The League of Gentlemen

Thursday, September 26, 2002 by

Personally, I blame my father and mother. Sins of the parents and all that. The Old Dutch because she worked in the picture house, so free tickets were an everyday occurrence and, even though I was only eight, there was no restriction on what I viewed. Well, that’s not strictly true. It was the Tatler after all and even an eight year old with influence still struggled to get into see Deep Throat. 12 and with influence? No problem. Eight? No chance. And father? Well, the old man decided to take it upon himself to see to it that I received a proper cinematic education. So, whilst my contemporaries were Disneyed up to their eyeballs bedknobbing their broomsticks, I was wigging out to the likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the entire cannon of Sergio Leone. Pretty strange fare I’m sure you’ll agree for someone weaned on Screen Test, Nationwide and Play For Today (well, all eight year olds watched Play For Today, didn’t they?)

I knew, incontrovertibly, that the mould had been set when we sat up late one evening to watch La Dentilliere on BBC2 and discuss the finer points of French cinema. It will come as no surprise to you whatsoever to learn that I never got an Action Man for Christmas. Or a ticket for Deep Throat. For some obscure reason, Father reckoned that the onset of puberty was a prerequisite for that one. Killjoy. Think of the playground kudos a viewing of that would have given me. Not to mention all the Wagon Wheels I could have eaten and a squint at William Stewart’s Mayfairs.

Look, this preamble is leading somewhere, just bear with me.

Anyway, the second film that I ever did see was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The old man was big on Monty Python. Still is, in fact. It flew over my head, and I hated every single minute of it. No, make that every second of it. It was the unfunniest thing that I had ever confronted. Still is, in fact. Somehow reading my stunned silence as approval, Father then unilaterally decided that I should be allowed to stay up late to watch Spike Milligan’s Q shows or the Python crew whenever they were on the small screen. Now, this presented me with a major dilemma. On the one hand I would have to watch alleged comedy that left me dry. But, on the other, both shows contained (especially Spike’s) the odd flash of boob. And rather large boobs at that. And scantily clad females. Scantily clad females with rather large boobs. Look, when you’re 10 years old, these things matter. So, for the sake of my dad (and also the curious – and not entirely unpleasant – sensation of something strangely different happening in my underwear) I decided to do my duty as a dutiful son and watch ‘em all. I was, of course, rewarded with no laughs, several stiffies and the embarrassing experience of a wet dream. But, as your man from The Korgi’s winsomely opined, everybody’s gotta learn sometime.

Right, with me so far? In a nutshell, the man with no name meets the boy with soiled sheets who harbours a pathological hatred for surreal comedy. There’s a Fellini movie hiding in that sentence somewhere. Oh how I hated surreal comedy. Still do in fact. Despite my tender years, the die had been cast. I much preferred the likes of Porridge. Them versus us, don’t let the bastards grind you down and all that. For all their frolicking with lumberjacks, Hell’s Grannies, silly walks and dead parrots, the likes of Python were the bastards. A lifetime of Pimm’s and privilege gained you an entry card into Oxbridge and Footlights. Thereafter, a chap from the BBC (himself a Pimm’s man) saw your Fringe production and instantly offered you a gig on the gogglebox. I know how it works. Well, that was the whisper on the playground anyway. I’ll bet those shitehawks never had a sugar sandwich in their playpiece.

This whole train of thought and burgeoning chip on the shoulder attitude culminated in the by now infamous incident some years ago wherein I lamped a couple of braying, ruddy-faced Tim-Nice-But-Dim types during a best-forgotten Fringe performance. That it was during a horrendous performance of dreadful, surreal stand-up should come as even less a surprise to you as my long childhood of Action Man-less Yuletides. That I did it in character (don’t ask – my one man performance redefined the parameters and pushed back the boundaries of the word shite) was not so much a testament to my thespian abilities but more of a ringing endorsement for the dubious substances my character willingly partook of on stage. Though I do, bizarrely, remember effeminately slapping one bloke, much to the amusement of the crowd, yelling, “I’m genial Harry Grout and you, my son, are a charmless nurk.” I’m not proud of that. Honestly, I’m not. I am proud of the fact that I made one of the blokes stamp his feet with rage and call me an “odious big turd”. Genial Harry Grout didn’t like that. Not one little bit. So he slapped him again.

So, there/here we are. A veritable field of Maris Pipers on one shoulder and Mantovani conducting a violin concerto on the other. But I did stop worrying about comedy and learned to love it all. Or most of it. Face it; the BBC doesn’t make it easy on a boy. The schedules are strewn with the carcasses and festering remains of dead comedy. Some of them – the truly awful Coupling for instance – are still beating (that one should have been aborted at some point during the gestation period). I could write a better sitcom than that. Then again, Rupert the freaking Bear could write a better sitcom than Coupling. So could Yogi – but not Winnie the Pooh. Oh no. There’s something of the Hundred Acre Wood about Coupling. Think about it. The names insanely assail my consciousness like the Cathars would some peasant village in the Dark Ages – The Fitz, Two Pints of Lager, ‘Orrible, Celeb, Operation Good Guys – right, that’s enough. We could be here all day. And if here is the graveyard of hideous, eternal damnation that is BBC Comedy, then we most definitely do not want to be here.

Some of you would much rather be in Royston Vasey instead. Not literally, of course. But not me though. I’d rather be back watching Milligan shuffling across the screen zombie-chorusing “What are we going to do now?” (I’m sure he would too) or even, god forbid, Python. I’ve tried so hard to dig the cult of The League of Gentlemen but I’d be just as well trying to dig the Cult of Sol Invictus. Gnosticism aside, this one goes way, way over my head. I’ve watched every episode and it leaves me stone cold. Not a single laugh. Not a hint of a guffaw or a titter. And I feel strangely bad about this. Some of the people I respect the most in life adore this yet I think it’s indescribably awful. Predictable plots, lame characters, lousy writing, dull direction, an overblown sense of self-importance and ludicrously self-indulgent. Well, not quite indescribably awful then.

Yet somehow I return to the prose of Cyril Connolly, who said that “Hate is the consequence of fear; we fear something before we hate it. A child who fears becomes an adult who hates.” and I wonder if my mournful mien recognises an element of discordant truth in those powerful words. Or am I just severely hacked off that I wasted a half hour of my life watching this when there was a Linda Lovelace documentary on another channel? I never did get to see Deep Throat, you know. I could have bought the video. But I bought an Action Man instead.


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