BBCHD - 18th June 2009 - 10.00pm
'What's that Miriam?'
'Er...my name's Kate'
'Oh, I'm sorry...I thought you were Dr. Miriam Stoppard!'
A very typical joke, and one that is very amusing it has to be said, opens the first episode of
The League Of Gentleman Series 4....er....Psychoville. It's a trademark flourish from the two writers/creators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith whereby the opening titles are high Gothic thriller material depicting the intricate writing of letters with quill and ink by candlelight, Joby Talbot's florid music is punctuated by 'Cashier Number 3 please' and there's a sudden double take to a post office where a man in black scuttles away to post his letters and a pensioner mutters, 'He's left his candle'. Ah, it's good to be back in familiar territory where the disturbing League-like humour plays out through modernist and traditional horror movie tropes.
'not for sale, Aspel, not for sale!'Said letters are delivered to the series' main characters and it is here that Psychoville not only feels like Pemberton and Shearsmith have not just simply picked up where the League left off but they've also refined it. Gone is the hot-house, chop logic world of Royston Vasey and instead each of the characters is given their own real world bubble to live in. Joy (a mid-wife with a fetish for practice ante-natal dolls), Mr. Jelly (a sibling of Papa Lazarou who 'Keeps Kids Quiet'), blind millionaire Oscar Lomax ('not for sale, Aspel, not for sale!' ), Robert the lovestruck telekentic pantomime dwarf and mother and son David and Maureen Sowerbutts ('I'm gonna have half an hour on me Bontempi') all live in our neighbourhoods, from Salford to Eastbourne, Wood Green to Ilkley. As originally hinted at in the last League series and the feature film, Royston Vasey has become the world. No doubt as the series unfolds we'll get to the bottom of the mystery that binds them all.
Pemberton and Shearsmith are, as always, a joy to watch. One of the standout moments includes Mr. Jelly's attempt to entertain at a children's party with his interchangeable 'hundred hands' (well, there are sixteen in his bag but kids won't know because they're thick), drowning them in clouds of WD40 and bubbles, providing the party girl with a 'Princess make-over' by combing her hair ('oh, doesn't your mummy wash your hair?) and smearing her face with lipstick ('one little girl, turned out she was allergic, and her eye came up like a red egg') and finally scaring the pants off them by brandishing his stump at them, blaming rival entertainer Mr. Jolly for his predicament. No doubt, after the brief scene of his vandalism of Mr. Jolly's transport, we will get to see more of their bitter rivalry as the weeks unfold.
It's like something out of Hieronymous BoschDawn French manages to imbue Joy with a sense of immense tragedy despite coming across as your worst nightmare at ante-natal classes. She obviously has plans for the doll Freddie and like a crazed female Geppetto intends to turn the doll into a real boy. I love that moment when she gets home and Pemberton's long suffering husband, having had years of humouring her, takes Freddie the doll off to change him but out of sight lets the doll hang limp at his side. The other centrepiece of the episode, and probably of the series, is the utterly disturbing portrayal of the Sowerbutts. The camera slowly creeps round the side of the door and son is sitting in mum's lap whilst she scratches the flaking skin off his back whilst quizzing him on his knowledge of serial killers. It's like something out of Hieronymous Bosch, especially with the sepia toned surroundings, their own exaggerated facial features and the spectre of incest in that kiss between mother and son that goes on for too long and Maureen's rather suspect act of 'tucking' David in.
David has the role of the butler in one of those awful Murder Mystery dinners and the observational stuff is spot on with David Bamber, Janet McTeer and Nicholas le Prevost getting the appalling whiff of amateurism of actors reduced to such work who are then confronted by David's idea of a murder ('Fuck Pig' supposedly scrawled on the wall in excrement whilst another actor hangs upside down with a string of sausages hanging out of her stomach). Inevitably he loses the job and not just because of his homage to Pam Doove in delivering his first line in the play. 'Shall we skip to the coffee' sounds like a good idea.
'Congratulations, Tea Leaf. I knew you'd be the one'Other highlights include Shearsmith's turn as the queeny pantomime lead male actor Bryan ('the frocks need spaaacce') who turns his advice to the love struck panto dwarf Robert Greenspan into a cruel humiliation. Pemberton is also very amusing as the grouchy blind millionaire Oscar Lomax, prowling round his deserted mansion in Yorkshire and visited by a young offender Michael Fry doing community service. As Michael opens his letters to read them to him, he gruffly announces, 'Is there one from NASA?'. He keeps mentioning his 'holy of holies' and Michael manages to steal the keys to a locked room and discovers a surreal collection of soft toys. 'Congratulations, Tea Leaf. I knew you'd be the one' utters Lomax. Ooookay.
This is beautifully done with some exquisitely handled visuals from director of photography Francis de Groote and direction from the reliable Matt Lipsey, meticulous production design, detailed character development with costumes from old League cohort Yves Barre and fabulous music from Joby Talbot. There's a sense of something special developing here, an ensemble cast providing uniformly good performances that are darkly funny and outrageously creepy. Something we haven't seen since the League left our screens. Ironically, BBC iPlayer offers More like This? and then flags up Last Of The Summer Wine. Yes, it could be seen as a very warped version of that rather cosy, if horribly redundant, fluff. Welcome back, boys.
Cathode Ray Tube Psychoville League Of Gentlemen Reece Shearsmith Steve Pemberton