British humour, with its cynicism and mean-spirit, is not only a perfect fit for the horror genre, but is also often horror in itself. There are virtually no limits to the level of grotesque depravity one can invoke as long as it's in aid of a joke. Example: how do coma patients have sex? However you want them to, they can't stop you. Ooh, edgy.
For today's review I decided to look at three shows by a comedy trio (technically quattro, but really now, who remembers the Forth Musketeer?) which, whilst they aren't strictly horror, go to all manner of disturbing places that they may as well be. Just like a trip to Withernsea.
The League of Gentlemen
The concept behind this experimental sketch show is that life in Britain is terrifying. If you live in the city you'll be jostling with all manner of people who'd rape or stab you in a heart beat; out in the country, well, the people are mostly the same plus they're in cults, and get weird about jam and sheep. It's the simple country folk The League of Gentlemen focuses on; in a show which can best be described as Little Britain set in Lovecraft's fictional town of Innsmouth. You won't find any Gentlemen here: only cold-hearted sadists. Nor any Leagues: unless someone's running a murder league.
Set in the fictional town of Royston Vasey - one of those places you pass through en route to your real destination, with the only defining feature of the place being the size of the post office - The League of Gentlemen is initially the least scary show on this list. It's a sketch comedy, which ran for three seasons and got a wholly meta movie, and takes the form of the anarchic, experimental humour of late-90's British TV (think The Fast Show); choosing the easy options when poking fun of its broad British stereotypes. There are workmen, benefit claimants, quaint shopkeeps, butchers, doctors, and tranny cab drivers. This is a show where the main town is named after Chubby Brown, after all, and that's a target even the American military couldn't miss.
It soon becomes apparent just what sort of dark places this show is willing to go to: between them the three lead writers/actors (Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, and Reece Shearsmith) play some of the most twisted and depraved yokels (both male and female) this side of a Dean Koontz novel. Part of the show's appeal is how effortlessly it melds together the bizarre with the brutal. Sometimes the punch line to the joke is simple like "bummers are deaf", other times the joke is the pain at seeing yet another life ruined in an extremely bitter manner. A passing moment's humour, followed by unending despair. Which I'm sure for most of us runs the bleak gamut of day-to-day life.
The characters exemplify this attitude of taking a facet of British existence and exaggerating into something entirely terrible. There's the blackface clown Papa Lazarou, who's just as likely to make you his wife and kidnap you as he is to call you 'Dave' or try and sell you pegs. Like a gypsy Pennywise. Tubbs and Edward , the proprietors of the isolated local shop (for local people only), are incestuous, murderers of travellers, keep a monstrous son in the attic, and express a burning ideological hatred for progress and the outside world. You know, like Brexiteers. Hilary Bliss the butcher pulls a Todd Sweeney, sorry Sweeney Todd, and sells 'special meat' in his store. And Pauline Campbell-Jones, the Job Centre officer, berates and bullies the worthless jobless - actually that one's fairly normal for modern Britain.
If the League of Gentlemen was the old-fashioned, and definitely off-kilter, pub you find yourself in on a trip to the country - hoping for a refreshing drink, only to be treated to threatening stares from the inbred locals - then Psychoville is rough, round the corner estate pub; grimy and filled with strange, violent characters who'll definitely cave your head in if you look at them funny.
This dark-comedy serial, which ran for two seasons and a Halloween special, was Pemberton and Shearsmith's next project following League. Both shows contain the same brand of humour and tone, (a clown who, through an innocent action, looks as though he's getting wanked off by a kid in public toilets, etc.) though Psychoville is more open about its horror cred. This is a show that overtly wears horror on its face like an Ed Gein style mask made out of a vagina.
Unlike League, Psychoville is heavily serialised and has an ongoing story. Like League's third season. Except whilst League worked better as a sketch show with recurrent elements (such as the plague in season two, which looked as though everyone was recreating Carrie's shower scene with their noses), Psychoville is meant as an unfolding mystery from the very start. Five seemingly unconnected characters each receive a Harry Potter-esque letter, containing one single sentence: "I know what you did". A letter suggesting omniscience on the level of my mum.
The show has a fantastic cast of characters (mostly played by Pemberton and Shearsmith): there's David and Maureen, a man-child and his overbearing, slightly incestuous mother, who share in David's obsession with serial killers and go on a murder spree. Mr Jelly, a misanthropic disabled clown and his 100 (read 16) artificial hand attachments. Oscar Lomax, a blind toy collecting millionaire whose every line carries the melodrama of the Movie Voice Over Guy. A nurse named Joy (Dawn French) who compensates for her dead baby by carrying around a practice doll believing it's real; and finally a dwarf pantomime actor, Robert (Jason Tompkins), who displays telekinetic powers whenever he's angry - like fucking Napoleon.
The central crux of the plot is the mystery blackmailer, but really the show is series of side plots which eventually coalesce into a limp resolution. Side plots that deal with murder, dead dads, dead babies, jealousy, Moby-Dick style obsession, adultery, all the horrible things League covered but with a horror movie twist. French's surrogate baby story, for example, plays out akin to an old-school Chucky movie, before going even darker when the doll ends up like a used tampon - absorbing the blood of French's love-rival during a macabre surgery. If anything, it's the story tying it all together which drags the whole affair down; it has the unenviable task of bringing all of these bizarre characters together, like whenever you try to organise a gathering of friends, and they're being indecisive pricks.
Inside No. 9
Oh no, not another anthology show. They're like hookers in a noir film, turning up dead on street corners - each one more cut up than the last. But Inside No. 9 is a treat by anthology standards. A program which I only discovered recently, but which is already a firm favourite. It's just Pemberton and Shearsmith again, but the concept is simple: individual dark-comedy stories set in a single location, featuring a minimal cast, and always with a brutal ending. Boom. That's pretty succinct as far as anthology show descriptions go; maybe next year someone can create an anthology show I can describe as 'shit happens'.
It's the anthology in its purest form: there are no wraparounds, or mythologising. The only connecting element is some-kind of self-imposed challenge that each episode must take place 'Inside No. 9' - i.e. a house with a No. 9 door, from the view of CCTV camera No. 9. You get the picture. As such every episode pans out like a mini-play - keeping the focus entirely on the situation and the characters' reactions. Pemberton and Shearsmith previously experimented with the format in the first season of Psychoville, but here it feels more realised - the plots of entire episodes germinate from a single moment.
In fact, this shows represents just how much their writing has matured since 1999. Gone are the silly jokes (mostly, there are still are few crude moments like the shizer sequence in the train episode), and instead there's a real biting exploration of humanity on display here. The performances have improved too. Pemberton, Shearsmith, and co always were fantastic in League, but here they demonstrate their capabilities for drama that's sometimes maudlin, sometimes grisly; as well as showing their willingness to take risks. One audacious episode is completely devoid of dialogue, as sees the pair portray bungling burglars sneaking round a retro-futuristic neon-lit house; complete with exaggerated expressions and movements, and a classical soundtrack.
With Inside No. 9, Pemberton and Shearsmith put their talent for picking out the peculiarities of the human condition to good use. There are episodes about a man who finds a shoe and becomes obsessed over it to a ruinous degree, a man who takes pity on a tramp and becomes one himself, a family whose patriarch's love for pranks destroys his family, and a family who fight over a dead celebrity's last gasp, contained in a party balloon. They all have brutal endings, but not the usual Twilight Zone style contrived twist: the endings are surprising but wholly consistent with the characters' behaviours.
In the spirit of the duo's previous works, Inside No. 9 combines the ludicrous with the darker aspects of humanity. Most episodes hinge on the lead characters' fatal flaws or damaged relationships It's fairly low-key compared to the colourfully grotesque Psychoville and the surreal League, but the show is better for it. This is the show which features the most intense game of Sardines since the choirboys sleep over at Vatican City.
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