The first thing that strikes you about Steve Pemberton is how reassuringly ordinary he seems. This, after all, is a man whose menagerie of comic grotesques for The League of Gentlemen includes Tubbs, Royston Vasey’s murderous, porcine-nosed keeper of the local shop for local people, predatory German paedophile Herr Lipp and Pauline, the sadistic restart officer with a passion for pens and a burning hatred of ‘dole scum’.
Even as a child in Blackburn, Pemberton wasn’t a strange or solitary boy. ‘I had a very normal, traditional upbringing, which I think shocks people,’ the 51-year-old tells Weekend. ‘But I was known as the boy who wanted to watch horror films in the holidays with the curtains closed, so there was an element of that. Me and my brother used to go down to the video library and get the most horrific video nasties out. Maybe that’s had a big effect on me somewhere down the line.’
It certainly proved fertile common ground when he met fellow Leaguers Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith while studying drama at Bretton Hall College. Secluded away in a remote, 300-year-old mansion in the Yorkshire countryside, they were drawn to each other through a shared taste for the Grand Guignol.
Finding acting work hard to come by after graduation (‘If I’d auditioned for Legz Akimbo, I wouldn’t have got it’, jokes Pemberton, a reference to the Leagues’ excruciatingly right-on theatre-in-education troupe), the trio, plus non-performing fourth man Jeremy Dyson, began writing their own material, finding a rich seam of pitch black humour in the nexus between comedy and horror.
‘As soon as we started doing our first shows, it was clear we’d stumbled upon something,’ recalls Pemberton. ‘You can’t put a group together, it has to grow organically. I think part of it comes from the fact that, when you are friends, you don’t censor yourself, and so our sense of humour was drawn out of each other. We just tried to make each other laugh.
‘And also having a love of horror, and a love of films [in the 90s, Pemberton was assistant editor of the International Film Guide] and the darker side, and infusing those two things together… It wasn’t done that often, when we started, mixing comedy with horror and bleakness and drama. I think we’ve always enjoyed playing on that knife edge. But we aren’t serial killers. It’s not like, if it wasn’t for the writing, we’d be out with knives…’
Starting out as a stage revue before transferring to Radio 4 and then BBC2, The League’s ghoulish freakshow – set in the demented fictional northern town of Royston Vasey – made stars of all its writer-cast: Gatiss is one of Britain’s most in-demand actors (as well as the co-creator of worldwide hit Sherlock), while Pemberton and Shearsmith have continued to probe comedy’s darkest corners in macabre sitcom Psychoville and the brilliant, BAFTA and Rose d’Or-winning anthology series Inside No. 9.
So when the League announced last year they were reforming to mark the 20th anniversary of the first radio series, there was no doubt they were doing it for the right reasons.
‘It felt important to acknowledge that this was the show that put us on the map, and to celebrate 20 years’, explains Pemberton. ‘I think people are very wary of bands and groups reforming to try and cash in on former glories, and it really wasn’t a case of that. We didn’t need to do it at all. We just wanted to enjoy each other’s company, and we have.’
A two-part Christmas TV special, revisiting Royston Vasey 15 years on, was ecstatically received by fans and critics alike, and they’ve recently completed a sell-out nationwide tour, The League of Gentlemen Live Again!
The show, now available on DVD, opened with the tuxedoed trio reprising the twisted cabaret of their early Edinburgh Fringe performances, before the action moved to Royston Vasey for a big-production second half - complete with costumes, sets and song-and-dance numbers – that picked up from the end of the Christmas specials.
The Leagues’ comedy has always been shot through with a generous dose of pathos, and an unexpectedly poignant storyline in their TV comeback saw Pauline, now a shell of her vicious former self, suffering from dementia. ‘I think if you can create a monster and then make people feel sorry for that monster, that’s a really powerful place to be in terms of writing,’ says Pemberton. ‘It was good to rewind and ask: Why is she like that? Why is she so horrible? What are her flaws, what makes her personality? To peel that back. And now it gets to the point where people cheer Pauline and they boo Ross [her Restart victim, played by Shearsmith]. I do enjoy that.’
The specials were also notable for their refusal to shy away from what might now be considered the more problematicend of their comedy canon, including demonic circus ringmaster and insatiable wife collector Papa Lazarou (Shearsmith in blackface) and Barbara Dixon, a transgender cab driver played by Pemberton, complete with gravelly voice and hairy chest.
‘I think we are in a different time now [from when the League started out], for good or bad, and I think people would be a lot warier of [commissioning] that kind of content,’ muses Pemberton. ‘However, when we brought the show back, we decided we weren’t going to pay much attention to that; we were going to serve up what we were doing back then, because that’s why people liked the show in the first place.
‘I mean, I don’t go on Twitter and follow all that stuff myself. I think it can be quite overwhelming and it can skew your worldview a little bit. Not everybody in the country is talking in these terms about gender-neutral toilets, and I think Twitter does dominate the sort of London-centric media conversation. But actually, if I go home to my family and talk to my mum, she wouldn't have a clue what it was all about.
‘Sometimes you have to step out of that and know there are people out there who enjoy all kinds of comedy. We haven’t set out to upset – I’d hate to think we have upset anyone – but at the same time we weren’t going to go into our shell, we weren’t going to be toothless. And I think people appreciated that.’
Following last month’s daringly inventive live Halloween special – in which they succeeded in fooling a fifth of their audience into switching off, thinking transmission had broken down – Pemberton and Shearsmith are currently working on a fifth series of Inside No.9. As for the League…
‘We feel we’ve done our bit, and had a successful sort of mini-comeback, and we’re thrilled with how people have received it,’ says Pemberton. ‘So I think we’ll just leave it for a while. We’re not doing anything else. But who knows what will happen in the future…’
Pemberton’s extensive acting CV includes high-profile roles in Whitechapel, Happy Valley and eight years as holidaymaker Mick Garvey in Benidorm. ‘You’re not really conscious of playing it as “an ITV show”,’ he says of the sunburn and sangria sitcom – as spiritually far from Royston Vasey as it’s possible to imagine – which critics were sniffy about, but audiences loved. ‘It was a big, bright, quite bawdy comedy of the kind that’s missing from our schedules, generally.’
Reports that Pemberton had a heart attack in his 20s have been exaggerated, he says. ‘I had something happen when I was in Germany, and when I got back to the UK, they said it wasn’t a heart attack. So I don’t know what it was.’
Pemberton and his actress wife Alison have three children: Lucas, 18, Madeleine, 15, and Adam, 12. ‘They kind of missed the whole League of Gentlemen thing, so they’ve really embraced it this time around,’ he says. ‘My daughter absolutely loved the live show, even though it’s quite rude. We had to have a night off as parents!’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 22, 2018
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