Essays, Television

The League of Gentlemen’s Brexit Britain: why the old guard TV shows are returning now

If you grew up in the late 1990’s across into the new millennium, you almost certainly remember The League of Gentlemen, if you’re British at least. Then unknown performers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith burst on the TV scene and delivered for the BBC a sketch comedy as successful as The Fast Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus before it, only skewed far more away from social comedy or absurdity, and closer to a grotesque, eccentric inversion of Northern lifestyle spliced with Hammer horror movie homage. Running for three series and a Christmas special, the League got in and out before anyone could start to find them wearing; constantly evolving their visual and narrative style, telling witty, bleak and inventive stories, and ending with the hope they would make more. Almost twenty years since they began, they have, with three new Christmas specials on the horizon. But why now?

It’s fair to say there has been something of a Renaissance for 90’s and ‘Noughties’ television in the last couple of years. The old guard have been popping up all over the place, revamped, reimagined and revived for an entirely new audience. The X-Files, early in 2016, returned with its two key original characters and a shortened, six episode run, followed swiftly by a condensed, compact revival of Prison Break for an erstwhile fifth season. This was after, in the autumn of 2015, popular superhero series of the mid 00’s Heroes returned for a mini-series called Reborn.

This year’s most profound revival has been, almost inexplicably, Twin Peaks, in which David Lynch crafted a third season almost twenty years since the end of the second, baffling and confounding audiences in equal measure on both sides of the Pond – some say it’s genius, others say it’s ponderous. Even Star Trek, a 90’s mainstay of television which dominated the science-fiction landscape for more than a decade before drifting into mid-00’s obscurity, returned with a new lease of life thanks to Discovery, its new series set ten years before the original 1960’s run. These aren’t the only examples but they all have one crucial element in common – all of them, to a series, have met with a mixed response.

This seems surprising. Several of the series mentioned above were powerhouses in their day. The X-Files could well be the biggest pop-culture scion of the entire 1990’s, in any medium. Twin Peaks, an inspiration itself for Chris Carter’s series, has long been held aloft as an early example of TV telling a serialised, skilled story filled with occult symbolism and a deeper level of mythology, often held as a benchmark and pioneer of its field. Star Trek, arguably, is the most legendary property in television history, and one of the most recognisable, beloved franchises and brands across the world. So why on earth would anyone, fan or critic, find these revivals to be anything other than glorious? Why would there be mixed opinion? Do they not tower over the series and concepts they inspired?

Taking away the obvious answer, that these shows simply can’t recapture the same creative magic which bound them into the public consciousness when they reigned supreme, even with the original writers and creatives on board, then we must look to an entirely different reason for why people are rent asunder by these revivals, their fandoms split right down the middle, and its an answer that returns the original question above: why now?

The League of Gentlemen first came into being early in the 1990’s as a show at the populist Edinburgh Fringe, before transferring to a successful radio show in 1994, and then finally making its way to television in 1999. The writers created a show which was immersed in literary and cinematic influences in a decade where creatives on television and in cinema were frequently providing a post-modern lens on its own history; look at how The X-Files takes a cue from 1960’s show The Invaders and Kolchak: The Night Stalker in the 1970’s. The aforementioned Heroes, to some extent, was a little ahead of its time, attempting to tell long-form comic-book narratives akin to Marvel & DC panels, long before Marvel created the new dominant form of cinematic storytelling: the cinematic universe. You can even see Prison Break as a stylised, serialised evolution of 80’s action television such as The A-Team.

For the League and its writers, their touchstones often were from a British source, principally science-fiction and horror. Gatiss, most overtly, was an enormous fan of original Doctor Who and such 1950’s fare as The Quatermass Experiment (he would later go on to be part of modern re-imaginings of both of these properties). Much as Pemberton has often claimed many of the grotesques are based on real-life Northern characters he and Shearsmith in particular have encountered in places such as Chorley in Lancashire, heightened for comic-effect, there is without doubt a fusion in the League’s style and delivery which speaks to both of these influences – eccentric real-life Northern personalities and schlock, redoubtably British science-fiction and horror.

After the League called time on their exploits in 2002, barring a largely unsuccessful film version in 2005, the writers continued indulging these affectations – Gatiss with the aforementioned shows and, even more successfully, his modern revival of Sherlock with Steven Moffat, while Pemberton & Shearsmith would team up again for darkly comedic inversions such as Psychoville and twisted anthology series Inside No. 9, a show which arguably rivals and perhaps even outdoes the League when at its best. The point is that each writer continued indulging their own personal inspirations and touchstones after the League, which they created before the age of peak, prestige TV, an age where situation comedies still almost always had a laughter track (they would boldly dispose of one for Season 3) and genres often wouldn’t cross.

The League, returning in 2017, finds itself in a vastly different TV landscape. Comedy has changed in Britain, to the point it almost feels non-existent. Can you honestly name one truly interesting, inventive comedy on mainstream BBC1 in 2017? A couple of years ago, to celebrate classic comedy, the BBC devised a season where they reimagined classic TV sitcoms from days gone by with an all new cast, and a varied style. Are You Being Served? felt like a lost episode from the 1970’s, just with a new cast of impersonators given the entirety of the original stars are now dead; Porridge, long after Ronnie Barker’s death, serves as a sequel featuring his character Fletcher’s grandson (played by the far less charming Kevin Bishop), as does other successful Barker series Open All Hours, back for multiple new seasons with David Jason’s Granville having essentially become Barker’s cantankerous corner shop owner Arkwright in old age.

The results were, frankly, embarrassing, save one or two exceptions. Kevin McNally, always brilliant, lent great pathos as Tony Hancock in a great rendition of the fantastic Hancock’s Half Hour, while Keeping Up Appearances prequel Hyacinth, set in the 1950’s, felt more like a period drama than pointless rip off. The reason those two examples worked for a modern audience is precisely because they didn’t try and recreate the same historical and sociological conditions those sitcoms worked in. Are You Being Served? for example is now really quite retrograde when looked at from a distance – openly sexist, deeply homophobic, and filled with enough double entendres to make Sid James blush. It’s a cultural artefact which, like most comedy in the 1970’s, should rightly be consigned to history.

The League of Gentlemen, luckily, has aged extremely well, indeed it could well have matured over the last two decades given the quality of the wit and sophistication inside its twisted, dark, even at times nihilistic writing, and what may help its revival chances is just how much the very concept has reflected the cultural and sociological changes within Britain itself. Bear in mind what the League is about – a small, Northern town called Royston Vasey, shut off from the rest of the world, almost certainly inbred (that’s the veiled suggestion behind the lead actors all playing most of the characters) and whose signature, standout grotesques—Tubbs and Edward—are caricatures of a bygone British age with local shops—much like that in Open All Hours—ran by shopkeepers who, like Edward says, if you’re not local, “there’s nothing for you here!”.

It can hardly, therefore, be a coincidence that the League have decided to reform and produce new episodes in the year Britain is facing ‘Brexit’ (surely the most used word of 2017, aside from Trump), an amalgamated description of the British people’s referendum vote to exit the European Union. You almost certainly don’t need a lecture in what Brexit is, but there hasn’t been a political decision in generations that has divided British people more deeply, and the reasons are rooted in a myriad of social, economic and historical reasons. What it has revived among many is a deep-seated level of English (not British) nationalism, a desire to return to an age before immigration, of white shopkeepers with small, community corner stores; a ‘little Englander’ mindset where if you’re not local, like Edward says, there really is nothing for you here.

Brexit Britain feels as timely and considered a place you can imagine in modern history for a show like The League of Gentlemen to return, a show which can hold up a funhouse mirror and play on the rather grotesque characters now with influence in modern public life. The X-Files, equally, returned in a year where America, growing increasingly right-wing in thinking and paranoid of a political system it had attempted to trust following 9/11 (the year the show first went away), elected Donald Trump. It’s upcoming eleventh season will hit in 2018 at the point America feels every day more and more like a social and political powder keg ready to blow. A series which was created in the ashes of Watergate and Reagan-era Republicanism now feels relevant once again, or has the chance to be relevant, in an age of growing fascist polemic, evaporating personal freedoms, and the potential repeal of Net Neutrality.

That’s why many of these shows are returning: because maybe they need to. Arguably, Prison Break’s comeback quite possibly was motivated more by financial than thematic reasons (it was hardly a show which changed the world) and Heroes Reborn undoubtedly was trying to cash in on the very superhero zeitgeist it presaged and, arguably, missed out on, but how else can you explain the return of a show like Twin Peaks? It’s world of Masonic influences, arcane symbolism, anxieties about the secret occult, darkly magical side of Americana has a far deeper root basis in the conspiracy theory and paranoia surrounding the increasing conglomeration and unity of big business with Washington politics of the Trump era, than anything you would have found in the Obama presidency, for example.

The backlash against them, the mixed critical and fan response, could well be born out of a worry or concern these shows will stray too close to the issues of the day. Examining The X-Files and its 90’s paranoia from a distant lens is one thing, accepting it having evolved to encompass many of the modern day, present and pressing anxieties in Western society is quite another. The League of Gentlemen will have done well to bear this fact in mind as it potentially takes a sideswipe, even obliquely, at the current British political situation. As a comedy, a broad one indeed, it likely would get away with a great deal more than a straight drama, but if the consensus with returning TV shows is that “they’re not the same”, then in reality it could be less a fear the show they love has changed, more a fear the world they know has changed around them.

A great deal of the best television over the last fifty years has reflected the age we live in. Just look at Star Trek, which back in the 60’s was trying to resolve and figure out American anxieties about the Cold War and whether possible nuclear Armageddon meant we even had a bright future. Ever since, allegory and symbolism have woven into the tapestry of storytelling, and much of the most important, celebrated television has been born, and still is born, out of writers needing to resolve these fears and anxieties in their characters and narratives.

Shows like The League of Gentlemen, in their own small, quirky way, are returning because they’re still trying to make sense of the world around them, a world that ever since they went away has grown further from their understanding, and ours. We may need them more than we give them credit for.

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