Comedian and writer Reece Shearsmith: ‘I’m not a personality’

Reece Shearsmith. Picture: Joel Ryan/AP
Reece Shearsmith. Picture: Joel Ryan/AP
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He’s written and starred in cult comedies League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, but 
Reece Shearsmith has been quietly expanding his work to embrace theatre and now film – and all the while keeping under the radar

I’m sure people still think of me as the one that does those weird characters in those weird things,” Reece Shearsmith says, and I can’t really disagree. Shearsmith may have a slew of acting credits to his name – successful stints in the West End, Shakespeare, Miss Marple – but it’s for characters in the dark, strange comedies, The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, that he created with Steve Pemberton, that mean even people who love his work probably couldn’t pick him out of a line-up: the terrifying Papa Lazarou, a demonic circus master with a harem of wives, all called Dave, or Mr Jelly, the one-handed childrenhating clown.

“I’m not that well known, I’ve kind of hidden behind characters which I think is great,” he says. “I’m not a personality, I want the work to speak for itself really. I have been able to play properly psychopathic angry people and also very innocent, eyes-of-the-audience-type characters as well. I’m the everyman and also the mad man. I cover the full spectrum.”

And it’s not as though he couldn’t augment his recognisability if he wanted too. He regularly gets asked to go on panel shows, he says, but it’s not really for him. “You know you can be made to look silent in the edit,” he laughs. “You become an embarrassment. I’d rather keep my cards close to my chest and let the work speak for itself and hopefully I’ve got a little bit more control over how I’m perceived.”

So that will be as Psychoville’s murderous mother, Maureen, or the deranged librarian Jeremy Goode who is obsessed with the return of an overdue book, 50 Great Coastal Walks of the British Isles, vol 2 or the incestuous Edward Tattsyrup of Royston Vasey with his greasy pudding bowl haircut. Fair enough.

“I don’t think there’s anything better than writing your own stuff and being in it,” he says. “Steve and I have been doing it for a long time. I sometimes think that people think I’m off doing that and so I don’t get thought of for other things. ”

If people haven’t been thinking of offering work to Shearsmith it’s just as well given how much he’s already got in the offing. There’s a new comedy series that he’s written with Pemberton for BBC2, Inside No 9, which takes us behind the front doors of various houses that occupy No 9s, from a grand country house to the flat of an apparently happy primary school teacher. The tone will be Shearsmith and Pemberton’s usual mix of high comedy and claustrophobic horror with a cast that includes Gemma Arterton, Anna Chancellor and Tamsin Greig.

Away from the self-generated projects, Shearsmith has been equally busy. As well as a part in Peter Kay’s upcoming BBC1 comedy, Car Share, which was written specifically for him, he appears in an entirely different guise as Whitehead, a character in Ben Wheatley’s experimental new film about the English Civil War, A Field in England. Shearsmith first met Wheatley at a screening of the director’s film Down Terrace a few years ago, then he went to see his next, Kill List, and came out completely shell-shocked. Wheatley didn’t tell Shearsmith that he had him in mind for a project but then they met again and he described the idea of A Field in England and offered him the role of Whitehead.

“I was so blown away by his work and it was such an honour that he wanted me in it. It was lovely because it made me think he sees in me something that’s worth having in one of his projects. That does feel really flattering.”

He’s really pleased with the end result, he says. “When I came out of it, I was like, wow I don’t really know how to feel about it. I was kind of reeling and trying to process what I’d seen. It’s amazing, you never have that. It’s so rare to be made to think, normally the opposite happens with films. It was so fast and furious – 12 days we did it in. Literally 12 days on a field in Surrey, filming every single day with no lighting – whatever was happening with the weather we just went with it. It was extraordinary, a proper bootcamp. It was really gruelling.”

Shearsmith speaks of Wheatley in glowing terms. The award-winning director is an example he says of someone who proves that instead of moaning about other people getting ahead, it’s now possible to get on and do it yourself. It’s also clear that Wheatley’s style of having complete control over his projects appeals to Shearsmith.

“If you end up in a situation where your idea is diluted by someone who thinks they know better than you or know better what the audience wants, you’re on a hiding to nothing. The best things are always undiluted and they arrive fully formed from that person’s vision.”

He sounds like he’s speaking from personal experience, but I can hardly imagine that anyone would second guess the team who conjured up Royston Vasey or the weird world of Psychoville. The creations that have emerged from Shearsmith’s imagination are brilliant because they are so defiantly, deliberately weird. But, he says, despite the awards and cult following that Shearsmith and Pemberton’s creations have garnered, getting the work made is not as straightforward as you might expect.

“We waited a long time to hear whether we’d got a series for Inside No 9. Months and months, eight months actually. We even started to work on something else because we thought they weren’t going to commission it.”

It turns out, too, that although Shearsmith and Pemberton had ideas for a third series of Psychoville, it wasn’t wanted. I am shocked because I loved Psychoville.

“We did, too,” he says, sounding mock outraged. He pauses. “To be honest, though, no-one watched it.” He laughs. “But it wasn’t because it wasn’t good.”

Shearsmith knows that his work gets pegged as a certain thing and certain expectations result – “they’ve got their weird audience so put it on at that time and that weird little audience will find it” – is how he puts it. “But it’s frustrating,” he says, “because the work is better than that and you need people to see it. That final hurdle of what time it’s put on TV can be frustrating.”

Still, he says he can’t really complain because in the end the programmes are made. In fact, he and Pemberton have another commission for after Inside No 9.

“There are blocks of time allotted,” he says. “Steve and I know that will require us going to the office again. It’s like a block of time that’s sedentary because it’s just writing, so I know I need to go the gym more because it’s only writing.” He laughs. “Then there are the blocks of time when we’re filming, then there are those when I take on a play and that’s a very different life again because you go from rehearsing all the time and then all your evenings are gone for three months.”

Trying to balance a career like Shearsmith’s sounds tricky. He describes it like that plate spinning game on The Generation Game. But it’s also clear that he likes the variety. It keeps things interesting, he says, and means that he’s never in danger of repeating himself.

“I did a talking book recently,” he says, explaining that he read Rob Aikman’s stories, after being alerted to his work by former League of Gentleman writer, Jeremy Dyson. “He’s a brilliant writer and not many people know of him really. He’s a fantastic unsung hero of not really horror but just weird, haunting stories.”

It sounds just right for Shearsmith. The same kind of tone that he and Pemberton created in Psychoville and The League of Gentlemen and that has garnered both series cult status. It’s more than a decade since the end of The League of Gentlemen, but Shearsmith and his partners still get asked if they will ever resurrect the residents of Royston Vaysey.

“It would be such a precarious a thing to attempt because I think we’d just spoil it,” he says. “I’d hate that, it’d be a disservice to it.

“Both The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville have got their own place in the canon of comedy. With League of Gentlemen I know it wasn’t as well received as people think now. It’s gone into folklore now, the mythology of it is better than the reception at the time. But I’d rather have a small group of people who really love it than a mainstream reaction of, ‘yeah, it’s OK’. And I think our work has got that.”

Shearsmith has obviously chosen to stay under the radar for most of his career but that can mean that he doesn’t always feel sure of whether he’s really part of the entertainment world or not. “Sometimes I watch telly and I think I know all of these people. It’s nice. And sometimes I think I’m not part of that world but then I realise I am. And then I think what does any of it matter – it’s just half hours of television. You come and go in someone’s front room in 30 minutes. It’s very disposable. It’s just in the background when they’re eating their fish and chips.”

• A Field in England is out now. See review on page 20. Inside No 9 will be shown on BBC2 in the autumn