Joseph Nowaz Interviews Steve Pemberton
The League of Gentlemen come to the SSE Arena, Belfast on 18 August.
After a couple of false starts (something to do with being bumped in favour of BBC Radio Sheffield), I’m all set to wish Reece Shearsmith a belated “happy Yorkshire Day”.
A few seconds later, the tour manager’s voice on the other end says, “ok patching Steve through now”.
There’s a blissful micro-second of fuzzy anticipation before the horror contained in this seemingly innocuous tidbit of information hits me like a wet kipper. As my blood is busy freezing, a warm and unmistakable voice on the other end says “hi”. It’s the warm and unmistakable voice of actor, writer and undoubted good egg Steve Pemberton.
The very same Steve Pemberton who happens to be the magnificent, lusty fulcrum of The League of Gentlemen. Not Reece Shearsmith, the mercurial, brattish pivot of the The League of Gentlemen. Basically, there’s been a terrible misunderstanding. Several of my questions are immediately redundant. I furiously scribble out the word Reece in the sentence “where do you get your ideas from Reece?”, and in thick, overly judicious felt tip, I carve the letters STEVE. I’m suddenly in a cold sweating fug, cos I could have sworn I’d asked to speak to Reece Shearsmith.
But it’s the other half of Inside Number 9, and one full quarter of the recently revived The League of Gentlemen that I have on the other end of the line. Save for a stuttering beginning where I almost say “oh hi Reece” though, it’s fairly seamless. Well, as seamless as any of my attempts to interview anyone I actually admire ever are. There was that time I was meant to ask John Cale about the influence of avant-garde composer Lamont Young on his early work, but instead, brain sneezed and asked him what biscuits he preferred, but I digress…
I truth, I’m actually delighted to be speaking to Steve Pemberton. I’m not just saying this because he’s unexpectedly been foisted upon me, but he IS my favourite of The Gents. Pemberton always brings a real interior life to his characters, be they broad burlesques such as Pauline Campbell-Jones of The League of Gentlemen Job Seekers fame, or one of his more obviously rounded, “thespian” turns. In short, he’s a pretty damn fine actor.
Steve-not-Reece is speaking to me because, off the back of a yuletide trinity of stunning anniversary TV specials, The League of Gentlemen are back on the road. and best of all – glory be – coming to Belfast and the SSE Arena this very month with their brand new Live show.
The TV specials of last Christmas seemed like a coda of sorts to the goings on in the fictional town of Royston Vasey, which first burst into our living rooms (well more like bedrooms) on Radio 4 in 1997. The original four of Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson have all since gone on to splendid and successful things (not least Pemberton and Shearsmith’s ongoing and frankly transcendent anthology series Inside No. 9) but the lure of Royston Vasey is strong, its sickly siren call can always be detected somewhere amidst their work, however faintly.
Before we talk a little League, I feel compelled, like Harry Enfield’s overly contrite German, to unnecessarily apologise to Steve Pemberton. Namely for Derry Girls beating Inside No. 9 in a Radio Times public- vote-best-comedy-type-thing. It had the twitters all a quiver a couple of weeks back, with the homegrown broad comedy of Derry Girls (after some vociferous online canvasing) pipping “No. 9” to the mildly coveted prize. It was like Brexit all over again, only possibly not as bad…
It even compelled Pemberton to make one of his rare social media outings.
“Well, I do twitter about once a year.” He says. “And I thought this was a good time as any to tweet for this year. It was close fought in the end, but congratulations to Derry Girls. I clearly don’t have enough followers!”
But on to the matter at hand. Steve explains that they’re currently putting the finishing touches to the live show before they launch it on unsuspecting local people across the UK and Ireland.
“We’ve just done our first run through there. It was like a swan. Impressive up front but slightly unsightly from backstage! A few practices at the costume changes though and it’ll be right as rain.”
It’s been 13 years since the The League of Gentlemen have performed live. Steve remembers playing “The Waterside” (sic) in Belfast, back in 2001. I explain that in 2018, they’ll find few more painfully “local” places to play than Belfast. He maintains a polite silence.
I ask him if there was a pressing need, a sense of obligation even to mark the 20th anniversary? “Well, we last did this way back in 2005. People kept asking us over the years if we’re coming back. And we wanted to do it, because above all, we love the characters, and it’s fun!
“I love the TV and I’m really proud of the anniversary specials, but for me, live on stage is the most exciting part.”
Without giving TOO much away for those that haven’t seen it (which, I imagine, is no one reading this) the anniversary specials were a wonder to behold: Beloved characters returned, some from the dead. Others were unceremoniously bumped off. Elegiac but never gratuitous. And that’s not to mention the most sublimely elaborate and protracted set up to a punchline in the history of TV, involving a photo-booth, missing women, and a pun that’s so groanworthy, it’s genius.
Overall, there was a feeling of unfinished business, loose ends being gently tied up, in nice black ribbon bows. When I ask him if it was a sort of full stop on the League’s TV adventures, Steve says it was “more of a colon”. There’s also a robust dollop of “politiks innit”, in a show whose very essence seems to chime with this post-Brexit “age of the local”.
“We were definitely a bit more socially aware working on the specials.” Steve agrees. “The recent weird political climate did inform what we did. We talked a lot about it when working on it and of course It can’t help but feed into what we do!”
Of course, comedy, like trouser hems, is not the same as it was when The League of Gentlemen first introduced the world to their gallery of memorable grotesques. Did they feel the pressure to self-regulate the material, fetter some of the excesses that previously brought them to the very brink of what’s known in the worst circles as “acceptable taste”?
Steve says it’s a dance that The League of Gentlemen have always thrown themselves into, deftly waltzing along that thin line between bad taste and high comedy.
“Yeah, we’ve always skirted that line. But I agree that in general, people in comedy have to be more thoughtful nowadays. The internet has changed everything. There’s an instant reaction to everything. So one has to be careful.
But we also don’t want to censor ourselves too much in the creative process, and we want to be able to comment on things (like the scene in the recent Specials with the prickly cabbie Barbara and her new-found obsession with gender pronouns). We have characters like Papa Lazarou and Pop characters who push the boundaries a bit and may provoke a negative reaction in some people. And believe me, it’s there in our minds. We do listen. If something provoked too much of a negative response, we’d certainly think twice about doing it.”
Not for the first time in the interview, Pemberton expresses his love for the characters. It’s the reason they’ve got the band back together again after all. But, he says, they’ve never been overly sentimental.
“Yeah, we do kill off characters. We bumped off Tubbs and Edward back in series two! We never want to audience to get too comfy you know. We like to keep them on their toes.”
“Tubbs twice!” I blurt out, sounding slightly silly as I suddenly remember Tubb’s second sort-of-demise at the end the Anniversary specials “Oh yes” he laughs, still polite and patient as all heck.
He insists that reuniting with the others is “always a joy”. “We have all remained firm friends. And we’ve all have successful separate careers, which is fortunate! It was like the years falling away again. Like, as you say a comfy pair of slippers.” He adds At this stage, I’m just chuffed that he’s agreeing with me.
“Writing or performing?” I blurt out, quickfire fashion, apropos of bugger-all, yet still congratulating myself for busting out the unbidden psychometrics. Steve pauses, perhaps in astonishment at the embarrassing triteness on display, before kindly answering: “Well we were all performers first. We went to a performing arts school (Bretton Hall) and that’s where it started.”
“But the older I get, the more I feel it’s about the writing. That’s where it all happens isn’t it? On the page!” It’s impossible to argue really.
“And everything we do is always tightly written and planned. Even the stage show. It’s all very carefully choreographed. People are paying money after all. Even back in our Edinburgh days we always thought that. We were NEVER half-arsed.”
“Of course” he adds, “that’s not to say things always go exactly right on the night.”
Ah yes. “On the night”… The night in question is 18 August, and the venue is the SSE Arena. What can we expect? “Well, the first half will be us in dinner suits, doing sketches. Going back to our roots. And the 2nd half will be the full technicolour Royston Vasey spectacular. It picks up from where the anniversary specials ended!”
“And after this Steve?” I ask, capitalising on what I’ve decided is our obvious rapport with another hard-hitting question: “Is that REALLY it then?”
“Well.” He begins solidly enough. “The sign says ‘Royston Vasey – you’ll never leave’ Make of that what you will.”
And on that bombshell, Steve Pemberton, like Reece Shearsmith before him, is gone from my world. I just hope BBC Radio Sheffield appreciate him quite as much as I’ve done…