Thursday, June 18, 2009 by Graham Kibble-White
A gloved hand scratches at yellowed paper with a nib pen in the flickering candlelight. Black-bordered correspondence is placed inside envelopes, fastened with a wax seal, bearing the stamp of a raven.
And then a sudden pull-back and we find we’re in a suburban post office in the present day. It’s the first– and best – gag in this opening episode of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s seven-part comedy thriller. While evoking the spookiest corners of Victoriana, it then turns the lights on and we can see everything’s actually a little bit silly.
So could it be that this half of The League of Gentlemen have outgrown their love for the macabre? Actually, no, because Psychoville is dripping with it. This early feint aside, it doesn’t feel like much has changed since 2002 when we said our goodbyes to Royston Vasey on TV.
Indeed, when we return to the action after the titles, we find Reece Shearsmith still got up as a spooky clown. Granted, “Dave” may not be “in” (rather than Papa Lazarou, Mr Jelly talks like Shearsmith’s permanently apoplectic factory worker Geoff Tibbs) but it’s brave to invite early comparisons with one of the League’s most iconic characters.
Although the comedy is set across different towns in the UK, everywhere, it seems is filthy. This is a dark world, of scurrying people and mounting terror. Joby Talbot’s musical score is ever-present, with urgent strings, and fingers scraping up the violin neck. Nothing of the modern world is really allowed in anywhere – midwife Joy (Dawn French) speaks of video tapes and “DBB”, while Maureen Sowerbutts (Shearsmith again) amuses herself on a Bontempi.
Psychoville feels like a pastiche of everything Pemberton and Shearsmith thrilled at when they were kids. For some reason, I had assumed they’d be done exploring their formative influences by now. But no. Thing is, I’m not sure I’ve got the stomach for this stuff anymore, and certainly not the fascination. Daubing “Fuck pig” on a wall in faeces, and spraying a kitchen with semen is actually, weirdly, a bit boring.
This reservation aside, some moments still shine through. It was always between the punchlines the League scored big, and so it is here. Mr Jelly arrives for a children’s party, insouciantly throwing his fag onto the lawn. After purloining a cup cake with his hooked hand, he asks “Where am I going?” as he ambles off down the hall, looking for the kids’ party. Meanwhile, blind Mr Lomax (Steve Pemberton) mumbles something about: “That blackie cleaner, she tries to trick me”, and the ringleaders at the murder mystery dinner cheerfully instruct their roomful of amateur detectives “Don’t forget your clue packs!” as they trot off to inspect a faux cadaver. It’s these tiny strokes that truly delineate the scene. They’re dabs of light on a murky picture.
So what next? Do we care what the blackmailer will do? Well, actually, I think, yes. Despite the unwelcome stench of familiarity hanging over the project, Psychoville does at least deliver us an intriguing premise and some strong cliff-hangers. David Sowerbutts (Pemberton) has “done another bad murder”, for one. But, if they don’t open the curtains – and leave them open – somewhere early in episode two, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll stick around.