Inside No. 9: A Perversely Humorous Retrospective – Series Six And Seven

Series Six

Well, this is it, the final stretch of Inside No. 9 and the last two series (so far). Originally airing between the 10th of May and the 14th of June 2021. I really have no idea what Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have in store next. I did get a bit cocky before the previous series and thought I knew what to expect, but I was (happily) proven wrong. Time for me to get lost in some tales and really have no idea where this show is going to take me.

Wuthering Heist

WUTHERING HEIST

Columbina (Gemma Whelan) is working with a rag-tag group to carry out a good old-fashioned heist. Teaming up with Arlo (Kevin Bishop), Pantalone (Paterson Joseph), Mario (Dino Kelly), Hortensia (Rosa Robson), The Doctor (Steve Pemberton) and Scaramouche (Reece Shearsmith). Meeting in a warehouse so that they can go over their plan to steal some diamonds. The heist then takes place (off-screen) and we get to see the aftermath, in a kind of a Reservoir Dogs homage (see the poster).

Okay, I may have just compared this one to Reservoir Dogs, but it is also absolutely nothing like it. Yeah, it features a warehouse, a heist gone wrong and so on and that is all very Reservoir Dogs. However, the style and tone here are something very different. I had no idea exactly what Pemberton and Shearsmith were doing with this one. I knew they were celebrating a style, I just had no idea what it was. I had to do a little research and this episode is done in the style of Commedia dell’arte, an older Italian comedy where the actors all wear masks that denote the characteristics of the role they are playing, usually stock and social stereotypes. Yup, this one is an out-and-out comedy. A style of comedy that I was not aware of before and I admit, was completely lost on me. I really didn’t like this one on my first viewing, but it grew on me with subsequent views. Characters break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, they are fully aware that they are in an episode of Inside No. 9, they make really bad jokes, puns and more. There are some genuinely funny references and jabs at critics and even us the viewer. The structure and style of this one really did grow on me with multiple viewings. It’s a good slice of utter silliness, crafted perfectly.

Simon Says

Spencer (Steve Pemberton) is the writer of a massively popular fantasy TV show called The Ninth Circle. The finale to the show was somewhat ‘underwhelming’, according to the fans. One such fan, Simon (Reece Shearsmith) feels that the show could and should come back to put right what the finale did wrong. Simon turns up at Spencer’s place after witnessing him push an overbearing fan over, which Simon caught on video. That fan died after hitting the floor and Simon uses that to blackmail Spencer into letting him co-write a new finale and one, that he is sure, that the fans will enjoy.

SIMON SAYS

It is quite clear that this is an episode that uses the whole finale and fan backlash of Game of Thrones as its diving board. An episode that explores the whole idea of writing a TV show and one that is squarely aimed at toxic/annoying fan culture. As well as (I’m sure) more than a few subtle digs at ‘certain’ fans of Inside No. 9 itself, who think that they can tell Pemberton and Shearsmith how to do their job. I just need to go over this whole retrospective before I publish it and make sure I don’t appear in a future episode. Simon Says is (yet again) another brilliantly observed and written episode. It is also one that I really didn’t want to try and second guess, I was enjoying all the sly digs at fan culture too much. I just sat back and let this one wash over me and lead me to an ending that put a big ‘ole smile on my face. ‘Nuff said.

Lip Service

Felix (Steve Pemberton) checks into a low-budget hotel room, where he is often pestered by the nosey hotel manager, Eric (Reece Shearsmith). With Eric seemingly out of the way, Iris (Sian Clifford) arrives at the room. Iris is a professional lip reader that Felix has hired to spy on his ex-wife, who is meeting a mystery man over the road from the hotel. Felix wants his wife back and needs to know who this mystery man is and if they are seeing each other or not. What follows is a story that has more twists in it than Chubby Checker had in 1961.

This is one of those episodes that you really need to watch more than once. It is packed with clever lines, double meanings and hidden clues. There’s a brilliant scene where Felix is talking to his wife on the phone while Iris lipreads, so we can hear both sides of the conversation and still stick with Inside No. 9’s rule of staying in one location. It also leads into some classic gags. Yup, this episode has some good comedy in it but don’t let that fool you, this a dark tale and one that packs a hell of an ending. It also seems to merge about four or five different story genres into just under 30 minutes. What could be seen as a mess of storytelling is handled very well indeed.

Hurry Up and Wait

A new crime drama covering the real-life (within the Inside No. 9 universe, not ours) disappearance and supposed murder of baby Ryan is being filmed on location of where Ryan went missing 20 years ago. James (Reece Shearsmith) is a bit player with a small role in the said crime drama. He is taken to the green room while he waits for his one and only scene to be filmed. The green room just so happens to be a lived-in caravan that is still being used by the family who owns it, while doubling up as a green room for the show’s production team. James sits on the couch and practises his lines, when he is interrupted by the daughter of the family, Bev (Donna Preston). Bev is celebrating a birthday and she is very ‘socially awkward’. After a while, James pieces together numerous clues that led him to the conclusion that Bev is actually baby Ryan and that the mother and father of the family kidnapped Ryan and raised him as their daughter. However, James is having trouble getting people to listen to him and what he has discovered.

HURRY UP AND WAIT

You know, if someone were to ask me what sums up Inside No. 9 as a show, I would tell them to watch this episode. It blends reality and fiction by having Adrian Dunbar (famous for playing Ted Hastings from the criticality acclaimed Line of Duty) playing himself. The in-episode ‘factual’ crime drama about baby Ryan is written by Jeff Pope, who is a real TV screenwriter too. This one has comedy in it and satirises acting and TV show productions, Adrian Dunbar slowly stealing James’ lines is hilarious. Then, it also has a really fucking bleak and disturbing ending. This is exactly what Inside No. 9 is all about, leading you down the garden path and slamming the gate on you. Steve Pemberton plays Stan, the father of the family and he really gives off some disturbing Fred West vibes too. There is definitely something wrong with this family and they are hiding a secret. As James goes from a small bit player as a police officer in a crime drama, to full-on detective and works out the clues, you are really on his side and want him to bring this disturbing family down.

How Do You Plead?

Mr Webster (Derek Jacobi) is a massively successful but ageing, ill and dying ex-barrister. He is bedridden, hooked up to all sorts of medical equipment and his diet mainly consists of pills and more pills. Urban (Reece Shearsmith) is his nurse and tends to the soon-to-expire Webster as and when he is summoned. The two partake in a little roleplaying of a court case before the reason behind Webster’s staggering success as a barrister is revealed.

I believe that this episode makes Derek Jacobi the only actor to be in more than one episode of Inside No. 9 (discounting Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, of course). Jacobi voiced the director in The Devil of Christmas episode from series three, though you only heard his voice and never saw him. Anyway, this episode is a cracker and I had no idea where it was going until it was too late. Paring the hardnosed and cutthroat character of Webster against the much more angelic-like Urban makes for a good chalk-and-cheese dynamic. Just who is playing who here though?

Last Night of the Proms

LAST NIGHT AT THE PROMS

A family gather to watch Last Night of the Proms on the TV. There’s Mick (Steve Pemberton) and his wife Dawn (Sarah Parish). Brian (Reece Shearsmith), his wife Penny (Debra Gillett) and their utterly bored teenage son Oliver (Jack Wolfe). Oh, and let’s not forget Ralph (Julian Glover) as the dementia-suffering  and Tourette’s swearing father of Dawn and Penny. In the midst of all the rousing classical music merriment comes Yusuf (Bamshad Abedi-Amin), a strange man who has seemingly wandered in from a local immigration detention centre, or has he?

I don’t think there has been an outright bad episode of Inside No. 9 so far, but there have been some weaker ones. This is one of those. As far as I can tell, the Last Night of the Proms episode has a bit of a political/Brexit agenda and some not-very-subtle symbolism. I am avoiding spoilers for this retrospective but when a bloody dead body gets wrapped up in the Union Flag, all while Jerusalem plays, I just felt that perhaps Pemberton and Shearsmith were being a tad too conspicuous, maybe that was the point? Aside from some really great performances, with Sarah Parish being a major highlight. This was a bit of a weak end to the series that began in such a crazy but funny fashion and with some very enjoyable episodes along the way. But I tell you something, I’ll never listen to The Sailor’s Hornpipe the same way again.

Series Seven

I’ve made it, I’m now at the end of this retrospective and the last series of Inside No. 9, for the time being anyway. Aired between the 20th of April and the 1st of June 2022. I am hoping for a complete mind-fuck and so much rug pulling that I’ll need corrective surgery on my arse cheeks. I want to see some bleak storytelling, humorous dialogue and yeah, some endings that make me worried about the frame of mind that Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are in. Let’s get cracking.

Merrily, Merrily

Three old university friends meet up for a reunion. Organised by Laurence (Reece Shearsmith), he invites Darren (Steve Pemberton) and Callum (Mark Gatiss) to a ‘party on a boat’. The boat turns out to be a pedalo, which the friends take out and across a lake. However and due to a misunderstanding with the invite, Darren turns up with his uninvited girlfriend Donna (Diane Morgan). That is when Laurence’s plans are thrown into disarray and it is revealed that the party never even existed and just what Laurence planned was is revealed.

MERRILY MERRILY (2)

Taking Inside No. 9’s rule of setting the story in one location, this episode is about as claustrophobic as you can get, all while still being out in the open. The four characters are stuck on the pedalo on the lake as tales from the past and present are told. With some great writing and the suggestion that Laurence’s party isn’t quite what it seems. We learn more about what these friends have been up to and how their lives have changed. Pemberton’s Darren character is brilliantly realised and his misunderstanding of the invite (and what a pedalo is) becomes all too clear with a great reveal. I have to admit that this episode led me down the garden path. I had a feeling that it was heading in one direction, only for it to deliver a resolve that is unexpected and bitter-sweet. A great opener for the series.

Mr King

MR KING

Mr Curtis (Reece Shearsmith) is the new teacher at a small rural school in Wales, overseen by the headmaster Mr Edwards (Steve Pemberton). Taking over from the previous teacher, Mr King. Mr Curtis loves teaching and tries all sorts of new teaching methods to get his pupils interested. However, Mr Curtis seems to be a bit too strict and his teaching style is vastly different to Mr King. One of Mr Curtis’ pupils makes an accusation against him and he has to try to clear his name. All while also trying to track down his predecessor, Mr King, to help him get a grasp of the kind of lessons that he was teaching the class.

This was one of those episodes that failed to fool me. If you have ever seen a certain British folk-horror film, then you will see the ending of this coming about 2 minutes into this episode. Still, that does not mean that there wasn’t a lot to enjoy here. This is another episode that is peppered with great humour, sharp dialogue and loads of clues. Mr King is one that really does warrant multiple viewings. Then there is the misdirection and you will go from rooting for Mr Curtis to really detesting him and more. Reece Shearsmith’s character is brilliantly realised and portrayed. Yeah, I may have correctly guessed the ending within a few minutes of the episode starting, but the journey to that ending was so damn enjoyable.

Nine Lives Kat

Katrina (Sophie Okonedo) is a tough detective working on a case involving a missing boy. She is also a bit of a cliché. A divorced single mother, alcohol problem and she struggles with a work/life balance. As the case begins to take over, Katrina struggles to keep a grip on her life, while she pours vodka on her cereal. This is when Ezra (Steve Pemberton) enters the story and he begins to clear things up… or make them so much worse.

I love writing, I love writing about writing and that is what this episode is all about. A very meta tale that explores character and storytelling in a very clever way. There’s some really bad and cheesy dialogue here, awful clichés everywhere, including a shitty jump scare with a cat. Just looking at this on the surface, this is the ‘worst’ written episode of Inside No. 9 yet… but it is supposed to be. It’s not like Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith completely dropped the ball here with the writing, quite the opposite in fact. The writing here is bad for a very good reason. The clichés are there to clue you into what is going on. This one is enjoyably bad and exceptionally wonderful at the same time.

Kid/Nap

KIDNAP

Shane (Daniel Mays) and Clifford (Jason Isaacs) kidnap Lara (Daisy Haggard), the wife of wealthy hedge fund manager Dominic (Reece Shearsmith). The duo plan on holding Lara for a £1.3 million ransom and if her husband refuses to pay, well, it could get very bloody. It soon becomes clear that Clifford is the brains of the plan, while Shane is not. Oh, and Lara is actually in on the plan as she is having an affair with Clifford. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, this plot point is revealed before you get to the halfway point. When Dominic calls the police, headed up by DI Ellis (Steve Pemberton), that is when the careful plan begins to go awry.

This episode can be viewed in one of two ways. You can watch this as a really bad kidnap thriller, or you can see it as a fantastic parody and clever observation of a really bad kidnap thriller. I’m pretty sure that the latter is the aim. An episode that plays up the comedy factor and one that becomes a comedy of errors, crammed with stock characters and stilted dialogue. The ‘twist’ that Lara is in on the plan is not even the twist of the episode either as this has more than just the one surprise. This is another one of the very few episodes that breaks the ‘everything in one location’ rule too, but still keeps everything together. It uses split-screen to show the other characters and locations but all while still keeping things anchored. Basically, if Brian De Palma ever directed an episode of Inside No. 9, it would look like this. Kid/Nap is an episode that you are either going to ‘get’ and be on board with its gritty-silliness, or it’ll go completely over your head and you’ll misunderstand the point.

A Random Act of Kindness

Helen (Jessica Hynes) is a single mother living with her teenage son Zach (Noah Valentine). Their relationship is not at its best as they bicker and argue constantly. When a sparrow flies into Zach’s bedroom window, a strange man called Bob (Steve Pemberton) picks it up and asks for help from Helen to nurse it back to health. Bob and Zach strike up a relationship and the teenager gets some much-needed tuition from the stranger in terms of his education. But, is Bob going to drive a wedge between Zach and his mother or bring them closer together?

RANDOM ACT

There really is a lot to cover with this episode, and the fact that I am actively avoiding spoilers makes this very hard to sum up. What starts out as a simple family drama evolves into something far more complex and intricate. The relationship between Bob and Zach is wonderfully explored and you get a nice physics lesson thrown in too. The plot here becomes multi-layered and much more complex, especially as it reaches its climax. This is an episode that really does display how great Pemberton and Shearsmith can be when armed with a word processor and an idea. Some razor-sharp writing and a story that is as deep as the Mariana Trench. What you get here is 28 minutes of TV that offers a story worthy of a feature film. The ending will leave you scratching your head trying to work out just who got a happy ending, or if anyone did. Still, as complex as the story gets, there’s a simple mother/son dynamic that is the driving force behind it all.

Wise Owl

WISE OWL

Ronnie (Reece Shearsmith) is a man-child with an obviously troubled past. He grew up with the Wise Owl public information films that taught him not to talk to strangers, play with matches and the like. These films have left deep and lasting psychological scars that have carried over from boy to man, Ronnie is borderline suicidal. A phone call from his mother sparks off memories that drive Ronnie to kill off his inner demons before they kill him.

After the damp squib of an episode that was the end of series six, this is how you end a series. Fuck me, this was this dark and amazing at the same time. If you are from England and of a certain age (like me) then the public information films of the 70s and 80s are forever ingrained into your subconscious. Things like Donald Pleasence playing Death and trying to kill children at a pond, or watching a kid get electrocuted at a power station when trying to retrieve a football. These memories are decades old and yet, still as strong as they ever were. Then there is the king of all public information films, Charley Says. It is those Charley Says cartoons that serve as the basis for this episode. The story of Ronnie is intercut with Wise Owl animations that are clearly massively inspired by the Charley Says cartoons. This is an episode that left a deep impression on me, like the Wise Owl did on Ronnie. Twit-you!


Overall

Series six and seven have been great. I have sat here watching these episodes and expecting a drop in quality, but it never happened. Yeah sure, some episodes were better than others but I never found one I outright disliked. For me, this is a testament to Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s scribing. Even if an episode didn’t exactly work for me (Last Night of the Proms), I can still appreciate the work that went into it. From meta and fourth-wall-breaking tales to mind-melting and straight-up WTF ones. Inside No. 9 had still managed to surprise me, seven series in. I’m not bored yet, I want more.

Overall-Overall

For me, Inside No. 9 is an astonishing piece of TV. I’ve recently read that it has been renewed for two more series, which will take the total to 9… perfect. It’ll also leave me with two more series to cover and keep my format of this retrospective too, thanks fellas. I think that is where they should stop too. I don’t like it when a TV show outstays its welcome and I do think that Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith should quit while they are ahead, go out on a high and avoid scraping the bottom of the barrel. Still, the end of the show doesn’t necessarily mean the end of Inside No. 9, an anthology film could be amazing if the duo come up with any new ideas for stories after series nine. Just think of an Amicus-stylised portmanteau film version of Inside No. 9. Pemberton and Shearsmith could have a lot of fun with that.

INSIDE NO.9 STEVE REECE 2

Still, now I have sat through all seven series and forty-three episodes (multiple times) and I now realise how angry this show has made me. See, I like to write, I’ve penned a few short stories and even a novel. Putting together a compelling short story is far more difficult than a longer tale. You have far less time to build a story, evolve characters and so on. So, to create so many great short tales here with Inside No. 9 and make it look easy, really infuriates me. I adore this show, I think it is amazing. But it has also taught me that I have a long way to go as a writer myself.

Halloween Picks

Okay, so to finish this Halloween special of my look at the entirety of Inside No. 9, I’m going to pick some of the more horror-based/creepy episodes that I feel are worth a watch over Halloween. Not necessarily blood-soaked gore-fests, but episodes that I think are scary or disturbing (and more) and that would work great as a nice little Inside No. 9 Halloween-fest. There is no real reasoning to this list (other than chronologically via series), no best to worst, etc. Just my suggestion of episodes to watch if you want something with more of a horror vibe in the run-up to Halloween.

INSIDE NO.9 STEVE REECE 3

Let’s get things started with the Tom & Gerri episode. A great yarn and one that explores mental health with a dark twist. The Harrowing next, for the fact that this looks and feels like a classic gothic horror film. There’s a nice bit of black comedy in this one and it has some genuine scares too. I think it would be rather remiss of me if I didn’t put The 12 Days of Christine on this list of Halloween tales. A big fan-favourite and one that really is a showcase for Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s writing. Séance Time is well worth a watch if you want something with a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and a few laughs.

Quite simply, one of the most creative and clever episodes next with The Devil of Christmas. I have a particular adulation for this one because I grew up with and love the kind of TV shows that it is paying homage to. Plus, it’s just a really well told creepy tale. I have spoken about the quality of the writing several times already but with my next pick, I have to praise it more. The Riddle of the Sphinx is fucking genius. Not only do you get a great story, you also get an amazingly designed puzzle of an episode that you really do need to watch more than once. Diddle Diddle Dumpling amazed me for its basic plot of a man and a shoe, but it ended up utterly enthralling and disturbing me at the same time. And sweet baby Jebus, what an ending!

DEARTH BE NOT PROUD

The finale of series three, Private View, was just delicious. There’s plenty of death and blood in this one, topped off with an interesting insight into modern art and a wicked sting in the tail. To Have and to Hold is one of those episodes that may not scream horror at you, but the story is still deeply disturbing. I just have to mention the Halloween live special that is Dead Line. Not one of my favourites, story-wise but it is just such an amazing piece of TV and brilliantly delivered. Death Be Not Proud works as a great twisted tale that is as bizarre as it is funny, as it is macabre. The Stakeout is an episode that starts out blood-soaked and tells you outright that one of the main characters is dead. What happens from then on seems pretty ordinary, but there’s a wonderful undercurrent of dread throughout.

I really do adore episodes that feel like they are going in one direction, only for them to lead you down the garden path and hit you with a dark ending, Hurry Up and Wait is one of those episodes. How Do You Plead? has a gothic, old-timey feel to it from the off. The story feels very grounded and leads to a hellish finale that both seemingly comes from nowhere and still feels very right. Mr King is an episode that (as I said in the retrospective) is dripping in the atmosphere of a certain British folk-horror flick. There were no surprises for me with this one, but I still really bloody enjoyed it. Nine Lives Kat because I do love it when writers explore writing. The cheesy dialogue and awful clichés are brilliantly placed for a good reason. Inside No. 9 has a bit of a reputation for going into some dark places, with the Wise Owl episode… fuck me! This is about as grim as the show has ever got (so far). The story is bleak the writing is jet-black depressing. Even when this show went to some horrific places, there was still some form of humour to be found. Not here, this is just dark and twisted from start to end. Okay, there is some really black humour here, if you enjoy laughing at baldy taxidermied rabbits.

INSIDE NO.9 STEVE REECE 4

Well, that’s all folks. My lengthy Inside No. 9 retrospective has reached its end. Well, until the last two series are made and aired anyway. All being well, I’ll be back to finish this in 2024.

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