WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: The end of the world comes to Royston Vasey – much to the dismay of its inhabitants, all characters from TV show The League of Gentlemen. Finding a portal to the ‘real world’, three of the characters seek out the writers to persuade them to keep the sitcom going; but one of their number meddles with another script, bringing both real and fictional people face to face with the devilishly evil Dr Pea.
The less British among you might not have any idea who or what the League of Gentlemen are, so before I get tangled up with the plot, a tiny bit of explanation. They are a group of four writers – Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson – who have created a macabre world in the fictional village of Royston Vasey*, populated by grotesque characters who are brought to life by the first three. As Dyson is modest about his acting abilities, he does not appear on screen much and here he is represented by Michael Sheen, mulling over the future of the show at his cliff-top home; ‘Dyson’ discovers that the other three are not going to continue writing The League of Gentlemen and is immediately visited by some of their creations: bizarre shopkeepers Edward and Tubbs (Shearsmith, Pemberton) and the terrifying blackface clown Papa Lazarou (Shearsmith). Dyson, unsurprisingly, falls off the cliff in shock.
Meanwhile, supernatural goings-on in Royston Vasey lead three more of the residents – homicidal butcher Hilary Briss (Gatiss), incessant innuendo-monger Herr Lipp (Pemberton) and mouthy businessman Geoff Tipps (Shearsmith) – to seek refuge in the local church, where a portal takes them into the real world, ie. the village where the TV show is filmed. Realising they must get hold of the writers to save their universe, they steal the computer belonging to Pemberton, Gatiss and Shearsmith; they also take Pemberton hostage, forcing Lipp to impersonate him in his daily life (where he proves a decidedly better father and husband than the real thing).
Hilary and Geoff discover that the group are working on a screenplay called The King’s Evil, and while Hilary just wants the thing deleted Geoff can’t help having a read of the story, which involves plotters calling on the help of Satan-worshipping magician Dr Pea (David Warner) to kill Protestant King William (played by Bernard Hill). Unfortunately, Geoff also can’t help writing himself (and his big, er, appendage) into the plot, a move which has terrible repercussions when Pea frees himself from the confines of the script to wreak havoc upon Royston Vasey and the real-life writers who have been lured into their own fiction.
If you are a fan of British comedy in search of something Pythonesque and think this might be just the trick, you are likely to be disappointed in Apocalypse. When it came to making feature films, the Pythons realised that what worked on television wouldn’t necessarily work at the cinema; and although The League of Gentlemen are clever enough to acknowledge the dreary record of sitcom-to-film transfers (Pauline from the ‘job club’ suggests sending all the characters on a Spanish holiday, Are You Being Served-style) they fall into some of the same traps anyway.
Sitcom characters are by their nature limited – they have twenty-five minute adventures but are back to square one the next week – and asking them to be the heroes of an entire film is a stretch, especially since most of the characterisations are, as Apocalypse freely admits, one-joke parts. Herr Lipp is a particular victim in this regard, and most of his interactions with Emily Woof as Pemberton’s wife are laughter-free.
Of the two devices the film uses to be more than a cinematic rehash of the TV show, The King’s Evil is the more successful, simply because it has a plot that goes somewhere and some interesting effects in Dr Pea’s monstrous creations (as always, David Warner is good value); as for the fictional characters chasing down their creators, the idea contains some laughs – though none of the men are very interesting as themselves – but it doesn’t feel particularly original (Adaptation and several Woody Allen films, not least Deconstructing Harry, come to mind).
To its credit, Apocalypse makes light work of the potential for confusion when the three worlds (the ‘real’ one, the Royston Vasey villagers, and the cast of The King’s Evil) collide, mainly by sharply delineating the characters with the use of costume, make-up, accents and so on. Still, this isn’t a film that you will get much out of if you are new to the LoG world, as it presents the characters without any introduction; many of the lesser roles (such as Pauline, or the vet with a habit of killing his patients) will make very little sense to newcomers, and even the more prominent characters lose a lot of their power in being removed from the mythology they have built up on television. Disappointingly, Tubbs and Papa Lazarou – two of the most immediately enjoyable characters from the show – only make brief appearances, which makes several unnecessary cameos (Peter Kay’s, for example) extremely annoying.
If all this sounds utterly damning, it’s not meant to be. The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse will make you laugh, unless you’re particularly easily offended, but the mishmash of ideas makes for a fractured viewing experience; and it’s interesting that many of the jokes that would be considered brave and shocking on television are revealed to be nothing of the sort on film – what is an ejaculating giraffe but a spin on an American Pie joke? The dark humour may have been toned down to achieve a 15 rating, but it only reveals the juvenile nature of much of what lies underneath. Like the final, obvious pay-off gag where Sheen wakes up in a hospital where everyone has tails, Apocalypse raises a gentle smile; but there should have been a whole lot more.
NOTES: A tribute to and the real name of ‘adult’ comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown; but I’m not really sure why I’m pointing this out as he will also mean nothing to most non-Britons. Ah well.