The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse Review
The transition of television comedy to film is always a tricky one. Performers whose star shone bright on TV have come to celluloid with high hopes only to find themselves in the midst of turgid mediocrity and sporting a look of complete bemusement as if they weren’t quite sure what went wrong. I could be cruel and name names but I will content myself by whispering titles such as The Parole Officer, Wilt and the cataclysmically dreadful Kevin and Perry Go Large. Thankfully, the League of Gentlemen haven’t quite come unstuck to the same extent, although at times its touch and go. The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse has enough wit and cleverness to be an identifiable cousin to the three TV series and the all-conquering Christmas special, but I fear that it still falls between two stools; newcomers may find it all pretty baffling and established fans will reluctantly admit that its not quite as good as it could have been. Still, the League at three-quarters comic strength is still better than you’d get from most performers and there are things in their big-screen debut which are so good that you can easily forgive the bits which don’t work.
Although The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse can be accused of several faults, you certainly can't criticise it for a lack of ambition. Given a ninety minute running time and a decent sized budget, the League's imagination has exploded all over the place and if the result is something of a mess then it's a rather wonderful mess, packed with great ideas and pleasingly bizarre diversions. There are three plots which kind-of mingle together and the result is somewhat complicated. The first involves the inhabitants of Royston Vasey undergoing some kind of apocalyptic event which forces three of their number - seedy businessman Geoff (Shearsmith), mad butcher Hilary Briss (Gatiss) and camp German teacher Herr Lipp (Pemberton) - to go into the real world to discover what's going on. The second features the real members of the League of Gentlemen (playing themselves with the exception of Jeremy Dyson who is portrayed by Michael Sheen) attempting to move on from Royston Vasey into something more ambitious, a Restoration horror movie called "The King's Evil". The third is the film itself in which the evil Dr Pea (Warner) aids three anti-Protestant plotters in their efforts to unseat William (Hill) and Mary (Wood).
Fans of the series will feel immediately at home with the opening, during which Jeremy is inexplicably menaced in the 'real world' by three of the most popular characters. Newcomers are likely to be more than a little confused, although care is taken to ensure that there are gags which are broad enough to appeal to all audiences. Anyone looking for chronology with the TV series will be disappointed - during the DVD commentary, the League point out that the film pretty much stands apart. The nightmarish vicar Bernice has reappeared after her kidnapping by Papa Lazarou, for example, Pauline appears to have abandoned Mickey and it would appear that Edward and Tubbs have returned from the dead. Not that any of this really matters - even within the TV series there were a few discrepancies, such as the indication that Herr Lipp has certain sanguinary predilections (which needless to say are ignored here).
Some fans of the television series have expressed displeasure that the film is so different from what they have been used to - often the same fans who objected to the different format of Series 3 as if the League had to produce a carbon copy of their previous work during every new project. However, there are some moments here which are very typical and more than worthy of their small-screen cousin - Bernice hearing a young girl's confession ("How dare you come in here, getting your fishy fingers all over my communion wafers"), Papa Lazarou popping up into the frame like some Satanic jack-in-the-box, Dr Chinnery drenching a group of old ladies in giraffe spunk and Pauline discovering Sapphic delights from a rather surprising source. But if this film were just a ninety minute version of the TV show then it would be a waste of some of the greatest comic writing and acting talent of the past ten years. What The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse does is use certain aspects of the TV original to explore new ground with an astonishing visual confidence considering that it’s Steve Bendelack’s first feature
It’s satisfying to see a familiar character allowed to grow into something resembling credible human beings. In the case of Geoff Tibbits, of course, this was never too far away since he’s all too horrifyingly believable – anyone who, like me, grew up in West Yorkshire may remember Tibbits clones wandering around Huddersfield pissed-up on a Friday afternoon after a liquid lunch. But in the film he’s allowed to grow as a character and become first weirdly lovable and then genuinely heroic. He’s still a racist, homophobic idiot of course but an oddly likeable racist, homophobic idiot. The plot requires him to write himself into “The King’s Evil”, for reasons too complicated to relate here, and he describes himself as “A clever man with a big cock”, getting the chance to seduce Victoria Wood’s Queen Mary with a line so childishly silly that it had me falling about with laughter. More serious considerations are raised through the character of Herr Lipp – and this is somewhat problematic. In the film, Herr Lipp is made a completely sympathetic character who is genuinely hurt to see that he is portrayed as a one-joke innuendo factory and turns out to be a far better human being than the ‘real’ Steve Pemberton, for whom he gets mistaken. This is quite touching in its own way and certainly a step forward in terms of complexity but it really doesn’t chime with the series. The last we saw of Herr Lipp (if we discount the Christmas Special episode which was set in the 1970s), it was established beyond any doubt that he was a borderline-psychopathic pederast who was a danger both to himself and his teenage charges. The gloriously nasty black comedy which ended Series 2 is compromised here for anyone who has been a fan of the show – but it’s worth pointing out that anyone who didn’t watch the show isn’t likely to care one way or another. If you do know the character, however, there’s something icky about the scenes where he sings Pemberton’s children to sleep – something which, to their credit, the League acknowledge in the commentary. Thankfully, there are no such problems with Hillary Briss who is, if anything, even more unhinged than he was at the end of the second series.
The most impressive triumph of the film is the film-within-a-film, “The King’s Evil”. This is an inspired pastiche of a British horror film, more Tigon than Hammer although it’s not dissimilar to certain things in one of the later Gothics such as Countess Dracula and Demons of the Mind. The plot is a load of nonsense but fans of the genre will delight in the references.
Some of the best are to be found in the three performances by the League; Steve Pemberton’s Lemuel Blizzard is derived from Patrick Wymark in Blood On Satan’s Claw; Reece Shearsmith’s Father Halfhearte is reminiscent of Anthony Ainley in the same film and Maurice Denham in Countess Dracula; and Mark Gatiss’ Sir Nicholas Sheet-Lightning seemed, to me at any rate, to be the spitting image of Jack Watson’s depraved Cavalier in From Beyond the Grave. The look and feel of low-budget British horror is beautifully evoked and indeed trumped through the use of some wonderfully vivid costume design. Bernard Hill and Victoria Wood provide a good number of laughs – the latter apparently came up with much of her own dialogue – and there are some brief but irresistible cameos from stalwarts of contemporary British comedy. But the element which both links this pastiche to its source and raises it several levels above most parody is the casting of David Warner as the evil Doctor Erasmus Pea. He’s on quite spectacular form here, whether raising demons or brewing up a potion while garbed in a frilly apron, and he gets some great lines. I also have to make the same observation as several other reviewers of this film - It’s sheer heaven to hear him wrap his velvet tones around the word ‘homunculous’
It’s very difficult to please established fans without alienating new audiences and The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse doesn’t always walk the narrow line with enough assurance. The humour is somewhat broader and it never quite delves into the depths of blackness that the series explores at its very best. But it’s fresh and funny and sometimes inspired – some of the things I liked best were the throwbacks to earlier movies like the superb stop-motion animation. Directing his first film, Steve Bendelack keeps things moving, showing remarkable visual flair and allowing his actors plenty of space. I should also mention the contribution made by composer Joby Talbot, obviously relishing the chance to work on a larger canvas.
The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse receives a very nice DVD release from Universal. The only disappointment is that the extra features, while good, are rather slight in comparison to what we got on the BBC DVD release of Series 3.
The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is generally good. There are a few instances of artifacting here and there and the level of detail varies at times, although not to a point of real annoyance. In some sequences, rather bafflingly, there is an excessively grainy appearance, particularly at the beginning. The colours throughout are marvellous however and black are pleasingly solid. All in all, this is reasonably good work from Universal but not as good as they can offer us at their best.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is very pleasing. Dialogue is clear and well balanced. There are plenty of impressive surround moments and the numerous explosions and pounding music score make good use of the subwoofer.
The main bonus feature is an audio commentary from all four members of the League of Gentlemen. This is just as funny as you’d expect and well up to the standard of their previous commentary this year – to be found on the re-release of Blood on Satan’s Claw in Anchor Bay’s Tigon boxset. It’s reasonably informative about the making of the film but the main pleasure is listening to four people who have been friends for a long time bickering and making each other laugh. Normally, I hate this kind of commentary track but I’ll make an exception in this case. In order to keep the disc to a ‘15’ certificate, several uses of the word ‘cunt’ are bleeped out (two in very apt reference to Shearsmith’s eye-sockets in the 17th Century scenes). Oddly enough, Jeremy Dyson speaks quite a lot for someone who doesn’t want to be a performer.
The other extras include a collection of featurettes, none of which is especially interesting. The longest is “The Making of” which runs about 13 minutes and contains some friendly observations about how much the League enjoy working together and a bit of mildly amusing larking about but not much else. “The Real Royston Vasey” is a brief but diverting look at Hadfield in Derbyshire which is the location for the series and “A Cast of Thousands” is a four minute consideration of the difficulties of playing several characters in a single day. The same theme comes out in Steve Pemberton’s video diary for the 13th October 2004 along with plenty of evidence that the League really are a group of genuinely nice blokes.
16 minutes worth of deleted scenes are included, none of them particularly memorable but all quite amusing. I particularly liked the payoff to Herr Lipp’s audition scene and Dr Pea’s showstoppingly camp introduction. The out-takes are what you’d expect but more entertaining than sometimes because the performers are so likeable. Finally, we get a gallery of varying quality and two trailers.
The film contains subtitles for the hard of hearing as do, refreshingly, all of the extra features. This is a definite feather in Universal’s cap. The animated menus are pleasantly atmospheric but a bit tedious to get through after the second or third time.
I had a great time watching The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse. It’s original, witty, crude and outrageously silly in roughly equal measures and it made me a laugh a lot. It doesn’t have the re-watch factor of the League’s best work but its head and shoulders above any other British comedy I’ve seen this year and deserves to give the team their widest audience yet. The DVD could have been better but it’s not a bad package and certainly worth considering. Fans will, of course, have no hesitation in snapping it up.