Inside No. 9: A Perversely Humorous Retrospective – Series Four And Five

Series Four

This series was shown from the 2nd of January to the 6th of February 2018.  Well, I have to be honest, I have no idea what to expect with these next two series. I know that there will be twists and turns, I know there will be horror and dark humour and there could even be a bit of lightheartedness and a happy ending or two. I honestly don’t know what to expect, so I guess I had better expect any and everything when it comes to what goes on in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s minds.

Zanzibar

Prince Rico (Rory Kinnear) arrives at the hotel Zanzibar with his bodyguard Henry (Reece Shearsmith). After checking into his room, Henry reveals to us the audience that he plans on killing Prince Rico. Gus (also Rory Kinnear) checks into the hotel on the same floor (number 9) and is mistaken for Prince Rico and vice versa. Other residents on the same floor, including Robert (Steve Pemberton), end up getting mixed up in the mixing up of Prince Rico and Gus as a much more intertwining story is slowly revealed.

ZANZIBAR

To be honest, this one doesn’t have that much of an interesting plot. There are a few twists and turns along the way, but the ultimate resolve is rather flat and very obvious. But what does lift this yarn is how it is played out and presented. The characters break the fourth wall and directly address us the viewer, and they do it via some very Shakespeare-esque delivery. All of the dialogue is told in the form of Iambic pentameter and it’s very rhythmic. I may not have enjoyed the story much and I’ve never been a fan of Shakespeare, but I do admire just how this one was crafted.

Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room

BERNIE CLIFTON'S DRESSING ROOM

Somewhat popular in the 1980s, comedy double-act Tommy ‘Cheese’ (Reece Shearsmith) and Len ‘Crackers’ (Steve Pemberton) meet up for one final gig to try and reinvigorate the old double-act. They haven’t worked together for decades following a bitter falling out. Tommy has moved on from his comedy roots and become pretty successful in his life. Len’s life headed in a very different direction and he became a washed-up alcoholic. As they practise their old comedy routines, with a few updates for a modern audience, exactly what caused the rift between the two is brought to the surface.

This one was absolutely brilliant. I grew up in the 80s when the classic comedy double-act was regular viewing on TV. The likes of Cannon and Ball, Little and Large or Morecambe and Wise (to name a few) were ruling the airwaves. Light-hearted family comedy that everyone would tune into on a Saturday night and would pull in multiples of millions of viewers every week. The fictional Cheese and Crackers here existed as one of those popular double-acts within our reality. The nods and references to those well-remembered comedians of the day (and some long-forgotten ones) come thick and fast. The tale of what happened to Cheese and Crackers is as (outdatedly) funny as it is heartbreaking. This one plays out like pure perfection in short story form. Just what does Bernie Clifton’s (one of those long-forgotten British comedians) dressing room have to do with any of this? Well, quite a lot. The two characters played by Pemberton and Shearsmith are perfectly portrayed and they are the only two in this episode too (save for one minor role at the end). Yet, even with just the two characters, there’s a lot going on and a lot to take in. It all leads to an ending that certainly took me by surprise and one that had me feeling nostalgic for those Saturday nights growing up watching those comedy double-acts.

Once Removed

May (Monica Dolan) is moving house and she hires Spike (Nick Moran) to do all of the heavy lifting. When Viktor (Reece Shearsmith) makes an appearance, Spike soon learns that this house move is anything but ‘normal’. A dementia-suffering old man (David Calder) who thinks he is Andrew Lloyd Webber and the dead body of an estate agent (Steve Pemberton) in the toilet are just the start… or end of the crazy events and secrets that the house holds.

ONCE REMOVED

What you have here is not so much a whodunit? mystery. This is more like a whydunit? The whole episode plays out via reverse chronology. So, you start at the end and make your way to the beginning. After the opening errr, ending, the episode jumps back 10 minutes to cover the 10 minutes that explains just what happened to lead to the start (end) that you just watched. After which, it then goes back another 10 minutes to cover the events that led up to the previous 10 minutes. Then, to finally jump back to the last 10 minutes to cover the end (beginning) that explains everything that you need to know about the last 20 minutes that you just watched. The reverse chronology of this episode is pulled off very well indeed and this is one that you’ll want to re-watch to try and spot all the subtle clues, clever dialogue and acting that reveals more than you’ll first realise. A cracking episode that is just crying out for multiple viewings.

To Have and to Hold

Married couple Adrian (Steve Pemberton) and Harriet (Nicola Walker) are having some relationship issues. They are childless after 20 years and Harriet once had a ‘thing’ with one of her work colleagues. That is on top of the usual money worries and then there is the lack of sex. It’s a marriage that is sinking fast. Adrian seems to be the most boring person on the planet who spends most of his time in the basement where he has set up his own photography room. Here, he is struggling to run his business as he offers his experience as a photographer to take pictures of much happier couples on their big day.

Split into five acts that are based around the classic wedding vows of ‘to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part’. This tale is seemingly very plain and uninteresting, until the Pot Noodles get involved. Steve Pemberton plays his character perfectly and he really does come across as a meek and cuckolded husband. While Nicola Walker as the overbearing and adulterous wife is quite horrible (in a good way) and she is great at it too. A simple suburban yarn about a borderline bullying wife and a husband who has all but given up and been rendered impotent. Then the twist hits you and suddenly, everything is put into perspective. This is a great episode, even if the ending feels a little rushed, it is still wonderfully satisfying.

And the Winner Is…

A group of TV insiders gather to vote on who should get the Best Actress award. Clive (Reece Shearsmith) is a screenwriter who is desperately looking at getting his latest screenplay turned into a TV show. Gordon (Noel Clarke) is a successful director that Clive keeps sucking up to in an attempt of getting his screenplay made into a TV show. Actors Rupert (Kenneth Cranham) and Paula (Zoë Wanamaker) are a little older, wiser, grumpier and really don’t feel like they want to be there. TV critic June (Fenella Woolgar) offers her not-so-well-observed opinions on who should win. Then there is Jackie (Phoebe Sparrow), the only non-insider of the lot. A random nobody brought in for a more ‘grounded’ view and opinion. The whole thing is chaired by Giles (Steve Pemberton). There are arguments, histories dragged up and much more as the voters just can not agree on who is the best actress or why.

AND THE WINNER IS

I both liked and disliked this episode in equal measure. Honestly, it’s really not that interesting of a story in the grand scheme. But I loved the interactions between the characters and the acting is great. The little arguments and nitpicking really are entertaining. Then there are the (I think) intentional digs at the pointlessness and (perhaps) injustice of awards. The best actress is not really being judged on her acting per se. Points are raised like skin colour for the ‘diversity vote’, age, looks, have the nominees previously won and more. Acting ability seems to be something this is more of a thing that is nice to have over certain other factors. I did see the ending coming by about the halfway point, but I still enjoyed it as it was a nice satirical stab of a yarn.

Tempting Fate

TEMPTING FATE

Keith (Steve Pemberton), Nick (Reece Shearsmith) and Maz (Weruche Opia) are a trio of heavy-duty cleaning contractors, who are brought in to clean out a dingy abode. The flat belonged to mass-hoarder Frank (Nigel Planer) who ended up killing himself. Maz is the newest of the three and is still getting used to the job. Whereas, Keith and Nick are the old guard and take everything in their stride. While cleaning the flat, they learn that Frank was rich, that he had won over £3 million on the lottery and yet, he still lived in disgusting squalor in a small three-roomed hovel. When they discover a seemingly plain bronze hare ornament and a video message from Frank, this house clearance takes a turn for the very macabre.

What you have here is basically another take on the classic Monkey’s Paw tale. You know the one, someone comes across a mysterious monkey’s paw and they get three wishes that have dire consequences. There have to be several dozen different versions of this story by now, via films, TV and literature. Here, that ‘monkey’s paw’ is actually the bronze hare ornament that appears in every episode of Inside No. 9. Only, instead of being in the background of a shot, as usual, it is given a starring role and a history. Do you know what? I love a good take on the classic Monkey’s Paw tale and this is a great one. Obviously, knowing Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s writing here at the end of series four, I was trying to second-guess where this one was going. I admit, they got me. While it does follow the staples of a good Monkey’s Paw adaptation, Pemberton and Shearsmith put their own stamp on it and still manage to surprise. A good horror tale with a fantastic twist and a great end to the series.

Dead Line

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.

DEAD LINE

This episode wasn’t actually part of series four. This one was a one-off Halloween special that aired in 2018, several months after series four had concluded. What made it special was the fact that this was broadcast live, the first and only episode of Inside No. 9 to do so. What you get with this episode is both one of the best and most uninteresting episodes of the show so far. Now, I did say in the intro to this retrospective that I wasn’t going to do spoilers. For this episode, I really, really have to, so that I can better explain my view. I also said in the intro that I would be doing a separate spoiler-rific article for one particular episode. Well, this is that bit and the spoiler-rific article can be found right here. Massive spoilers lie within that link, you have been warned and will be warned again.

Series Five

Shown between the 3rd of February to the 9th of March 2020. You know, I honestly believe that I am getting the measure of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith by now. I believe that, after four series, I have their writing style down pat and will not be fooled so easily now. Still, I have just finished a series involving backwards chronology and a live episode that was utter genius on a technical and production level. I really shouldn’t feel so cocky and just accept that they are still going to get me.

The Referee’s a W***er

THE REFEREE'S A WER

Martin (David Morrissey) is the referee for a major football match at the end of the season. Joined by his assistants Phil (Ralf Little), Oggy (Steve Pemberton) and Brendan (Reece Shearsmith), the officials are there to ensure that the match goes off without any issues. An incident during the match throws the game into utter chaos. When it is releveled that one of Martin’s assistants has taken a bribe to help fix the game, things begin to turn south fast. This is Martin’s last game before he retires and he has always been a stickler for the rules. Will he let the infraction slide or will he turn one of his assistants in and keep his clean sheet?

I have to be honest, my first viewing of this and I didn’t think much of it. But watching it a second and third time really opened my eyes as to how brilliantly written and layered this episode is. This one plays up for laughs, no creepy horror or jump scares here. Still, there is a great tale of morality and justice against the backdrop of a football dressing room. A line of dialogue (or several) that seems innocent really plays into the plot and characters when you know the ending. This is why more than one viewing of this one is essential. A simple game of football turns into complete disarray, a comedy of errors and the W***er of the title may not be the word that you think it is.

Death Be Not Proud

Beattie (Jenna Coleman) and Sam (Kadiff Kirwan) are a young couple who have just moved into a flat that they managed to buy at a fantastically reduced price. Like, £100,000 off the asking price, fantastic. Why so cheap? Because the flat used to belong to a killer and stories have been told that at least one person was killed there. When Sam tries to get in contact with the previous owner, to see if there is any truth in the tales of murder, things go surprisingly dark and morbid with a thick vein of very macabre humour when the previous owner turns up.

DEATH BE NOT PROUD

I didn’t know this when I first watched this episode, because I’ve not really been a fan of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s other works. But anyway, this episode is a (sort of) sequel/crossover with one of their previous shows, Psychoville. Pemberton plays David and Shearsmith plays his mother, Maureen, who were the main characters in that show. Not knowing anything about Psychoville didn’t ruin my enjoyment of this episode at all. If anything, it has made me want to watch that show next. So, you don’t really need to know who these characters are and Death Be Not Proud works perfectly well as its own thing. Everything is self-contained and tells a bizarrely crackpot story that is jet-black funny and horrifically disturbing in equal measure. I’m off to watch Psychoville next.

Love’s Great Adventure

Julia (Debbie Rush) and Trevor (Steve Pemberton) are the parents of a family. There is Connor (Olly Hudson-Croker) the youngest child, Mia (Gaby French) the middle child and Patrick (Bobby Schofield) the mysterious and largely absent oldest child. It’s coming up to Christmas and all that Julia and Trevor want is a nice and normal family festive celebration. Several everyday family issues may just prevent that from happening though.

If there is one thing that Inside No. 9 does well, that thing is not really following any kind of a pattern or even genre. You get episodes steeped in horror, drama, comedy and more. There is one thing that connects the episodes though (not just the bronze hare statue thing) and that thing is that every episode has some kind of twist or sting… except for this one. There is no real twist for me to spoil here, no rug pulling. There is a bridge that links two subplots, but no real twist. This is a story about everyday family life that just evolves over the course of the episode. Each scene is split into a day and each day is counted down via the use of a traditional Christmas advent calendar. It feels very much like a soap opera plot that would usually be told over several weeks and months, but told here in 20-odd minutes and done so with much more talent too. This is just a bittersweet family drama and we learn more and more about this family as the days tick by. Apparently, most of it was ad-libbed too.

Misdirection

Struggling magician Neville (Reece Shearsmith) has a visit from Willy (Steve Pemberton). Willy shows off a new floating chair magic trick. It’s an impressive trick too, one that Neville just can not work out how it is done. He asks to buy the trick, but Willy refuses to sell. Desperate to get his hands on the trick so he can make a lot of money, Neville kills Willy and takes the trick as his own. Nine years later and Neville has become one of the most acclaimed magicians around, famed for ‘his’ floating chair trick. Gabriel (Fionn Whitehead), a young and eager magician himself, turns up at Neville’s place to interview the well-respected magician in hope that he can get some advice on how to get better at his craft.

MISDIRECTION

This episode very much put me in mind of The Riddle Of The Sphinx from series three. Its style of writing, its multilayered and clever scripting and the seemingly straightforward plot. Misdirection is a wonderful tale of, well… misdirection. Even though I kind of worked out where the episode was going and who the Gabriel character was, there is still a lot here that did fool me. Still, I think that the idea of who Gabriel is was part of the misdirection that made this episode so damn great. A magical episode that, even when you do work out where it is going, it still manages to surprise and entertain.

Thinking Out Loud

THINKING OUT LOUD

Meet Bill (Phil Davis), an older man looking for love via video dating. Meet Nadia (Maxine Peake), a middle-aged woman using video to record her thoughts as a form of therapy. Meet Galen (Steve Pemberton) a death-row prisoner confessing his crimes on camera. Meet Angel (Ioanna Kimbook), a vacuous and insipid ‘influencer’ talking bollocks to all her ‘fans’ over the internet. Meet Aidan (Reece Shearsmith), a terminally ill cancer sufferer who is recording a video for his unborn daughter to watch after he has died. Meet Diana (Sandra Gayer), a church singer with the voice of an angel taking part in a singing audition on camera. Aside from all of these characters talking (or singing) to camera, what else do they share in common?

I know that I have continually praised the writing of Inside No. 9 at every opportunity. Even with episodes that I have felt are ‘lesser’, I have still found the writing to be exceptional. Here with Thinking Out Loud, this is easily one of the most creative and densely written episodes yet. This really is one that you will have to watch multiple times to get everything. There are so many clues and outright giveaways of what is really going on here that they pass you by, just hiding in plain sight. Foreshadowing, double meanings and mirrored dialogue everywhere, and for good reason too. This one also breaks one of the rules of the show, as it takes place in more than one location… kind of. It is also directed by Steve Pemberton. Though Pemberton and Shearsmith co-directed both the Cold Comfort and Nana’s Party episodes from series two, this is the first time that either of them has directed an episode solo. It’s a really great one too.

The Stakeout

Special Police Constable Varney (Reece Shearsmith) is dead. That’s not a spoiler, the episode starts out with him covered in blood and his voiceover telling you that he is dead. We then cut back in time to the events that led to an explanation of just how and why Varney ended up being covered in blood and dead. Varney is partnered up with PC Thompson (Steve Pemberton) and the pair are on a police stakeout. As they spend all their time together stuck in a police car for hours on end, the two have plenty of time to talk and learn more about each other. Such as Varney’s overly sensitive nose for odours. It turns out that Thompson’s previous partner ended up dead too and forensic evidence that could lead to who killed him has gone missing. With the episode starting out showing you that Varney is dead too, it is only a matter of joining the dots to learn who did kill Thompson’s previous partner.

THE STAKEOUT

Okay, right from the off, this one got me. The rug was well and truly pulled from under my feet. The thing is that, all of the evidence of what the reveal at the end of the episode is here. Just as with the previous episode, everything is hiding in plain sight. When I did get to the end of this one, I did have a WFT moment and was ready to call this out for being utter bullshit and ‘out of nowhere’ ending. But a second viewing soon shut me up because Pemberton and Shearsmith have (once more) put together a very well-written and tight story that does not cheat the viewer. A great end to a great series.


Overall

Normally with TV shows, the fatigue sets in around the third or fourth series and I often begin to lose interest. With Inside No. 9, the exact opposite seems to be happening. If Forrest Gump were to describe this show, it most definitely would be like a box of chocolates, which is a phrase I’ve never understood because all boxes of chocolates that I have bought tell you exactly what you are going to get. Anyway, these two series cover everything from comedy and horror to kitchen-sink drama and even a bit of Shakespearean prose. Even when I thought that I got the measure of an episode, it still managed to surprise me. The live Dead Line Halloween special really is a wonderful slice of modern TV. I may not have thought much of the actual plot and it didn’t ultimately catch me out, but the production and process of the episode was amazing and something that I deeply admire.

Inside No. 9 is a show that has me smiling from ear to ear at one episode, to feeling heartbroken with another… sometimes in the same episode. The fatigue that I mentioned has not happened yet and as I am now five series in and heading to the finish line of this retrospective with the last two series, I’m like a 6-year-old kid on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa to turn up. I really want to take a cheeky peek at my presents and get an idea of what I will be getting… but I won’t.

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