A series which can make you piss yourself laughing while being shit-scared: Alison Carr reckons Psychoville is a proper telly triumph.
If you tell me that Dawn French is in something, I’m going to watch it. Therefore, back in 2009, I found myself tuning into Psychoville – the new horror-comedy series from Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.
This was despite having never seen their infamous The League of Gentlemen and being very nervous of the ‘horror’ part of that description. I don’t do horror. But. Dawn French. And do you know what, I absolutely loved it, and I found myself revisiting both series recently.
The first series sees five disparate characters all tormented by a man in black, who sends them wax-sealed letters claiming, “I know what you did.”
Mr Jelly (Shearsmith) is a children’s party clown who has fallen on hard times after he lost one of his hands. In its place is a red raw stump for which he has various attachments including a hook. There’s Joy (French), a cheerful midwife with an unhealthy attachment to a plastic doll called Freddy; Mr Lomax (Pemberton) who deals in certain commodities; Maureen and her serial killer-obsessed son David (Shearsmith and Pemberton again); and seemingly telekinetic pantomime dwarf Robert (Jason Tompkins).
The letters set in motion a mystery. Who is sending them and why? We find out the recipients are former patients of the Ravenhill Psychiatric Hospital, governed by the fearsome Nurse Kenchington, but what happened to her and who is to blame?
“Psychoville is one of a kind. It’s tightly plotted, twisted and unsettling, hilariously funny, dark, moving, silly, sharp and imaginative.”
The twists and turns are never boring or predictable. It’s endlessly inventive, funny and, yes, actually quite scary. Joy’s plan to bring her baby doll to life by infusing him with blood from the hospital blood bank (which she replaces with Vimto so no one is any the wiser) is wacky and weird, but the sight of the blood-engorged doll is genuinely disturbing.
Broad gags like blind Mr Lomax thinking his Club biscuit is a mobile phone sit alongside sharp, clever dialogue and visual jokes, creating characters that are eccentric and extreme but also human and engaging.
At first sight, David and Maureen were going to be too much for me but I came to really care for them. Yes, both can make your skin crawl, but they are devoted to each other. In series two, David blurting out to his mother that she has cancer is a heartbreaking moment. The fact that Maureen is midway through a Tina Turner impression that includes tights on her face and ping pong balls for eyes makes it all the more tragic. It’s a moment only Shearsmith and Pemberton could a) dream up and b) make work.
Of course, everything comes to an explosive head in a showdown in the rundown psychiatric hospital. The man in black is unmasked – gasp, shock horror – and everyone dies.
Or do they? *Spoiler* No.
Fast-forward to series two via a Halloween special, and most of the gruesome gang are back but in various neck braces and plaster casts. We also get new characters, including national treasure Imelda Staunton being amazing as the head of a shadowy tech company who longs for a high-def plasma screen to keep track of her nefarious deeds. Also Vilma Hollingbery as Claudia Wren, aka Mrs Ladybird Face. She’s as sweet and oblivious as Mr Jelly is sour and bitter, but their partnership is comedy gold.
This second outing tracks the search for a mysterious locket and ups the stakes; namely characters die. A lot of them. And not just peripheral players, but the main cast. It keeps you on your toes, and their deaths are genuinely sad and shocking. Tealeaf (Daniel Kaluuya) getting shot by a toyshop-owning Nazi – I well up every time.
Psychoville is one of a kind. I honestly can’t think of any other programme it’s comparable to. It’s tightly plotted, twisted and unsettling, hilariously funny, dark, moving, silly, sharp and imaginative. Does it make me laugh? Every time. Does it give me nightmares? Honestly, the idea of that Freddy Fruitcake doll scuttling about haunts me. And don’t even make me think about the Silent Singer…
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Alison is a playwright and would-be tap dancer. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.