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'We reformed not because we had to, but because it was a laugh'

Whatever happened to the oddball League of Gentlemen? Well, they're back on telly ... for three nights only

By Georgia Humphreys

It may be 15 years since The League of Gentlemen was last on our TV screens, but, really, not much has changed. Okay, the fictional northern town of Royston Vasey, in which the show is set, faces being expunged from the map. And there's an overriding theme of mortality hanging over the characters - and creators - seeing as, well, they've all inevitably aged.

The old friends haven't exactly been lying low since the TV series ended - in fact, their careers have soared.

Gatiss went on to star in and write for huge shows, such as Doctor Who and Sherlock, while Pemberton and Shearsmith found success together with their hilarious anthology show, Inside No 9.

But, after talking for ages about a reunion, the four-man troupe - there's a non-performing member in the form of Jeremy Dyson - made sure they set aside time to work together again.

"We didn't want to feel like a Nineties band getting back together," insists 51-year-old Gatiss of their comeback. "But the lovely thing actually is that we are doing it because we want to, not because we have to."

He continues: "The thing that finally made a difference was the question, 'Oh, I wonder what happened to?' That's the logical question which takes care of a lot of it. That immediately gives you somewhere to go."

The League of Gentlemen follows various bizarre characters living in Royston Vasey and previous series saw locals face dramas, such as a nose-bleed epidemic.

Gatiss says they wanted another simple running storyline for the specials - hence the existence of the town being under threat.

"I was reading about the Boundary Commission in the paper and it was there in the back of my mind that a lot of places are up in arms that they're going to be incorporated into other towns," adds Pemberton.

"People are generally very proud of their little plot of land and the name of it. So, we wondered what the Royston Vasonians would think of that."

So, that was the theme of the episodes decided. Then came the slight challenge of deciding which of their dozens of characters they would include in the three half-hour episodes.

"We do return to Geoff, Mike and Brian," reveals 48-year-old Shearsmith. "I've always enjoyed doing the character of Geoff, because he's just me, thinly-disguised."

We also get to catch up with old favourites such as Edward and Tubbs, the Dentons and Legz Akimbo, to name a few.

Was it easy slipping back into all these different roles?

"Yes and no," admits 50-year-old Pemberton. "You do the rehearsal and the first take, and then you say, 'Is that right? Is that the voice?' You're never quite sure. But actually it's a muscle memory, something that's been in there."

You have to wonder if returning to their unique style of humour caused any difficulties when writing, but Shearsmith says it's still easy knowing when they have gone too far in certain scenes.

"I think we have always been very diligent about how we do that and about how we shock - if we do shock - and what line you cross," he elaborates. "We learned very early on that we have a responsibility as we are piped into people's homes."

What with it being such a long time since any of the four wrote sketches about the prolific much-loved characters, Shearsmith admits they are aware that some fans might be disappointed.

"Of course, even if this was better than the original League of Gentlemen, there'd be some who would say, 'They should never have done it and it's terrible now'," he continues. "Because, to them, it's in aspic as this brilliant thing and you meddle with it at your peril."

The most important thing though, Shearsmith insists, is that they have genuinely pleased themselves as the creators.

"Some of the endings of the sketches were changed, because we suddenly thought of something in the room, laughing our heads off.

"And that's the only way to do it. You can't start thinking, 'We think that they (the audience) might like this', because then you will slightly disappoint everybody; you won't feel like you've done it for yourself."

Obviously, the world of TV has changed a lot in the last decade-and-a-half and asked if the show would be commissioned now as a fresh series, Pemberton is unsure.

"The sketch show, which is what The League of Gentlemen essentially was in its first incarnation, is really a dying art form in television," he explains. "It's a real shame, because it's how you learn your craft as a writer."

Gatiss, Pemberton, Shearsmith and Dyson's journey of writing sketches began on radio, and really took off after they won a Perrier award for comedy at the Edinburgh Festival.

The 20th anniversary of this achievement was the perfect time to make a return, according to Gatiss - and he's sure he'll never regret that decision.

"I said the other day, you know, if this all went south, and suddenly we'd lost the money or something, it would still have been worth it because it has just been such a good laugh," he says. "We've had a great time getting back together."

Shearsmith agrees, saying it's been "absolutely joyous" to work as a team again.

"It was very easy to write - it wasn't like a torturous thing - because we didn't really have any expectations other than pleasing ourselves and returning to this world and these characters," he adds.

And what's especially evident - and really heartwarming - is how close the group have remained over the decades.

The League of Gentlemen anniversary specials air on BBC Two for three consecutive nights from Monday (10pm)

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