Straight off the bat, and if the title of this article hasn’t already clued you in. This is a massive spoilery look at the Halloween special Dead Line episode of Inside No. 9. So, you have been warned. My synopsis of this one (copy & paste from the main retrospective) said:
“Arthur (Steve Pemberton) comes home on Halloween after finding a mobile phone in a graveyard while out shopping. The phone rings, Arthur answers it and he can hear strange and ominous voices but can’t quite understand what is being said. The call soon disconnects. Wanting to find the owner of the phone, Arthur redials the last number called and it is answered by Moira (Stephanie Cole), Arthur explains the situation and Moira agrees to contact the rightful owner of the phone for him. Later, Arthur gets a visit from the local Reverend (Reece Shearsmith) and that is when things begin to take a turn for the worst.”
So yeah, that is the setup for this one… a phone. That and the fact that this was an episode that was broadcast live… or was it? I’ll get into the whole ‘live’ thing soon enough, as I initially had doubts. So, what happens here is that when the Reverend turns up at Arthur’s house to try and help with getting the phone back to its rightful owner, the sound fails. The visuals are fine and the two characters talk, but we can not hear what they are saying. A BBC continuity announcer interrupts the episode and tells us that there are problems with the live broadcast and that they are working on getting the sound fixed. The episode comes back on and everything is fine, for a while. The sound cuts out again.
Whoops, the whole live thing has failed miserably as technical issues plague the broadcast. The continuity announcer interrupts once more to say that this live show can not go ahead and a repeat of the A Quiet Night In episode from series one will be shown instead. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s efforts to ‘get us’ with a live Halloween special have been let down by technical issues. Live TV eh? What a fucker, all that effort for nothing, at least we get to re-watch one of the great episodes though.
Of course, Pemberton and Shearsmith haven’t failed. The ‘technical problems’ are part of the episode itself. They are in full control and as you sit there watching the ‘repeat’ of A Quiet Night In, that is when things get seriously messed up. What this Dead Line Halloween special live episode explores is the ‘real’ story of a ghost haunting the studio from where the episode is being broadcast live from. Archive footage of actual real events, accidents (Bobby Davro falling flat on his face and breaking his nose, due to a prop error), an episode of Most Haunted looking a the rumours that the Coronation Street set is haunted and more are shown. What follows is this mix of real events that actually happened in our universe and snippets of what is happening on the set in the fictional world of Inside No. 9.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith sit in the make-up room really pissed off that their live episode has failed, but still see the funny side of things. Stephanie Cole walks around the set not sure what is going on or even what TV show she is doing (some comedy show, she says). From the point of view of the actors (who are acting as actors), everything has gone wrong and BBC are showing a repeat of the A Quiet Night In episode. Only, we the viewer are not watching the A Quiet Night In episode. We are watching the actors of Inside No. 9 via security cameras (correct time stamps and everything) around the studio and we get to see the whole thing basically turn into The Blair Witch Project, as the ghost haunting the studio kills everyone for ‘real’.
See, this folks, this is why I said (in the main retrospective) that this episode is both one of the best and most uninteresting episodes of the show so far. It does just become a blatant The Blair Witch Project copy, and I’ve never liked The Blair Witch Project. However, there is one factor of that film that I do adore, the marketing. The way that (for a while) people believed that The Blair Witch Project was a real film, that people really did die. IMDb had the actors listed as ‘missing’ for a while. There were ‘real’ lost persons posters made. There was a website that set up the entire background and a history of the ‘real’ Blair Witch and everything. Despite the fact that I’m no fan of the film itself, I think that the marketing for The Blair Witch Project was amazing. And that is exactly what Pemberton and Shearsmith did expertly for this episode too. They really fucked with the intended audience.
Now, I do need to tell you how I have been watching all of these episodes for this retrospective. I did say at the very start of this whole thing that I only got into Inside No. 9 very recently. I have had to watch all of the episodes on BBC iPlayer (though they have recently been removed. Why BBC?). They had already been broadcast and so, I have been watching them via catch-up. This is exactly why this episode did not work for me. See, if you watch the episodes from start to finish, back-to-back as I have over the last few weeks, you notice things. The fact that every episode just starts on BBC iPlayer, the intro to the show begins and away you go. With this episode, it started with a BBC continuity announcer telling you that it is a live episode… why? I know that it’s not live as I am watching it on catch-up. So, why would a recording of a TV show need an announcer to tell the viewer that it is live when it isn’t? Straight away, my suspicious mind was working overtime. I have been fooled by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith multiple times already. I knew, right from that continuity announcer telling me that this is a live episode, I knew right there and then that it was all a ruse. Then, when the sound cut out, I just was not surprised. In fact, I was kind of expecting it or something like it.
So, for me watching on catch-up ruined the aim of this episode. This one really was something that you had to watch live to ‘get it’. However, that does not mean that I still didn’t enjoy the episode. Quite the opposite actually. No, I wasn’t fooled, but knowing how a magic trick is done always makes me enjoy the trick so much more. I adore watching Penn and Teller, I think they are the greatest magicians on the planet. When they, not only show you a magic trick, but then show you how that magic trick was done, it just makes me adore Penn and Teller, their craft, their dedication and their hard work even more so. The Dead Line episode of Inside No. 9 is Pemberton and Shearsmith doing a Penn and Teller… and doing it really fucking well too.
Immediately after watching this episode, I was on the internet researching how it was done. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith outdid The Blair Witch Project in terms of how this was marketed. They did interviews before this episode aired and had whole backstories and synopsis ready for what the episode was about, even if none of it existed in the final product. They explained how this episode was about Arthur and the phone, when it really wasn’t. Here’s a great interview with Pemberton and Shearsmith where they talk about the episode and what it was about before it aired. There was even a clip of this interview used in the episode itself.
Within the episode, there is ‘rehearsal footage’ that kind of explains what the episode (without the faux technical problems) would’ve been like. It’s brilliant too as it adds a layer of reality to the whole thing and you can work out the plot, even though you never see that story play out. You see behind the scenes as the actors act like they have no idea what is going on There are some genuinely creepy things going on too, hidden ghosts to find and more. Stephanie Cole getting possessed by the evil and slitting her own throat was truly horrific. The way she looked directly at the camera and at us, the viewer, was very disturbing.
Then there was the use of Twitter. See, as this was a live episode, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith very rightly predicted that people would be on Twitter commenting when the sound cut out. So, they had a gag where Shearsmith would comment live on Twitter as everything was going wrong. You can even see how the whole thing played out on Twitter right here. There were people falling for the sound cutting out, people saying it was part of the show. Then you had BBC 2 apologising for the technical issues on Twitter, which then added a layer of doubt to those sure it was all part of the episode. When Shearsmith Tweeted to ask if they were live on BBC 2, that was just the icing on the cake and all bets were off at that point. Honestly, clicking through all the Tweets and seeing how people reacted at the time that this episode aired is a wonderful diary of events. After the episode aired, Stephanie Cole, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith were all declared as dying at the TV studio on Wikipedia too. I don’t know if that was officially announced or if a fan had edited it.
I’d really love to read an in-depth dissection of just how this one was made. I did find this interview where more details are mentioned, but it is still very light compared to the sheer amount of work that would’ve gone into it. There must be rehearsal footage, behind-the-scenes stuff, table reads, the planning and so on. I think they could make a documentary out of just how this episode was made, and I’d watch it too. Just like Penn and Teller telling you how they do the cup & balls trick and being mesmerised by their skill. I want to see just how Pemberton, Shearsmith and everyone else on the crew pulled off this slice of magic.
I did say at the start that I had doubts that this was an actual live episode. Because, when you think about it, the whole thing could’ve been recorded (to avoid any actual technical problems or live mishaps) and nobody would be any the wiser. The only scene that I think that possibly would have had to have been live was the bit in the make-up room when Reece Shearsmith sent the live Tweet. However, he really could’ve been at home, Tweet already written and ready to send and then he just sent it when his on-screen version did. Then there was the flicking between the TV channels (BBC only though) to show the news, and it was the actual live news that was on at the time too. That could’ve possibly been done with some live post-production with a second or two delay. It was possible to fake it as being live, is my point.
So yeah, for a while I did doubt just how live this ‘live’ broadcast was. I even doubted that the only scene that I think would’ve been live, actually was live. But it turns out that any and everything that could conceivably be live was actually live. Obviously, archive footage was recorded, Bobby Davro’s fall, the Most Haunted episode and so on. But everything else was live, even the stunt work. I think that even the fake, pre-recorded rehearsal footage was live too and that is fucking awesomely meta in itself.
Look, I didn’t like the plot of Dead Line, it was a bit too The Blair Witch Project for me. But I can hardly put into words just how much I loved how the episode turned out. How much I admire the work that must’ve gone into it. How the logistics of doing something like this must’ve taken so many man-hours to plan and execute. In short, I just have to doff my cap to Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and the entire crew. This was genius TV, especially in this day and age when everything is spoiled via social media. The fact that Pemberton and Shearsmith pulled this off, and pulled it off in front of everyone while doing interviews about the episode and how they used Twitter against people who use Twitter. This was fucking amazing TV. Simply genius.