Inside No. 9: A Perversely Humorous Retrospective – Series Two And Three

Series Two

This series was shown between the 26th of March and the 29th of April 2015. Coming off the back of the first series and now a little wiser to Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s style of writing and aim with this show, I find myself a little wary of what to expect. Getting things underway with an episode that takes place in a train carriage.

La Couchette

LA COUCHETTE

Maxwell (Reece Shearsmith) is a doctor heading to France for an important job interview, while trying to get some sleep in a small and shared train carriage. A drunk a rather ‘windy’ German named Jorg (Steve Pemberton) keeps disturbing Maxwell from his sleep. More people enter the carriage for the overnight trip. Kath (Julie Hesmondhalgh) and Les (Mark Benton) are a couple travelling to France for their daughter’s wedding. Shona (Jessica Gunning) is on a sightseeing tour around Europe and she brings Hugo (Jack Whitehall) to the carriage for a bit of nookie, creating more disruption… which annoys Maxwell. When a dead body is discovered in one of the beds, everyone needs to decide if they should let the train staff know and delay the trip, making everyone late or just leave the body where it is.

This one is kind of similar to the Sardines episode from series one, in that it takes place in a cramped location and feels very claustrophobic with characters introduced as the story unravels. However, it does lean on comedy a lot more and even gets a bit scatological, you’ll never see a shoebox in the same way again. Pemberton and Shearsmith do a cracking job of not just the tight and funny writing, but they also put in great acting performances. The ending is a good one and feels very Hitchcockian too.

The 12 Days of Christine

Christine (Sheridan Smith) comes home to her flat after a New Year’s Eve party with Adam (Tom Riley), after only just meeting for the first time. It then jumps ahead to Valentine’s Day, Christine and Tom’s relationship has blossomed. Onto Mother’s Day and Christine’s mother, Marion (Michele Dotrice) meets Tom and thinks he is great. Fast forwarding to Easter the following year, Tom has moved in with Christine. A few months later, Christine and Tom are married, with Christine now pregnant. Just over a year later, Christine and Tom have a baby boy to care for. Just over another year later and Christine is celebrating her 30th birthday and the relationship between her and Tom seems to be decaying as Tom turns his attention to a work colleague. Fast forward another year and while packing for a family holiday, it becomes clear that the couple’s relationship is breaking down. Jumping forward in time again, Christine and Tom are now divorced. Everything eventually leads up to Christmas and as Christine sits down to enjoy a traditional family Christmas dinner, something is not right.

12 DAYS OF CHRISTINE

To put this as simply as possible, this is one of the finest pieces of TV that you are likely to see. Sheridan Smith playing Christine is astonishing and the writing is wonderful. The continual time skips make little sense at the time and even Christine seems to be getting more and more confused as the story unfolds, while everyone around her is seemingly fine. Then when this one reaches its finale, you understand exactly why time is jumping forwards and why Christine is getting confused. The great thing about this one is the many clues that are running throughout that actually give the end away before the reveal. But the beauty is that the clues only really make sense when you already know the ending and re-watch the episode again. For me, this is the best episode so far with fantastic acting and even better writing.

The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge

Set in the 17th century. Mr Clarke (Steve Pemberton) and Mr Warren (Reece Shearsmith) are a couple of witch-finders hired by Sir Andrew Pike (David Warner) to determine if a local woman is a witch or not. The woman, Elizabeth Gadge (Ruth Sheen) is put on trial in front of the village as several of its residents offer proof of her witchcraft, including her own daughter and son-in-law. While Sir Andrew Pike and Mr Warren are 100% sure that the accused is a witch, Mr Clarke seems to be less convinced.

This one is really an out-and-out comedy that pokes fun at the stupidity of the witch trials of the time. Imagine if the Monty Python team had ever made a Hammer Horror-styled film and you would probably have something like this episode. This very much evokes the whole ‘she’s a witch’ scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and ramps it up tenfold. Even though this is an episode that does lean more towards the comedic, it also highlights some of the idiotic methods used to try to seek out witches and does have at least one foot planted in reality, and that does add a certain strand of horror in all the comedy. I quite liked this episode and it really displays how this show can flip-flop from one style of storytelling to the other following The 12 Days of Christine episode.

Cold Comfort

Following the death of his sister, Andy (Steve Pemberton) decides to try and help other people who are feeling depressed. Landing a volunteer job at Comfort Support Line (CSL), a Samaritans-like crisis hotline, Andy is talked through how things work by George (Reece Shearsmith), the manager of CSL. Liz (Jane Horrocks) is one of the other volunteer workers and offers her own brand of help in any way she can. Andy gets a call from a 16-year-old girl called Chloe who says that she has had enough of her life and has taken an overdose of pills. Andy tries to help her and insists that she calls for an ambulance but she refuses. The two continue to talk until Chloe is no longer on the line, with Andy helplessly listening as she dies. Frustrated that he couldn’t do anything to help Chloe and being reminded of the death of his sister, Andy takes it out on the next caller.

COLD COMFORT

The way this one is filmed is great as you see everything through CCTV cameras (see the above picture). Save for a scene showing Andy turning up on his first day at the very start, the entire episode is played out with you, the viewer, watching multiple camera feeds at the same time and it all feels very ominous. Why you need to be watching multiple cameras is not made clear at first but once the ending is revealed, you’ll want to go back and re-watch to see if you missed anything on one of the other screens… and you most probably did. A well-written drama with just the right amount of comedy to break things up and it all leads to an ending that you won’t see coming.

Nana’s Party

Angela (Claire Skinner) is anxiously putting the final touches to a birthday party at her home for her mother, Maggie (Elsie Kelly). Angela’s husband, Jim (Steve Pemberton) wants to pull a practical joke on Pat (Reece Shearsmith), who can’t help but pull jokes on everyone he meets. Jim’s practical joke revenge doesn’t work out how he wants and so, he tries to rope Angela into helping him. A decision that has the potential of destroying not only the party but Angela and Jim’s marriage. Especially when Angela’s sister, Carol (Lorraine Ashbourne), a recovering alcoholic, begins to sneak off to enjoy her ‘suntan lotion’.

This one begins with a paramedic rushing to the house, before cutting back to earlier in the day as we, the viewer, are taken on a journey to see just what the paramedic was rushing to. Another episode that relies on comedy but uses class divide and a metaphorical ticking time bomb that is set to explode. Various secrets of the family are revealed as this episode plays out. From Jim’s ‘Countdown‘ tapes to far more damaging issues that could tear this typical family unit apart. Often, this episode feels like a high-wire act as you just watch and wait for everything to come crashing down. With some great and sharp writing, we know that things are going to go very badly… even if we don’t know exactly how or when.

Séance Time

SEANCE TIME

Tina (Sophie McShera) arrives at a house to take part in a séance. Greeted by Hives (Reece Shearsmith), who takes Tina to meet Madam Talbot (Alison Steadman) and the séance begins. Tina steadily becomes scared but before things go too far, it is revealed that Tina is taking part in a hidden camera TV show called Scaredy Cam and that the séance is fake. The show is hosted by Terry who was playing the character of Hives and Madam Talbot is really just an actress called Anne The production crew of the show appear including the director Gemma (Cariad Lloyd), Amanda (Alice Lowe) the make-up artist and an actor portraying a demon (Dan Starkey). The fake séance set is re-prepared and the room is made ready for the next ‘victim’. Enter Pete (Steve Pemberton) who swears too much for TV and doesn’t seem to be falling for the prank in the same way that Tina did. When the ‘demon’ appears, Pete punches it, not knowing it’s just an actor in make-up and the fake séance begins to go awry from that point on.

This is a great episode that deals with horror and the meta idea of making a TV show… within a TV show. With several scenes that would not feel out of place in a horror film. Even though we know that the séance is fake and part of a TV show, this still manages to pack in a few genuine scares and surprises. I did feel that the ending was a bit too predictable and I don’t think that anyone will be surprised by where this one goes. Still, this one is more about the journey than the destination and the journey is a great one and a worthy finale to the series.

Series Three

This series began on the 27th of December of 2016 and ended on the 21st of March 2017. Even though I have definitely got a feel for Pemberton Shearsmith’s writing after two series, I also know that they still had the skills to subvert expectations and I am certainly expecting some big rug pulls with series three. The great thing about this one starting in late December meant that they could have a Christmas episode… at Christmas.

The Devil of Christmas

THE DEVIL OF CHRITMAS

Starting out with a TV slate letting us know that we are watching a TV show called The Devil of Christmas. The episode begins and is set in the 1970s complete with film grain, low-quality props and so on. Julian (Steve Pemberton), his wife Kathy (Jessica Raine), their son Toby (George Bedford) and Julian’s mother, Celia (Rula Lenska) all arrive at a chalet in snowy Austria for a Christmas break. They are joined by Klaus (Reece Shearsmith), a guide who tells the family the story of the Krampus. A kind of anti-Father Christmas who kidnaps naughty children. As the episode of the TV show that we are watching continues, the director (voiced by Derek Jacobi) speaks up asking for the footage to be rewound so he can point out a continuity error. That is when it is made clear that we, the viewer, are watching a recording of someone else watching The Devil of Christmas. It all then gets very, very meta.

It is painfully clear from this episode just how much love and respect that Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have for classic anthology TV shows with this episode. You are essentially watching a fictional director (in our universe) provide commentary on a real TV episode that he made (in his universe) and it is handled with an amazing attention to detail, to the point where this does feel like we are watching a genuine documentation of a real TV show, even though we know it is not. Things like the director calling out the previously mentioned continuity error, actors flubbing lines, missing marks and more. This episode was even shot with genuine 1970s cameras and the studio was retro-fitted out with 70s tech just so this episode would look like typical 1970s TV. I seriously have to praise Pemberton and Shearsmith and the rest of the (real) TV crew for going to this much effort, because it worked very well. As for the actual story of the episode? It is fantastically well done and works on two levels. It works as a fictional story that we are watching as an episode of Inside No. 9 and a great little Christmas scary yarn. It also works as a story within the story being told. The ending is just chef’s kiss-perfect too and will leave you gobsmacked. This episode doesn’t break the fourth wall, it obliterates it, and all with a wonderful style and panache.

The Bill

Set in an ‘up north’ restaurant in England. Three friends, Archie (Reece Shearsmith), Malcolm (Steve Pemberton), and Kevin (Jason Watkins) have taken Londoner Craig (Philip Glenister) out for a meal after a game of badminton. They are the only customers in the restaurant too as it’s getting late. The restaurant has been closed by the waitress Anya (Ellie White) and she presents the quartet with the bill. Just who will pay for the meal results in an argument as they can’t decide if they should split it four ways, two people split the bill two ways or if one person should pay for the lot. As their guest, none of them wants Craig to pay, even though he is far better off than any of them. Each of the friends wants to outdo the other and none of them can agree on how the bill should be paid or who should pay it. Meanwhile, Anya just wants to go home after a long shift and does her best to get the bill paid for.

THE BILL

This is one of those claustrophobic-type episodes with a small cast in a small location, covering a small story. How something as simple as paying a bill for a meal could descend into the madness shown in the episode is wonderfully realised and very darkly humoured. Lies, betrayal, straight-up bullshit and more are all thrown in as these four characters battle it out to do something as basic as pay for a meal. It’s a simple and shallow premise that really shouldn’t work. And yet, it does. The way that the four main actors play off each other is a joy to witness. I do have a niggle and that is that there is a very final sting after the twist is revealed that just felt utterly superfluous. The twist reveal before it is great though and I kind of wish the episode just ended there with a layer of ambiguity. But it goes on for one more scene that, for me, fell flat. Other than that though, this is a great episode that shows some deft writing to pull off a great story from such a plain premise.

The Riddle of the Sphinx

Nina (Alexandra Roach) lets herself into a room at the University of Cambridge on a stormy night. The room belongs to Professor Nigel Squires (Steve Pemberton), who finds Nina snooping around his belongings. Nigel questions Nina on why she is in his room late at night. It turns out that Nina’s boyfriend is a big fan of cryptic crosswords and she wants to impress her boyfriend with her crossword skills… only she is utterly useless at them. The Professor just so happens to write cryptic crosswords under the name of the Sphinx. Nina has sought out the Sphinx to teach her how to read and work out cryptic clues so she can solve the puzzle the following day and show her boyfriend that she isn’t as clueless as she seems.

RIDDLE OF THE SPINX

In terms of writing and story structure, this is one of the best episodes of Inside No. 9 so far. I did say that I wasn’t going to do spoilers here, and I am sticking to that too. But it’s a great shame as there is so much to digest and analyse here that I just can’t get into. How this one plays out is pure genius and how the crossword clues and answers play into the narrative of the story is sublime. It is unbelievably dark and bleak, but so thoroughly clever too. Complex with so many layers that must’ve taken an inordinate amount of planning. I’m not even a crossword fan and yet, this one drew me into its web of words like no other episode up to this point. The ending is an absolute corker too. I watched this one three times, one immediately after the other and I spotted something new each time, and I still think that there’s more to see or hear with the carefully placed props and skilfully worded dialogue. Oh, and the crossword in this episode actually appeared in The Guardian newspaper and was created by Steve Pemberton himself.

Empty Orchestra

Set in a karaoke booth, a group of work colleagues celebrate one of them getting promoted. Greg (Reece Shearsmith) is the first to arrive and he sets about getting the party started. Connie (Tamzin Outhwaite) turns up next and the two share a passionate kiss. That is when Fran (Sarah Hadland) enters the karaoke booth, Greg and Connie quickly end their kiss as Fran is Greg’s girlfriend, so Greg and Connie are up to some naughties. Roger (Steve Pemberton) and Janet (Emily Howlett) are next to arrive. Roger is the one who has been promoted, Janet his assistant is deaf. Lastly, Duane (Javone Prince) turns up and everyone starts to enjoy the party, everyone except for Roger. Greg does a bit of detective work and believes that Roger is planning on sacking one of them and sets about to find out who.

This episode feels very different from any of the others so far. There’s no horror here, no bleak comedy, no grim darkness. In fact, this one is very upbeat with a happy ending. It still has its twists as the plot may not go down the route that it first seems to be heading. This is a down-to-earth drama that uses the music and singing of the karaoke to great effect, as the songs picked do foreshadow and clue you into the plot. There’s no blood and gore, no macabre or gruesome finale. What you get is an interesting yarn about trust and communication.

Diddle Diddle Dumpling

DIDDLE DIDDLE DUMPLING

David (Reece Shearsmith) is a stay-at-home dad who looks after his daughter Sally (Rosa Strudwick), while his wife, Louise (Keeley Hawes) goes to work. One morning, when out for a jog, David finds a shoe left on the street. The shoe looks pretty new and David begins to wonder who it belongs to, as it doesn’t seem to have been thrown away. He takes the shoe home and sets out to try to find its owner. As the weeks and months pass, Louise begins to worry about David’s mental state as his obsession with the shoe grows and grows. When someone finally comes forward to claim the shoe, it seems like all is well… but it isn’t.

Okay, so… this episode is wonderfully fucked up. The story is split into the four seasons of the year and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is used to denote the changing of those seasons too. But what you have here is a tale about a man finding a shoe and that should be a really dull premise to base a story on. Yet, this is amazing. Again, my not going into spoilers means that I can’t really get into this one as much as I would love to. The way it is shot with fantastic uses of pairing symbolism works well, with subtle clues that all is not well. Reece Shearsmith puts in a stunning performance as the overly obsessed David as the lone shoe begins to take over his life. The ending is utterly gut-wrenching, depending on how you choose to look at it. There is a layer of ambiguity to the finale and I saw two possibilities, one was fucked up and the other was really, really fucked up. This is a story about a man finding a shoe and that is a banal plot point. Yet, it works as a testament to Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s expert writing, that they could pull off such a twisted piece of storytelling from that bland set-up.

Private View

A group of complete strangers are invited to attend a new art exhibit called ‘Fragments’ in a basement gallery. Bea (Montserrat Lombard) is the dry and sarcastic greeter and drink server. Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a clueless z-lister celebrity, with an IQ in the same region as her shoe size, is the first to arrive. Maurice (Reece Shearsmith), a snooty art critic is next and he can’t wait to get stuck into the art. The short-tempered and utterly humourless Kenneth Williams (Steve Pemberton) arrives, as does Jean (Fiona Shaw), a dinner lady who knows very little about art. Then Patricia (Felicity Kendal) is the last to arrive, a visually impaired, but not blind, writer of low-quality erotic fiction. With all of the invitees in place, the exhibit can begin and when one of the art pieces includes a dead nurse called Neil (Peter Kay), it soon becomes clear that this art exhibit is not all that it seems.

PRIVATE VIEW

Have you ever watched the classic Vincent Price horror flick Theatre of Blood or his Dr. Phibes films? Those are what this episode put me in mind of, with a bit of an Agatha Christie, ‘whodunit?’ thrown in for good measure. This is a bloody piece of horror but with that dark sense of humour that Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith pull off so damn well. You go from characters making Carry On jokes at the expense of the humourless Kenneth Williams character, played by Pemberton, to straight-up bloody gore and horror without missing a beat. You just don’t know what to expect here and why all of these characters have been brought together for the art exhibit. It is a twisted look at ‘modern art’ and leads to a resolve that (honestly) I kind of knew was coming, but still managed to surprise me with the details in the end.


Overall

Still now, three series in, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have the talent to surprise me. I like to think of myself as being rather clued in when it comes to twists and stings in stories. I genuinely am a fan of the classic anthology TV shows that Pemberton and Shearsmith are also clearly big fans of. And yet, they have fooled me multiple times through series two and three. It’s hard to know exactly what kind of story you are going to get now. It could be a nice drama about communication and relationships, that leads to a happy ending like the Empty Orchestra episode. Or it could be a real kick in the balls The 12 Days of Christine type of yarn. Then again, it could be a well-observed and wonderful recantation and fourth-wall-breaking look at 70s film-making as with The Devil of Christmas. Maybe you’ll be thrown into a brilliantly conceived and written The Riddle of the Sphinx-type episode that is beyond clever and incredibly inventive.

Honestly, as I write this conclusion to series two and three, I have no idea what to expect… and I love it. Series four and five are next and I am genuinely excited to be fooled again and again.

Please leave a reply/comment.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s