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I TALK The League of Gentlemen (Anniversary Specials)

After 15 years away from our screens, The League of Gentlemen is back and this week I was incredibly lucky to be invited to a special BFI preview screening where I was one of the first to watch two out of the three new episodes.

I’ll admit, when The League of Gentlemen began back in 1999 I was only approaching double figures so I can’t claim to have been a fan when it first went out. However, after buying the DVD boxset some years later, I remember spending an entire weekend watching the first three series back-to-back and have been obsessed ever since.

I finally got the “Local shop for local people” and “Hello Dave” references that were so embedded into popular culture and I learnt what comedy geniuses Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson really are. Since then, I of course have gone on to adore Reece and Steve’s later work in Psychoville and more recently, Inside No. 9 which coincidentally returns for a fourth series at the start of 2018.

So why is The League of Gentlemen returning now? Well, the three new episodes are being billed as Anniversary Specials, celebrating the group's 20th anniversary at the BBC. Before moving to TV in 1999, The League of Gentlemen was a 1997 radio series, On the Town with The League of Gentlemen and before that of course they were an award-winning Edinburgh Fringe act.

Most comedies (French & Saunders this Christmas for example) return for a one-off somewhat celebratory special before disappearing again. But for The League of Gentlemen, whilst this isn’t a permanent comeback, they’re treating us to three proper episodes which feel like a mini-series.

When something as brilliant and popular as The League of Gentlemen returns, there’s always a worry that it won’t be as good as it once was. That it might ruin the great memories you had of the original. So to put your mind at rest, I can confirm that these new episodes do neither. In fact, it feels as though the series has never been away and absolutely still has a place on television today.

And it looks better than it ever has before and it’s been dragged into 2017 with commentary on some of the nation’s big social issues. Not least of all through the character of Gabs who returns in her big pink cab.

It’s evident that Reece, Steve, Mark and Jeremy have really thought about why we’re revisiting Royston Vasey now and the new episodes have a real story arc running through them all. We don’t pick up from where series three left off, instead we move forward to the present day and we're revisiting Royston Vasey at the town is under its biggest threat yet. New boundary changes mean that Royston Vasey could be erased from the map forever.

Careful consideration has gone into why the original characters would still be there all these years on, and if they’re not, what would bring them back. For example, why would Pauline still be trying to get Mickey a job? Why is Ross still there?

And with their local shop no more, how have Tubbs and Edward survived? These are explained very well in the first episode and it's not long before you're completely drawn in to the weird and wonderful world of The League of Gentlemen.

Which brings us to the opening scene (and only spoiler in this review) in which Benjamin Denton, who was last seen at the end of series two, is seen traveling into Royston Vasey in an almost identical scene to the beginning of the very first episode of The League of Gentlemen back in 1999.

At the BFI screening there was cheering and clapping when this scene played out on screen, proving just how much of a treat for fans of the show the new episodes are. And what’s wonderful is that the nods to the opening episode of The League of Gentlemen continue throughout the series and not just The League of Gentlemen... but that’s all I’m saying. When you see it, you’ll know what I mean.

It’s almost impossible to choose a favourite character from The League of Gentlemen, but if pushed, I have to admit I have a real soft spot for Pauline and Mickey. I just love their dynamic as an unlikely duo and it was such a delight to see them reunited on screen in the new specials. But then I also love Tubbs and Edward, and cheered when they made their return. Look out for a truly wonderful scene involving Tubbs’ first discovery with the camera on a mobile tefelone.

And then there’s Legz Akimbo who... I could go on. But I won’t. In short, all the characters are brilliant and they all return and thankfully have all stood the test of time.

Thanks to the many in-jokes and references to old storylines in the new episodes, watching as a fan of The League of Gentlemen is by far a richer experience than if you’ve never seen the series before. But if you are someone who has never encountered The League of Gentlemen before, then I’m sure you’ll still fall in love with the weird and wonderful world of Royston Vasey. After all, these new episodes are a 90-minute masterclass in sketch comedy.

Whilst the series is littered with jokes and you will laugh a lot, there are also some genuinely moving moments that signal this as the final chapter of The League of Gentlemen. Although I of course am yet to watch the third episode which is being kept under wraps.

So what next? Well, whilst there are no plans for further new episodes, Steve Pemberton did let slip at the premiere screening at the BFI that there will be a live tour in 2018, their first in 12 years and on Friday an official announcement was made with tickets for The League of Gentlemen Live Again! going on sale from 9am on Wednesday 20th December.

The League of Gentlemen returns Monday 18th, Tuesday 19th and Wednesday 20th December at 10pm on BBC Two


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