We need to talk about Barbara: why ‘The League of Gentlemen’ feels out of time

The beloved comedy horror show is back for three special episodes to mark its 20th anniversary

Watching the first 20th anniversary comeback episode of The League of Gentlemen on Monday night, many of us felt the warm glow of nostalgia wash over us like the pumping blood of an exploding hedgehog (useless vet Mr. Chinnery attempted to treat one of the spiky animals and, no, it did not go well). The campy theme tune, the insidious streets of Royston Vasey, the ebb and flow of dialogue as Geoff, Mike and Brian worked through another doomed plot – all were present and deliciously incorrect.

It’s been 12 years since we last joined Edward and Tubbs, Pauline and Mickey and the rest of the inhabitants of the creepy northern town for spin-off movie The League of Gentlemen: Apocalypse. The show – part evil sitcom, part sketch comedy, part horror – started life as a radio production in 1997, before the characters captured our collective imaginations and became an institution over the course of three TV series and one gloriously dark Christmas special. Now, though, we return to Royston Vasey for three episodes, catching up on the grotesques and how they have fared in the face of the only foe they can’t chop up, burn down or disappear to the Moors: time itself.

Which brings us to Barbara, the trans taxi driver. In the first comeback episode, broadcast on BBC Two, Benjamin made his return to Royston Vasey for his Uncle Harvey’s funeral. He’s transported in Babs Cabs, driven by hairy knuckled trans character Barbara, who is newly woke and who, when Benjamin uses the word “she”, replies: “Hey hey hey! We’ll have none of that in here! No hate speech… Gender-neutral pronouns only. People used to make fun of the likes of us. Well, that’s all gone now. The world’s moved on. We are no longer a source of cheap humour and laughs. This cab is a safe, friendly, mutually respectful and – above all – tolerant space.”

Babs later claims there are too many letters in ‘LGBTQI’, preferring the self-invented ACRONYM, which stands for: ‘Actively Considering Reassignment Or Not Yet Made Your Mind Up.’

Speaking on Monday night’s episode of Front Row, the BBC Radio 4 show, League… writer Mark Gatiss explained: “We had a lot of discussions about how the world has changed. There are things where you think, ‘It was a long time ago and an awful lot has changed but there are also things that you still feel you should be… you can lampoon. To me the sort of… some of the wilder extremities of gender politics create a kind of madness where almost nothing is capable of being said any more. I think that is still an area where there is room to have a laugh.”

The League of Gentlemen

Fellow writer Jeremy Dyson added: “And, you know, gender politics isn’t about gender politics. It’s about something else. There’s something else lurking underneath it.”

Dyson perhaps means virtue signallers, social media natives who scour the internet in an attempt to out-woke one another. Fair enough, perhaps – they are annoying – but the fact remains that (despite Gatiss’s commendable outspokenness on LGBTQ+ issuesThe League of Gentlemen is written by four men who are here a) punching down on those who grapple with their gender identity b) letting themselves off the hook for writing a character that could reasonably be read as transphobic and c) patting themselves on the backs for noticing that “the world’s moved on”.

This leaves an unpleasant taste. I was in primary school when series one of League… first aired in 1999 and, as a burgeoning horror fan, devoured its macabre cinematic references and was enraptured by the show’s absurdist sense of humour. I’m slightly ashamed to say that I eagerly awaited Monday night’s comeback without giving Babs a second thought. That scene, though, brought home how harmful the character is. And that’s before we get to Papa Lazarou. On Front Row, black comedian Gina Yashere pulled Gatiss up on the fact that, portrayed by white actor Reece Shearsmith,  Lazarou – who wasn’t in the first comeback episode – is basically a Minstrel, a tradition that saw white performers ‘black up’. Gatiss protested: “It’s… the context is… where we were in 1999 is very different to where we are today.”

Well, yes. Matt Lucas appeared on Front Row back in October and admitted that Little Britain, a comedy that featured similarly exaggerated characters (some of whom were played by Lucas and collaborator David Walliams in blackface), would not be made today. “To do a rubbish transvestite would now be very insensitive”, he said, “because I think we have a collective cultural awareness that we didn’t have of the struggles of transgender people. I don’t think I can regret it because there we were and that’s what we did, and I don’t think regret will be very helpful. So I think you have to take Little Britain and you have to leave it where it was.”

Steve Coogan has talked about the changes that his most famous telly comedy creation, Alan Partridge, has undergone over the years. Alan is less abrasive and mean in the 2013 movie Alpha Papa than he was in ‘90s, because in many ways society has become softer and more understanding. Coogan told Time Out: “He has to fit in with the new liberal consensus… You have to reflect that.” As grotesques, The League of Gentlemen can’t have that kind of emotional depth – they’re the same now as they were in 1999. It feels almost anachronistic to see them walk and talk in 2017.

In modern-day Royston Vasey, eternal teenagers Henry and Ally have progressed – somewhat – from videotapes and now try to flog DVDs to some perplexed, hoodie-wearing yoofs. The joke, of course, is that the characters are still behind the times. The same could be said of The League of Gentlemen. I was a massive fan of its original run, but the show now feels hopelessly dated and the writers’ mealy-mouthed (and self-serving) attempt to redeem Barbara only made matters worse. Perhaps we should leave it where it was.