It’s been 12 long years, but it’s been absolutely worth the wait. After a gap of a dozen years, it is the news that their legions of fans have been eagerly anticipating: the return to the live arena of the brilliant comedy quartet, The League of Gentlemen.
After an acclaimed TV revival with three anniversary specials on BBC2 before Christmas, Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are embarking on a major national tour entitled The League of Gentlemen Live Again! Focusing on the weird and wonderful inhabitants of Royston Vasey, whose motto is, ‘You’ll never leave!’
In the run-up to the tour, the four comedians sit down to chat about what we can look forward to in the new show.
What’s inspired you to go back on the road again?
Steve Pemberton says: ‘It’s the perfect time. The live show is the most fun version of The League of Gentlemen that we do. We’d been talking about doing something for a while. Having just made the BBC2 anniversary specials, this is a natural time to go back on the road while it’s on people’s minds. And after such a long time away, there is a real appetite for it.
‘We’re not forcing it onto people; wherever we go, we are constantly being asked about when we are bringing it back. So we thought, “Why not do it now?” We can’t wait.’
What do you think makes the live shows so special?
Jeremy Dyson says: ‘What I’ve always loved about the live shows and what still defines them now is the rigour and discipline that they impose on the writing. From the very beginning, we had a rule that only one prop or item of clothing was allowed to define a character. When we started in the mid-1990s with a residency at the Canal Cafe Theatre in London, it had a tiny dressing room, so everything had to go in a carrier bag. That meant you really had to think about the character when writing it.’
So you’re coming back for the right reasons?
Mark Gatiss says: ‘Yes. The lovely thing is we are doing it because we want to do it and not because we have to do it. Many reunions tend to be for the money and have a sense of desperation about them. But this isn’t like that. We have talked for ages about doing something again because we never split up. We just stopped doing it. So it’s very special to be doing it with a happy heart rather than a sense of obligation.’
The League’s work has always lent itself to live performance, hasn’t it?
Reece Shearsmith says: ‘The League of Gentlemen was never better than when it was live. The thing that surprised people was the theatricality of it. It was properly thrilling to be in the audience. There was such horror and silence and awkwardness - which were then broken by laughter. We managed to manipulate the audience into feeling really uncomfortable and then breaking it with a big laugh. It was palpably brilliant when we had those moments.’
So are you returning to where it all started?
Steve says: ‘It’s not like the show was conceived as a TV programme. We won’t have to scratch our heads and think, “How are we going to do this live?” These characters started when we walked out on stage saying things like, “Okey cokey, pig in a pokey.” The live show is simply going back to our roots.
How did you go about reviving these famous characters?
Jeremy says: ‘We just started thinking, “What’s happened to Pauline and Tubbs and Edward in the past 12 years?” If enough time has passed, it’s exciting imagining what has become of them. At that moment, we realised how much richness there is in those characters. We didn’t have to dig very deep to start having those conversations.
And the live shows have invariably been impeccably prepared.
‘We’ve always prided ourselves on giving people value for money. But not anymore!’ Mark laughs. ‘Those days are gone! A big thing for us has always been really rehearsing it well and creating a great show. People remember both our previous tours very fondly – and you can’t say that about everything you do. It was just a really good night out. We want to try and do that again.
What are you most looking forward to about touring again?
Reece says: ‘The fact that we will be forced to spend more time together – that’s a great thing. We really enjoy each other’s company. These days we don’t get to spend as much time together as we would like. But I never laugh more than when I’m with these guys. It’s great to be able to keep that going through our work.’
Is it quite affecting that after 30 years, you four are still so close?
Steve says ‘Absolutely. The extraordinary thing is we were all friends before any of this even existed. It’s all grown out of our friendship. The fact that we are able to keep working together, having known each other for 30 years is very moving. A lot of people don’t get to do that.’
Can we expect another reunion in 10 years’ time?
Jeremy says: ‘We did this in the first instance to stop people asking when we were coming back! So we have no immediate plans for another reunion. We just want to enjoy this tour.
How do you choose which characters to revive for the show?
Reece says: ‘It’s been very hard because we have so many to choose from. We have done over a hundred. Of course, you want to do the ones people are desperate to see. But we also want to explore the smaller characters and do things which surprise people.’
So you will mix it up a bit?
Mark says: ‘Definitely. This is the “12 Years Later” tour, so you’re not going to play the whole of the new album. There’s an extent to which we will give people exactly what they want. But we will also try and find new ways of doing it. When Monty Python did their reunion a few years ago, they did the Cheese Shop and the Parrot sketches, which always get a big ovation. But they also added some new stuff and changed some things. That might be how we do it.’
Which characters are non-negotiable?
Steve says: ‘You have to do Pauline. People love her. They love a woman with power, and Pauline has great power, as long as she has got a pen in her hand! But there are so many other characters that have to be done – Tubbs and Edward, obviously, the Dentons, Les McQueen, Papa Lazarou and Hilary Briss. There are loads, and we don’t want to short-change people.
You have a terrific relationship with The League of Gentlemen fans, don’t you?
Mark says: ‘Definitely. These characters have endured so well because people have remained really fond of them. That is such a thrill for us. The fans are really excited to meet these characters again that they haven’t seen for 15 years. It’s wonderful. Frequently the best part of it all is seeing the audience.’
What you think the show might achieve?
Jeremy says: ‘I hope the show will revive The League of Gentlemen in people’s hearts. It’s lovely that it’s still so alive and vital after all this time. That’s a really unusual thing. It’s hard to think of a precedent in comedy where you come back after such a long time and the show still has such life.’
Finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
Reece says: ‘When we first started discussing what a League of Gentleman revival would look like, we came up with lots of clever-clever ideas. But in the end, we decided the best way to bring it back was as if it had never been away.
‘It was just on again. That’s what it feels like. We hope that the live show will communicate that feeling of men in their 50s having the time of their lives jumping around on stage in silly costumes.’
Once you’ve become a League of Gentlemen fan, you’ll never leave!
The League of Gentlemen Live Again! Is at Portsmouth Guildhall on Monday, August 13. Doors 7pm. Tickets £40.45-£45.49. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.