I must begin with a disclaimer of sorts: Inside No. 9 eludes all sufficient description. A mad cocktail of genres, from murder mystery to comedy to psychological thriller, BBC Two’s anthology series resolutely refuses to be categorised or pigeonholed. The BBC themselves use the frankly irritating phrase ‘dark comedy’, but this feels incomplete. It is a measure of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s genius that they remain able – after three series and eighteen episodes – to create something so eccentric and unpredictable.
Each week viewers are invited to visit a new “number nine”. In the past, these have included a train carriage, a wardrobe, a small London flat, and a theatre dressing room. Confinement in just one room or one house is one of the only “rules” of the series. It cultivates claustrophobia, denying not only the characters but also the audience any time or space to breathe. The writers continually overcome this self-imposed obstacle, even throwing in other concepts – one episode was made entirely without dialogue, another was filmed solely from the point of view of CCTV cameras – in to the mix when geographical constraint ceased to present a sufficient challenge.
Shearsmith and Pemberton, who both write and star in every episode of the third series, will be known to many as one half of The League of Gentlemen. Whilst their time spent portraying the various inhabitants of Royston Vasey was almost twenty years ago now, the writers’ uncanny ability to heighten, contort and twist everyday life has clearly not left them. For instance, the episode entitled Diddle Diddle Dumpling, based entirely around a single black shoe, came to be simultaneously the most creepy and amusing half hour of television I have ever seen. Equally, the first episode is a tale of four middle age men bickering over an unpaid bill, and yet still provides gasps and laughs in equal measure.
Such scenarios may initially seem mundane, but you should never be fooled into sitting comfortably. Whichever Number 9 you may find yourself in, whether it be an art gallery, an ordinary looking family home, a karaoke booth, major surprises are to be expected. The writers have spoken of the difficulty of outsmarting their audience now that their love of twists and conceits has been recognised (and indeed applauded) but they have certainly succeeded in remaining one step ahead. Sometimes all it takes is just one phrase, or even one look and the whole dynamic of the story changes. Everything gains a new layer of meaning. It is quite often a dark layer, shrouding the episode in a murky, morbid shadow. Their conclusions, can, after all, be as radical as they need them to be. Outside of the emotionally charged and neatly packaged thirty minutes, there are no lasting consequences.
It is of course not just Shearsmith and Pemberton’s writing that makes the programme what it is. Each week they are joined by an ensemble cast – Keeley Hawes, Phillip Glenister, Fiona Shaw and Jason Watkins have all stepped inside various number nines this year. I found the latter’s performance in The Bill particularly striking. His whole façade melted away with the flick of a switch as his dithering, timid professor became a menacing criminal mastermind.
As with most anthology series, not all episodes are of equal merit. In this case, for me, the runt of the litter was Empty Orchestra. This instalment was set in a karaoke booth during an office party. It was perhaps the most light-hearted of the collection (and by that I mean it was the one that did not involve any suggestion of death or cannibalism). As such, there seems to be a lack of jeopardy or suspense. There is something missing, as if one dimensional. This is especially true when compared to the mind-boggling, brilliantly complex The Riddle of the Sphinx. It was the only episode that I was not compelled to revisit. However, this is all down to personal taste. Even the episodes that do not feature trademark creepy intrigue and are therefore a more straightforward breed of comedy can be admired for their intelligence. The writer’s mastery of their craft is never in doubt.
If creating a comprehensive description of the world of Inside No. 9 is difficult, then reviewing it with all the detail and attention it deserves is nigh on impossible. What is clear is that we are dealing with an entirely unique creature. This is television at it’s best: writing that shocks, challenges and stretches the audience combined with impressive performances and beautiful production design. The success of Inside Number 9 must lead us to question why TV executives still seem to shy away from anthology series, still make it tricky to fund half hours or commission anything involving horror.
Seek the series out. It needs to be seen to be believed… just don’t blame me when you get nightmares.