Somebody said that the first three Star Wars movies changed their life … and the second three changed it back again. So it was with nervously crossed fingers that I sat down to watch "Psychoville" six weeks ago. There was always the possibility that Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton had spent their "League of Gentleman" interrugnum drinking vente froppamochapoppachinos in fashionable Soho venues with John Lydon and Ben Elton, while rigorously keeping their gym attendances so the ‘Hello’ piccies would show them and their fragrant families at their best. You can’t blame a person for seizing their success in this life; it’s just that when you realise they are left with as much edge as a mildly underinflated beachball, the wincing can cause neuralgia.
I LOVED "League of Gentleman". Certainly, it was just plain funny: no-one could forget Chinnery the vet causing a farting dog to land in an open fire where it exploded in a convulsion of methane and shit. But its main quality was its grotesquery, the best gargoyles on TV since Rigsby, a quality that had not appeared in such a distilled form in the medium before or since. (If I’m wrong about that, please correct me – I’ll instantly buy whatever you recommend).
Medieval, grotesques were incongruous chimeras, strangely (to us) placed in churches as humour, residual traces of fertility symbolism or an hideous repulsion to bad forces. Perhaps the medieval mind more successfully lived the integration of the entirety of human experience than the post-Renaissance eras which sought to impose an order of harmony and beauty, an attempt which must ignore much of the ugliness, degradation and misery which walks hand in paw with the kindness and beauty of any normal life. It took the Romantics and the Gothic movement to elevate these dark sides of our lives to a virtue, a necessary facet, to enjoy the frisson of the darkness. This modern grotesque celebrates moral choices and conflicting agendas, between and within individuals.
I think that at the core of the grotesque is firstly that not everything is at seems: beauty is not necessarily beautiful, ugliness is not necessarily ugly, virtue isn’t always virtuous. And secondly, no spectator is permitted to enjoy a pure emotion for more than a few seconds before the situation is turned around to another. If laughter (as it seems to be) is an expression of tension followed by resolution of the incongruous in an peculiar way, then Pemberton and Shearsmith are masters. They relentlessly alternate the mundane with the atmospheric or exhalted to produce a disturbing hybrid: two clowns (in full makeup) in a broken-down clown car discuss who is blackmailing them while the breakdown mechanic clunks behind them causing the car to release a fart of bubbles; the same clowns also have a desperate fight based on a profound and hateful grudge … in the ball pit at a children’s play park; a cantankerous blind old doll collector sits in an dusty, empty mansion and lifts a chocolate bar to his ear when the phone rings (“Nobody ever phones me on this thing” he later says plaintively); a woman rushes home from the theatre before the final curtain to breastfeed a doll; a serial-murdering old crone takes the time to play Black Lace’s “Superman” to improve her son’s mood after he has done one of his “strangles” (they do the actions – you really have to see this) …
I won’t spoil any more (although you should look out for the musical number starring Jack the Ripper). Just watch “Psychoville”. It’s great entertainment but it’s also among the best of gothic art, whose point, I suspect, is that the only real ugliness is human moral failing.
PS. If you like “Psychoville”, I can’t recommend “Bad Santa” highly enough.