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On The Town with the League of Gentlemen

Radio 4
1997 (six episodes)

Stunning debut series from Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, who, together with Jeremy Dyson (who writes but does not perform), comprise the League of Gentlemen, award-winners as a live comedy group.  On The Town is a difficult beast to classify, floating somewhere between sitcom and character sketch show.  To an extent, it was a compilation of stand-alone sketches evolved before the idea for the series came about; however, the characters from the sketches tended to reappear and interact with each other, several of them becoming caught up in a number of bizarre and tangled plot strands which ran through the series.  The common location for all the goings-on (and ‘town’ of the title) was the clapped-out Northern metropolis of Spent, which had its own nuclear reactor and precious little else.

The series was sometimes billed as a black comedy, and did indeed tend to contain dark-tinged elements — occasional revolting moments and frequent tragic situations spun into comedy  — which were always present but never predominant.  The series also had a farcical side and seemed to range over practically everything: the surreal characterisations and plot developments appear to have been influenced in equal measure by Victorian industrial-dispute sagas, trashy psychological horror flicks and cheery 1940s-style radio sitcom.  The featured inhabitants of Spent — all of whom, without exception, cry out for a description — included Barbara, a gravel-voiced taxi driver in the midst of a problematic sex-change procedure; Dr Chinnery, a well-meaning vet with the unfortunate habit of accidentally killing the animals in his care; Bernice Woodall, the phone-in DJ on Spent FM, who had an equally unfortunate tendency to provoke her listeners into suicide; Mr Ingolby (“Can you lift me up?”), a traditional family grocer who proudly refused to admit the limitations of his severely restricted height; and the uncle and aunt from hell, a crazed pair who kept their recently-arrived nephew chained in the cellar, drank urine and all but worshipped a collection of pet toads.  Most of the regular characters were immaculately constructed, but even these were surpassed by the occasional comic creations dropped into single episodes, who included the Legz Akimbo Theatre Company, a touring group presenting a play about homosexuality to the under-fives, and an incredibly sapient blacksmith who dispensed worldly wisdom to the hopeless multitude who came to his door (but was unwilling to attempt repairs on a set of television castors).  Amazingly, all of the characters in the show were depicted by the three writer-performers alone — although, in the final episode, Sally Phillips appeared briefly to play Barbara following the final stage of his/her operation.

At the beginning of 1999, BBC2 broadcast a television version, entitled simply The League of Gentlemen, for which the town was renamed Royston Vasey.  The programme was basically similar, with material drawn from the same basic pool of sketches, but was stitched together slightly differently this time around and contained a few new characters.  At the time of writing, a second radio series from the League was anticipated, with another TV series already commissioned.

External links: Andrea Johnson's League of Gentlemen site is the most detailed site devoted to the LoG: it also contains links to various other sites. There's a sizeable LoG subculture with mailing lists, discussion groups and so forth.

© JB Sumner 1998, 1999. Last modified 10/2/99