Behind Closed Doors: Inside No. 9


Published in The Sunday Herald, February 2 2014

Series One

From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, the anthology series, in various shapes and stripes, from the serious-minded Play For Today, through the visionary sci-fi of Out Of The Unknown, to the pulp and cheese of Hammer House Of Horror, was a thriving staple of British TV. Exactly why the format was allowed to wither away is difficult to say. But it probably came down to budgets – if you’re doing a different story, with a different cast, crew, wardrobe and set every week, costs pile up – and the rise in focus groups, sagely reporting changing audience tastes. Whatever the reason, it was our loss.

It’s easy to overlook now, but some of the most famous series in our viewing history started life as one-off plays in such strands, which allowed, encouraged, and practically demanded experimentation: Steptoe And Son sprung from Comedy Playhouse; The Sweeney came out of Armchair Cinema; Boys From The Blackstuff began as a Play For Today. For the viewer tuning in each week, however, the true value of these things was simpler and more immediate. It was the Forrest Gump factor: you just never knew what you were going to get.

Over the past decade, there has been a slightly hidden, but highly encouraging renaissance for the form. Jimmy McGovern smuggled the soapy-realist anthology back with The Street, Moving On and The Accused, and Hugo Blick delivered the intensely brilliant, barely-seen Last Word Monologues. More recently, Charlie Brooker has given us Black Mirror, his variable, ambitious combination of The Twilight Zone and a hectoring lecture.

Now, confirming a trend is afoot, comes Inside No. 9, a collection of nice and icky little one-offs from the League Of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. The pair last collaborated on Psychoville, and the new show feels an offshoot from one particularly memorable episode of that splendidly demented series, which, staged as a claustrophobic, one-take homage to Hitchcock’s Rope, was set entirely inside a small flat.

Similarly, each story in the new series unfolds inside a different “Number 9,” whether it’s a house, a flat, or a room. Tonight, we’re inside a large country mansion – perversely, though, for the whole 30 minutes, we’re confined inside one bedroom; and, more perversely yet, spend most of that time among the coats inside an old wardrobe, where more and more people begin to cram themselves, uncomfortable party guests, playing a reluctant game of sardines.

Given their pedigree, it’s perhaps no surprise that, as far as the anthology shows of old go, Shearsmith and Pemberton’s tastes run toward the black, twisted and macabre delights the ITV network used to specialise in: the likes of Thriller, Shadows Of Fear, Nigel Kneale’s Beasts, and Tales Of The Unexpected. Tonight’s programme begins as a nasty little comedy of British manners and awkwardness, but gets uneasier as it goes, and there’s a twist in the tail.

There’s a great cast tonight, with an ensemble including Timothy West, Ann Reid, Tim Key and Katherine Parkinson. But one of the true delights of the series is how it all shifts and changes week to week. Next week’s story shares a black undercurrent, but is markedly different in tone, a bumbling, slapstick thing that plays out in complete Mack Sennett silence. Number 9 is going to be a good place to visit. It’s like taking a selection box from a stranger: you never know what you’re going to get – chocolate, poison, a razor blade, or some plastic dog poo.

Published in The Sunday Herald, March 29 2015

Series Two

With the latest series of their unexpected tales from Inside No 9. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith confirm their status as TV’s current masters of sticky claustrophobia. But as this week’s episode proves, there is more to them than just that. If there is one thing that honestly deserves not to be missed this week, this is it.

The second series of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s anthology show, in which each week a new story unfolds inside a different “Number 9,” got off to a fine start last week, with an episode that cunningly replayed the sardines situation that launched the original series last year. Instead of a group of partygoers reluctantly crammed together in a wardrobe, a bunch of strangers shared the close horror of having to sleep beside each other in the cramped couchette of an intercontinental train. It was uneasy, coarse, excruciating, grotesque and hilarious, with black humour dolloped on top, and an unsettling secret twist hidden beneath. In short, it was what all the best Number 9s have been.

The greatest thing about the anthology format, however, is the most obvious thing: it’s different every week. Entering Number 9, you never know quite what you’re going to get. While it might seem Pemberton and Shearsmith have imposed severe limitations on themselves with the restricted conditions of their short, single-location stories, the opposite is true. These tales might be confined within four walls, but, in there, feeding off the intense atmosphere, the writers are exploding in all kinds of directions.

Certainly they are with this week’s episode, which sees them stretching into territory utterly unlike anything the pair have ever tackled in the past. To say much about the story, which is called “The 12 Days Of Christine,” would spoil it, but it’s safe to state some facts. The setting is, mostly, Flat 9 in a humdrum high-rise. And there we find Christine, an ordinary young woman, played quite extraordinarily by Sheridan Smith.

It is directed again by Guillem Morales, the Spanish filmmaker who did a beautiful job exploring the corners of that train compartment last week. But it exists a world away from last week’s jaunt. There are jokes, but they are mostly the passing jokes people share in real life, and it’s not really a comedy. If there’s a bleak, black humour working here, it’s of the rarest sort, the kind that is filled with sympathy and tenderness. There are ghostly jumps and flickers, but it’s not really a horror story, either, except maybe it is. But it knocked me sideways, in ways I wasn’t expecting at all, and which I can’t get out of my head. It is, by a shattering distance, the best use of 30 minutes on TV this week. Maybe this year.