Circus Season: Destination Royston Vasey (The League of Gentlemen)

Continuing a series of posts about TV episodes relating to the circus.

Caution: This is about an episode depicting a character in black-face and may be distressing. The episode has been removed from Netflix for that reason. In fact let's not beat about the bush, The League of Gentlemen contains something to offend pretty much everyone, including little people, travellers, the Irish, toad lovers, you name it.

I cannot believe that I have somehow never visited Royston Vasey on this blog before, although it's possibly just because I haven't been able to face trying to write about it. The League of Gentleman (which has been described as 'like watching Monty Python remake The Wicker Man from inside Alan Bennett's fever dream') is a very successful comedy series which basically pushes the envelope in every way conceivable, based in the strange town of Royston Vasey. 

In this episode the circus comes to town. One of the reasons I wanted to include this episode was that the circus in this one is everything that has made the circus problematic in the modern world. It is a sort of moving stereotype of freaks, animals with limbs missing, and so on. The other point is that the circus is definitely a fraud: Papa Lazarou does his psychic act and it is very obviously an act and completely fake. This circus would be the reason that people are prejudiced against circus people and single handedly give every other one a bad reputation.

But there is more to Papa Lazarou than a simple fraud because he is mostly known for his stealing of other men's wives and taking them away to join the circus. However in subsequent appearances in the series his character is developed beyond being a criminal and it becomes clear that he isn't human. He produces a Book of Wives, of all the wives he has stolen, which goes back into the nineteenth century, he has magical abilities, can put people inside animals and channel dead people. It is also apparent that he isn't actually in black face at all: the face we see in this episode is his natural face and subsequently he makes up to cover it up. Perhaps I should also say that he later urinates on someone else and his urine is black, which is quite an effect.

I think much of the point of the League of Gentlemen is to make you uncomfortable and laugh at the things in our world we are ashamed of, and the circus certainly manages to do that. If a circus is an exhibition of the extraordinary, then the League of Gentlemen puts us in the cage and makes us the spectacle. What do you mean, you're not a freak show? Listen to this with the commentary on and see how everything has been inspired by real life events and be very afraid indeed.

And of course Papa Lazarou is one of the things which are supposed to make us uncomfortable. As depicted here (as opposed to later in the series) he comes across as really discomfort making: he has been voted something like the eighth most popular comedy character in British history, which is in itself a bit embarrassing. We shouldn't be entertained by somebody who is a walking racist slur, kidnapper, fraudulent psychic, house-breaker, seller of pegs and stealer of taps, but we are. But then if you've got this far into The League of Gentlemen you've already been entertained by murder, toads, urine drinking, incest... oh, I sometimes think that the pillage was only the secondary reason we had an empire and the main one was we wanted to get away from Britain.

Because don't forget that the whole point here is that Royston Vasey is too freakish even for the circus and Papa Lazarou. If Papa Lazarou is the unreal thing here then obviously Royston Vasey is the reality.

All together now: Ottom sprow, canna tikbana sandwah batno serussmee!

Finally, because this post is about a negative depiction of Black people there's something we have to do.