The League of Gentlemen stars and creators of Inside No 9 interview each other to get answers to the big questions. Like who's got a pickled werewolf foetus at home.
The Guardian, Friday 7 February 2014 08.00 EST
While their friend Mark Gatiss has travelled with his writing to the heart of mainstream TV (Doctor Who, Sherlock), Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have been happy to till their own patch of marshy ground outside its walls. Once co-stars in The League Of Gentlemen, the noughties comedy chiller about the inhabitants of a bereft northern town called Royston Vasey, the pair have since developed their acting careers while delving further into the grotesque for two series of their BBC2 show Psychoville. For their new project – the funny and occasionally troubling Inside No 9 – they have reprised the "anthology" series' format for six stories about the secrets that lie behind our front doors. Who better to uncover their darkest thoughts than each other? We listened in as these writer-actors became journalists for the afternoon. Pickled werewolf foetus, anyone?
REECE I gather your new series is in an underused TV format. Why one-off stories?
STEVE We did two series of Psychoville…
R That was cancelled, wasn't it?
S We wanted to jump before we were pushed. We had a meeting with BBC2, and we weren't sure if they were going to say, "Please do more Psychovilles," which they didn't. So we thought we'd better have a new idea. We'd really enjoyed doing a one-off episode [of Psychoville] with Mark Gatiss…
S And we thought: why don't we do six half-hour episodes? Luckily, the controller of BBC2 is a big fan of short stories in the vein of Tales Of The Unexpected. And she said, "Like Saki short stories, maybe?" And we said, "Absolutely". Then we went away and read some Saki short stories.
R Did you have any ideas?
S We had two. There was a girl on Swap Shop who collected air from different places she visited. So I had this idea of someone who had got hold of a balloon full of the last breath of a very famous person. The other was a play we'd written; the first thing we ever wrote together, in fact.
R We wrote a play about being on the dole. The idea is that your will to get out of the situation is sapped out of you. This is embodied by a character called Dole Boy; it's very allegorical. They start playing board games, then he's wrapped in a duvet watching This Morning.
S Was that what you were like?
R My lowest ebb was 1992, doing telephone surveys and taste tests. When we got this commission, we returned to it and added a twist to the tale.
S Did you write yourself into the main part every week?
R I tried to but Steve wouldn't let me. How easy is it for you to access "dark" places in your comedy?
S Obviously it's pretty easy, because we keep doing it. We had an idea of a terminally ill child getting a visit from the Make A Wish Foundation. If it was in a drama, they'd say that it was very sensitively handled but because it's a comedy, they say it's sick. Well, fuck off. Is there anywhere you've thought: we'd better not go there?
R No, that would be like saying that our remit was, "Ooh, what's the worst thing you can think of?"
S I think back to the first episode of Psychoville, where we play mother and son. You were scratching flakes of dead skin off my back while testing me on serial-killer trivia. But that was a real scenario that we heard about. And in reality it was worse: the mother only had one leg and the boy had jaundice. We get ideas from documentaries, newspapers … An archive? You have a secret room in your house, don't you?
R Yes, I have an attic room hidden behind a bookcase. You press a button, and the bookcase opens, like in Scooby-Doo. In there is a lot of magic memorabilia, because I collect magic. And other things.
S What's the weirdest thing you have in the room?
R Probably the foetus of a werewolf. It's pickled in a jar.
S How do you know it's a werewolf?
R I've got all the documents.
S Stupid question. Didn't you used to make props from horror films when you were a kid?
R I was obsessed with The Company of Wolves, and I wrote to Christopher Tucker who made the props. We became penpals. Were you a macabre child?
S I was ordinary. I loved watching TV. Riding about on my Chopper.
R I remember choking on a Monster Munch when I was on my Chopper. I nearly died. It was pickled onion flavour. The worst kind.
S Do you think you draw on your past in other ways?
R I think League of Gentlemen drew on our experiences growing up in northern towns, not that they were as weird and remote as Royston Vasey was. But it pervaded our material. All four of us have a collective memory, of a bonfire night in 1973 watching Carry On Screaming on BBC1 at 6.25 instead of going out.
S That could have been formative because it's a mix of funny and disturbing stuff. Charles Hawtrey being killed in a toilet cubicle. All you hear is the flush.
R Do you think there's a snobbery between sitcom actors and proper actors in dramas?
S Yes, I do.
R Would you say that doing comedy is in some ways harder than straight acting?
S When we started and wanted to do stuff outside League Of Gentlemen, people would say, "Oh, do you do acting as well?"
R Have you ever cast anyone in a comedy, presuming they could do it, and found they couldn't?
S Particularly on The League of Gentlemen.
R Oh god, yeah.
S The DVD commentaries on that… You and Mark would be like, "Here she comes, worst actress in the world!" They could have got people round…
R …Bottle of wine. "Let's get the commentary on; wind forward to my bit…"
S How would you describe our tone?
R Hopefully we make funny, surprising television. Can you describe the new series without saying, "This meets this"? Remember when The League of Gentlemen was described as "Victoria Wood meets The Fast Show"?
S Those two things are not dissimilar enough to do a "meets". The best one we had was, "League of Gentlemen is Twin Peaks meets Mervyn Peake, meets Peak Practice."
R Now things are "League of Gentlemen meets…"
S Maybe now we've met ourselves.
• Inside No 9 continues in the UK on Wednesdays, 10pm, BBC2