A LEAGUE of their own.
The motley crew of characters from Royston Vasey have made the leap from the small screen to the big one. Rob Driscoll reports
THE macabre inhabitants of Royston Vasey changed the face of British TV comedy. But is the cinema ready for butcher Hilary Briss and his sausages made from a secret 'special stuff' ingredient, serial-killing 'local' shop-owner Edward and his piglet-sucking wife Tubbs, or blacked-up, spouse-stealing clown Papa Lazarou?
Yes, The League of Gentlemen are about to unleash their jet-black style of comedy onto the big screen, and they're taking no prisoners.
Just in case you thought this might be a lame TV spin-off of wacky sketches, think again.
In the feature film version, provincial-village-from-hell Royston Vasey is facing apocalypse, and some of its strangest inhabitants have broken through into the real world to confront their creators (and the men who play them) into writing more episodes, as their only chance of survival. But The League of Gentlemen, the comedy writers who dreamt them up, have already started creating their latest work, a 17th-century demonic drama called The King's Evil.
Still with me? Reece Shearsmith and his fellow writer-performers certainly hope so, stressing this is a movie not just for fans.
'You couldn't do a film relying on the fact that only the however many million people who watch the TV programme will watch the film,' says Shearsmith, whose on-screen characters include Edward, Papa Lazarou, Father Halfhearte and Red Devil.
'We wanted it to be a comedy film in its own right, and the idea that some characters realise that they're characters in a comedy programme was a gettable concept, regardless of whether the programme in question pre-existed.
'Having said that, obviously it is a spin-off film - it has to be, because that's how we got the money!
'And to some extent you've got to accept that in the pre-publicity a certain amount of people might be put off, thinking, 'Well, I've never seen it'. But we'd certainly like to believe that you could completely get it - there's no reason why you shouldn't.'
On the flip-side, diehard fans of the Bafta-winning series might be just a tad disappointed that some of their favourite characters make only fleeting appearances - lost at the expense of a coherent narrative and the sanity of the three lead performers, Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Steve Pemberton.
'It was a tough decision to know who to leave out, because between the three of us we've done a hundred characters over the years, so obviously for a 100-minute film we'd have to do just a minute on each one!' explains Pemberton, last seen on the big screen playing Harry Secombe in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.
'So we quickly decided we had to have a small group of characters, and when it came to deciding the main group of characters that were going to carry the story, it just kind of chose itself.
'The more extreme characters didn't seem able to exist in a real world and do what we wanted to do, which was try to integrate them into the world of 'us'.'
To lead, they chose Herr Lipp (played by Pemberton), the German exchange master with an uncomfortable line in schoolboy innuendo, ginger-bewhiskered butcher Hilary Briss (Gatiss) and dodgy small-time businessman Geoff (Shearsmith), while supporting roles went to homicidal Edward and his wife Tubb.
In addition to the normal cast of freaks and outcasts, the film is stuffed with impressive guest-star cameos, including David Warner, Victoria Wood, Simon Pegg, Peter Kay and acclaimed Welsh actor Michael Sheen, who makes an intriguing appearance right at the start of the film as the 'unseen' League of Gentlemen member, writer Jeremy Dyson.
'Jeremy is a very shy man and has never wanted to appear in The League of Gentleman - he's perfectly happy as one of the main writing forces,' says Gatiss. 'We were thrilled to get Michael Sheen to play him. I think the curly hair helped!
'Jeremy has got that lovely curly hair, and Michael's hair was the same style at that time. We met him, and he was a big fan, and it just came together.'
Without giving the game away, Sheen's appearance supplies the movie's excellent opening gag.
'We thought it would be a great way to start the film with this pre-title Scream-type section where he apparently dies,' says Shearsmith, somewhat tantalisingly, 'and Michael really pitched it in the right way for the film and the world we create.'
Not surprisingly, the movie has taken up the lives of Gatis, Pemberton and Shearsmith for the best part of two years, from fashioning its early screenplay drafts to final post- production tweaking.
Now, as their baby is about to be unveiled in cinemas across the land, you'd think they might have time to relax.
But far from it.
A huge, autumn stage tour across the UK - The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You - is now in preparation ('It's a pantomime thing,' says Pemberton, helpfully explaining the title), while they are plans for a further, fourth BBC series, which may or may not return to Royston Vasey.
The extremely prolific Mark Gatiss is busy with numerous other projects, including a second series of BBC2's Nighty Night, and a BBC3 comedy-drama, Funland, co-written by Jeremy Dyson. He's also set to write a new episode of Doctor Who for the second season, having had huge success with this run's episode he wrote set in Victorian Cardiff.
'I had fantastic feedback from that, and was told by many people it was the scariest Doctor Who ever!' beams Gatiss. He also has a small part in the new Woody Allen movie set in London, Match Point.
'I did a day's work. I play some ping pong with Scarlett Johansson, if my scene is left in,' he says.
Steve Pemberton has a more substantial part in the same movie, and he's also about to start filming the new Lassie movie in Dublin, with Peter O'Toole.
Reece Shearsmith, meanwhile, is about to star on the West End stage in As You Like It, with Helen McCrory, Sienna Miller and Sean Hughes.
'It's important that we all do our own things, but deep down, we ARE The League of Gentlemen,' says Shearsmith, with a rather sinister, unsettling