Horror / Television

The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special (2000)

Inspired by their long-time love of old British horror films and particularly their passion for the Amicus anthology films, the League of Gentlemen comedy team (writer/performers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith and writer Jeremy Dyson) set out to mark Christmas 2000 with a special episode of their hit comedy series. It’s Christmas Eve in Royston Vasey and Reverend Bernice (Shearsmith) is alone in her church, consumed by bitterness and a hatred for Christmas born of the childhood trauma of seeing her mother carried off by the revolting Papa Lazarou (Shearsmith) disguised as Santa Claus, recounted here in flashback scenes reminiscent of the All Through the House episode of Tales from the Crypt (1972). As the night wears on, in true Dickensian fashion, she receives three visitors, all with strange tales to tell…

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First through the door is Charlie Hull (Pemberton), who has been suffering a recurring nightmare in which his wife Stella (Shearsmith) joins a voodoo coven in order to stop him winning the Royston Vasey line-dancing contest. But the price for Stella may be too steep… Reminiscent of both George Romero’s Hungry Wives (1972) and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), it’s the weakest of the three stories but one with plenty of dark and creepy moments. The snowbound Royston Vasey is more sinister and unwelcoming than ever. Indeed throughout the special, the already grotesque residents seem more repulsive than ever and Royston Vasey itself has never seemed so bleak.

The highlight of the special is the middle story. Bernice is visited by a distressed old tramp, Matthew Parker (Andrew Melville) who recounts the tale of how as a young man (Shearsmith) he travelled to Duisberg in Germany where he hopes to join the local choir led by living double entendre Herr Lipp (Pemberton) and his frightful wife (Gatiss). A terrifying nightmare and unexplained bite marks on his neck lead Matthew to suspect that the lascivious Lipp is a vampire and that the choirboys are in grave danger. The truth is something altogether different…

The reveal may not be quite as surprising as one might hope but the nightmare sequence is outstanding, one of the finest scenes the League ever filmed, and the accumulation of incidental detail only adds to the horror (references to Nosferatu, the room set aside as a nursery by the childless Lipps and Frau Lipp’s answer to that particular problem).

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The penultimate visitor to the church is hapless vet Dr Chinnery (Gatiss) who reveals just why so many of the animals in his care tend to die untimely deaths. In Victorian times his veterinarian great-great-grandfather came to Royston Vasey but was tricked into touching the wrong monkey’s testicle by the ailing Dr Magnus Purblind (Freddie Jones) and his family line was cursed. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a Victorian tale of horror and the final full tale certainly delivers. Chock full of strange characters (Shearsmith’s bicycle obsessed Boothby) and knowing references (the name Magnus may be a tip of the hat to M.R. James’ Count Magnus, there’s a lovely gag at the expense of The Railway Children (1970) and the name of the monkey, Topov, is surely an unexpected reference to the Cockney monkey in 70s children’s TV show Pipkins (1973-1981)) it serves as a fabulous climax, a loving homage to vintage British horror cinema. But it’s not quite done – a Christmas special needs its Father Christmas and Bernice gets one last visitor who looks like Santa, has a group of helpful elves in tow and a sleigh laden with “gifts” but is in fact a terrifying figure from her past…

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Coming between the excellent second series and the less impressive third of the television series, the Christmas special was the League at the very peak of their powers. It sits outside the main continuity of the series and is none the worse for that. Popular characters like Tubbs and Edward are sidelined in favour of lesser characters, allowing some of the huge supporting cast of weirdoes and grotesques to take centre stage. From the outset it sets out its stall, undermining the more serious elements of the story with fabulous lowbrow silliness – from the opening shots of rude appendages on a snowman and a urine soaked snowball sending Santa flying, through the painful but hilarious puns and double entedres of Herr Lipp to the schoolboy glee in centering a story around the cupping of monkey bollocks, the League undercut every expectation the audience may have had of what a Christmas special should be. The last minute appearance of the show’s iconic “villain” is just the rancid icing on a very nasty Christmas cake: “Nice to see you again, Dave – all grown up!”


For more details on this title, visit the main EOFFTV site.

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