Ever since the League of Gentlemen, Reece Shearsmith has specialised in the odd side of life. He tells Phil Penfold why he prefers his comedy with dark edges.
ONE of his proudest moments, admits Reece Shearsmith, happened only a few months ago, back on his home patch in East Yorkshire. The actor and writer travelled north (he now lives with his wife Jane and their children Holly and Danny in north London) to receive an Honorary Doctorate from Hull University, and, he says, “It felt absolutely bloody marvellous. What an occasion – I had to pinch myself that it was really happening.”
He won’t let on if his full name – Reeson Wayne Shearsmith – appears on the parchment, but what he told the assembled students evidently came straight from the heart. The new Dr Shearsmith advised them all to follow their dreams, adding he was delighted to accept the honour for his “very silly contribution to a very silly subject”.
He genuinely misses Hull, where he had a happy childhood before heading off to Bretton Hall College, near Wakefield, whose illustrious alumni include John Godber, Colin Welland and Kay Mellor and where he got his first degree – a BA (Hons) in Theatre Arts. It was also where he met Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson. They all shared the same dark sense of humour and from their fertile imaginations would spring The League of Gentlemen.
Beginning on radio before successfully transferring to television, it’s now more than a decade since the third and final series aired. The four then went their separate ways, but remain firm friends and frequently reunite to collaborate on various projects. They are seldom at a loss for something new to do and Reece has been more than usually busy in the last few months.
For a start, there’s Inside Number 9, for the BBC, a compendium-style series of stories that has guest stars of the quality of Timothy West, Oona Chaplin, Anne Reid and Tamsin Grieg, and then there’s The Widower, a three-part drama series for ITV, in which Reece plays Malcolm Webster, a real-life murderer, alongside fellow Yorkshire actor Sheridan Smith. In only a few weeks he’ll start filming Chasing Shadows, a new series that will see him as a police Detective Superintendent, Sean Stone, a social misfit who heads up a missing persons unit. The 44-year-old seems to find himself drawn to people who are flawed.
“You know,” he says, looking down at his hands, which are clasped on the table in front of him, “all the people I play are born out of wanting to make television that is interesting, and watchable. I fully realise that some of what I do might be call ‘niche’ TV, and not everyone likes it, but a lot do, and that’s very gratifying.
“I certainly didn’t sit in front of the telly back home and seek out horror films. Make of it what you will, but I was brought up on a diet of things like Victoria Wood, Alan Bennett and the much-missed Play For Today strand. I always admired performers like Leonard Rossiter and Ronnie Barker, who were funny – but also exceptional actors. I could never quite get over the fact that that bloke in the lemon-coloured jacket in The Two Ronnies was also the man who was Fletcher in Porridge and then Going Straight.”
What he and Steve Pemberton like to do, he smiles, “is to wrong-foot the viewer, to make the audience think ‘Well, I didn’t see that coming’. Comedy with a twist – and a dark edge. Doesn’t all good comedy have a slightly black side to it? Some of the best laughs, I think, often come from, and of, a feeling of relief...”
That’s why, he explains, the script of The Widower grabbed him as soon as it landed on the front doormat.
“It’s written by Jim Barton and Jeff Pope, who are both people whose work I enjoy and respect, which is a good start,” he says. “And it’s an amazing story about a man from a comfortable background who marries women in order to get control of their lives and then their money and possessions. He’s a dangerous fantasist, in that he actually comes to believe his own yarns. The last thing that I want to do is to spoil it all for people who aren’t aware of the case, but at one point there’s a car accident that he stages in order to kill one of his wives, and he comes to believe in what he tells the police.
“I did meet some of the people who he hoodwinked – they came on set a few times when we were filming in Dublin – and they were very honest with us. They were totally duped by his easy-going manner.
“Malcolm is a mundane man, outwardly decent, funny, and with a certain way to him. But beneath the surface he is, in effect, a psychopath.”
The one person Reece didn’t meet was Malcolm himself, but he admits that playing a real person does bring added responsibility to a role.
“You don’t want to deliver a caricature, and you want to be as honest as you can. What helped me here was that the script wasn’t salacious. I wanted to emphasise to normality of the man, the Mr Hyde side to him, rather than the Dr Jekyll alter-ego. Filming it away from home, in a place I didn’t know, helped me a lot, I think, because I couldn’t return to my own normal home life every evening – I had to remain in that creating bubble that was The Widower.”
There was no end to Malcolm Webster’s inventiveness and guile. One of his intended victims told him that she was thinking about buying a house. His thoughts were that that would be highly inconvenient, because he was after her money in the bank, and that a house would only complicate things. So on the way to a viewing of the property, he faked a heart attack.”
The BBC has just told Reece and Pemberton that they’d like more of Inside No. 9, which came as a nice surprise.
“I think that they were, perhaps, a little taken aback at its success in the ratings, because compendium series are not very popular any more, and they don’t conform to a specific formula. Then, of course, if something like No. 9 wins approval, suddenly they don’t care about formula any more.
“What Steve and Jeremy and I have always done, and will continue to do, is to go on catering for ourselves, not making any compromises.”
The five-gold-star good news for League of Gentlemen aficionados is that it is definitely going to return. When, however, is not quite as clear.
Reece smiles and offers: “Listen, if you’d told me a year ago that the Monty Python lot would reunite, then I wouldn’t have believed you for a single second. And then in November, they said just that. Am I going to the O2 to see them in July? You bet I am. I was one of the first to make a booking.
“Similarly, I didn’t ever really believe that the League would reappear, but, with the 20th anniversary of the start of the show just over the horizon, it may be time to revisit Tubbs, Pauline, Edward, Herr Lipp, Iris and all the rest of them.
“It may be a return to Royston Vasey or we may be inclined to take it somewhere else. The precise when or where it all happens is in the lap of the Gods – it’ll be when we all have a coinciding space in our schedules.”
Late last year he popped up in An Adventure in Space and Time, a drama about the early years of Doctor Who. He played Patrick Troughton, the second incarnation of the Time Lord. “Now that was fun – and I went to a couple of BFI screenings of the early episodes to watch the man in action. I hope that I got the essence of him right, because he was clearly a great bloke. Mark (Gatiss) wrote the script, and as you know he does a lot of writing for the Who franchise, and has also appeared in it. No, I’ve not been offered a part in Doctor Who. Yet. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen it since Colin Baker played him! But it might be a nice thing to do… especially if I can be a real baddie. A ghastly villain….could be fun, eh?
A smile, and a short pause, then: “Or maybe I ought to be thinking about doing something on stage again?
“Look, as long as it offers me a bit of a challenge, that’s really all I’m asking for.”