In Turn: e pluribus unum

Recently, I went to the National Theatre to watch Mark Gatiss giving a platform discussion about his life and career. Mark is a renowned writer and actor, and is one of only three people to have both written for and performed in Doctor Who. He was recently on our screens as Mycroft in the BBC’s reboot of Sherlock (which he also co-created and wrote) and in 2008 was the narrator for his BBC4 Christmas ghost stories Crooked House.  Mark is currently performing as Uncle Bernard in Season’s Greetings at the National’s Lyttelton, adding to an already lengthy stage CV. However, he is perhaps still most famous for the role that launched him – one of the four League of Gentlemen.

Last week, The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee opened at the Donmar Theatre, starring Steve Pemberton. Steve is well known as a writer and performer in Psychoville, along with Reece Shearsmith, who is coincidentally about to open in Cameron Mackintosh’s Betty Blue Eyes at the Novello. They both began their careers in League of Gentlemen. Down the road from the Novello, Ghost Stories just celebrated its first birthday, round about the same time that Twisted Tales closed at the Lyric. Both were written by Jeremy Dyson, who began his career as the fourth member of The League of Gentlemen

Dyson, Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith are all individual and independent successes within the arts. They first met when they trained at Bretton Hall in the early ’90s. The school has since closed and relocated to Leeds University, where I was studying at the time that I discovered Shearsmith and Pemberton’s Psychoville, and by association, The League Of Gentlemen.

I rate League of Gentlemen among my favourite TV shows, and continue to be impressed at the influence that the quartet have on today’s entertainment industry.  Much like Monty Python in the ’70s, a single cult show has catapulted individual comedians to fame – and created four varied careers with much greater longevity than the original show itself.

I guess what I found interesting about this phenomenon was the diverse audience attracted to Mark Gatiss’ platform. League fans sat next to Aykbourn fans sat next to Conan Doyle fans sat next to Doctor Who fans – all united by this man’s career. I can’t help but feel that if Mark Gatiss made a documentary about his toenails, he’d still have an avid audience. I was interested that what had started as a cult show could evolve and propel individual careers –  in the same way, perhaps, that Nick Hytner’s production of The History Boys launched the careers of a swathe of young actors, (James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russel Tovey, etc) or even in the same way that a band called Take That launched a man named Robbie Williams.

Not all artistic collectives will begin to pursue individual ends – some are destined to stay together (who would Morecombe be without Wise, or John without Edward?). I guess it’s important to remember that Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith originally trained to be actors, not the League, and each have a career as an actor to pursue accordingly.  Mark Gatiss described his work on Doctor Who as the fulfilment of a childhood ambition, and Jeremy Dyson speaks in similar terms about adapting Roald Dahl’s Twisted Tales – I wonder whether they now see League as more of a means to an end – a stepping stone to individual opportunity rather than the formula that they would or should follow for the rest of their professional lives.

Is splitting off from a successful artistic collective a sure-fire way to succeed in the artistic engagement of your choice- even if it is entirely different from the aims of the initial successful artistic collective?

And if so, who wants to start a new comedy troupe with me?