Welcome to the Real Royston Vasey You'll Never Leave! ; Home of Simpletons, Sadists, Fetishists, Xenophobes, Thugs, Psychopaths, Nudists, Nosebleeders, Kidnappers, Toad Worshippers, Mass-Murderers (and Other Well-Adjusted Residents of a Typical Small Town in the North of England)
Viner, Brian, The Independent (London, England)
The number 397 bus - destination Hyde - rattles along Station Road, Hadfield, followed, from a ramshackle Manchester Evening News hoarding, by the eyes of Harold Shipman. Here, it seems, is conclusive proof that fact is far grislier and more macabre than fiction. But in Hadfield, a north Derbyshire village sprawled across a Pennine valley, fact and fiction have collided with a terrible crash. For Hadfield doubles as Royston Vasey, put firmly on the map by BBC2's The League of Gentlemen, and populated by an extraordinary assortment of weirdos. The fictional locals are so weird that when a freak show came to town, it quickly scarpered, out-freaked by such characters as Hilary Briss, the apparently cannibalistic butcher. Yet according to some, Royston Vasey is but a pale shadow of Hadfield.
"If you put the cast in the street next to the locals, and I'm not ruling myself out, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart," says Barbara Hollingworth, plain-speaking, chain-smoking, twinkle- eyed owner of the village haberdashery. "There was a man outside the post office the other day and his nose turned up all on its own. He didn't need Sellotape. And on the day the TV crew changed the sign above Mettrick the butcher's to H Briss, a woman popped her head round my door and said, `Barbara, has Mettrick sold 'is shop?' I said, `No, it's for the filming', and she said, `Oh.' The next day they'd moved the sign, and the same woman came in and said, `I see Mettrick's bought 'is shop back.' So, you see, they don't need to write scripts. They just need to sit in the back of my shop for a morning."
William Hall, a clothing salesman visiting Hadfield on business, overhears this, and recalls with a chuckle that he once stopped to ask directions to Hadfield and was advised to continue on the same road for a mile "then `turn right by the black and white cow', as if the cow was a permanent flipping fixture". Mr Hall lives near Holmfirth, the location, 15 miles away, for the venerable BBC comedy Last of the Summer Wine, and now home to the likes of Summer Wine Taxis, Summer Wine Car Hire, Compo's Cafe, even the Wrinkled Stocking Cafe. The association has been milked beyond reason, Mr Hall believes, and warns Hadfield traders not to make the same mistakes.
Of course, the nation is unlikely to embrace Tubbs and Edward, mad porcine proprietors of Royston Vasey's Local Shop, quite as it has Nora Batty. And yet The League of Gentlemen - the second series of which concludes tomorrow - already has a following devoted enough to make the pilgrimage to Royston Vasey. A coach party from Nottingham University recently descended on the Mason's Arms, which conveniently doubles on the telly as the Mason's Arms ("I think they would have changed the name, but it's on the windows," explains landlady Linda Grogan, happily). And fans have come from as far afield as Holland and Germany in search of the Local Shop, which in fact is a three-sided, purpose-built edifice on remote Marsden Moor.
Some shopkeepers grumbled when filming forced them to close for a day or two, but they're not grumbling now. Indeed, Gina Alexander, who runs the sandwich shop, Frank's Place (better known to League of Gentlemen enthusiasts as the fast-food joint Burger Me) has started opening on Sundays to catch the growing tourist trade. Might she actually change the shop's name to Burger Me? William Hall of Holmfirth would recognise it as the start of a descent down a slippery slope. But she has been giving it serious consideration. "I don't know, I might just put it in brackets," she says. "I'm not sure. When you see them spitting on the burgers and bursting spots on them, well, it's not such a good advert, is it? Actually, the girl who works here on a Saturday morning hadn't seen that particular episode the night before, and she was quite offended when people came in the next day and asked her not to spit on their butties. …