BFI Southbank (6th December 2018)
A transcript of two interviews – and an audience Q&A – with The League of Gentlemen (Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith) conducted on the stage of NFT1 at the BFI Southbank, hosted by Dick Fiddy and Justin Johnson.
JD – Jeremy Dyson (Writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)
MG – Mark Gatiss (Actor, writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)
SP – Steve Pemberton (Actor, writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)
RS – Reece Shearsmith (Actor, writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)
DF – Dick Fiddy (BFI consultant)
JJ – Justin Johnson (BFI lead programmer)
‘An Audience with The League of Gentlemen’ at the BFI Southbank was one of the most keenly anticipated – and popular – events in its recent Comedy Genius season. Tickets for it sold out before there was even a chance to put them on sale to the general public.
The BFI have championed the Gents’ work (as a quartet, duo and solo) like no other cultural institution has, apart from the BBC. Collectively, individually and via the long-established creative partnership of Pemberton & Shearsmith, the various members of The League have regularly been invited to preview their most recent projects on the stage of NFT1 ever since the Christmas Special in 2000.
‘An Audience with’ signalled the end of a hectic twelve months for The League of Gentlemen as a renascent comedy troupe, having revived their exalted comic legacy with last year’s outstanding Anniversary Specials. Coming almost a year since the BFI’s preview of two of the three Anniversary episodes, ‘An Audience with The League of Gentlemen’ was the bookend to an extremely productive year for the Gents, which saw them undertake a live tour for the first time in 12 years with ‘The League of Gentlemen Live Again’. The announcement of a League tour was made by Steve Pemberton on the very same stage, as a surprise exclusive to a delighted audience at the BFI’s Anniversary Specials screening.
I have aimed for as close-as-possible verbatim reproduction of ‘An Audience with The League of Gentlemen’, hopefully capturing almost everything said on stage that evening in the transcript below. Some words and lines have been left out – spoken elements that couldn’t be vouchsafed as completely verbally accurate rather than phraseological guesswork.
‘An Audience with’ was divided into three parts – two interviews conducted by Dick Fiddy and Justin Johnson respectively and then an audience Q&A at the end. As it transpired – due to one careless comment and one highly insensitive question from a couple of members of the audience – this last section produced a few uncomfortable moments in what was a thoroughly entertaining and extremely illuminating evening, covering the Gents’ formative comedy influences, the creative processes and logistical planning involved in staging the ‘Live Again’ show, feelings about the recent tour and what they think of their now iconic status as quantifiable ‘comedy legends’. The three part structure of the event was broken up and supplemented with the playing of several long clips from ‘The League of Gentlemen Live Again’ show, filmed at one of the Hammersmith Apollo dates The League played at the very end of the tour.
Due to how popular the BFI’s ‘An Audience with The League of Gentlemen’ proved to be, many fans who would have loved the opportunity to attend were left disappointed. This (almost) complete transcript hopefully gives people the essence of the event and a sense of the tremendous atmosphere engendered that evening in NFT1. The Gents spoke knowledgeably about comedy in general and with affection, insight and humour about their recent live show and tour in particular. Both the interviews and Q&A were filmed that evening by BBC Studios so there is a chance the recording might be made available online at some point in the future.
I decided to transcribe ‘An Audience with’ (as I have with several other League and ‘Inside No.9’ events) in order to provide a complete – or as near complete – record of it for fans and anyone else who may be interested. Often when filmed events like this are put online they are usually in the form of edited highlights rather than a complete and full-length version. As a long-time Gents’ fan my aim has been to try and make sure there is a fully documented record of an event such as this, available as a transcript. When it’s looked back on, ‘An Audience with The League of Gentlemen’ may well prove to be of especial interest to fans – and all those League fans to come – because, as the Gents themselves said, they have no plans to work together on another project for the foreseeable future. So this BFI event may well be The League’s last public outing for a while.
One aspect of ‘An Audience with’ that really stood out was that, in the many interviews I’ve watched or read, The League of Gentlemen have never spoken at this length about comedy before and in such an undiluted way: Their childhood memories of watching or listening to it; their growing awareness of specific comedy figures and the ones they liked in particular or were influenced by. Usually the focus has been on the horror saturated elements of the films and TV they consumed and absorbed. It was so refreshing to hear them talk in depth, from a different angle, about some of the things that lit their creativity and inspired their own unique comic vision.
The other thing which makes ‘An Audience with’ so striking and memorable is the almost magical nature of their long-lasting friendship and how strongly it comes across when they are together on stage at an event like this. The untouchable chemistry that exists between the four of them is apparent from the moment they start to speak. They generate such a deep-rooted sense of a united kindred spirit that words aren’t always needed for them to be in sync with one another. The creative kinship they’ve forged over the years is one that exists almost telepathically between them. When one of them alludes to or reminisces about something, it connects with all of them, allowing the conversation to flow and move seamlessly on, with a rhythm and structure of its own. It is quite mesmerising to watch and listen to. The enthusiasm and energy they spark off each other is practically intoxicating at times. Surely this close and enduring relationship is one of the reasons why The League of Gentlemen have managed to reach such heights of collaborative brilliance and sustain it so distinctively for almost 25 years.
An Audience with The League of Gentlemen at the BFI Southbank, with Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, interviewed by Dick Fiddy
DF: Well, this is slightly different. We know a lot about the horror influences on The League and people have often spoken about the dark side of the comedy, but I was wondering about the lighter side of the comedy, what you found funny when you were growing up?
MG: Christie. Crippen.
DF: Can you remember being…as small children, what made you laugh? Was there anything in particular?
JD: Rude and dirty things. Benny Hill. Benny Hill absolutely, early discovery. Carry On films.
MG: Spike Milligan, very big…’Q’. All the ‘Q’ series…I absolutely loved that. I used to have a kazoo. I used to do that (mimes sound of a kazoo) I loved Spike Milligan.
SP: Laurel and Hardy. Summer holidays. Curtains closed. Laurel and Hardy films.
DF: On the telly.
SP: On the telly.
DF: I mean they’re on ‘Talking Pictures’ TV now, but they’ve disappeared from the mainstream.
SP: Yeah. They used to be a staple of summer holidays. ‘Tarzan’, ‘Laurel and Hardy’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’.
MG: ‘Singing, Ringing Tree’.
DF: Just to put in a plug, we have got a Laurel and Hardy season in January. Thank you.
RS: Um, yeah. ‘The Two Ronnies’.
DF: I was thinking that maybe you just missed out, or just got the tail end of that thing which I think my generation went through a lot, which was the fact that a lot of the TV comedy shows we’d come to on vinyl because they actually released…the Pythons released albums, the Goodies released albums, ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’ released albums and that was…there was no VHS, there was no way of recording. That was the way of catching up. Were you part of that? Did you have those albums?
JD: Yes. As well as Python. I mean Python was massive when I discovered it. I would have been about eleven and got all the vinyl out one summer. But we had Hancock on vinyl and listened to ‘The Blood Donor’ and ‘The Radio Ham’ over and over again. We had a great one called ‘You Don’t Have to be Jewish’…it was an American revue so I guess it had been a stage show and that was really good. The thing is, you would have listened to them over and over again and you’d get the rhythms of comedy.
MG: We had Jack Benny 78s I remember listening to.
RS: How old are you? (audience laughter)
MG: It was brilliant. It was exactly that thing…I remember, very heavy records. Very precious in case they smashed.
MG: But Python. Oh my god, I knew those records absolutely backwards. “Morning super”, “Morning wonderful” and then ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’, but particularly for me, ‘Rowan Atkinson Live in Belfast’, 1980. I played that till it was worn out. I loved it.
DF: But were these things that when you met, you had in common? Did you all gravitate towards the same comedy, because you did sort of have a shared interest in horror and the darker stuff but was there a shared interest in comedy?
SP: I remember Mark and I were in the same year at Bretton Hall and there were a group of drama students who were quoting Monty Python and we got as far away from them as we could, because it was that very extravagant quoting and kind of ‘Look at me’ – “The Knights who say Ni!” Mark and I would sort of look at each other and sort of nod silently…we get this but we don’t have to kind of parade it around.
MG: There was a lot of that, yes because it was, but it was more…
JD: Victoria Wood…
MG: …it was the same with horror things, there was a kind of…you sort of think ‘Oh god, other people like this. I’d no idea’. Victoria Wood particularly and Alan Bennett and all those sort of things. It was just lovely to find other people who knew it or got it or had the same sort of…we always talk about this as our great shared experience, that we all remember watching ‘Carry on Screaming’ on the same Bonfire Night, 1976 I think and we all were there in our individual houses and then years later discovered that we all watched it at the same moment, you know. So there was a lot of that going on…
JD: And there were things that were kind of quasi-comedy – on the edge of being comedy – like Mike Leigh, so ‘Nuts in May’ was a thing, was one of those…
RS: It’s Harvey Denton innit?
JD: Yeah essentially.
SP: Alan Bennett’s plays. ‘Me! I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ and that series of plays I think he did for LWT. They were very big influences. And something like Victoria Wood…it was the fact that you could buy the script book and you could have it and you could like pour over it in the same way you could with an album or…like you say, this was before you could record stuff, so having…And I’ve still got the same scripts books I had…
JD: And the other thing we did pre-video was taping stuff off on cassette…off the TV with a little portable…holding that…I had loads of ‘Rising Damps’.
MG: ‘Ripping Yarns’, I did that too…and the great thing is, I was talking to someone the other day, a friend of mine who did that with ‘Doctor Who’ and every time he watches ‘Death to the Daleks’ he can hear his grandma say ‘Rubbish’ (audience laughter)…a particular moment…if I was recording and my mam said something it was there forever…It’s amazing, it was the moment of broadcast…she’s wrong actually.
DF: I was thinking there’s some people who seem to have survived time better than others…
MG: Here we are.
DF: Like there’s some comedians you probably did grow up with and I was just going to throw a few names at you to see if you still think they’re funny or did you think they were funny at the time. So let’s start with Les Dawson.
MG: Yes, genius.
SP: Very funny, just had that quality that you wanted to laugh as soon as you saw him and he was very funny doing something like ‘Blankety Blank’, where he would take the piss out of it and not take it seriously at all. And the character stuff, you didn’t think of him necessarily as an actor, although he did do ‘Nona’, but very underused as an actor, so the Cissie and Ada scenes are brilliant.
MG: It’s a bit of a cliché I think but that thing they always used to talk about, people like Max Wall for Beckett and Les Dawson was like that. He could have done any of those, cos he was just really, really good.
JD: And he was a great writer. He wrote a lot of his own material and I had one of his books, ‘The Spy Who Came’…
DF: He wrote ‘Come Back with the Wind’. He also seemed post-modern in the way that the sort of mother-in-law jokes he made, they were just so surreal and extreme that you thought he wasn’t like the comedians that had come before making those jokes.
JD: And he was that that great thing, he was an autodidact, he’d obviously read a lot and so he had amazing vocabulary and he’d would use that to comic effect.
SP: What’s an autodidact?
JD: He taught himself.
SP: I knew. I was doing it for your benefit (audience laughter)
MG: As with the piano, it takes great skill to do that wrong.
DF: Okay. How about Dave Allen?
RS: Brilliant. We tried – and it was such a sad story – cos we wanted Dave Allen to do the part that Freddie Jones does in our Christmas Special and we heard a no, a flat no from him and years later we heard he’d never been asked. It’s the agents that stopped these things.
MG: It was perfect…he was fantastic Dave Allen. I mean, such a fierce, frightening presence, ‘Goodnight and may your god go with you’. What we used to love was it was the brilliant mixture of those sketches and the sit-down stand-up and then he would tell genuinely, genuinely spooky stories and then pull the rug out at the end…I remember the tension in our house when he’d just tell those stories…
DF: He took the lights down didn’t he?
MG: It was amazing. Such a skill. I loved him.
DF: Plus he had the missing finger, the missing half a finger. He had all these different stories about how he lost it.
MG: There was one…my absolutely favourite sketch, it was so simple, one of his ecclesiastical sketches and there’s the Pope is in the middle of this conclave of Cardinals. It’s all dumb show and Dave Allen just goes (mimes smelling something horrible) and turns to the man next to him (and mimes silently mouthing ‘Have you farted?’ and mimes silently mouthing back ‘No’) (audience laughter) and it goes all the way around and eventually gets to the Pope who goes (mimes nodding yes and smiling) (audience laughter) It was so naughty as well. It felt so forbidden didn’t it?
SP: Well some of the stuff with Bernice and the Christmas special was… asterisk ‘Dave Allen’…
MG: Copyright ‘Dave Allen’.
SP: …like when she gets a drink from the…
DF: What about Beryl Reid?
JD: You sort of knew her as a presence on other things, didn’t you.
MG: She was always drunk as I remember.
DF: You must remember her from ‘Doctor Who’?
MG: Yes of course and she was definitely drunk in that. She had a very interesting presence though because she was very…she was a character actress and she was in a lot of serious things like ‘Sister George’ and ‘Tinker Tailor’ but then she was also on ‘Blankety Blank’, absolutely plastered. I don’t suppose we knew her as much as a…doing stuff as in other stuff in those days.
DF: When she was on ‘Doctor Who’ apparently, she was the one, when she had to mention the warp drive, she said ‘Is that off Regent’s Street?’ Very witty woman. Talking earlier about vinyl and you yourselves have now moved into vinyl. Can you tell us a little bit about this massive box you’ve just released?
SP: Yeah well it constitutes the radio series, then the three TV series exactly as they were broadcast but purely audio versions and we didn’t really think there’d be a market out there for such a thing but obviously there is and it’s the cool thing to do now, bring out vinyl so…it’s a beautiful box set.
JD: Graham Humphreys has done beautiful artwork for each of the discs…
DF: I think he’s here as well. Are you here Graham? (audience applause)
SP: The best looking thing that we’ve brought out.
MG: But if you want the same experience you can put the DVD on and close your eyes (audience laughter)
DF: Well I think we’re going to move on to the next part of the evening, but before we do that I just wanted to ask you who are the people now that you are finding funny, who are the people that you watch, what shows?
MG: Do you remember ‘Norbert Smith: A Life’…and Melvyn Bragg asked him that question “Those three fellows now, ‘Can’t do better than a Kwik Fit Fitter’ (mimes elderly man) (audience laughter)
RS: I actively try to avoid seeing anybody else (audience laughter) Reeves & Mortimer are back. Yes. They’re so funny. I was crying with laughter last night.
MG: What about Gein’s Family Giftshop?
RS: Yes, they’re great.
SP: Yes, very good.
RS: They do dark comedy.
JD: I’m a huge fan of a lot of the animation, mainly cos of my kids, so ‘Adventure Time’…is absolutely terrific. So original.
MG: Give us some names. I’ve not been out of the house for years.
DF: Well for me it’s mostly, a lot of American stuff. I like ‘The Good Place’ very much. I mean, I like ‘Mum’.
MG: You know what I love. I love Melissa McCarthy films. I just think she’s really, really funny and they’re very big, stupid films…
DF: And on that bombshell…we’re going to finish there for a while, let you see a bit of the live show and then Justin will be back with the boys later. But please thank The League of Gentlemen (audience applause)
An Audience with The League of Gentlemen at the BFI Southbank, with Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, interviewed by Justin Johnson.
JJ: Please join me in welcoming back The League of Gentlemen (audience applause) Are you going back to the same seats or are you going to change it round? So it was obviously great to see some of that show. That was from the Hammersmith Apollo. That was the last few days of the show, wasn’t it? I think you had already done quite a lot by then. But it was this time last year, where if I remember right, you’d given an exclusive to somebody to announce the shows and Steve gave us the exclusive instead by announcing them on stage here. And I wonder if you can just tell us if at that stage had you actually thought about the shape of the shows at all or if it was something you had just decided you were going to do?
SP: No. We didn’t know whether to come up with a big concept for the live show or whether to just go off and write material and in the end that was what we decided to do. So we just took one character at a time, what do we want to do with them on stage and we decided early on to follow the sort of…the first tour, in that the first half was going to be black and white and the second half was going to be colour. So we start with the tuxedos and it seems to give a good shape to the overall evening.
JJ: And that was a kind of nod to the fact that when you first started off you were performing sketches with the black ties as The League, so you were kind of coming full circle in a sense.
SP: As modelled by Reece tonight…
RS: Yeah it was how we used to do it above pubs and in Edinburgh so it felt quite nice to do a sort of an acoustic version of some of the classics. We tried to not repeat any sketch we’d done already on stage, so even though we did Pam Doove, we hadn’t actually done it on stage before. The only one we did do from the past was that card game, ‘Go Johnny Go Go Go Go’…we changed, we changed…early…the first few shows, about a week wasn’t it? We did the charity ladies…we did…the bag…which sketch was that…That Merrill’. We thought it was funny but it was very rat-a-tat…it didn’t really give the audience any…or maybe they were just not laughing, there’s no room to find it funny so in the end it feels like it’s not working, it’s quite quick-fire, so we cut it and we put card game in instead…
SP: We cut card game in rehearsals but we put Mr Foot in instead of the charity shop.
RS: Ah yes, that’s right. Yes, Mr Foot.
MG: Already forgetting.
RS: No memory of it.
JJ: In terms of putting the show together, how long did you actually have to work on it and how did you put the material together? Were you all together in the same room or were you kind of going off and doing bits…?
RS: Yeah, about April was it? I came back from New York at the end of March and we started to think about it.
JD: We’d written…we did some stuff earlier in the year, because we wrote the…we started with Les and we wrote the ‘Mr & Mrs’ so we were gradually kind of…
JJ: And was there, I mean, how does it work in terms of, does one of you kind of hold the material together to make sure it’s kind of got somebody kind of looking after it or is it really sort of all of you feeding in at different points?
RS: Yeah, we’re just putting it together. I mean one of the big things about putting the live show – and the last ones as well – is the logistics of ‘who’s off’ to be able to get changed and allow someone long enough for costume changes, so it becomes about the balance of thinking well Mark can do that…whatever it might be and a big breakthrough was Mark suggesting that the…because the initial sketches for Bernice was she was doing her agony act but it was one sketch, it was all those things that she did that were peppered in the end throughout the whole second half but Mark said what if they’re on film and they’re split up because that returns to Bernice backstage…and that helped us, gave us time to do the changes…
MG: You know there’s an inevitable thing, you’re putting it all together and you go ‘Ooh it’s very mucky isn’t it?’ and when you…a loose assembly of trying to think what the order is and everything, you also look at the stuff and just think ‘Is there too much of this?’
RS: Yeah it was really vile (audience laughter)
SP: Too much jizz…
RS: It was horrible…
SP: In fact we changed the Chinnery sketch for that very reason because there was some bodily fluids involved in the Chinnery…and that’s why we ended coming up with Plop Plop.
JD: In fact it was just good natured…good natured fun…
MG: Good natured decapitation.
JJ: And when you’d finished the…specials and you’d kind of tied all those loose ends up…did you know you were going to kind of continue on some of those storylines in this or was that something that came later as well?
RS: Yeah that came later.
SP: Yeah, it just felt like, I think it was the image of coming from what we’d just seen there, the filmed version of the wife mine into an actual wife mine felt quite an exciting way to start and then dealing with stuff like the Pauline issue which, you know she’d obviously, we’d killed her off in the…which is still canon by the way, she is dead (audience laughter) but we thought for the live show we’ll bring her back…so it was just, yeah, trying to work out what we could do that rewarded people who’d seen those specials, but at the same time, was gettable, wouldn’t exclude you if you hadn’t…
JJ: And in terms of just the very kind of basic practicalities of putting on a show like this, obviously you have to have written it by a certain point because people had to go off and make sets and costumes and all that kind of stuff…but how much time was there between actually writing the script and then…into rehearsals and so forth…and dealing with things like props and so forth?
JD: It didn’t feel rushed or cramped…
MG: There is to and fro in that sense. I remember in the first tour, the Hilary Briss song, we had dummies of Steve and Reece that were hanged, it cost a lot of money and in the end we didn’t do it. I remember them lying about in rehearsals for ages. It was quite expensive, so there’s still stuff you can do but obviously you want to give people an idea of what it’s going to be…logistically, but then there’s always room to sort of move things around…
RS: We had two weeks (rehearsal) in a sort of church hall and then we did a tech week in Purfleet.
JD: And that was a lot of fun, the tech week, because that was really making the show wasn’t it, cos the technology’s moved on so much since we did the last tour, when you were still having to tour physical bits of set. You can do so much with projection now and that was really exciting. We were able to, you know, they were a terrific team, they were kind of working stuff up as we were rehearsing which was really impressive.
JJ: One thing is, having seen it on the big screen here, some things that maybe if you were in a theatre you normally would not be thinking about, you can see how brilliant for example the prosthetics are in terms of, Mark, when you’re doing Toddy’s Bingo there, like your hair and stuff, how seamlessly…
MG: It looks better from a distance…I mean it’s that thing you have to accept that with filmed theatre, is that it’s a staged version but you know, you just don’t have time…that was a brilliant thing, it’s just very simple, you can actually do this with a bald cap and actually once the glasses are on…it’s pretty seamless that. Its not at all bad but obviously it doesn’t look like TV quality. I mean its not meant to because you’ve got so little time to do those changes.
JJ: And those changes. Do you have like a team of people there kind of helping you put your bits on and stuff, cos you know, pretty quick some of them…
RS: Oh yeah, really fast some of them. We had, was it two…
SP: There were four people helping us.
MG: They’re like pit stops. There’s always a point in rehearsal where you think it’s impossible, this change is just too much and then about a week later you’re standing in the wings going…it suddenly happens.
JJ: And you were playing kind of a variety of different kinds of venues, sometimes…the biggest you had…was Manchester Arena, which is eight, nine thousand and maybe the smaller venues you still have a couple of thousand. Does the dynamic change when you’re in a big, big space compared to the more intimate…
RS: You don’t get a sense of one collective laugh back if it’s an arena so you sort of do it by muscle memory, you think normally that’s where…leave a gap and carry on, that’s all you can do cos you can’t…The O2 was weird, you couldn’t hear anything…it’s like oh god, they hate it. They’re always laughing in their own universe…you can’t get a sense of it.
MG: Its like you look at a star and its not there anymore, it takes so long to get there (audience laughter)
JJ: That must be weird when you’re used to feeding off those laughs…
RS: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think it was always better in a theatre environment cos you can hear it and you can time it, and you feel like you’re in control. But it was odd…they were all enjoyable cos it was always going down well but you just had to hope, you couldn’t hear it back.
MG: We became properly luvvie about the great theatres. We knew them when we got to them. Sunderland Empire, just fantastic, beautiful Victorian designs and they knew what they were doing. It’s just huge but intimate and the acoustics brilliant and you felt like the audience were absolutely there. It was really special. Sunderland’s very special.
JJ: In a moment we’re going to watch Herr Lipp. That obviously is a moment that requires some audience interaction. I mean, with the big arenas as well, were you still doing that as normal, going out into the audience and so forth?
SP: Yeah, yeah, it was the same in any theatre but the difficulty was, cos I spent every second I was on stage, up to that point, scanning the audience. I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing…in the bigger theatres, they’re so far away you can’t actually see anybody so it would just be pot luck and I would sort of dive in and try and find a couple, always worked best with a couple. Unfortunately, the night we filmed it I wasn’t able to find a couple. But, um, yeah, it was a part of the show which…
RS: So you picked father and daughter? (audience laughter)
SP: It was a daughter-in-law (audience laughter) but yeah it was part of the fun of doing that kind of thing is you never know what you’re going to get and you’ve got to work with it so…After about three or four shows I started to realise what was working well, what wasn’t and then you kind of adapt and you have a sort of stockpile of lines that you can use in different situations.
JJ: I guess you have to expect that if they’re in the audience they’ve paid to be there, they’re going to know the joke and go along with it. But did it backfire at any point?
SP: There was one or two sticky nights early on. I think there was a poor girl who was absolutely terrified and she opened – cos they had to read German off the screen – and she opened her mouth and no words came out whatsoever. And I just got the audience to shout it out for her. But I would say nine times out of ten it would be very good.
MG: The problem always, and I remember this with the first one, it’s actually more when they’re slightly too into it. You kind of want someone who’s half terrified and half up for it. If they’re a bit kind of cocky, it’s like ‘no don’t do that’.
JJ: Did you find it kind of physically kind of exhausting in terms of, night by night, all the different characters? I mean if you’re in a play normally, at least its one voice, its one performance, but actually having to throw yourself into all these characters.
MG: It’s not picking up bricks though is it?
SP: It’s not so much doing the show, it’s the preparation and the travelling around and the hanging around before the show. Once you step foot on stage, you don’t get tired really cos you’re non-stop doing stuff…The show itself was a joy to do. It was just kind of getting to 3 o’clock in the afternoon and thinking ‘right, what am I going to do now till 7 o’clock?’
RS: But we’d often do the first with the Legz Akimbo…the dance at the beginning…go off to …run back on to do card game…Mark… coming off after the second time…’Exhausted!’ (audience laughter) Already exhausted. It was tiring.
MG: What was that one…did we do it for the filmed one, from that horror film, what was it called?
RS: ‘The Terrifier’.
MG: Reece showed us this clip from this…
RS: I watched this film called ‘Terrifier’…it feels like a 80s film but it’s not, it’s a modern film but there’s a bit in it where this man has flayed this woman and is wearing her skin…sort of being a lady and walking (mimes preening and touching his body) (audience laughter) We watched that, I sent it to Mark, that bit. So on the night we preserved it in the show. So we (mimes the bit of the man ‘being a lady’)…we did the dance of Ollie (audience laughter)
JJ: …Do you have the full kind of tour bus and everything?
RS: We did yeah. It was great. It didn’t start…after about a week we said ‘fuck this’…kind of like a converted ice cream van and we got a big bus with fourteen beds…big tour bus with a big room at the back for watching telly with a big screen and a kitchen. And it was great…it was the best way to spend a summer, such fun.
MG: We became completely obsessed with watching ‘Whodunnit?’
JJ: Jon Pertwee?
MG: (Does the ‘Whodunnit?’ theme tune) (audience laughter)
JJ: …I’d forgotten they used to ask a member of the public to be on those panels…
MG: We only watched series two, we didn’t get that far, but yes we knew about that. Strange.
JJ: Did you have like riders and stuff like that?
MG: I asked for Jeremy.
MG: What were you saying earlier? I loved what you said about the separate WhatsApp group.
RS: Oh yeah, it’s what he said to me. The tour manager said if you need anything extra then I’ll set up a WhatsApp group…I said ‘What do you mean?’ (audience laughter)
MG: I said ‘Have you got any missing episodes of ‘Doctor Who?’ (audience laughter)
JJ: And he was a proper kind of professional tour manager?
RS: Yeah, oh yeah, yeah. He was very discreet (audience laughter)
JJ: …what the Rolling Stones want is different from what The League of Gentlemen want.
RS: Of course. I just want to be in bed by half eight.
MG: Literally during the show.
JJ: Are there any characters that you particularly, generally just really enjoy writing for most? Is there a character that you most enjoy writing for when it comes to the shows or the live show?
RS: I mean it was great to do Legz Akimbo again…a bit of a greatest hits, but a bit more new stuff and I always like doing Geoff. It’s great to relive…sort of doing the ‘Best Man’ again but doing it slightly different…
JJ: It’s fantastic you’ve answered that. I was hoping you might have said that cos we’re going to play one final clip which is with Geoff and Mike and Brian and then Herr Lipp and then we’re going to come on to any questions from the audience. So you can either take a seat down there or stay up here and watch, it’s up to you… (audience applause)
An Audience with The League of Gentlemen at the BFI Southbank, with Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, with an audience Q&A hosted by Justin Johnson.
JJ: When you’re performing stuff live like that are there times when you just start to corpse at each other’s material, even when you’ve heard it? I mean, a few times obviously Steve’s having a bit of a laugh. I think…one bit where I felt Reece was just having a little bit of a smile to himself at one point, just one tiny moment. Are there points where you start to kind of laugh on stage?
RS: Oh yeah, definitely.
MG: We’re very disciplined (audience laughter) We try to…the one thing we can’t bear is fake corpsing. You see that in shows, where people do it at the same time points every night. In Pop, in the first half, it came…we actually thought, people were coming several nights they’d think we were doing it deliberately. It just became one of those…
RS: A hurdle.
MG: It was a hurdle…mostly because Steve was behind Reece doing all kinds of stuff. Every night was dangerous, wasn’t it? We got very hysterical. But sometimes it just takes you off-guard, doesn’t it. The oddest thing suddenly throws you.
SP: I think in that sketch there, I just remember now what happened because I’d spotted a couple in the audience I was going to pick. All through the Geoff sketch I was (scanning) the audience and I’d spotted who I was going to pick and I came on to do Herr Lipp and they’d gone (audience laughter) They’d walked out and so I thought shit I can’t pick them so I randomly picked (these) other people. I didn’t really get a good look at them, hoping they were a couple and then she said, which we had to cut out of the thing, ‘no he’s my father-in-law’ so when it came to all this sexual stuff…(audience laughter) I was making myself laugh thinking ‘oh this poor man sat there’ and also I’d forgotten her name in the whole panic of it all cos we’re filming this, I’d forgotten her name and halfway through I started calling her Anna and so there’s so quite beautiful edits. Her name’s Ellen and I started calling her Anna so we couldn’t do that so we had to re-jig it all and we had to take a bit out so that’s why I got a bit hysterical towards the end of that sketch.
JJ: And you had Babs Wiltshire directing that and she also directed your live ‘Inside No.9’.
SP: She did yeah (audience applause) Yeah she’s fantastic. We wanted someone who was more of a sort of multi-camera director for that set-up and obviously Babs is the best in the business.
JJ: Before we open up to the audience, one last thing…cos I know someone’s going to ask it if I don’t, but obviously whenever you do a reunion show or you come back and do a tour like this, people are always hungry for more, but I’m guessing now tonight in a way is kind of putting a lot of stuff to bed in terms of you’ve had your kind of reunion year and certainly for the time being, there are no plans to do any more. Is that correct?
RS: Yeah I think so.
SP: Well I can exclusively reveal… (audience laughter) that we’re not doing it for the foreseeable future.
JJ: Right. Is there anybody who’d like to ask any questions but not about their future plans as The League of Gentlemen. There is a hand at the very, very back of the centre block and then we’ve got one…over there…
Audience member: How did the song between Tubbs and Edward come about? And it’s ridiculously catchy.
SP: Well I think I wrote it, didn’t I and I can’t write music or anything but that kind of call and response song and the notion of him being stuck on the surface and her being stuck below. I don’t know, it’s one of those moments I was just…cos Reece was away doing a play in New York, I was on my own and obviously just missing him (audience laughter) and this song came into my head and so I recorded it and I still love it.
RS: I got this big long message of Steve singing it…
SP: I sang it into my phone and sent it to Reece and thought this is just an idea and he said ‘I love it’ and we sent it to a composer and he composed what I sang and yeah that’s how we did it.
RS: It was the perfect beginning of the second half.
JJ: So for all the songs you have in the shows, do you write those yourself always?
JD: The same process, cos the Les (McQueen) was the same thing. We did the Les song…the composer was terrific…Ian Masterton, and he turned it into proper music.
Audience member: Why do you look way better dressed as women than any actual woman? Just curious.
MG: Only you can answer that. Not sure that’s quite true.
Audience member: I was wondering is there any techniques that you used from Bretton Hall that you now still use?
MG: Yes, Legz Akimbo Theatre Company (audience laughter)
SP: No we did a lot of, at Bretton Hall, we did a lot of improvising and a lot of having to sort of jump into a situation and think on your feet and that has stood us in good stead because that’s essentially what writing is, it’s jumping into a situation, going what could happen next, what would happen if this were to, you know, happen next. So we’ve not had (any) sort of formal acting coaching like you get at the sort of big London drama schools but what we got was far more valuable I think, in that sense of being able to just get something on its feet and very quickly put it together, because we’d never worked with a director for example, so for the live shows – any of the live shows – for the live shows we’ve always just done it between us. It’s always been about the four of us in a room and I think a lot of that came out of Bretton Hall.
MG: I mean we did have this conversation every time we’ve done a tour, someone says “Do you want an outside director?” and the idea of someone coming in and just sort of workshopping things, it would just kill us. Quite genuinely we just did it very quickly, just get on with it. That’s the main thing, just get on with it.
JD: I loved the fact that on this it was exactly the same even though the scale was huge, it was just the same as the Canal Café. The process was identical.
MG: That is weirdly a legacy of Bretton Hall…was that we just got on with it, did it ourselves and we still do that and it’s been really valuable.
Audience member: So you’re all from Northern, working class backgrounds, which tends to be under-represented in comedy in general. So I was wondering, now that you have such varied careers and you’ve done so, so much work, how do you feel that still comes out in the work that you do now?
MG: Well we try to ruthlessly suppress anyone coming up (audience laughter) I feel very strongly about this. I’ve just done a play in Nottingham and there was a lot of talk, I was doing lots of interviews around it about the arts outside London and I think it’s hugely important that the things that actually nourished us and gave us a chance…I mean we went to Bretton with grants. Can you believe that? It was thousands of years ago, it seems inconceivable now. We didn’t have student debt, something like that. But there were so many fires lit in our imaginations as kids and growing up like that by those opportunities, just art centres and drama club and all those sort of things. It’s hugely important because people like us would not be here if it wasn’t for that and the huge danger is, first of all, it’s a soft target, the arts always are and they’re the first things cut because they know people will always take up the slack…someone’s mum and dad will always drive you to the town or something. So they cut the money, cut the money, but then it also means it becomes incredibly narrow and only people from a much more privileged background can get into it and I think we’ve really got to fight that because otherwise it will remain hugely under-represented (audience applause)
Audience member: You were talking about costume changes earlier in the stage show and one thing that’s always remarkable, and on the television as well, is that there’s only three of you in front of the camera. It feels like there’s way more characters. Have you ever been tempted to or have you ever experimented with the idea of using the miracle of television to double up and maybe have Herr Lipp alongside Pauline or Edward alongside the Reverend or do you shy away from that because it’s not compatible with your stage background and the sketch, the intimate sketch?
MG: There’s definitely a scene where Iris is at a checkout with…Alvin.
JD: We avoided it. We did avoid it generally just for budgetary reasons because, you know, it was always just the same logistics applied as on stage…
RS: We did it on (the) film quite a bit. When all the characters…yeah it was purely the time it would take to do the split screen aspect of it…and also maybe not having the characters’ worlds and their jokes colliding with one another.
MG: Although it would be nice to do a sort of a Prince and the Pauper with a terrible line down the middle…
JD: The thing I remember when we did it, when we consciously did it in the film with you and Papa Lazarou…and the remarkable thing is…yeah, there’s three of you isn’t there, there’s a multiplicity thing…but you don’t even feel anything, from the audience’s point of view, they’re not actually getting any added value from that because they are just seeing the characters, you don’t even have to stop and think about it.
RS: We did it a bit in the live thing when Edward is with Lazarou at the end with the projection hologram. We said if we ever do another tour in 20 years we could just have three holograms…we don’t have to turn up then. Well we couldn’t, we’d be infirm by then.
Audience member: Going back to like, comparing your past two tours, did overall, with the exception of the script and the show itself, was there any differences with the tour experience or was it a bit like more nostalgia? Was it all kind of the same kind of thing you did or was anything really different like fans or stage door or anything like that or just the whole process in general?
SP: No it was quite similar I think…
MG: Everyone was older…
Audience member: Apart from us younger fans who were just born.
RS: I think we sort of…we quite consciously orchestrated the entire experience again to have the same experience we had had last time and have fun with it. It was lovely…what a way to spend a summer, just being on a massive bus watching horror films…But it was lovely, nothing was changed. I think we were a bit scared about whether, what the reaction would be to begin with.
Audience member: About whether people would still like it?
RS: Yeah exactly. We didn’t know whether, how many people…
Audience member: I still can’t believe you filled out the O2.
Audience member: I noticed the book analysis of the series in the BFI shop and I noticed as well that Mark and Jeremy are thanked but Reece and Steve aren’t (audience laughter) I was curious to know how…
MG: I don’t remember exactly why but we did the interview and Steve and Reece didn’t. I can’t remember why…
Audience member: I was just curious to know if…
RS: Very mean spirited isn’t it to not give thanks to us (audience laughter) We did have some hand in it.
Audience member: My question was just, if you had any feelings about people writing about your writing, cos I imagine that’s…
RS: It’s all bollocks (audience laughter) Of course you can obsess over a thing and find meaning in it. It’s lovely to think ‘Is that what we meant?’ But a lot of it is a version of events that has been extracted from a rendering that wasn’t necessarily there when we wrote it.
MG: The second series, there was a documentary which Griff Rhys Jones narrated and we always do this, the line was “The blend is interesting – comedy and horror” (mimicking Rhys Jones) It’s like…
RS: That’s the formula…
MG: That’s the formula, like we don’t know, there’s a gap there and that’s, you know, it was never, it was never like that. We just did what made us laugh. So I think the danger always with that sort of analysis is that it becomes over-analytical, as Reece says…you just think… there are things you don’t know you’ve smuggled in, the same old things keep turning up, the same old patterns always happen but more than that, it’s just what made us laugh. It defies analysis I think, otherwise it just falls apart doesn’t it.
JD: Yeah and how can you analysis Papa Lazarou…
JJ: The semiotics of Papa Lazarou.
Audience member: Just a point, author of the BFI book here…
RS: Oh right. I want a word with you (audience laughter) But thank you. It’s a very good book, thank you.
Audience member: Apart from that…I’d just like to ask, some of the characters, for example, Bernice, but also increasingly Ollie, I get the feeling you’re using them to get something off your chest (audience laughter)
RS: What a weird thought.
Audience member: I don’t know why I thought that, particularly that they’re both played by Reece, who also plays Geoff.
RS: But I mean, Bernice is a vessel for saying the unsayable and that was what we…we went back to that from the last…when there was a great sort of moving on of the character. I mean in the Specials she was made mayor of the town but we thought it would be nice just to be able to return with the live show because it felt right. That was the first incarnation of Bernice, that she was an agony aunt…
JD: Yes she was…derived…she was in the very first show, before we were even…
RS: And who played her Jeremy?
JD: I did. It was the one voice I could do.
MG: And obviously based on Denise Robertson from ‘This Morning’…
RS: Yeah, but I mean I don’t know whether it’s me channelling personal opinions…
MG: When we did the Specials…we explicitly put in this thing of…Edward says “It’s time we took back control” and that’s partly because he looks like Michael Gove…because it’s true Royston Vasey was predicting this shithole we’ve found ourselves in (audience applause) It’s quite nice to be able to use something like…to get these things off your chest without having to take the blame.
RS: I’m not sure about Ollie though…
Audience member: So out of the four of you, who do you think will be first to die?
SP: …I’m not going to die…
Audience member: Now we have confirmation that you won’t be coming back at least for twenty years…
MG: We’ll be dead (audience laughter)
RS: What a horrible thing to ask. I hope you’re pleased with yourself (audience laughter)
Audience member: Last year when we watched the Specials someone asked the question, something like…was there any characters that you had stories for or ideas for which just couldn’t happen. Obviously now we’re not going to see you guys for at least another twenty years, can you say any of those stories, because as much info is the best…
JD: There was a whole Alvin story which was quite sad wasn’t it?
MG: It was a bit too similar to the Pauline dementia story…
SP: Well the whole thing had a melancholy around it didn’t it. Has anybody got a nice question?
Audience member: I was struck by the grace with which you dealt with all of us queuing up to get the DVD signed and also just referring to what you said about your influences and how you heard people and were replaying those sketches, you are in that position now of those people that everybody emulates. How does that feel and actually what happens if you hear someone try and emulate like that in front of you?
JJ: I mean do people quote lines back at you in the street and stuff like that?
RS: Yeah it’s hard for us, cos we’re just in here doing it, it’s hard to take a step back from it and think of the work that we’ve done…it’ll be lovely to think that it will be remembered.
MG: ‘Reece Shearsmith, who died today’ (audience laughter)
JJ: Is it funny to think of the fact that…there are probably out there some Mark, Reece, Jeremy and Steve…listening to your material and are going to be another generation…
RS: Yeah, you know, would be a lovely thing to think…I couldn’t believe the response that we had doing the live show, that there’s anybody with any interest still, so it was amazing, genuinely. I can’t believe we sold out the O2 (audience applause)
MG: It’s genuinely, it’s very humbling this experience. It was lovely to meet people, it was really lovely and you do think about that…and we have over the years…we did ‘Horrible Histories’…they were all so sweet and lovely…I remember saying to Steve, I said ‘We’ve become venerable’. It’s just a moment like that, it’s quite something and it is really…
JD: But to us it’s only like 5 minutes, that’s the thing. It’s bizarre and using the words ‘Twenty years…’
MG: ‘Right, not long now’ (in stereotyped Northern accent) (audience laughter)
JJ: We are going to wrap it up there. I just want to thank Reetu Kabra and Katrina Bell who have both been fantastic in helping put together tonight (audience applause) And a really, really massive thank you to The League of Gentlemen (audience cheers and applause)