The League of Gentlemen: Series 1 Review
For those who hadn't been following the comedy circuit over the previous five years, the TV debut of Perrier award-winning quartet (three performers, one co-writer) The League of Gentlemen in January 1999 came as a bolt from the blue. British comedy has always thrived on being repulsive - just look at the more outré moments of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Viz, The Young Ones or Bottom, not to mention the fact that Jerry Sadowitz still has a career - but this goes to new extremes, not just because the gross-out moments are that much more disgusting (unsurprisingly, in the US, this was strictly cable-only, and even then it was apparently cut!), but also because they're tightly integrated into a remarkably coherent and controlled narrative that nonetheless offers plenty of scope for going off in almost any direction it feels like.
The League of Gentlemen is entirely set in the fictional town of Royston Vasey, somewhere vaguely northern in which virtually all the characters are played by Mark Gatiss (the lanky one), Steve Pemberton (the one with the chin) and Reece Shearsmith (the other one) under an increasingly foul variety of costumes and elaborate make-up jobs. Some characters only turn up for a brief five-minute skit, but the more memorable ones rank among the greatest comic characters of recent years.
There are Edward and Tubbs, the grotesque husband-and-wife proprietors of the "local shop for local people", whose pathological fear, loathing and downright ignorance of strangers causes them to… well, let's just say their local cinema has probably shown The Wicker Man more than once. There are the Dentons, husband, wife and two daughters straight out of The Shining, who combine toad-rearing with fanatical fastidiousness. There are the would-be job applicants being "guided" (= abused) by Pauline, their Restart Officer. There's pre-op transsexual Barbara, the local cab driver, washed-up pop star Les McQueen, the gay theatre troupe Legz Akimbo, Hilary Briss the butcher, with his strangely irresistible 'produce', Mr Chinnery the slightly unsuccessful vet, Geoff, Mike and Brian, three managerial best friends who secretly loathe each other, Bernice the vicar with her lipsticked teeth and hellfire sermons, Farmer Tinsel, who has an intriguingly novel approach to scarecrow design… and I've only just scratched the surface (though I should mention that, contrary to various claims being made by DVD retail sites, Roy 'Chubby' Brown does not appear as the mayor - he'd make his League of Gentlemen debut in series two).
The six episodes blend one-off sketches with a continuous narrative thread - if it wasn't for the regular appearance of opening and closing credits you could easily watch the whole thing as a single three-hour epic, though there are plenty of self-contained moments to dip into: in many ways, it works rather better on DVD than it did as a TV broadcast because there's so much going on in both the foreground and the background that multiple viewings are not so much recommended as essential.
Steve Bendelack's direction is unexpectedly cinematic, making good use of the 16:9 widescreen frame, and he pulls off some impressively elaborate set-pieces: there are nods to Ridley Scott and Jurassic Park that don't disgrace themselves at all (there are no direct lifts from Terry Gilliam's work that I could see, but he's another obvious reference point). And the performances of the three leads are genuinely extraordinary - if the great Lon Chaney were still alive, he'd have adored this (assuming he wasn't worried about the competition, that is!).
If I'm being deliberately vague about the actual content, that's because most people reading this will be more than familiar with it, and I don't want to spoil it for those who aren't yet. I will sound one note of caution, though: much of The League of Gentlemen pushes what is conventionally considered "comedy" to such depraved extremes (virtually all the jokes revolve around pain, humiliation, violence, warped sexual perversions and grotesque physical ugliness) that it's often hard to know when to laugh - personally, I thought it was painfully funny (then again, I laughed all the way through The Gore Gore Girls as well, so what do I know?), but I know plenty of other people who thought it was just painful. So while my five-star rating reflects its undoubted stature as one of the most original and imaginative comedy programmes in recent television history, that doesn't mean everyone's going to like it - animal lovers in particular should stay well away!
There's not a lot to say about the transfer - it's 16:9 anamorphic with plain stereo sound. In other words, if you're familiar with the BBC's digital broadcast version, this is to all intents and purposes exactly the same. The BBC's DVD transfers have improved enormously since their early efforts (The Black Adder, for instance), and there's really nothing here to pick serious holes in: there's occasional digital artefacting (especially in low light), but anything else is almost certainly going to be down to the original master tape.
Exactly the same is true of the sound: it reproduces the original NICAM stereo broadcast, and that's fine by me: certainly, there would have been rather more scope for a full surround sound remix than there would have been with most BBC comedy series, but given that it's mostly dialogue based it's not a major drawback that it hasn't been given one - and there's nothing wrong with the recording quality or the dynamic range. You can either watch the whole thing in one go or select each episode individually - and a second selection menu further breaks down each episode into six chapters, thus aiding navigation immensely.
Given that the combined running time of all the episodes runs to only a whisker under three hours, the number of extras is a welcome and pleasant surprise - it took me roughly seven hours to get through the entire disc, which puts into perspective all those £20-odd DVDs that offer a 90-minute feature and nothing else. Actually, I should have said 'Precious Things' rather than 'extras' - and they consist of 'Local People', 'Special Stuff', 'Missing' and 'Local Gossip'.
'Local People' is a series of one-screen sketches of all thirty-five principal characters, each given a mugshot, a series of irrelevant but amusing facts (how many guns they own, what their favourite euphemism for masturbation is, what tattoos they sport), and, as a hidden Easter egg, each has a brief soundbite.
'Special Stuff' is a stills gallery (in fact, two galleries, of 17 and 36 images respectively) tracing the career of the League from their earliest stage beginnings in 1994 as This Is It! through subsequent success on stage (winning the Perrier Award at Edinburgh), radio and television.
Early memorabilia is accompanied by helpful notes, but by the time we get to the end it's become a mostly unannotated collection of on- and off-set shots, hampered by the usual primitive back-and-forth navigation system that bedevils most such galleries. Still, there's plenty of good material here for those who fancy making the effort, especially the close-ups of ideas for the radio show (which are sharp enough to read in full).
The real meat starts with 'Missing', whose eleven options mostly consist of deleted scenes, though there are other items thrown in as well, such as a demonstration of the Local Shop being added digitally to the panning shot of the opening sequence (no technical explanation, just a dissolve from what was actually filmed to what was finally broadcast).
'Shop and Policeman' is the full unedited version of the encounter between Edward, Tubbs and the policeman in episode one. Equally unedited is the full Pop warehouse sketch, restoring the original ending complete with copious swearing, while 'Charlie, Stella & Tony' is a favourite boyfriend-meets-the parents stage sketch that was filmed for series one, but cut because it didn't fit stylistically. Unlike many of the other deletions, it wasn't resurrected for series two, so it's nice to have it preserved here (and unlike many of the other deleted scenes it works beautifully in its own right).
Other material was cut for timing reasons: 'Babs at the Booth', 'Judee's Return' and 'Judee on the Sunbed' were both resurrected in a different form for series two, 'Tortoise Climax' is the wrapping-up of the journey of the tortoise remains, which were supposed to be inadvertently returned to their original owner following their equally inadvertent journey round the town, 'Calliper Box' is a quickie visual gag that didn't quite come off, while 'The Dentons' Wake' ("cut for reasons of time and strangeness") concerns the aftermath of the funeral of Harvey Denton's toads Sonny and Cher. Finally, 'Pauline's End' is a brief, elegiac addendum to Pauline's downfall, shot in one take and making Mickey's feelings for her more explicit.
Each item has a brief on-screen text introduction to set them in their original context and explain things like the absence of an audience track: many sketches were shot without an audience, so there are slightly unnatural pauses for expected laughter. There's about twenty minutes of material in total - and it all comes with optional subtitles.
The best extra by far, though, is 'Local Gossip', which, predictably enough, is a commentary by all four members of the League (including co-writer Jeremy Dyson) with occasional appearances by director Steven Bendelack - and it's a perfect mirror image of the series in that it's brilliant but exhausting.
Don't you just hate those commentaries where people mumble inarticulately for a bit in between long pauses? Well, this is the perfect antidote - I don't think there's a second of silence throughout the whole three hours, and it seems that at least half the time two or more people are talking (and laughing), creating the impression of one of those DVD specials with multiple commentary tracks that have somehow got mixed into one.
There's tons of stuff here - it's particularly good at highlighting countless visual jokes that most people will have missed (either because they simply didn't notice them, like the Dentons' topiary toad on their front lawn, or, more prosaically, because they couldn't read them - there are a lot of background signs that turned out to be invisible on the final videotape!) - but it comes at such a torrent that you're unlikely to absorb it all in one sitting, and it's usually impossible to tell who's speaking unless it's contextualised, which it usually isn't.
Still, it's enormously entertaining, particularly when they take the piss out of each other's costumes and make-up (every couple of minutes, on average) or gleefully highlighting technical and continuity slip-ups (given the complexity of the shoot, I'm amazed there weren't more!), and there are also plenty of juicy anecdotes about the inspiration for the various characters (the original of Tubbs apparently runs a shop in Rottingdean on the south coast). All in all, I honestly don't see how this could have been much better: I've only listened to it once, but I'll certainly be returning for more - I kept getting distracted by what was happening on screen!
All in all, this is about as good a disc as I could possibly have hoped for. There are unconfirmed rumours that the R1 version contains a "virtual tour" of Royston Vasey on top of what I've described above, but I'm still waiting for a reliable review. I'd also be tempted to prefer the R2 disc on principle, if only because the original would have been shot on PAL video, and the R1 disc would therefore involve both frame-rate conversion and a slight lowering of picture resolution - so it looks like the usual case of swings and roundabouts.
So my advice for local people is to go for the local disc, and if that prevents you from being sacrificed on a burning pyre by fanatical inbred maniacs with pig noses and rotting teeth, so much the better.