When rumours were brewing that the League of Gentlemen were to reform, one question kept recurring: how on earth would they find the time?
Since The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse movie was released in 2005, ten years after Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson first introduced the world to the dark, dysfunctional town of Royston Vasey with its array of demented residents, the four had, for the most part, gone their separate, rather successful ways.
As well as writing episodes of Doctor Who and Poirot, Gatiss co-created Sherlock with Steven Moffat, wrote and starred in BBC4 Christmas ghost story Crooked House and his History of Horror documentary series, and appeared on the London stage both at the National Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse in London (where he’s currently in The Recruiting Officer).
Pemberton stars in two of ITV1’s biggest, and completely contrasting, shows: broad comedy Benidorm and bloody cop drama Whitechapel. He reunited with Shearsmith to write and star in BBC2’s comic, chilling Psychoville, while Shearsmith is currently nominated for an Olivier award for his turn in Betty Blue Eyes.
Dyson, the non-performing League member, had a theatre hit, Ghost Stories, as well as scriptediting Simon Amstell’s sitcom Grandma’s House. With such stuffed schedules, the one and only time that all four Gentlemen managed a public get-together in the past seven years was at Halloween 2010 to spend a night in a haunted house for Radio 4’s The League of Gentlemen’s Ghost Chase.
So when rumours of a reunion coagulated into fact, speculation then turned to the special project that would bring them – or at least the three performing Gentlemen – together. And so it’s… Horrible Histories.
“Mark and I independently thought it was just a brilliant show that works on a number of levels,” explains Shearsmith. “My kids love it.”
“That it’s doing the right thing is just great,” adds Gatiss. “When you meet kids who don’t know there was ever such a thing as black-andwhite TV, you know there’s work to be done in educating about history. And looking at the bits kids are interested in is the way to engage them.”
“You mean the wee and poo and sick,” Shearsmith smiles, “and the comedy song, which can be awful, but this show does those brilliantly. There’s not a weak link in the team here and it’s an honour to be asked to be part of it.”
Pemberton nods in agreement: “People say it’s a Monty Python for kids and I can really see that. Being playful and daft is a great way to work and great to watch. We [the League] never did a lot of historical sketches, but doing sketches was how we started, so you can see how we fit into this world.”
And so, with Jeremy Dyson knowing Horrible Histories’ producer Caroline Norris (who’s currently making Sharon Horgan’s new comedy Dead Boss, which will also star Jennifer Saunders), wheels were set in motion and, thanks to an opportune break in Pemberton’s Benidorm schedule, the three Gentlemen who perform were back together once more.
“It would have been good for Mark and me to have done it, but to have Steve as well is great,” Shearsmith says.
So has the experience inspired them to get the League back together?
“We’re all friends of course,” says Pemberton, “and Mark did appear in Psychoville, so it’s something that’s always there, but The League of Gentlemen does seem a long time ago now.”
“Especially when grown-ups say, ‘I loved your show as a kid, even if my dad wouldn’t let me watch it,’ ” adds a mock-horrified Gatiss. “Just as Abba never split up, we just stopped doing it. We’ve always talked about doing something else.”
“I genuinely think the time will come, and not years and years away, when we will reconvene,” says Shearsmith. “It probably wouldn’t be Royston Vasey but it will be something.”
In the absence of an immediately impending League reunion, you can understand their enthusiasm at performing together on Horrible Histories, in a sketch that sees various historical figures pitch their life stories to three sharpsuited Hollywood producers (played by Shearsmith, Gatiss and Pemberton).
Despite nominally being a children’s programme, Horrible Histories is one of the best sketch comedies on TV.
Not only has it won “grown-up” awards – Best Sketch Show at the British Comedy Awards twice, beating Armstrong and Miller, Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse in 2010, and, in 2011, David Walliams and Matt Lucas’s Come Fly with Me and The One Ronnie – the calibre of guest stars it attracts suggests that the show, based on Terry Deary’s hugely successful books, has considerable cachet within the comedy world.
From Alexei Sayle and David Baddiel to Meera Syal and Sarah Hadland, some of Britain’s best comedy performers profess an admiration for the show and have clamoured to appear. As with Shearsmith, the keenness of Baddiel et al may in part be a way to accrue kudos with their own children – and, more cynically, be a way to introduce themselves to a younger audience.
Ultimately, comedy performers relish Horrible Histories’ madcap, sometimes deliciously silly, exuberance, which, thanks to the show’s razorsharp writing, educates as well as entertains.
Exemplifying this energy are the Savage Songs. The most famous, and longest, of these is the Chas ’n’ Dave pastiche English Kings and Queens Song, but let’s not overlook Ra Ra Cleopatra (a parody of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga) and the Eminem-inspired Charles II: King of Bling.
In this new series, there’s a brilliant Take That pastiche, which explains the role of the RAF in the Second World War, and the story of the Luddites told through the medium of punk.
While guest stars may garner the headlines, it’s exemplary regulars Mathew Baynton, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond who make Horrible Histories consistently great. If they shed their wigs, smocks and frocks, you’d recognise all of them from roles in comedies such as Gavin and Stacey, The Office and The Mighty Boosh.
They persuade the likes of the League and The Thick of It’s Chris Addison (who also guests in this series) to appear. Along with producer Caroline Norris and director Dominic Brigstocke, who between them have worked with the biggest names in British comedy, from French and Saunders to Armstrong and Miller, Horrible Histories has an impressive, perhaps unsurpassable, comedy pedigree.
And you never know – one day, they might even be writing songs about it.
Horrible Histories is on CBBC today at 5:00pm.