In 2000ish, I caught the tail end of an episode of a ‘comedy’ on BBC2. In it, a black-faced circus ringmaster and his gibberish-talking “wife” had kidnapped another woman with the immortal line “You’re MY wife now!” uttered by his strange, whispery, creaky voice. It was perhaps the most disturbing thing I had seen for years and after the first episode I saw, I was not keen to return to it.
I think what made it worse was there was no canned laughter, which made it incredibly creepy. However, return I did, and it became one of the seminal comedies that forms the backbone of what I find amusing. Disturbingly amusing, in this case.
Apart from the loop-the-loop circus ringmaster, Papa Lazarou, butchered transsexual Barbara, weird urine-drinking Harvey Dent, Paedophile German Choir Master Herr Lipp, Job Centre re-start trainer Pauline and her permanent enrolee Mickey Love, the pinnacle of the show for me was Tubbs and Edward, a pair of inbred brother-sister, husband-wife shop owners. Tubbs, an elderly dreamer of an old lady, intent on counting the ‘precious things’ of the shop, and Edward, her angry war veteran husband-brother, were so far removed from what you might have seen on a comedy before that it was little wonder the word ‘comedy’ seemed like a misnomer. Tubbs and Edward were like Deliverance meets The Wicker Man.
The League of Gentlemen became such a part of my life that I even went on a kind of pilgrimage to Hadfield with Pete. We stopped at the roundabout zoo and bought a tin of spam in the shop on the high street. It was quite surreal. But it’s not like those Pennine towns need any excuse to be surreal. From Glossop to Sheffield, it’s all a bit Twilight Zone. If you come in by plane over from Europe, there’s just this great, hulking, dark mass that is the Peak District that stops Manchester and Leeds and Sheffield becoming one town. It’s quite primeval.
In this clip, Tubbs and Edward have killed a young hiker who visited the shop. It has my two favourite lines in: “Hello, hello… what’s all this shouting? We’ll have no trouble here.” and “We didn’t burn him!”
(and is it only me, or is it a little weird that so many British comedians like to dress up as frumpy middle aged women?)
Anyway, as you see from the final lines of the clip, Tubbs is terrified that more “strangers” might come to their shop. This is what reminds me a little of France. And it’s because of one word. Stranger.
In England, strange means weird, odd, bizarre, unnatural, different. And strangers are those who embody those quality – outsiders. If you look in the dictionary, these words are less pejorative and more diplomatic. Let’s face it though, “You’re strange” is not a compliment. It’s not called Stranger Danger for nothing. We have a less bizarre word for unfamiliar people. Foreigners. Everybody who is not from the British Isles.
But I never really thought about it until today. The French word for foreigner or foreign is étranger. Stranger. Thus everyone who comes from abroad is a stranger. You drive stranger cars and wear stranger brands and eat stranger food and speak a stranger language. Of course, here, it’s like foreigner. A kind of neutral word depending on who is using it and for what purpose. But it made me laugh. It mostly made me laugh because from now on, in my mind when I am thinking about it, I will intepret it as stranger and not foreigner. And the residents of France will become like an outpost of Royston Vasey, where if you aren’t local and your parents aren’t known, you are just a stranger.
Anyway, given my recent exploits, I am bien connu so that is alright. I might still be strange, but at least I am known.