“One of the disciplines in art is collage, the assemblage of disparate elements which together create a new whole.” (Maurice Wickham: ‘Private View’)
More than any other ‘Inside No. 9’ of series three, ‘Private View’ features Pemberton & Shearsmith wearing an apparel of horror and thriller influences on their collaborative sleeve. The lovingly crafted abstraction of stylistic devices and narrative elements create a homage that has a visual and structural indebtedness to celebrated key genre works: Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’, the 1973 British horror movie ‘Theatre of Blood’ and the European horror of Italian Giallo films.
The well-established mystery trope from Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ (a group of apparently unconnected strangers trapped in a location they can’t escape from are picked off one by one by an unknown assailant) segues into a climactic denouement with a similar conceit to the 1973 British horror film ‘Theatre of Blood’ (an incensed protagonist commits a series of avenging murders using ‘just desserts’ methods on a set of victims whom the killer regards to be fully deserving of their fate).
Alongside the skilfully crafted mash-up of referential plots, ‘Private View’ is distinguished by the iconographic style and thematic motifs of its perfectly realised Giallo ornamentation, clearly signified in the story. Director Guillem Morales and director of photography, Stephan Pehrsson, give ‘Private View’ a very distinctive look of strikingly vivid colours and some highly stylized camera work that is pure 20th century Italian Giallo cinematic technique.
These intrinsic components help give this ‘Inside No. 9’ a very playful tone. Pemberton & Shearsmith blend these very recognisable (to fans of the mystery horror genre) constituent parts together to produce a script that has an exuberant energy and underlying sense of fun. So much of it is a game – “Judging by the first few pieces, perhaps it’s some form of endurance test. See you at the other end” (Maurice) – where the rules are well-known and understood by the audience, with the writers both adhering to and subverting these precepts.
The “disparate elements” used by the writing duo to construct ‘Private View’ are mixed with comedic embellishments of ribaldry, double entendres and malapropisms, the elevated cultural excursions of the contemporary art world, citing hyperrealism sculptures and the conceptual installations of illusionary space and auditory perception, and even allowing for the mischievous inclusion of ‘Carry On’ lines. It is such a vast canvas of references – a collage assemblage that Pemberton & Shearsmith play with in masterful ways for the most entertaining ends. Viewers are, after all, instructed to ‘Make Yourself Comfortable’ from the start with the title of the first art piece we see in the ‘Private View’ art gallery setting.
Seven strangers have been invited to a private viewing of the valedictory exhibition of late artist Elliot Quinn in an East London basement art gallery. The group are as eclectic as the pieces on display: Carrie, a vacuous reality TV celebrity desperate to remain in the bubble of minuscule fame; Maurice Wickham, a supercilious, pompous art lecturer; Kenneth Williams, a pony-tailed health & safety officer for the local council with a self-professed lack of humour, but cursed with the same appellation as the famous comic performer; Jean, a chatty, solecistic Irish dinner lady; Patricia, an imperious, high-handed, demanding visually impaired authoress of soft porn novels and Bea, a hired waitress for the evening, surly, sarcastic and contemptuous of everyone and everything. The other guest, Neil Francis, a nurse hired to act as Patricia’s guide, arrived first and was seen being dispatched by a mysterious, black-gloved figure, from the eye-catching point-of-view of the killer.
The very first scene featuring Neil’s murder is a stylistic statement of intent by Pemberton & Shearsmith and director Morales to envelope the story with a Giallo sensibility. It’s a perceptive choice given the context of ‘Private View’, its pronounced visual style echoes and links it to the art installation environs surrounding the story.
The emblematic fetish close-up shot of the black glove worn by a mystery killer is an iconic Giallo trope. This, a voyeuristic first person perspective of the murderer and a grisly death sequence are all present at the start of ‘Private View’. Morales (and Pehrsson’s photography) keep the Giallo stylism to the fore with the use of vivid colours throughout the ‘Nine’ art gallery. The spectrum of bold primary colours flood and fill each frame: Deep reds dominate (suggestive of blood having been spilt) in all the rooms with art on display – the room where Neil is found (his body now part of the exhibit), in the main gallery space where the 3D model head of Elliot Quinn is centre stage; yellow permeates the storage room as Maurice, Kenneth and Jean seek a means of escape, with a warm green colour placed in the background – an outside street that is just out of reach; a dank, cold green saturates the basement toilets where Patricia hides to avoid becoming the mystery killer’s next victim. ‘Private View’s use of colour – almost surreal at times – is an important part of the heightened sense of experience that is the Giallo aesthetic – an exaggerated, intense, distorted expression of reality, visually and thematically. The stylized camerawork of Giallo is at play at certain moments too, with strange camera angles producing disorienting images: An unusually low angle shot shows Carrie reflected in the mirror floor as she gazes at the spiked chair exhibit with a seated dead Neil on it. The bizarre angle then creates the jump scare of Maurice’s reflection suddenly looming behind Carrie in the floor too. The stylish visuals of the Giallo-influenced camera also generate unconventional, unorthodox shots that initiate disquieting framing: The high and low angle views of the toilet cubicle with a trapped Patricia hiding inside, desperate to evade the stalking killer, are unsettlingly voyeuristic.
There is a satisfying coherence between the heightened visual style of Giallo and the story’s conceptual art backdrop. They both collude and coalesce around the idea of spatial perception and the disorientating, disruptive and mesmerising experience of space (it is no coincidence that at one point Maurice talks about artist Richard Wilson’s art installation at the Saatchi Gallery – ‘Oil’) The Giallo amplification emphasizes the artificial space which hems in the diverse group of invitees, a space which it is increasingly made clear they are trapped in as their numbers diminish. It is a space that tightens and closes in on them (echoing the way the killer is doing the same). Although rich colours mostly fill each frame, occasionally skirting around the fringes of the screen lurks low lit dark edges, giving the (art gallery) space a threatening quality.
The ‘And Then There Were None’ plotline has become universally familiar (and parodied) to the point that it is imbued with layers of expectation understood and appreciated by all audiences of mystery thrillers. This is something acknowledged by Pemberton & Shearsmith, its tropes and clichés signposted in the lines they give to some of the characters, in which they postulate on the situation they’re in and which accentuate their self-awareness of it: “Why have we all been handpicked do you think? We none of us know each other. It appears we have very little in common.” (Maurice); “This is all a bit Agatha Christie, isn’t it?” (Patricia); “And then of course they all split up, which is something you would never do in that situation. And before you know it there’s another one gone.” (Patricia)
Characters are paired off or are left on their own to disappear for several scenes (Maurice is noticeably left alone at the spiked chair installation/murder site at this own suggestion). The writers parlay all the devices at their disposal to put everyone under suspicion as the possible culprit. The audience, already primed to the classic conventions of the plot (and its numerous versions and imitations over the years) are alert to the fact that every nuance and intimation could be either a clue or a red herring. Mindful of this, Pemberton & Shearsmith deftly layer ambiguity and (possible) significance across every scene: When Jean suggests she and Patricia pair up, Kenneth is seen watching them intently as they walk off together; Carrie’s fleeting look of both contrived innocence and possible guilt as she insists “I haven’t done anything” after Maurice tells her the police will want to interview her (after the discovery of Neil Francis’ body impaled on the spiked chair)
Viewers’ comfortable assumption of the mystery protocol – that the killer’s identity is kept secret and only revealed at the very end – is overturned by Pemberton & Shearsmith’s audacious subverting of this convention with more than eight minutes to go: The point-of- view shot of the black gloved killer moving along each toilet cubicle after following Patricia there as she attempted to find somewhere to hide, the tension being held as the gloved hand knocks on the one locked cubicle door before the camera pulls back and the murderer’s identity is revealed in the toilet wall mirror to be Jean, the (seemingly) mildly eccentric dinner lady.
Jean’s declamation scene is quite remarkable, containing an almost Shakespearian monologue of vitriol as she justifies her reasons for vengeance, explaining the motive behind her murder spree with proselytising zeal. At its core is a performance of extraordinary hypnotic power by Fiona Shaw, who brilliantly conveys the character’s puritanical, unhinged state of mind.
A bloodied Jean caresses and kisses the large 3D model of Elliot Quinn’s head with a perturbing, devoted intensity, leaving traces of blood on it, as she reveals to Maurice (the only survivor of her bloodletting) that she is Quinn’s mother and that when her son found out he was dying he decided to donate all of his body’s organs. He conceived the idea for his last pieces of art from this ‘gift of life’ – the receivers of his donated organs were to be the ‘living art’ of his farewell exhibition – their lives a celebration of his life. As his mother saw it, the donees, her victims – Neil, Bea, Carrie, Patricia and Kenneth – were all unworthy recipients of her son’s organs and therefore deserving targets of her splenetic rage (“You squandered him…He was wasted on all of you.”) because, as she makes clear with unforgiving rancour, their moral and personal failings (greed, self-pity, copious drinker, pornography creator, smoker) polluted and desecrated the purity of her son’s parting artistic conception of living art and sullied what was to be his final artistic statement to the world.
Circumventing her son’s vision – with perverse Grand Guignol design – the re-harvested organs from her victims are now part of a new artwork that she’s created, with each organ in a glass jar set on a plinth connected by red ribbons, like arteries in a body. It is her deranged depiction of her son’s body, a way of making him alive again, of reanimating him (just as the filmed clip of Quinn projected onto a 3D model of his head had done)
With devilish boldness, Pemberton & Shearsmith inventively reimagine ‘Theatre of Blood’ and Edward Lionheart’s wrathful revenge with organ transplants, body parts and as a mourning mother’s grief turned mad.
The disclosure that organ transplants were the link between the members of the group, and that Jean killed in order to reclaim the organs from their bodies, give the death sequences an edgier context in retrospect: Kidney donee Neil is killed when he’s shoved onto the twin spiked chair exhibit, the spikes perfectly positioned to skewer the kidneys; Jean murders Kenneth (the one killing that is committed onscreen from the audience’s perspective) by suffocating him with a plastic bag – a ‘just desserts’ method of murder as she saw it, given his organ transplant was a right lung and he smoked – “You shouldn’t be smoking Kenneth, for a start.” (Jean)
An obsessive eye for detail is an inherent feature of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s writing. Their scripts are constructed with layer after layer of nuance, producing a rich seam to be mined for meaning. Every inference, hint, seeding – all are clues waiting to be recognised and retrieved.
As unmasking the identity of the killer is one of the main elements of the mystery, Pemberton & Shearsmith give Jean a markedly guileless naivety – an unsophisticated and artless figure amid all the art, cheerfully dropping malapropisms all over the place: “She is impartially sighted”, “We’re like fish in a basket”, “Two new cornettos”. Her faux naïf deceit is designed to lull the other characters into thinking she is a harmless, daffy middle-aged woman, when she is anything but. For the writers, Jean works as an adroit double bluff – the character least likely to be the killer and on the other hand, the most obvious candidate too. It’s a case of Pemberton & Shearsmith playfully finessing the oft repeated device of the mystery genre – the person you’d never suspect actually turns out to be the guilty party.
Skilfully working at another narrative level, Pemberton & Shearsmith also subtly suggest and convey Jean’s scheming, real feelings and latent intentions taking place under the noses of the rest of the group: As the camera pans along the characters watching the reanimated Quinn speaking from beyond the grave via a projection on a model of his head, they all seem relatively or distinctly unimpressed except Jean, who looks enthralled and almost in awe as the clip is played; a momentary look of shock registers on Jean’s face as she watches Kenneth start to smoke what she presumes is a cigarette (“It was an e-cigarette” – Maurice); the “It really burns” pre-echo observation about champagne by Jean seeds her later method of killing one of the victims, by spiking the champagne with poison; Jean’s attempted diversion tactics to try and distract Maurice and Kenneth from focusing on a means of escape when they’re in the storage room, by prattling on about being hungry and her dilemma over a paint colour choice; her outwardly innocent exchange with Kenneth about how children can be a cause for concern – “Oh that is a worry. I could barely keep mine in one piece” – takes on the dark dynamic of dreadful revelation later on, when the reason for her avowed revenge is disclosed.
The last piece of Jean’s plan (and final organ to re-harvest) is to have Maurice’s heart as the centrepiece of the art display she cultivated – that of her victims’ (or as she sees it, her son’s) body organs in glass jars on plinths with circulatory red ribbons. Pemberton & Shearsmith undercut any assumed audience expectation here by having Maurice managing to escape his seemingly sealed fate. The close shot of one of his hands wriggled half free of one of the ribbons tying his wrists to a chair in the moments before the screen goes black alludes to the escape happening.
The final scene shows Maurice has supplanted Jean’s scheme and harvested her heart for his own needs – to fill the remaining empty glass jar and plinth. He has claimed the (body) artwork as his own and is now being acclaimed by the art world as an exciting new talent. It is a reversal of fortunes that is in keeping with a defined narrative logic that relates to what has occurred beforehand. As Maurice pointed out to Jean, he had looked after himself following his transplant and had not abused his body (or her son’s heart) unlike the others. It would disrupt the symmetry underpinning Jean’s avenging scheme – that her victims were deserving of their fate because of their ‘failings’ – if she had been ‘allowed’ to succeed with her plan to kill Maurice as well.
There are also several subtle intimations woven into the script connecting body art (literal and figurative) with Maurice: “Body art is still art after all” (when he passes comment on Bea’s tattoos). He also touches on the work of Ron Mueck, a hyperrealist sculptor, famous for his extremely realistic sculptures of human bodies. Maurice doesn’t appear to have a scrap of discomfort in asserting the body organs artwork as his own or any difficulty in disregarding the bloodletting behind its creation. It indicates a certain level of ruthlessness in him, perhaps signalled when he made the observation “Someone’s been stabbed in the back. Nothing new in the art world of course.”
‘Private View’ adeptly rearranges familiar pieces from notable thriller and horror works into a narrative that operates on two levels – as homage and as a sly interrupter of expectation. Making full use of the story’s archetypal characters, wordplay and Rabelaisian humour, it has a tone more playful than perhaps any ‘Inside No. 9’ before it has had.
Distinguished by the Giallo influenced visuals and a macabre revenge plot involving organ transplants, Pemberton & Shearsmith’s aim is dark tinged fun and entertainment, which they supply in abundance with genuinely nasty moments nestling alongside ‘Carry On’ inspired double entendres. The pair’s formidable knowledge of the genre in all its forms enables them to subtly parody whilst at the same time subvert in surprising and unexpected ways. They give ‘Private View’ the tempo and energy of a game – both amusing and exciting – and clearly a game being played by two experts.
Given we live in times where ignorance is defiantly embraced and stupidity is worn like a proud badge of honour, a programme as intelligent, daring and singular as ‘Inside No. 9’ is like a shining beacon, when so much else is monotonous mediocrity or dismal dumbness. A series which does not insult its audience but presumes it to be alert to subtlety and shading and welcoming of ingenuity and inventiveness is indeed rare.
Reaching the end of its third series, it has now given us 18 stories of impeccable quality – each a beautifully crafted jewel, revealing different facets and elements within it every time one of them is revisited. A work of art is something people want to look at and examine from every possible angle and ‘Inside No. 9’ has that similar rewatchability running right through it. It is a work of artistic brilliance that you just know will be watched and appreciated for generations to come.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have taken the ‘raising the bar’ ideal to heights of extraordinary anticipation, which have always more than been met. They eclipse their contemporaries and those coming up behind them at every turn because they ring the changes in tone and the eclectic range of stories in ‘Inside No. 9’ with sureness of touch and a masterly confidence that is quite remarkable.
Series three travelled between the matchless technical integrity and narrative experiment of ‘The Devil of Christmas’, ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’s brainpower dynamics, intertextual layers and shocking double crosses to the visually beautiful, psychologically complex treatise on madness and bereavement in ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ – and this describes only half the series.
There really doesn’t seem to be a story that Pemberton & Shearsmith can’t attempt and not do exceptionally well and from different, original angles. They are forever pushing forward, never resting on their laurels in order to constantly surprise audiences and escape the trap of merely satisfying viewer expectation, which would be the creative death knell for two creators whose work is a labour of love and who care so much about what they make. British television is blessed to have them and would be infinitely poorer if they should ever – dreadful to contemplate – call time on their superlative partnership. BBC please cherish them. Everyone please cherish them.
Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Maurice Wickham…Reece Shearsmith
Kenneth Williams…Steve Pemberton
Elliot Quinn…Johnny Flynn
Neil Francis…Peter Kay