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Papa Lazarou is a fictional character in the BBC TV comedy programme The League of Gentlemen. He appeared in three episodes, the final episode of the third series, the first episode in the second series, a Christmas special, and the film The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse. The character is part written by and played by Reece Shearsmith. Papa Lazarou has been listed as both the 8th and 14th most popular sketch of all time with British audiences, according to The Radio Times and Channel 4 respectively.
Papa Lazarou is a demonic circus master and collector of wives. He has a rasping voice, an indefinable accent, and a face like an inverted whiteface clown's make up. In his first appearance he runs the Pandemonium Carnival, and has three diminutive helpers called Simba, Pebbil and Tiktik. He is seen to collect wives by forcing his way into women's homes posing as a humble peg-seller, then talking gibberish at them until they hand over their wedding ring. Once they do this he exclaims, "You're my wife now!"
Despite originally only appearing in one episode the character instantly became one of the most popular, and returned in the third series. He also has important supporting roles in the Christmas special and The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse, and appears in both of the League's live shows. It was revealed by the writers and producers that they would bring the character back in the form of his alter-ego Keith Drop who is not introduced until the first episode of the third series and is forced to take on a job at the local charity shop it is not until the last minute when his secret identity is finally revealed to the viewers as he is none other than Papa Lazarou disguised under pink make-up however the fate of the real Keith that Papa's identity he assumed was never revealed.
|“||Boys and girls, do not be alarmed. The person you are about to meet is extremely dangerous. Remain in your seats at all times. Do not let this monster inside your head. He can... do things.||”|
—Papa Lazarou's introduction in The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You
The character is one of the most bizarre and mysterious of the League's. Some of the women in his 'book of wives', seen in series three, appear to have lived over a century ago. This hints at the character's unnatural lifespan. He has the supernatural gift of being able to speak with the voices of deceased people he has never met. However he cannot commune with the dead, as evidenced in the unconvincing medium act he performed when his circus came to Royston Vasey. His first visit to the town ends when the noses of the circus audience start bleeding simultaneously. Out-weirded by Royston Vasey, he and the other circus performers flee. When he returns it is in the guise of Keith Drop, an actor whose identity he stole. As Keith, he gets a job at the charity shop. This leads to his discovery when the husband of one of Lazarou's abductees finds some of his wife's jewellery among Keith's donations. Lazarou evades capture however, and it is revealed that he imprisons his wives and anyone who tries to follow him inside circus animals. In the third series audio commentary the League revealed this is just one of a number of things (many of which haven't been shown) that he does with his captives.
|“||Please do what he says, he's a very dangerous man. He'll shit on you and set you on fire.||”|
—Mark Gatiss, Comic Aid
Lazarou's face really is black and white, and he has to cover it with white foundation to appear normal. He learned the makeup skills needed for this from his various wives.
His teeth are yellow, and his hands are covered in rings - the wedding rings of his 'wives'. His hair is long, black and frizzy, and bears a notable resemblance to Jeremy Dyson's hair, who unlike the others, does not appear as any regular characters.
Keith Drop is Papa Lazarou's alter-ego who first appeared in the third series of the League of Gentlemen. Lazarou uses the makeup tips he has gleaned from his wives to effect a very convincing transformation. As Keith he helps out in the charity shop with Reenie Calver (whose friend, Vinnie Wythenshaw has been killed in an accident). This was merely a front for Lazarou to gain more wives.
He is keen on amateur dramatics and is doing a production of The Diary of Anne Frank, featuring the character Pam Doove as a Nazi.
He eventually gets rumbled when Brian Morgan comes into the shop looking for the missing pieces to his board games. Drop inadvertently gives Brian the brooch his wife Katy Morgan was wearing the day she mysteriously disappeared — which coincided with the carnival coming to town. Keith is unable to ward him away from the subject and tries to kill him. However, Reenie Calver hits him over the head and they restrain him. He manages to escape and, when they follow him, he imprisons them in his circus animals cages.
When Brian breaks into Papa's home he realises that Keith was a real person whose identity Papa assumed. The fate of the real Keith was not revealed.
Despite being one of the more bizarre characters in the series, Papa Lazarou was in fact based on a real person, Peter Papalazarou, who was the landlord of a flat in which Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton lived. When he called, he would only ever ask for "Steve" (Pemberton), and would refuse to talk to Shearsmith. In a gruff voice he would inquire, "Hello Steve?", then when told by Shearsmith that Pemberton was not present he would reply, "Ok, is Steve there?". Both this and his saying, "This is just a saga now", were adapted into the script. On one occasion the landlord said, "I've got a hoover, Steve, belonging to you." This was also incorporated, 'hoover' becoming 'pegs', the selling of which appears to be Papa Lazarou's cover for his true diabolical purpose.
Comments by the writers
Mark Gatiss: "People are always banging on about how dark it is and we always say, 'Oh, come on…'. And then we watch it again and sometimes I’m quite taken aback by all that’s going on. The thing that I always think is really something is Papa Lazarou kidnapping Bernice’s mother in the Christmas Special. That’s absolutely terrifying."
"But that flashback with the screaming child and Papa Lazarou is absolutely ghastly."
Reece Shearsmith: "I've done a few Hello Dave's for people's answering machines," said Reece Shearsmith, before putting on the Papa Lazarou voice, 'They're not in at the moment!'"
"I love doing Papa Lazarou because he is almost iconic now. I just saw in Kerrang magazine this week, there was some rock band talking about how he’s their favourite weird character. It’s weird that kind of crossover he’s made into like goths and the heavy-metal world, it’s great."
"I think that Johnny Depp was Papa Lazarou in 'Pirates of the Caribbean'".
Mark Gatiss: "There was a funny moment when we were filming by the sea and the doubles for Tubbs and Edward and Papa Lazarou were all having a fag. Actually, I filmed it because it was really quite creepy." Pemberton: "There was one bit at the end when all our characters had to be there and they came in one at a time. It was really freaky. It was like the film had come to life."
Mark Gatiss: "Marilyn Manson keeps dressing up as Papa Lazarou". Steve Pemberton: "We had our photo taken, and this guy said 'I was doing a photo shoot with Marilyn Manson, and as I was doing it, I said "Do you realise that this look you've got is from a British TV show?".' He didn't know so someone got him the DVD and showed it to him. He offered to change his look, because he didn't want to step on our toes."
Reece Shearsmith: "Things shock you because you don’t expect characters to do certain things, but you’re never thinking, 'Oh, that can’t happen.' With Papa Lazarou coming through, that’s normal, you’re watching that thinking, 'Oh wow, that’s brilliant, this crazy circus is coming to town.'"
One of the oddest aspects of the character is how he has managed to become a figure in popular culture. The magazine Bizarre featured Papa Lazarou on its front cover, as if he were a real person. Various people have noted him as their favourite character, and he has numerous fan sites.
Papa Lazarou was a key element in their publicity material for the League of Gentlemen's live tour.
Comments by reviewers
"...oddest of all is a spring-heeled, blacked-up refugee from some ramshackle, time-warped carnival: Papa Lazarou."
"...no matter who you are Papa Lazarou will freak you the hell out."
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