the victims is, thankfully, not shown. But Morrisey’s disgusted reaction is enough to make this a truly horrifying moment. Having been swept along by the love for our local heroes, we’re forced to reflect on the abhorrent nature of their values.
While the Local Shop storyline in the Anniversary Specials is more self-consciously satirical than usual, the show has offered us a distorted reflection of our society since its inception. Even the otherworldly figure of Papa Lazarou (Shearsmith), the wife-collecting, minstrel-faced ringmaster widely thought to be the scariest of Pemberton and Shearsmith’s creations, is a monster born of deeply engrained cultural prejudice. The character has been criticised recently in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, prompting Netflix to remove The League of Gentlemen from its platform, along with other shows that involve white actors wearing blackface.
Papa Lazarou is, to a great extent, so inhuman that he cannot properly be said to belong to any race. Still, he does remind the viewers of how bizarre and blinkered Western society had to be to embrace blackface as a form of entertainment in nineteenth- and twentieth-century circus acts and minstrel shows. The make-up also reflects the use of blackface in traditional English festivities such as the Cornish winter solstice celebration, ‘Mummer’s Day’, and Morris dancing. As unearthly as he is, Papa Lazarou belongs to these troubling remnants of the past that persist in the folk tradition.
Back in 1999, the perverted owner of a newsagents, Pop (Pemberton), disowns his son Richie (Shearsmith) after he admits that nine Maverick bars were shoplifted under his watch. Twenty years later, Richie has become the owner of a middle-class delicatessen. He’s doing well for himself. That is until Pop turns up at his door. Swearing revenge on Richie for his past misdemeanours, Pop threatens to torture his prodigal son by inserting nine Maverick bars up his anus. When the terrified man points out that ‘they don’t do Mavericks any more,’ Pop replies, ‘It’s okay. I brought Picnics’.
References to consumer culture are sprinkled throughout the Pemberton-Shearsmith canon, mostly appearing in the context of hideous crimes. David (Pemberton) and Maureen (Shearsmith), the mother and son serial killers of Psychoville, integrate familiar and once innocent products into their lurid plans for murder. Having decided to drown the first victim of their killing spree in his own bath, Maureen urges her son to add some Matey foam to the water. Viewers who remember these smiling sailor bottles may feel a shudder of unease as fond childhood memories meet the nightmare of home invasion and premeditated murder.
In series 2, Maureen and David host a dinner party for a prospective victim and attempt to provoke a fatal allergic reaction by mixing peanuts into banana-flavoured Angel Delight (he previously let slip that he cannot eat nuts and was once ‘hospitalised by a Bakewell tart’). Both Matey and Angel Delight belong to a by-gone era, one associated with the innocence of childhood but also the drab, slightly depressing domestic world of the 1960s and 70s. Pemberton and Shearsmith evoke memories of normality for baby boomers, before casting a shadow over these everyday things. The resulting effect is both nostalgic and disturbing.
Even the supernatural elements of their output include references to consumer culture. In the Hammer-style episode of Inside No. 9, ‘The Harrowing,’ a teenage girl is lured into spending the evening in a Gothic house owned by spooky siblings, Hector (Shearsmith) and Tabitha (superbly played by Helen McCrory). In exchange for £88 and access to a rare art collection, Katy must look after the house while Hector and Tabitha attend a rare event. She won’t be alone, however. Andras, the eldest sibling, is sequestered in his room at the top of the house. Tabitha tells Katy how ‘he is disabled. Terribly so. Born inside-out’. As Tabitha prepares to leave with Hector, she shows Katy where she can get a snack, and opens a cupboard stacked high with rusk biscuits. Boxes of milk powder line the sides. Tabitha tells Katy that milk and rusks are the only things Andras can have. ‘The disability?’ Katy asks. ‘That,’ replies Tabitha, ‘and the fact he doesn’t have a mouth’.
The siblings’ repeated assertions that nothing will happen while they are out only serves to heighten Katy’s curiosity about Andras and the viewers’ sense of foreboding. Inside No. 9 is famous for its multiple twists, so when Katy is finally brought face-to-face with Andras, we’re half-expecting the whole set-up to be an elaborate practical joke. There is a twist: Andras is not just disabled, but possessed by Castiel, ‘demon of mischief’; the rare event Tabitha and Hector must attend is the transference of the demon into Katy’s body.
But unlike many other episodes, there is no big surprise at the end – and no salvation for Katy. Andras advances towards the bound teenager with cloven feet, speaking the word ‘Mischief’ in a raspy voice, and the credits roll. The repeated references to rusks and milk throughout the episode have led us to associate Andras with infanthood, even innocence. As he was possessed by the demon at the age of ten, Andras’s development has been stunted. He is, in a sense, still a child, just as Katy is only young when the demon migrates into her. Yet the nastiness of the ending prevents us from feeling any sympathy or affection for Andras. Pemberton and Shearsmith once again show that nothing from childhood, not even the powered milk of human kindness, is sacred.
You’ve never left
The sense of being troubled by the past is a key element of Local Gothicism. Certain episodes of Inside No. 9 are not just nostalgic, but hauntological: past media entertainment intrudes upon the present, or vice-versa, creating a disjunction in time (Fisher, 2012, pp. 18-19). ‘The Devil of Christmas,’ lovingly recreates the style of retro anthology horror series such as Nigel Kneale’s Beasts by using cameras, lights and even technicians from the 1970s.
The episode is a tale of a family tormented by Krampus – the dark equivalent of Father Christmas who steals away naughty children – and it contains some genuinely disturbing moments. The sound of cowbells in the night that herald Krampus’s arrival; the demonic silhouette that looms near the camera; the scratches that appear on the little boy’s chest: all play on the childhood fear of Father Christmas creeping around the house in the dead of night, as well as the more adult fear of a fantastical figure transgressing the boundaries of mythology and entering the real world. At the same time, the episode is almost cosy, evoking the tradition of the Christmas ghost story that Mark Gatiss has resurrected in recent years.
The greatest source of horror in the episode is not the story of Krampus, but an audio voice-over. We have only just settled into the 70s and are about to hear the ‘local legend’ of the devil of Christmas when the action is interrupted by someone saying, ‘Oh, I just want to point out a continuity error’. The voice belongs to Denis Fulcher, ‘the director of this piece’. The viewer is invited to reinterpret what they’re watching as a director’s commentary.
Even when Fulcher creepily comments that the main female character’s pregnancy was added in to ‘tee up the ending […] you sense there was something … inside Cathy,’ the viewer is lured into a sense of security and even complicity with him as he subtly pokes fun at the show’s execution. After a series of plot twists, the episode within an episode comes to an end, and the real twist is revealed: ‘The Devil of Christmas’ is in fact a snuff film; the director’s commentary, a police interview. The framing device of the modern commentary, which has hitherto been used to undercut the grainy horror, now heightens it.
Shearsmith and Pemberton took hauntological metafiction one step further in ‘Dead Line,’ their Inside No. 9 Halloween Special. The episode, broadcast live in October 2018, plays an egregious trick on its audience. Seven minutes into a story about a phone call from beyond the grave, the sound cuts out and a placeholder apologising for the technical fault soon appears. The live episode resumes, but the cast are silenced for a second time. A presenter announces that the Halloween live episode is cancelled and will be replaced by a repeat of the earlier episode, the aptly titled, ‘A Quiet Night In’.
At this point, one-fifth of viewers switched off. Those who did not adjust their sets were treated to a fragmented narrative of a haunted television studio which includes some startling visual and audio effects. ‘A Quiet Night In’ was edited to show a Nosferatu-inspired spectre stepping closer and closer to the camera. Mirrors in dressing rooms and kitchens reflect ghostly presences. Rapid whispers drown microphones and background music grows distorted.
The end of the episode plays on the found-footage genre. The studio cameras record the ‘live’, on-screen deaths of Shearsmith and Pemberton, as the vicious ghost enacts revenge on the cast who have disturbed its peace. The violent demise of their characters in A Quiet Night In is also repeated on a seemingly endless loop. In their astute analysis of this episode, blogger Corse Present writes:
It is not enough that we see both actors (playing themselves) being killed […] It’s as though the deaths would not register as properly real unless the screen avatar is also dispatched to dispel the lingering spectral presence. In this way, Dead Line succeeds in reminding us of the already hauntological character of TV (Corse Present, 2018).
Indeed, the episode enacts in a very literal sense the hauntological concept of the past ‘using us to repeat itself’, in the sense that the spectre hijacks the technology of the television medium to effectively bring itself back to life (Fisher, 2012, p. 19). But the ending also carries the suggestion that it is not just the ghost, but also the viewer who is possessed by hauntological blood-lust. The repetition of the murders at the end of A Quiet Night In reflects the process of re-watching previous episodes of Inside No. 9 and dwelling gleefully on the famous twists. Television, especially now that we have so many catch-up services, allows us to satisfy our dark desires on demand.
Like ‘The Devil of Christmas,’ the episode juxtaposes retro and modern, including real archive footage that tells the backstory of the hauntings. The curse of Granada studios is revealed through the clip of Bobby Davro falling face-down in the stocks on Public Enemy Number One in 1992, and a news report about the fire at Botony Warehouse at the back of the studios. Davro’s potentially fatal accident foreshadows the on-screen demise of Pemberton, Shearsmith and Stephanie Cole, the latter of whom slits her own throat under an influence.
Other archive footage, including clips from Most Haunted, ties rumours of ghosts at Granada to the death of a prop man, Alan Starr. The news report of his suicide is woven into the retro footage so skilfully that the view is left wondering whether it is real or not. Combined with Shearsmith’s live-tweeting during the episode and Pemberton’s real-time channel flicking, the use of archive footage blurs the distinction between the real and the fake. On the night of October 28, 2018, the past really did haunt the airwaves as Shearsmith and Pemberton took possession of our sets.
Local Gothicism is related to Freud’s understanding of the uncanny: ‘that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar’ (Freud, 2003, p. 124). In Pemberton and Shearsmith’s work, that well-known thing can be a town we’ve visited on day trips to the countryside, or a product we found in our parents’ kitchen cupboard, or a clip from an old television show. According to Freud’s analysis, the homely is one and the same as the unhomely because the things we hold most dear to ourselves are the most secret and mysterious to outsiders. Yet Local Gothicism also goes beyond this sense of the uncanny. Rather than just revealing the otherness inherent in our everyday lives, Pemberton and Shearsmith have led their monsters right up to our front doors – and we’ve invited them in to stay.
Dyson, J. et al. (2003) The League of Gentlemen: Scripts and That. London: BBC Books.
Fisher, M. (2012) ‘What is Hauntology?’, Film Quarterly, 66(1), pp. 16-24.
Corse Present (2018) Inside No. 9: Dead Line https://corsepresentblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/31/inside-no-9-dead-line/ October 31 (Accessed 4 May 2021).
Freud, S. (2003) The Uncanny. Translated by D. McLintock. London: Penguin Books.
Kurland, D. (2016) ‘UK’s Bonkers, Brilliant Horror-Comedy Series, Psychoville, Debuted Seven Years Ago!’, BloodyDisgusting.com, 20 June (Accessed: 7 October 2020).
Wollaston, S. (2017). ‘The League of Gentlemen Review – Royston Vasey: Just as Terrifying As Ever’, TheGuardian.com, 19 December (Accessed: 7 October 2020).e