Pauline Campbell-Jones

Written by @EllieDangerous
Good morning, jobseekers! Today we're learning that a surreal sketch show can include complex personalities, and that a caricature played by a man in drag can be one of them. 'The League of Gentlemen' mixed a stream of puns and catchphrases with an ocean of weirdly compelling freaks. It was a pretty amazing feat, really. Job Centre employee Pauline, played by Steve Pemberton in all his chin-scrunching glory, is one such character, and defined by her obsession with... erm, pens.

Spoiler Alert
The complexity of the characters in ‘The League of Gentlemen’, which is a dark comedy first and foremost, is not accidental. Part of the show’s darkness comes from the characters being sympathetic. It’s as if you’re laughing at a passer-by for slipping in their own dog’s crap, but then feel awful because they’ve just burst into tears. Pauline is the passer-by. And the dog. And the crap.

She’s the worst Restart Officer in the world, calling jobseekers “dole scum” and teaching them useless things like how to get employed as a bramble-picker. Part of her job involves pens. Handing them out. Collecting them back. Writing with them. Confiscating them. Gesticulating with them. Sometimes violently. Sometimes in a nostril.

Pens are the symbol of her authority, which she absolutely adores. With the sole exception of the guileless Mickey, Pauline is the only one who has any enthusiasm in that grim ‘90s classroom filled with cigarette smoke and slumped figures. She gambols around, exclaiming loudly and soaking up all the colour. When she’s fired from her job and her pens are tossed to the floor, this represents the loss of her authority and therefore her spirit. She crumples to the ground with her beloved pens, finally subdued. Scrunch that chin, Steve. Scrunch it like a newspaper.

The more Pauline is around pens, the more authority and spirit she has. Like the Job Centre, prison is another soulless setting in which you wouldn’t expect someone to be in their element. But in series three Pauline flourishes in the penitentiary... she’s offered pens like cigarettes, using them to form a currency - and do interesting things to her bitches. See, Pauline is a lesbian. What with the innuendos and cross-dressing in her story, ‘The League of Gentlemen’ hints at some R-rated implications for what Pauline’s pens might symbolise.

But them pens also stand for sweeter things. Like love and dreams. For one, Pauline dreams of opening her own pen shop and calling it “Her Nibs”. Just think how much authority and spirit she’d have in that setting. And for another, she would love to be loved but she acts like a power-crazed barbarian and looks like a pug eating a grapefruit. So she has pens instead. “They're the best friends you can have!” she claims. “Everything I know about people I learned from pens. If they don't work, you shake 'em. If they still don't work, you chuck 'em away, bin ‘em!”

A perfect example of cruel British comedy with a forgiving heart, ‘The League of Gentlemen’ gives Pauline and Mickey perhaps the happiest ending in the show. He always liked her, did Mickey. We even see that he’s left an apple on her desk early in series one, like a kid to his favourite teacher. Later, on their last day together in the Job Centre, he presents her with a pen on a string, and if pens stand for love then that’s what Mickey really gives her. And so the lesbian marries the monkey.

In a sketch show packed with dozens of memorable characters and stories, Pauline’s arc still manages to stand out as one rich in crime and intrigue and love and betrayal, and we end up with a heart full of puncture wounds. You have to give it to the League: they’ve penned a goodie.
You work-shy set of bastards, what's the point of you coming in? Sit up straight you bone-idle lazy c -
Pauline: "Why are you doing this to me, Ross?"
Ross: "Because you made me hate my job."
Ellie Ball is the founder of Good Characters, and someone who enjoys coffee cake a great deal. She is a graduate of the Scriptwriting MA at Goldsmiths, University of London. For fun and respite, check out her TV analysis articles on Bang2Write or tweet coffee cake at her @EllieDangerous.
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Published on 4 June 2015
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