Welcome to No. 9. Depending on which door you open, you’re now in a flat, or a stage dressing room, or an old mansion, or a suburban home. Pleasingly for Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s dark anthology series, each door opens onto a strikingly different experience – although this makes it slightly difficult to review as an entire entity. They’re united, as with the pair’s previous work Psychoville, by a mercurial synthesis of morbid comedy, wicked social commentary and a genuine creepiness.
Add a consistently impressive roster of actors, from television regulars like Julia Davis and Katherine Parkinson to unexpected names like Gemma Arterton, and the collection as a whole is a delicious treat. I’m sure Pemberton and Shearsmith wouldn’t be in favour of skirting too close to Forrest Gump territory, but it is a bit like a box of chocolates – albeit one full of dark, bitter sweets.
Inside No.9 is also, naturally,incredibly British, evidenced from the off in opening salvo ‘Sardines’, in which a classic parlour game where humans ape a can of sardines by piling up inside the same hiding place leads to an entire engagement party gathering stuffed up inside a wardrobe. The fashions seem set in the ‘70s, and the initial courteous interactions between fiancée Rebecca (Katherine Parkinson) and ‘boring’ guest Ian (Tim Key) smack of more refined days, but there’s little question that generations have collided when young Lee (Luke Pasqualino) joins the tin.
Clichés of Britishness in various decades recur throughout the collection, particularly in the genuinely frightening, horror trope-laden closing piece ‘The Harrowing’, where Tabitha (Helen McCrory) expresses confusion about ‘the broadband’ they were offered, and in ‘The Understudy’, where grand Shakespearean actor Nick (Richard Cordery) could be beamed in from the ‘40s. There’s a genuine affection in how Shearsmith and Pemberton mockingly depict their nation, from the squeaked insistence that Sardines is “such fun” to the greedy panic over a balloon – which holds the dying breath of a famous pop star – in ‘Last Gasp’, easily the most acerbic and most overtly comic of the episodes.
That each episode takes a different approach to the generic elements Shearsmith and Pemberton are exploring here makes for a genuinely unpredictable experience each time out, although they are a bit too enamoured of the split personality trope that Shearsmith so boldly carries off. The pair take exciting creative risks, though. ‘A Quiet Night In’, only the second episode, is done without a single word being uttered, instead riffing on silent comedy as the writers play buffoonish burglars navigating their way through the eerie, chic house of Gerald (Denis Lawson) and trophy wife Sabrina (Oona Chaplin), whose relationship has devolved into physical bickering over the TV remote. As Shearsmith and Pemberton play out the comedy themselves, they leave it to Lawson and Chaplin to draw out a surprisingly dark marital duet, and when the episode devolves into violence, the two generic lines come together in bravura fashion.
There’s no connection between each episode, not even recurring characters, as Shearsmith and Pemberton – appearing in five of the six episodes each – tackle strikingly different characters each time out. The ordering of the episodes does feel a little off thematically, though. ‘Last Gasp’ and ‘The Harrowing’, fourth and sixth respectively, feel rather stranded by virtue of the heavier leans to the comic and horrific in each. ‘Last Gasp’ also feels like a strange diversion in its direct focus on a modern phenomenon, the celebrity scandal, and its avoidance of the creepy undertones present in the rest of the series. It doesn’t quite feel like a Shearsmith and Pemberton production, exacerbated by the fact Shearsmith, the more tactile and outlandish of the pairing, is absent from the proceedings. It’s still a clever little piece, but feels more like something from Charlie Brooker’s scathing Black Mirror.
The variations on character numbers within these single locations – each is confined to the No.9 of the title – provokes for some adept cinematography. In ‘Sardines’, finding angles within the wardrobe that effectively portray the emotional dynamics between the characters in such a tight space. ‘A Quiet Night In’ opens with a glorious long take set to some rousing classical music, elegantly taking in the blue lighting and the open plan layout of the location burglars start sneaking around. ‘The Harrowing’ echoes classics like The Innocents and more vivid modern horror like Pan’s Labyrinth, making a larger location feel as small as the rest through effective use of darkness and sound.
Inside No.9 feels more grounded than Shearsmith and Pemberton’s more grotesque work in The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, peppered with more pointed social observation rather than the caricatured lampooning they’ve made their trademark. This means, happily, that it remains unpredictable and surprising throughout, delivering delicious little twists on standard formulas and narratives without settling into any sort of format. Moreover, they largely deliver, thanks to their own sharp, tactile writing style and a plethora of game performances from an impeccably cast set of actors.
Extras consist merely of a photo gallery and Inside ‘Inside No.9’, a brief documentary where Shearsmith, Pemberton and director David Kerr talk about the resurrection of the weekly play format and the process of bringing the project to the screen.