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REVIEW: Inside No. 9

A collection of adults with smart attire ranging in ages from young to old are positioned tightly within a built in wardrobe with striped walls, some on the edges are poking out of the wardrobe
Image Courtesy of BBC

The latest offering from writing team Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith – Inside No. 9 is an anthology series like no other, championing a unique mixture of surreal black comedy and twists which consistently surprise and delight!

The pair’s previous work together had always been unique, often showcasing their ability to find comedy in morbid themes. Their time as part of The League of Gentlemen troupe (alongside Mark Gatiss of Doctor Who/Sherlock fame and Jeremy Dyson) created a sketch show like no other. With skits that involved such subjects as implied cannibalism and incest, it walked the fine line between dark comedy and bad taste, with many sketches making you laugh out of sheer unease. After this came Psychoville, which intertwined a number of different people brought together through a shared past catching up with them. Featuring absurd character traits (such as a midwife whose care for a baby doll teeters on the insane) and bizarre twists and turns – their unique style always managed to shine through.

And it is from this background that we get Inside No 9, each episode a new story, always taking place within a single room or building. The only thing connecting them all is a recurring number nine seen at the beginning and the subtle placement of a hare statue in the background. Despite this limited format, it’s startling how the writers manage to create so many unique stories, keeping the viewer enthralled as they continuously play on expectations, piling twist upon twist as you watch the narrative gradually unfold.

The writers boast a detailed knowledge of a range of different styles – with comedies, horrors and even your typical ‘whodunnit?’ murder mysteries being used. Pastiches abound, such as in ‘Zanzibar’ (a play on Shakespearean comedies) and ‘The Devil of Christmas’ (an affectionate mockery of anthology programmes from the seventies). They play with the numerous clichés and techniques of these styles that the audience knows, using this to continually toy with our expectations. Often they subvert these expectations for comic effect, such as the use of comic relief characters to break the mystic atmosphere in the darker episodes. Other times they follow the rules more sincerely, simply creating a good pastiche. We see them playing with how stories work, trying out novel setups, such as a narrative that unfolds backwards (in ‘Once Removed’), or even an episode which feigned a real ghost haunting in the BBC studios during a live show (‘Dead Line’). Their invention knows no bounds, and yet it’s all in the pursuit of one thing – a good story.

Stories are often drawn from a mundane or absurd context, such as a game of sardines inside a closet or a man’s obsession with a shoe he finds outside his house. The characters often start off as two-dimensional stereotypes defined by a single quirk or eccentricity. Yet from these basic materials Pemberton and Shearsmith always manage to draw a wide variety of emotional colours ranging from comedy to tragedy and horror. This is often done through playing the characters against each other, seeing how they interact and allowing tensions to gradually build until they climax at the end – revealing all. 

The dialogue is rich in subtext, with much of a character being revealed in awkward small talk, pregnant pauses and poignant looks. Pemberton and Shearsmith have always enjoyed this more indirect means of character exposition, hinting at the repressed bitterness within. This is one of the reasons the twists work so well, for they are built up to. They don’t appear out of the blue, tacked on. The twist gives a greater depth to the rest of an episode, thereby changing how we see things. Something that might start out funny is often rendered tragic at the end, reflecting the lifelong search for the tragedy in comedy (and vice versa) that pervades throughout all their work, setting them apart from anyone else working in television today.Pemberton and Shearsmith recently finished filming for the sixth series of Inside No 9. Hopefully out soon, it’s one of the most fresh and inventive things that has been on television for a long time, showing they’re not done with their own particular brand of dark comedy just yet.

By Calum Moran