Inside Inside No 9….
From League of Gentlemen to Psychoville to Inside No. 9, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have always been a unique and thrilling voice in British television. Along with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror it can certainly be argued that Inside No. 9 has heralded a new era for the anthology format.
When this episode began with a pair of rhyming couplets and it became clear that Shearsmith and Pemberton were tackling the Bard, I was concerned. The danger with writing an episode in the style of Shakespeare is that the show might feel too gimmicky. Zanzibar recalls the episode A Quiet Night In, another episode that ostensibly relied on a gimmick – on that occasion the hook being that the characters don’t speak. Luckily, in both episodes, Inside No. 9 is able to move past the skeleton of a concept with the sheer quality of the writing.
Zanzibar is funny, clever and memorable with Rory Kinnear as reliable as ever and Kevin Eldon, that guy who looks like a hypnotist, playing erm… a hypnotist. Shearsmith and Pemberton have always been masters of subverting a genre with interminable plot twists that all eventually fit together like a grotesque jigsaw puzzle. Zanzibar confirms that even four series in, Inside No. 9 has lost none of its joie de vivre.
Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room
When a film is good it may win an Oscar. If an American TV show is good it may win an Emmy. I’m not too sure what the equivalent is in British TV to be honest. Whatever it is though, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room should win it. It is genuinely perplexing that this episode of Inside No. 9 will probably play to just over a million people and yet Mrs Brown’s Boys is viewed by ten times that amount. What the fuck is wrong with people?
Former comedy double act Cheese (Shearsmith) and Crackers (Pemberton) reunite after 30 years apart to try and recapture some of the old magic. Shearsmith and Pemberton have always shared an electric chemistry but it has perhaps never been as touching or as poignant as it is here. Pemberton is pathetic and pitiful as the down on his luck Crackers but it is Shearsmith as the sneering Cheese who is the real revelation. Shearsmith has played characters like this before but never with as much heart or as much depth. It truly is an astonishing tableau of what happens when one person in a relationship moves on and the other doesn’t.
Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room is quite simply as good as television gets. Astounding.
The beauty of Inside. No 9 is how effectively Shearsmith and Pemberton take advantage of the anthology format. So after the touching and poignant Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room we are treated to a time jumping murder mystery of sorts that slowly unfolds like a demented jack-in-the-box.
Once Removed is like a series of cold opens that don’t make sense until the very end. The key with an episode like this is that the conclusion does justice to the rest of the story. An anti climatic ending would be particularly harmful for an episode shot in this style. Happily, when everything does fall into place the picture that is revealed is both impressive and satisfying. Not the best episode of the series but a worthy addition.
To Have and to Hold
Unlike Black Mirror, dark isn’t always the go to setting for Inside No. 9, when it does embrace the macabre however, there isn’t much that can match it. To Have and to Hold is perhaps their darkest episode yet and, by extension, their least comedic.
Adrian (Pemberton) is a sad sack wedding photographer trapped in a loveless marriage to Harriet (Nicola Walker). Beneath the undercurrent of jigsaws and passive aggressive small talk, there lies an unthinkable secret.
Reece Shearsmith has always been my favourite of the two creators of Inside No. 9 but Pemberton is stunning here. Whether he be downtrodden, indignant or something else entirely, he is always convincing. Walker is at least his equal with every loving glance threatening to give way to a spiteful sneer.
To Have and to Hold is undoubtedly pitch black but its power comes from more than just shock tactics. Probably the most flat out ‘horror’ episode the pair have ever done and all the better for it.
And The Winner Is…
Not every season of television can be perfect of course. It is a testament to Inside No. 9 that it isn’t until the penultimate episode of series 4 that the quality dips. And The Winner Is must be a cracking thirty minutes of television if you work in the industry but for the rest of us it felt a little self indulgent.
Shearsmith and Pemberton are joined by national treasure Zoe Wanamaker and director/actor Noel Clarke to form a fictional judging panel for a Best Actress Award. Pemberton shines again as the head judge but Wanamaker’s american accent is crap and Clarke also struggles to convincingly play the part of pretentious TV director. There is a nagging feeling that both Clarke and Wanamaker are just too nice to pull off the cynical and fake world of awards season. Kenneth Cranham fares better as a cantankerous old luvvie but the whole thing feels too much like an inside joke to really work. This episode also marked one of the only times that I have guessed the ending and the while the destination is satisfying, the journey isn’t quite up to their usual high standards.
Inside No. 9 has always had a strong literary tradition whether it be evoking folk horror on The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge or homaging Shakespeare with Zanzibar. Never before have they written an episode that sails so closely to a pre existing story however. The Monkey’s Paw has inspired everything from Stephen King to the Final Destination franchise and it is the main influence on this episode. If you don’t know the story of the Monkey’s Paw then I won’t relay it here, but needless to say, this is a devilish and dark retread of an already obsidian story.
Keith, Nick and Maz (Pemberton, Shearsmith and Weruche Opia respectively) are council workers tasked with clearing out the house of the late Frank (Nigel Planer). When they stumble across a mysterious bronze hare and a macabre videotape, their lives will never be the same again…
Tempting Fate signposts its conclusion somewhat, but somehow that just makes the episode’s final scene all the more powerful. Shearsmith and Pemberton have always been the masters of taking familiar horror tropes and turning them on their head and they have succeeded in doing just that again, not just with Tempting Fate but with all of series 4.
There were whispers that this could be the last ever episode of Inside No. 9, but happily the BBC have confirmed that there will be a fifth series. I can’t wait to slowly pull back the curtains of Inside No. 9 again next year. What will we see there, nobody knows. One thing is for certain… we haven’t seen the last of the hare.