A little background information here for those outside the UK, methinks.
The League of Gentlemen are Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson (the non-performing member). They have created one of the finest comedy series in recent years, testing the boundaries of what is "comedy" like little else, and using caricatures to remind us of the absurdity and awfulness of our own lives (although it's obviously an exaggeration, many characters are based on real people, and the parochialism and fear of outsiders is painfully real for some of us, the untold siege mentality that underpins the supposed "changelessness" of rural Britain). What stands out is the astonishing accuracy of stylistic detail, which is then twisted completely out of shape - in Enid Blyton-type stories, the local shopkeepers (who, as pointed out by the Comic Strip when they were good, tend to excuse their daughter's rudeness on the grounds that she is "adopted") are usually elderly ladies with cosy-sounding names like "Tubbs". In the League of Gentlemen, the same name is used for the owner of The Local Shop (played by Pemberton), who is prepared to run out of town anyone who is not local, and whose husband, Edward, regards it as perfectly natural to burn strangers.
Episode 1 on 14th January was one of the most unrelentingly unpleasant half-hours of television I've ever seen. Harvey Denton used a surgical instrument to go to the toilet, the sadistic Restart officer Pauline was replaced by the even more brutal Cathy Carter-Smith ("That is what I think of pens"), and the entire population of Royston Vesey's noses bled simultaneously. The whole thing was a sustained pastiche of the old-dark-house ilk of Hammer horror, the last 10 minutes spilling over into uncharted waters of sheer nastiness (every single character in the League of Gentlemen is unrelentingly horrible - it's mercilessly devoid of the false "niceness" and sympathy of most other current comedy) with the punchline that, however freakish the circus people might be, nobody freaks you out like the people of Royston Vesey.
Episode 2 didn't equal the sustained flourish of Episode 1, but that's a bit like saying the next Momus album will probably have more weak links than "Stars Forever" does - no insult. What it did have was The Cleanliness Song, which will surely become as universal a reference point as hedgehog crisps once were, the obligatory stranger-burning, and a man with a disturbing "Watership Down" obsession ("Bright Eyes" has now been subverted the same way Chris Morris redefined "Theme From A Summer Place"). The most quotable programme since The Fast Show, the most subversive since Brass Eye.
Episode 3 was probably the best of this series so far, and its references to 70s popular culture (Racey's "Some Girls" - incorrectly placed in 1976 rather than 1979, much as Dennis Potter transported Connie Francis's "Lipstick On Your Collar" from '59 to '56), mentions of Ed Stewart, a medallioned hospital radio DJ evoking the summer of 1976 in language that stood somewhere between "Turn on a Party" (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/party.htm), Smashie and Nicey, and a funnier version of Mark & Lard's Fat Harry White) reminded me of Channel 4's That Peter Kay Thing, in which the Bolton-born comedian plays 13 different roles. Like LoG, it's uniquely Northern English, based around a set of unnervingly real caricatures, and it positively thrives on 70s references (Public Information Films, Northern clubs that should surely be called Wheeltappers and Shunters, and a general run-down, unpreposessing feel, with low-rent futurism struggling to emerge from behind the poverty of ambition). But the similarities stop there. The two programmes are utterly different.
It seems to me that, as galleries of Northern English types, LoG stands to Kay as "I Am The Walrus", "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Hey Bulldog" once stood to "Penny Lane" or even "When I'm 64". The former is profoundly nasty, unsympathetic, falling over the boundary into out-and-out grotesquerie. The latter is affectionate, loving, even when its caricatures display downright offensive attitudes (as with the racism shown by one of the ice-cream salesmen last week). Kay is best defined by the golden sunshine in which last week's episode was filmed, the shared memories of childhood summer fetes (cheesy local DJs playing Wham! and Kajagoogoo - my memory of these things is that "The Birdie Song" always seemed to be playing), whereas it's no coincidence that the sun never shines in Royston Vesey, or that the first episode was a sustained pastiche of the "old-dark-house" Hammer horror cliches, right down to the weather.
Watching That Peter Kay Thing makes me feel the same way Simon Reynolds feels when he hears Position Normal (http://members.aol.com/blissout/faves99.htm). I feel a vague hint of yearning for a vanished homeland. However much the world of Kay (parochial, small-time, low-rent, crippled by the poverty of ambition - basically the world Jarvis Cocker evoked in "Disco 2000" and which is the setting for Go-Kart Mozart's "Instant Wigwam and Igloo Mixture") contradicts with the world I aspire towards (which is globalist, rootless, urban, cosmopolitan) I would still take a weird sort of pleasure from living there. When I see LoG, I am thankful that I don't live there. It's the same as the difference between "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields" - although you may prefer the latter song (as I do, by far) you'd quite like to live beneath Paul's blue suburban skies, and you're thankful that your mind is more at ease with itself than John's mind was.
The League of Gentlemen and That Peter Kay Thing. They stand to British TV right now as "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" stood to British music in 1967 - the twin peaks of their era's achievement, they present two totally different visions of "home". One you are glad to be out of, the other you'd rather like to live in even if you don't aspire towards it. And they augment each other perfectly.
Robin Carmody, January 2000
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