Life seems even grimmer than usual for the grotesque inhabitants of the northern town of Roysten Vasey. While sheet rain and gail force winds lash the battered high street, black scudding clouds hang darker and lower than ever over the desolate moors! Random blasts of ball lightening threaten to obliterate unsuspecting residents with no warning ... and even the old war memorial in the town square can't escape destruction. Only one person knows what is really going on: embittered, God-hating vicar, Reverend Bernice Woodall, has discovered a secret crypt hidden deep in the bowels of Roysten Vasey's Chapel of Hope. In it, a series of ancient prophetic frescos depict the awful events that are now beginning to materialise before her very eyes. The only hope for salvation lies on the other side of a magical door which leads to an alternative reality where the town and its residents are nothing but characters in a television series created by a popular British comedy troupe known collectively as "The League of Gentlemen"!
So begins the feature film debut of one of the funniest and most imaginative comedy writing & performing groups working in Britain at the moment. Rather than just a desperate cash-in on the success of their acclaimed television series, this movie feels more like a natural logical progression -- the next step on the journey that has taken the quartet of Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith from the stage to radio, then on to television and now, finally sees them bringing their strange world to the big screen.
The League of Gentlemen's Perrier Award-winning Edinburgh stage show first introduced such larger-than-life characters as Pauline Campbell Jones - the pen-obsessed restart officer - and illiterate loudmouth businessman, Geoff Tipps. In turn, this success led on to their Radio 4 series, "On the Town with The League of Gentlemen", which first hit on the novel idea of framing sketches featuring their bizarre and outrageous characters in a small Northern town setting. After winning a Sony award for the show, the idea was quickly transferred to television; characters which could only really work on radio were dispensed with (leading to the creation of, perhaps, the League's most popular characters, Tubbs and Edward -- inbred local shopkeepers who can't abide outsiders!) and the town of 'Spent' became 'Roysten Vasey'. "The League of Gentlemen" quickly became a cult hit, unique for its uncanny mixing of the macabre & the grotesque with an intelligent Pythonesque humour.
Not content with merely reproducing the (much lighter) radio version on television, the team developed the show over three series, continually pushing the boundaries of the sketch-based format. The second series featured much more developed story-lines, and the hour-long Christmas Special (still the best thing they've done to date) dispensed with the laugh track and studio-bound audience conventions altogether and built proper stories (inspired by the British horror anthologies of Amicus that were produced in the '70s) around their increasingly outlandish characters. Horror fans would certainly already have noted the League's love of the genre from the first series on -- references abound throughout their work -- but the Christmas special made the horror influence explicit. The third series was even more daring in structure and consisted of six separate but linked, half-hour stories featuring their characters in often very much darker situations.
A Bafta, a Royal Television Society Award and The Golden Rose of Montreux later, and this movie would seem the obvious next step -- although it has resulted in a rather long absence of League-related material from our screens while it was being written. All four members have been deeply engaged in all sorts of projects since the last series though: Pemberton and Shearsmith regularly pop up in guest appearances on a wide variety of British-made shows and films, while Dyson has published a collection of macabre, twist-in-the-tail short stories under the title "Never Trust a Rabbit" and is about to publish his first novel. Gatiss, meanwhile, has had a very busy time: publishing his comic novel "The Vesuvius Club" [a pastiche of Victorian/Edwardian adventure fictions], writing episodes for the revamped series of "Doctor Who" and appearing in his fare share of TV such as the excellent black comedy "Nighty Night".
This film reintroduces many (but not all) of the original characters from the series, but concentrates more on three main ones: Geoff Tipps (Shearsmith); Roysten Vasey's mad butcher, Hilary Biss (Gatiss); and innuendo-prone German exchange tutor, Herr Lipp (Pemberton) -- all of whom stumble, accidentally, into the parallel universe behind the Chapel door while Bernice is trying to persuade Pauline and crap vet Dr Chinnery, to join her on this most sensitive and important of missions! Other characters' appearances are reduced to brief sketchy gags or secondary roles but still there are a few sequences where the performers have to meet and interact with themselves playing several different characters at the same time -- something which is achieved so seamlessly that one never even registers the fact on first viewing!
It isn't necessary to have seen every episode of the series in order to follow the film -- it exists in its own bubble to a large extent. But the initial plot does hinge on the viewer having some knowledge of the events of the original show. Here, Biss is still on the run from the authorities after the nosebleed plague caused by his shop's prime cuts of "special stuff" in the TV series. He meets Herr Lip (who is supervising a camping trip on the moors) and forces him to flag down a passing vehicle which happens to be driven by Geoff Tipps (who hasn't yet met with the accident that left him needing radical plastic surgery in series Three). The three of them take refuge in Bernice's Chapel but have no idea what they are letting themselves in for by entering the parallel universe. They soon notice something is very much amiss though, when Roysten Vasey seems to have turned into a place called Hadfield, Geoff's flat now has another family living in it, and Herr Lip stumbles across a group of people in the street dressed up as him: League fans on a sightseeing tour!
The three find out about a previous, failed mission to save Vasey when they meet inbred local shopkeepers Tubbs & Edward Tattsyrup and minstrel-faced wife collector Papa Lazarou who tell them what they have discovered about the individual members of the League, and show them tapes of the television series! With the fate of Vasey in their unqualified hands, the trio decide to stake out their creators' offices and discover that Gatiss, Shearsmith and Pemberton (Jeremy Dyson, who is played here by Michael Sheen, has met with an accident after the others' failed attempt to make contact) have abandoned Roysten Vasey and are working instead on a film script which is a Seventeenth Century-set historical pastiche concerning a Jacobite plot to kill the Protestant co-Monarchs, William & Mary (Bernard Hill & Victoria Wood), utilising the occult powers of a diabolical Warlock by the name of Erasmus Pea (David Warner)!
Biss, Lipp and Tipps decide that, in order to prevent Roysten Vasey from ceasing to exist, they have to persuade the remaining members of the League to abandon work on their new script and write another Vasey-set television series instead! They kidnap Steve Pemberton and steal the unfinished script; but when Geoff alters the manuscript -- writing himself into the plot as a great man with a big cock! -- fictional worlds collide and the bewigged inhabitants of Seventeenth Century England decide that they don't want their world to come to an end either!
Swapping backwards and forwards between the "real world" (where the three performers play fictional versions of themselves), the familiar Roysten Vasey and a lavish-looking Seventeenth Century affords the League the opportunity to indulge their cineast instincts to the full throughout the film. The usual Hammer productions and other British period horror influences can be seen of course, but there are visual references to the colourful works of Powell & Pressburger as well as the opulent fantasy of Jean Cocteau's "La belle et la Bete" -- and a sneaky sight gag that depends on one being quite familiar with "The Shining"! The film climaxes with Hillary Biss fighting a stop-motion, three-headed animated monster and this, along with an exotic stop-motion "Homunculus", brings back nostalgic memories of watching b-movie actors jabbing wildly with spears at Ray Harryhausen's fabulous creations.
The tone of the movie is noticeably lighter than the TV show, with characters who once seemed monstrous being wholly redeemed, or ending up appearing a good deal more sympathetic than they did in the three series at any rate. Hilary Biss's sinister side still comes across, but he pulls through on the side of his fellow townsfolk when the chips are down; Geoff Tipps was a brash, racist, homophobic bully in the original show but here he is just a loveable dimwit; Herr Lipp seemed to be a borderline child molester in the series and Christmas Special, but, more than anyone, this character's self-realisation -- when it suddenly dawns on him that his entire existence hinges on nothing but a series of crude innuendoes -- is genuinely poignant. In fact, Gatiss, Shearsmith and Pemberton have written themselves as rather more unpleasant and shallow as individuals than their comedy creations: Jeremy Dyson and Reece Shearsmith are portrayed as living surrounded by their own League merchandise (at least Pemberton keeps all his stored away in a back room!) while Pemberton is written as a neglectful husband and father (Herr Lipp turns out to be better at looking after Pemberton's kids than the performer is when he takes his creator's place)!
Whether the plot represents a subconscious wish by the team to move away from their Roysten Vasey creations is debatable. The story-line is an ingenious device at any rate, since it allows them to have the best of both worlds; satisfying the fans who want more Vasey, while allowing the writing/performing team to introduce new elements to their repertoire. One can sense a delight in the fruity dialogue and lavish costumes of the three co-conspirators they play in the Seventeenth Century segment -- even if Geoff Tipps does invade it -- but the Vasey characters are the ones who illicit all the audiences sympathy when their pompous creators decide they're fed-up with them!
The R2 disc from Universal is hardly an extras-loaded special edition but it does feature a fair amount of goodies. Top of the list is a group commentary track by the four members of the League which, as is usually the case with their commentaries, is a good mixture of production information, general silliness and bad language (here, bleeped to maintain the disc's '15' certification)! As well as a subtitle track for the actual film, the disc also features subtitles for the commentary track -- a nice touch. The audio is a decent 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound and the Digital Video-shot image looks fine, although sometimes a little soft.
A series of featurettes, each running around the ten minute mark provide a fairly good behind-the-scenes documentary when taken all together, and there are a number of deleted scenes included which are very worthwhile. Many jokes have been cut from the finished film for some reason -- probably for reasons of pacing -- so it is good to see them all collected here; there are also a few amusing outtakes. At least two Easter eggs (so far as I can ascertain) are also included: the first can be found on the main menu page and is another deleted scene; while the second comprises behind-the-scenes video footage of Peter Kay and Simon Pegg, who have a very brief cameo in the movie.
A great first effort by the team, then -- hopefully the first of many!