As an anthological series, giving a coherent overview of the show isn’t all that easy; the only connection between episodes is that they’re all set in some kind of number nine: be it an old Gothic house, a train sleeping carriage, or a theatre dressing room. Other than that, anything goes, although often with darkly comic results and an unexpected twist. In a time of ‘event’ TV and endless series, it’s refreshing to not know what you’ll be greeted with each week, with the style and tone as diverse as the various settings. The programme’s unpredictable nature, jumping from laugh-out-loud comedy one week to outright horror the next, is a testament to Shearsmith’s and Pemberton’s ability to tell such compelling stories in a single enclosed space (the first episode is set almost entirely inside a wardrobe). In fact, one of the most memorable stories in the first series, A Quiet Night In, doesn’t even contain any dialogue. The story plays out like a modern-day silent film, even starring Oona Chaplin, daughter of the comedy icon himself, with ingenious direction and great slapstick gags, though not without a twisted slant.
I don’t usually like using the word ‘dark’, simply because it can suggest so many things, but Inside No.9 pretty much covers all bases. Though it’s almost never without an element of (dark) humour, it’s sometimes genuinely disturbing, with moments lingering in the mind long after viewing. The series has become partly known for its last-minute twists, for better or for worse, although even these expectations are often subverted; I often found myself wondering how far a certain concept could be pushed, only for it far exceed my expectations.
But the show is so much more than merely rug-pulls, subverting conventions of genres and supposedly mundane, recognisable settings. A typically middle-class family celebrating Nana’s birthday is warped into an incredibly tense viewing experience and reveals the dark undertones of a suburban household, while the consequences of letting in a homeless man become progressively surreal in another episode. Shearsmith and Pemberton aren’t afraid to play around with form either, with Cold Comfort being entirely shot in long takes with fixed CCTV cameras, giving it a distinctly voyeuristic style. With its limited and frequently claustrophobic settings, some episodes are almost like a stage play in nature, placing an emphasis on intricate character and narrative work.
One of the definite highlights of the second series is The 12 Days of Christine, something I consider to be one of the most perfectly crated pieces of TV in recent memory. It celebrates the beauty of relationships and the seemingly insignificant moments which make up our lives, albeit in a profoundly melancholic way. It’s an episode which really shows the extent of the creators’ writing talents, with very little in the way of comedy but featuring an ending which managed to bring me to tears (coming from a guy who wasn’t all that phased by Mufasa’s death). The care that goes into this series is obvious, with tiny details throughout the narrative suddenly making the episode even more impactful in retrospect. This episode was then followed by a comedy about a 17th Century witch trail. ‘Diverse’ doesn’t quite cover it.
The performances in the show are also worth noting, with some recognisable British faces like Gemma Arterton and Jack Whitehall making appearances, and Sheridan Smith as Christine is a big part of what makes the aforementioned episode so good. Even further credit should be given to Shearsmith and Pemberton who appear in every episode in some form, successfully playing entirely different roles without their recurrences pulling the viewer out of the story.
With its dark comedy, psychologically disturbing ideas, and a few forays into genuine horror (The Harrowing is particularly, well, harrowing), Inside No. 9 certainly isn’t for everyone. However, genuine creativity should always be praised, and these well-crafted, unpredictable stories from the two writers/actors/occasional directors definitely deserve to be seen!