Monday, 10 August 2009

Ungentlemenly Behaviour

A few overdue words of praise for Psychoville, the recent BBC comedy show starring and written by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, erstwhile members of the League of Gentlemen. In case you hadn’t noticed, the League are rather popular round our way, so it’s been fantastic to have even 50% of them back together doing what they do best: intelligent, horror-inspired grotesquery with a heavy dose of silliness.

(Fear not, here be no spoilers…)

In essence Psychoville (the name given to the Royston Vasey-based League of Gentlemen series by Japan and Korea) is a comedy-thriller. It takes the stories of five individuals from across England and slowly intertwines them until you see they were mixed together all along. It eschews the sketch-based approach of the first two League of Gentlemen series and has more in common with Vic and Bob’s Catterick (also starring Shearsmith). Reece and Steve play three of the leads each but this time there are more prominent roles for an impressive supporting cast.

The most recognisable is Dawn French as Joy, an obstetrics nurse who treats her creepy demonstration baby like a real child. There are also great turns by Daniel Kaluuya as Tea Leaf, a petty criminal on community service, Alison Lintott and Debbie Chazen as the conjoined-Crabtree sisters, Daisy Haggard as a dim-witted pantomime Snow White, Elizabeth Berrington as Joy’s seemingly more down-to-earth colleague Nicola and Vilma Hollingbery as a pensioner with verbal diarrhoea.

For all these actors bring, Psychoville remains very much the Shearsmith and Pemberton show. The latter is particularly impressive as the serial killer obsessed mummy's boy David Sowerbutts and the mysterious blind recluse Oscar Lomax. As with Tubbs Tattysyrup and Pauline Campbell-Jones, his most infamous League characters, Steve’s performances generate genuine sympathy for two otherwise very unlikeable fellows and you completely forget there is a man behind the mask.

Shearsmith is not far behind, and whilst his Mr Jelly (a depressed, one-handed children’s clown) is a one-part Ollie Plimsolls, two parts Geoff Tipps shandy, he is more potent as David’s Bontempi organ-playing mother Maureen. The Sowerbutts provide the series highlight in episode four - a half hour special which abandons the five story format to provide a note-perfect homage to Hitchcock’s The Rope with a genuinely lovely surprise cameo.

This being one half of the League of Gentlemen, there are some marvellous one-liners and set pieces. Maureen’s organ, Lomax’s Club biscuit, Mr Jelly’s toilet break handcuffed to a diabetic old lady and any reference by Joy’s to her little Freddie Fruitcake are all worth looking out for.

As with the League, Psychoville is not all about big belly laughs. Much of it is about the pathos of sad, lonely and complex characters slowly revealing their tormented souls in increasingly bizarre circumstances (Lomax and David in particular). In that it has to be said that Psychoville did not hit the mark as consistently as I’d hoped. The whodunit element of the show buoys up some of the weaker stories, but as that fell away towards the end some of the joins started to show. The pantomime dwarf story in particular runs out of steam a bit, which was a shame, whilst something just didn’t click with the finale.

This doesn’t detract though from what has been a welcome return for two of Britain’s best comic performers. Personally I’d pay to see Reece and Steve read golf results from the paper, so seven new episodes of them together was wonderful. It’s far from easy to create a likable variation on the sitcom, so after a decade in which reality-based comedy took the lead, Psychoville is a welcome piece of fiction from two very fertile imaginations. More please BBC, more please.


Rani said...

Oh, also, I did like this. I was not a fan of the Royston Vasey stuff but I found myself trying to get other people to watch this. There are some lovely set-pieces - I particularly liked when the AA man comes to fix the broken-down clown car, with the clowns in it (one of them with a tiny gold hat tilted on his bald head) and he opens the back and bubbles come out, etc. It goes on in the background while the two clowns are having a serious conversation - I'm just glad they did it, you know? I'm glad I saw such a thing done with such restraint.

Mint Custard said...

Hi Rani - I'm glad they were given the opportunity too - one of the best things about the BBC is the occasional channeling of funds into something like this. They do good stuff funding new comedy too but there is sometimes a gap between the fresh, new (and cheap to produce) stuff and the quality of what they do with established stars. That said I still regret that Vic and Bob didn't get a chance to follow up on the excellent Catterick...