When Series One of Inside No. 9 aired last year, most people wanted to talk about one of two things: the background of its creators (Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith), or their choice of developing an anthology show.
Fair enough. Both of these things were crucial to its success.
Of course, Pemberton and Shearsmith, along with Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss, were The League of Gentlemen, and then went on to write and star in Psychoville in 2009. Both series were incredibly popular and critically acclaimed, winning multiple awards (The League of Gentlemen won BAFTAs, Royal Television Awards and, in 1999, the Rose d’Or; and Psychoville received British Comedy Awards in 2009 and 2011). You pretty much can’t find an article on either of these shows without seeing the word ‘macabre’ in the text, and the same holds true for Inside No. 9.
The series debut also garnered a lot of talk about its format — an anthology series of unrelated stories, with the only connection being that each episode took place behind a door marked 9. In the tradition of The Twilight Zone and Play for Today, each show was a complete unit with different actors, settings, and styles. They were dramatic and comedic, and scary as well as silly. Pemberton and Shearsmith also played with constraints — taking the sense of confinement to the extreme (in “Sardines” almost the entire show takes place inside a wardrobe) as well as taking chances (“A Quiet Night In” was essentially a dialogue-less half hour). TV critic Mark Lawson wrote:
Shearsmith’s and Pemberton’s show completely overcomes the artistic objections to the anthology series. Although the conceit of addresses with a 9 in them is a slight one, it does give the series a pleasing coherence. And the wit and inventiveness… are more than enough to encourage viewers to go on. In the small group of anthology shows in TV history, Inside No 9 has the potential to be remembered as a singular achievement. (“Inside No 9: How Shearsmith and Pemberton have revived a lost genre“, The Guardian, 5 February 2014)
However, now that Series Two has just finished, it’s clear that Inside No. 9 is not just an interesting experiment from two comedy greats. It’s a masterful piece of storytelling. With its mix of suspense, comedy, and life lessons, Inside No. 9 is like a collection of the best short stories — each one is satisfying on its own but you don’t want to put the book down until you’ve read them all.
The strengths of Series One are still present: excellent guest stars (Jessica Gunning, Sheridan Smith, and David Warner are standouts) and intriguing settings (sleeper carriage on a French train, 17th century witch hunt, a helpline call centre). There are experiments: “Cold Comfort” is shot using only CCTV footage of the call centre, and “La Couchette” is another tightly trapped episode (the camera never leaves the confines of the train carriage) whose resolution is revealed via a conversation in German. And, of course, the word macabre still applies — death, violence, and disturbing behaviour abound.
This series, though, feels even more steeped in strong narratives. Perhaps this is because of the pressure of the previous run: viewers now had high expectations. About writing Series 2, Shearsmith said, “It’s so hard to write something where you know the audience are watching trying to second guess you, so we [went] into them knowing that, so then that [became] kind of a game in itself” (“Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith on Inside No. 9”, BFI, 27 March 2015). They rose to the challenge: the level of tension in each episode is high and viewers watch on the edge of their seats. Pemberton explained, “We like to keep the audience guessing and constantly surprise them, but we found that the word ‘twist’ soon becomes reductive. It seemed like people would judge the episodes on the so-called twist, and if there wasn’t one, then the episode ‘wasn’t as good’. Our aim to is to write things which you have to lean into, you have to watch actively, and if you do that your attention will be repaid” (“Reopening the doors Inside No. 9”, BBC Writer’s Room, 20 March 2015).
The twists are still there, though. I was embarrassingly pleased to have been able to guess a couple of the outcomes, but most of them had me working hard until the end (and then going back to watch again, seeing the clues that were masterfully hidden within). I don’t want to deny anyone the pleasure of a satisfying mind-fuck, so there will be no spoilers here. “The 12 Days of Christine” episode, particularly, not only engaged my curiosity but was also incredibly moving emotionally. Its final few moments left me breathless and in tears.
The poignancy in some of the stories, though, does not diminish the humour. “The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge” is an example of the writing’s perfect balance of tragedy and comedy. Resident of the village Nothing Happens, Elizabeth Gadge (Ruth Sheen) is accused of witchcraft by her dimwitted, greedy daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and Thomas Nutter (Sinéad Matthews and Jim Howick). National devilry experts Mr Warren (Shearsmith) and Mr Clarke (Pemberton) are called in to hold the trial, which Sir Andrew Pike (David Warner) decides to use to draw in tourists to show up the neighbouring village of Much Happens. The silliness of the names doesn’t stop there: witnesses in the trial include the cobbler Richard Two-Shoes (Paul Kaye), his wife (yes, you guessed it, Goody Two-Shoes), and a demon called Snowflake (a mouse). The language throughout the episode is beautifully done — it feels authentic in its phrasing, even during the more bizarre (and hilarious) court scenes:
Warren: Who is this night time fiend that you so visit? An incubus? Beelzebub? What was his name?
Elizabeth: It was him, Richard Two-Shoes. Richard Two-Shoes the cobbler.
Two-Shoes: She lies. She lies, your Worship. Prick her again.
Elizabeth: I did meet sometimes with him after dark. He would pay me a shilling a suck, and I would do it.
Pike: Is this true, Richard?
Two-Shoes: No, sir, I swear it. I do not stir out after dark, my wife will vouch for it.
Pike: Very well. We will get to the bottom of this. Call forth Goody Two-Shoes.
Warren: Richard Two-Shoes, have you spent night after night with this vile hag?
Two-shoes: Yes, your Worship, but she’s my wife and ’tis the law, is it not?
Clarke: We were referring to Old Mistress Gadge. Is it true you’ve had several night time meetings with her?
Two-Shoes: No sir, on the eyes of my children, I swear it.
Elizabeth: ‘Twas not for love, Goody Two-Shoes. ‘Twas done only to pay my son-in-law rent. He would always cry your name when he did climax and throw out his curdle.
Pike: For the court records, is that of any comfort, Goody-Two Shoes?
There are a number of laugh-out-loud moments like this, despite the horror of the entire episode, which includes a genuinely upsetting torture scene and is, after all, about a terrible and true part of history (Shearsmith researched actual trial transcripts as inspiration). What one thinks is the shocking resolution becomes even more ghastly in the final 30 seconds.
Clearly, Inside No. 9 is more than a gimmick — the anthology style, the space limitations, and the unexpected plot turns are just techniques to showcase the strong writing that is consistent throughout. Both Shearsmith and Pemberton have said that a third series is a possibility as long as they keep coming up with stories that can hook us. I hope they do, because the show is more than just an entertaining half hour of television; it’s a testament to the power of clever and careful storytelling.