Inside No. 9: A Perversely Humorous Retrospective – Introduction And Series One

I have always had a bit of a penchant for anthology storytelling in movies and TV shows. A couple of Halloweens ago, I did a big Creepshow retrospective looking at all the films, the first season of the TV show and everything in between. Before that, I did a longer retrospective looking at all of the Amicus anthology films of the 60s through to the 80s. So, I wanted to cover some more anthology stories with my Halloween special this year.

The truth is that, I actually began doing a full retrospective of the awesome 90s (though it started in 1989) TV show, Tales From the Crypt. I got three seasons in and decided to take a break. For that break, I watched the first series of Inside No. 9 and well, let’s just say that I got very, very distracted. My Tales From the Crypt retrospective was put on the back burner (maybe next year?) as I got completely lost in Inside No. 9 instead. Now, just what is Inside No. 9 I don’t hear you ask? Well then, allow me to fill you in.

INSIDE NO.9 STEVE REECE

Inside No. 9 is a British anthology show massively inspired by the likes of Tales of the Unexpected, The Twilight Zone, Armchair Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the like. Not always 100% horror but certainly stories with a dark, macabre vein of perverse humour. Yarns with twists or stings in the tail that can surprise, entertain and even outright bemuse or just straight up unsettle you. The show is the brainchild of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith who not only write every single episode, but at least one of them also appears in every single episode, either as a main character or just a supporting one.

The title of the show comes from the fact that every episode takes place in somewhere numbered or connected to 9. A train carriage, a house, etc. It is also partly influenced by the Hammer House of Horror episode called The Mark of Satan, which featured a character obsessed with the number 9 (apparently). Each episode is self-contained and because they usually take place in one confined place, they really feel more like short plays than TV show episodes. There is no direct connection between any of the stories, except for a small ornament of a hare in the background that you can try to spot for fun. Episodes vary in style and tone too from family dramas to black comedies and even straight-up horror stories. It also features some really clever and inventive filming techniques and ideas, of which I will cover as I go through the episodes. Speaking of which…

INSIDE NO.9 DOOR

Oh yeah, before I do get into this. I’m purposely not going to be doing spoilers here. Though I will be looking at each individual episode, I am not exploring the endings and I won’t be going into detail (except for one particular episode that I will look at in a separate very spoiler-rific article). So, this should be safe to read if you’ve not yet watched the show. Still, I do recommend that you just watch Inside No. 9 without reading this, if you’re not familiar with the show yet.

Before I forget and just for clarity. This intro that you are reading right now, I wrote after watching all of the series and every episode. However, for the coverage of each series and the episodes themselves, I wrote them as and when I watched them (except for series one, which I watched before I decided to write this). So, I never knew what was coming with each series and the episodes at the time… if that makes sense. Let’s crack on.

Series One

First shown between the 5th of February to the 12th of March 2014. This series started with an episode that was far from being horror-centric, but it did serve as a great introduction to the bizarre, unusual and confined style of storytelling that Inside No. 9 creators, writers and actors, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, would use for every single episode.

Sardines

SARDINES

At a party to celebrate their engagement, Rebecca (Katherine Parkinson) and Jeremy (Ben Willbond) decide to play a game of sardines with their guests. Sardines being a variation on hide-and-seek where one person hides but when found, the finder then hides with the hider in the same place. Ian (Tim Key) is the initial hider and when Rebecca finds him hiding in a wardrobe, she joins him. More and more guests find the wardrobe hiding place and climb inside. This is when the various guests (both in and outside of the wardrobe) begin to chat and numerous secrets and pasts of the party members are slowly revealed.

Having the entire episode filmed inside and around a wardrobe is a perfect example of the confined style of tales that would be the show’s selling point. A small-ish cast (though this episode featured one of the show’s biggest casts) in small locations dealing with intimate storytelling. The secrets of the various guests that are revealed really do venture into some dark places at times too, leading to an ending that certainly has a sting in the tail.

A Quiet Night In

Taking place at a very expensive-looking and very modernist house. Gerald (Denis Lawson) sits down to enjoy a bowl of soup. Listening to some Sergei Rachmaninoff, Gerald is unaware of two burglars (Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith) trying to break into his home, who are aiming to steal a very expensive painting. Gerald is seemingly having a few relationship issues with his partner Sabrina (Oona Chaplin). As the couple bicker and argue, they fail to notice the two burglars claim their prize. However, getting out of the house unnoticed with the painting will prove to be a lot harder than getting in without it.

A QUIET NIGHT IN

The genius element of this episode is that it is mostly silent with pretty much zero dialogue. The fact that Oona Chaplin (the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin) was cast to be in a silent episode was genius. Then there is the fact that A Quiet Night In is very slapstick comedy-like, something else that Charlie Chaplin was famed for. However, the slapstick here is far, far more macabre and disturbing than anything that Chaplin ever did. I mean, there is this bit with a Yorkshire Terrier dog and an umbrella stand. There are a lot of surprises here and just when you think you know where the episode is going, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith pull the rug from under your feet with some deft writing. Definitely one of the darker episodes of the show and one of the better episodes too with plenty of unsuspecting twists from the start to the end.

Tom & Gerri

Tom (Reece Shearsmith) is a primary school teacher who really doesn’t enjoy his job and dreams of being a writer. Tom lives with Gerri (Gemma Arterton), a struggling actress who has just landed a part in a play and is often away rehearsing. Tom becomes preoccupied with a homeless man called Migg (Steve Pemberton) who has been hanging around outside of his flat. Migg knocks on Tom’s door saying that he has found Tom’s wallet and wants to return it. Tom invites Migg into his flat and the two start an unusual friendship. Meanwhile, Gerri begins to worry about Tom’s mental state as he quits his teaching job, spends all day in his flat with Migg and becomes very withdrawn from his own life.

This is what I adore about Inside No. 9, we just came from the slapstick (but dark) comedy of the last episode involving two bumbling burglars and straight into one bereft of comedy and an episode that focuses on mental health and depression. This one is just bleak and has no respite, with an ending that is a complete downer but wonderfully realised. This may not be a 100% accurate depiction of real-life mental illness and depression issues, but it really does make for an excellent slice of TV using it as a theme. This was an episode that certainly wrong-footed me too as I thought that I had guessed where it was going before the halfway point. But no, my guess on the plot direction was wrong and by the time the credits rolled, I was dumbfounded. Both Pemberton and Shearsmith put in amazing acting performances too.

Last Gasp

THE LAST GASP

Terminally ill Tamsin (Lucy Hutchinson) is celebrating her 9th birthday. Her parents, Jan (Sophie Thompson) and Graham (Steve Pemberton) have arranged for a charity to organise a very special surprise for their daughter, a visit from famed singer Frankie J Parsons (David Bedella). When Frankie dies while blowing up a balloon for Tamsin, a plot to try to sell his last gasp of breath, which is in the balloon, is hatched. The grown-ups of Tamsin’s parents, charity worker Sally (Tamsin Greig) and Frankie’s assistant Si (Adam Deacon) begin to fight over just who owns the dead man’s breath.

This episode, with the grim nature of selling a dead person’s dying breath, is loaded with dark comedy and is very watchable. Plus, it really is a twisted look at pointless celeb culture, worship and adulation, while mixing in an interesting narrative on greed and human nature. Lucy Hutchinson playing the terminally ill 9 year old steals the show as she watches the supposed ‘adults’ bicker like children over something as pathetic as a balloon.

The Understudy

Tony (Steve Pemberton) is an overbearing stage actor currently appearing as Macbeth in a production of Shakespeare’s famed play. Jim (Reece Shearsmith) is Tony’s understudy who often dreams of becoming the star of the show. During a performance of Macbeth, Tony gets drunk between acts, Jim is poised to take his place and is encouraged by his girlfriend (Lyndsey Marshal) to do so. However, Tony insists that he goes on, meaning that Jim misses his big chance to take over and play the lead role. When Tony drunkenly falls off the stage during the performance, Jim finally gets his chance to become a leading actor… but at what cost?

TEH UNDERSTUDY

The structure of this episode is split into five acts, following the standard for theatrical productions. It also heavily borrows from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to tell its story too, though you really don’t need to have knowledge of Macbeth to follow the plot. In fact, it’s probably best that you don’t know much about Macbeth to get the most out of this one and not spoil any of the surprises. Though you will most probably miss out on most of the in-jokes and references. This episode definitely takes a statical swipe at actors and I do adore it when people (in this case, actors) can have a pop at themselves. The story is deliciously dark, twisted and it leads to a great resolve.

The Harrowing

Schoolgirl Katy (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) is hired to housesit a stately mansion owned by Hector (Reece Shearsmith) and Tabitha (Helen McCrory) while they attend an event. The house is kept at a frosty −3°C as Andras (Sean Buckley), who is Hector and Tabitha’s disabled brother, needs it to be set at that temperature to be conformable. Andras will ring a bell if he needs anything, though Hector and Tabitha say he never uses it anyway and then, Katy is left alone. Shell (Poppy Rush), a friend of Katy, turns up at the house to offer her some help and support…. then the bell rings.

This is the most overtly horror-centric episode of this series, with a gloriously gothic tone throughout. Harking back to classic horror films of the 50s and 60s with the likes of House on Haunted Hill but with a modern edge. This one really is more like a short horror film that really does lean on the macabre more so than any other episode so far. There is some comedy here but it is jet-black comedy that even makes the A Quiet Night In episode look positively jovial… which it isn’t. An episode that really does hit home a much more horror perspective and showcases just how dark Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith can get with their writing.


Overall

Series one of Inside No. 9 is a great mix of genres and writing styles. This is what I love about anthology storytelling, you can say and do pretty much anything and only be limited by your own imagination. Imagination is something that Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith seem to have by the truckload too. There are dark comedy, slapstick comedy and stories with zero comedy here. Tales that look at serious issues such as mental illness and ones that are just outright stupidly silly for the sake of entertainment.

While I have always been aware of Inside No. 9, as a fan of these types of shows, I never really got into it until this year when I decided to take a break from my (now unfinished) Tales From the Crypt retrospective. And do you know what? I’m glad about that too. This first series is a great start and I honestly can not wait to get everything else watched and written up.

THE INVENTORS

Before I move on to the rest of the series. There was a special Internet-only and interactive webisode called The Inventors from 2014. I believe it used to be on the BBC site but isn’t any longer. I’ve not seen this one and the show’s creators and writers, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, weren’t even involved in it (so I don’t count it as canon). I did find this article that covers what it was all about though. Plus there is a YouTube video that you can watch, though it (obviously) has lost its interactive USP. And with that out of the way, series two and three.

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