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Movie Flop to Triumphant TV Revival: Twin Peaks and The League of Gentlemen

  It's no exaggeration to say when Twin Peaks arrived on the world's television screens in 1990 it sparked a revolution in television drama, and oddly, comedy as well. The brainchild of David Lynch and Mark Frost, it was intended as a new kind of soap opera in the mould of Peyton Place, but adding mysteries and humour, as well as horror, to the mix, which immediately caught the attention of a media obsessed with finding the next novelty, and for a while it was genuinely popular. However, come season two and the strain was beginning to show: viewers were impatient when the central murder was going unsolved, so when the series solved it, they deserted in droves, not seeing much point in hanging around. After Lynch ended it on a plethora of outrageous cliffhangers, other series had taken its cue and gone on to more success: from Northern Exposure to The X-Files to Lost to Stranger Things to... The League of Gentlemen?

Twin Peaks' influence is still felt today, but it had something in common with that British comedy series which also took a weird community and spiralled it off in all sorts of directions, some wiser than others: they both presented big screen spin-offs that were little loved by audiences and critics, yet went on to cult adoration among their more dedicated fans. 1992 saw Lynch take over creatively, with Frost on board as executive producer, for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, an account of what happened to the murder victim Laura Palmer (a remarkable performance from Sheryl Lee) before she was discovered stabbed to death and wrapped in plastic on the shore of the local river. In the series, the town of Twin Peaks was rocked to its foundations by this tragic crime, the murder of a teenage homecoming queen who apparently had no enemies in the world, but by the film, those who had followed the television plots were well aware all was not right there.

Just as in Peyton Place, there were dark rumblings of crime and outright evil there under the supposedly respectable surface, seemingly ordinary, law-abiding citizens with awful secrets to hide and terrible fates awaiting them, even the innocent ones who could be described as victims. Laura was one of those victims, and while the franchise was accused of bad taste by presenting a dead teen as its poster girl, there was no way after watching the film that you could say they did this lightly, they were incredibly serious about doing justice to those who befall the wickedness of others. Even if, in this case, that wickedness was encouraged and channelled by supernatural forces so vast that the characters, never mind the audience, could barely grasp their significance: not for nothing were Lynch's quirks and devices complained about as too confusing, yet that dreamlike, nightmarish quality was indelible in its contribution to the overall quality.

Fire Walk with Me begins with Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland investigating a very Twin Peaks-like case, though in a far less wholesome town than that, if you can imagine such a thing. When Isaak's FBI Agent disappears, leaving just his car with "Let’s Rock" scrawled over the windshield as proof he was ever there, we see Kyle MacLachlan in his signature role as Agent Dale Cooper back at the FBI having David Bowie-led premonitions about the Palmer murder he will investigate soon, then we settle on poor Laura to follow her last days alive. And it is a melancholy tale knowing what awaits her: she frequently breaks down in tears, well aware she is doomed as she gets mixed up with drugs and prostitution and the machinations of the enigmatic Black Lodge close in to claim another sacrifice. The results were a strange, powerful mix of championing the victim and creating an atmosphere of insidious terror only the purity of the right soul can overcome.

The League of Gentlemen was groundbreaking in its own way as well, even if it used Twin Peaks as a template: a selection of characters in bizarre situations, linked by a story arc. Only while the Lynch-Frost creation had moments of comedy, here making you laugh was the whole point, and the four Gentlemen - writer Jeremy Dyson, writers and performers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith - wore their influences in horror fiction and what would be now called hauntology on their sleeves. They had grown up steeped in this style of British culture, and conveyed it in a fresh form that came across as a part of it, while commenting on it and indeed glorying in it, doing so in awards-garlanded stage shows, a radio show and three television series (plus a Christmas Special that was one of the greatest uses of that seasonal format). It was as if they could do no wrong, yet there were grumblings during season three.

In that, they had altered their format to prevent it growing stale, but the results were fewer laughs and a lot more clever-clever plotting which proved alienating; you can debate whether they were ahead of their time there. So when a film was announced, the fans were happy, but everyone else was wondering if the novelty had not worn off by this point, and it was far from a blockbuster, appearing at cinemas and disappearing shortly after with only the diehards recalling it ever existed. However, on closer examination this was a lot more ambitious than the usual sitcom spin-off: there was a gag about coming up with new ideas for a movie including the characters heading off to Spain on holiday and having trouble with the hotel which was essentially the much-maligned plot of the Are You Being Served? film. Yet The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse was even more post-modern, meta, whatever you wanted to call it, than that.

It featured a smaller selection of the residents of Royston Vasey than before, and you had the impression the budget was tighter, but those it did star were faced with a dilemma: what do you do when you're basically a comedy creation with a couple of catchphrases or a one-note quirk to build your personality on? When they discover they are fictional, and their writers want to move on to pastures new, they find their town on the brink of destruction, so three of them are dispatched to persuade The League to write more, leading to a deepening of the most one-note character of them all, Herr Lipp, who finds he yearns for a normal life and doesn't much fancy existing to deliver a stream of double entendres. This all was part of the humour, but suggested The League were genuinely musing over not only their comedy, but what it meant to create, all very deep, then again you also had Victoria Wood and David Warner offering blue jokes too.

The film ended on a qualified upbeat conclusion, but it was years before The League would return in those guises we first knew them in, by which time all four had gone on to even bigger successes as writers and performers, though staying true to their background in that particularly British form of comedy and horror. Twin Peaks had ended with something of a damp squib too, as far as acclaim went, but it returned years later as well, and as coincidence would have it they both appeared in 2017, within months of one another, and proved much anticipated, then judged satisfying by the fans. It was good - comfortable was not quite the right word - to be back among these characters once again, though life as it turned out had been rather cruel to many of the old favourites, and The League tried to fit as many of them in as possible, for one sketch only if necessary, which at three half hour episodes would be leaving many wanting more.

Perhaps that was the idea, as the way was left open in the final instalment to continue, though with the heavy workload of all four of them it was questionable whether they would reunite again before their next landmark anniversary. The overall plotline saw Royston Vasey threatened with being wiped from the map thanks to boundary redrawing, presumably to tighten up the potential votes, and there were dabblings in politics when Edward and Tubbs, the originators of the "local shop for local people" catchphrase, made loose motions towards Brexit as they took hostages in their makeshift new grotto and became a media sensations of the three day wonder type as they seemed to embody the mood of the nation, though were in fact getting up to no good, and bloody no good at that. There were other story arcs too, as Benjamin returns for his toad-loving uncle's funeral and winds up possessed by him in a black magic ceremony.

Also, Geoff, possibly the highlight of the movie, is persuaded to turn hitman on his pal's bedridden wife, which naturally did not turn out the way as expected thanks to his bungling, though perhaps the grimmest fates had been left to Jobseekers' exponent Pauline who has been afflicted with dementia in the time we have been away. Pop made a return to terrorise his family and got a The Thief of Bagdad reference for his trouble, but whither Papa Lazarou? Was his minstrel makeup too much for the PC climate or had he found a way around that, seeing as how transgender taxi driver Barbara was now extremely militant? There were throwaway gags as before (a notice read LOST: should have ended after season 1), and references abounded, including a cheeky one to Pemberton and Shearsmith's anthology series Inside No. 9. With all this bleakness and dark humour that at times raised no laughs, it was nice that faded glam rocker Les McQueen finally had a happy ending.

Twin Peaks' return had eighteen hours to play with, quite a substantial amount longer than the League's ninety minutes, but Lynch and Frost were keen to luxuriate in their no-commercials format which saw many of the older characters from before return to, most obviously Agent Dale Cooper, following on from his last sighting on television when he was trapped in the Red Room and had an evil alter ego possessed by Bob (Frank Silva) unleashed on the real world to... do what? The fact that this was a series that thrived on its mysteries and conundrums was what doomed it back in the early nineties, when audiences wanted things wrapped up in a neat bow, and the producers were reluctant to provide that when they had the opportunity to expand their bizarre universe as if the murder of Laura Palmer had been its Big Bang event and the weirdness and consequences kept on unfolding, growing ever more complex in a fractal style.

The plot for the revival was difficult to summarise, and for those who preferred their television series to make sense, or move at a fair clip, there were naturally going to be those reaching for the off button within a few episodes of the good Dale's dazed behaviour as he breaks back out only to be limited by a mental impairment for most of the season. Twin Peaks had ended on a cliffhanger of wild, out of control proportions back in 1991, one which the film did little to conclude, yet as time went on Fire Walk with Me was raised in stature and evidently Lynch and Frost were very fond of it, to the extent that if you had not watched it you were missing out on many of the keys to the return in 2017, from the ring that transports the wearer to the otherworldly realm to the Bowie cameo that saw a variation here. Often footage, used and unused from Fire Walk with Me was employed to deliver those games with time this liked to play.

Laura told Cooper back then that he would see her again in twenty-five years, and that was more or less accurate as far as the production of the revival went, possibly serving as the impetus for Lynch and Frost, who said this was essentially an eighteen-part movie, to bring it back. If you responded, you would love it, if not your reaction would be bafflement and a deep suspicion of those who appreciated what they had concocted: much as the original version had done, which tended to be forgotten. If anything, it was great to see the old faces again, Lucy and Andy still worked at the Sheriff's station, Big Ed was finally reconciled with Norma (one of the few genuine conclusions), and though Sheriff Truman was "ill" and had his brother (Robert Forster) taking over his duties, the fact that there were performers who had passed away in the interim (Miguel Ferrer's Albert a warm tribute to that underrated actor) or simply absent, there were connections to the past.

Not that everything from before was resolved here, we didn't find out if Leo escaped from his darkly hilarious predicament, or how Audrey Horne survived the explosion, though Sherilyn Fenn was back in far more aggressive and sweary form, in a loveless marriage with a vile criminal for a son whose faults she refuses to recognise. The League pushed the boat out and got David Morrissey to guest star as a detective cum hostage negotiator, but Twin Peaks had a far more extensive list of familiar faces, one scene wonders like Michael Cera doing an unlikely Marlon Brando tribute, for instance, or larger roles as Don Murray played Cooper's alter ego's boss (always with the duality), Ashley Judd had the closest thing to a soap opera subplot with Richard Beymer's millionaire hotelier Ben Horne, Naomi Watts was the high strung wife of Cooper and so forth. A nice touch was to see Diane at last, played by Lynch favourite Laura Dern (having a very good 2017).

But it was the weirdness that lasted in Twin Peaks, some like the League very funny, other times disturbing, not least because explanations, as noted were predictably thin on the ground (and like the League, featuring men in black makeup who were of sinister intent, though the British series reserved their most famous menace for the punchline at the end - and it really was a punchline). One whole episode was given over to tracing the villains back to the atomic bomb tests in American deserts, an audacious piece that was either hypnotically strange or the deal-breaker for the non-dedicated viewer. But Showtime, who had broadcast the series, were delighted with the viewing figures, and hinted they would like to go even further; it certainly cut off with another cliffhanger as Laura was apparently saved from her fate only to be trapped with her rescuer Cooper in a no man's land version of Twin Peaks indicating there was assuredly room for more. But season three presented a feast of food for thought for the long-time aficionado, like the League conjuring captivating ideas for the characters old and new, as befitting two of the biggest trendsetters of their era.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018