Inside No. 9 Review: Series Three: ‘Private View’

*contains spoilers*

“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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Guillem Morales

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Maurice Wickham…Reece Shearsmith

Kenneth Williams…Steve Pemberton

Jean…Fiona Shaw

Patricia…Felicity Kendal

Carrie…Morgana Robinson

Bea…Montserrat Lombard

Elliot Quinn…Johnny Flynn

Reporter…Muriel Gray

Neil Francis…Peter Kay

Inside No. 9 Review: Series Three: ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’

*contains spoilers*

“This is very cruel what you’re doing you know.” (David: ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’)

We are taken by surprise at the very start of ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ by the oft-kilter premise that its ‘9’ is, for the first time, not a setting or location but rather an object – a man’s black size 9 shoe. Quiet brilliantly however – in a story that is driven by a sequential series of masterful scenes which are both strikingly singular and correspondingly cohesive  at the same time –  it becomes, with creeping incremental intent, about a location after all – the inside of a man’s head. For David, a stay-at-home husband and father, the single shoe is an aberration which becomes imbued with a potent symbolism that coalesces in and overwhelms his mind.

Every ‘Inside No. 9’, by dint of its quality and superb inventiveness, remains with you, as great storytelling always does. ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ is remarkable even by the standards of ‘Inside No. 9’s exceptional canon. It casts an impression which is indelible and profound, with all of its elements working together in an incredibly powerful way. Pemberton & Shearsmith’s sensitive, complex and nuanced script is an impactful meditation on loss, pain and grief, the thematics of which explore fissures in marital and familial relationships, how feelings can get muted and the ways in which the mind can become consumed by the extremities of distress and trauma.

Allied to this, director Guillem Morales and director of photography John Sorapure’s superb contributions add important visual insights to the narrative, giving this ‘Inside No.9’ a particularly pronounced cinematic sensibility. There are also astonishing emotional layers brought forth by the sensitive, committed performances of Reece Shearmith and Keeley Hawes as husband & wife, David and Louise, which help to anchor the story with extraordinary depth and poignancy.

The single shoe which David ‘finds’ lying on the suburban street outside his home whilst out jogging becomes, over the course of the tale, an object of reverence for him. It starts as a mild curiosity but within a few scenes the shoe has become an item that needs to be cared for: “It’s so odd. What’s the story behind it?”; “I just didn’t want anyone stealing it”; “It just felt wrong leaving it outside” (David)

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The first conversation between the couple subtly alludes to the substitution process the shoe undergoes with David: Louise needs some empty jam jars so she can fill them with raffle prizes for the school Spring Fair. In other words, the jars are going to be used differently to the way they were originally meant for. Similarly, David finds a different use for the shoe than was originally intended for it. He substitutes new meaning onto it, a displacement that the mind uses to transfer ideas, wishes and emotions in order to allay underlying thoughts, fears and anxieties which are unspoken and too difficult to confront directly.

The ideas, wishes and emotions inside David’s head are intimated from the start through an astute visual narrative, which works alongside and as an undercurrent to the verbal exchanges and conversations between David, Louise and the story’s other characters – Sally, their daughter, Chris, a friend and Ted, the man who comes to claim the found shoe.

Almost from the opening shot, twos occupy space within the frame, permeating the screen with images of pairs in symmetrical balance. There are two lines of trees in blossom in the foreground as David goes for his morning run; the family home of David and Louise is number 22, with a ‘2’ on each side of the double opening front door.

The visual theme of pairs and symmetry is taken even further once inside the house with the stunning mise-en-scene achieved by director Morales and director of photography Sorapure who skilfully signify David’s state of mind (that his thoughts are dominated by the idea of pairs) the sense of separation and distance in the couples’ relationship and a feeling of family loss. Their use of space and composition, set and props, colour, shade and lighting impart an attention to detail to complement Pemberton & Shearsmith’s own. The primacy of pairs is everywhere in the interiors of the house. They frame the characters who are often placed in the centre of the shot in order to draw attention to the imposing presence of twos: David standing in front of the kitchen’s two large window panes, a pair of jam jars on the table in front of him and two yellow upturned glasses on the counter behind him; David does the housework close to a sideboard which has a pair of lamps and two matching hare ornaments placed carefully on either side of it in perfect symmetry and a chair on each side of the room to create balance; David prepares two cocktail drinks with an olive in each identical glass, having ‘forgotten’ he’d already made the exact same pair of drinks.

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Making the house interiors such a strong visual element helps secure the notion that the idea of pairs has taken over David’s mind, that he has an unarticulated but deep need for them and the balance they provide. This gives his obsession over the single shoe an important context and embeds its implication into the narrative.

Morales’ camera’s detached observation of the space in the house accentuates how large the rooms are, almost engulfing the people framed at their centre. All that unoccupied space – to the extent that characters seem to disappear into it – is suggestive of emptiness and even loss. It is almost as if all the sets of pairs located throughout the house are there to compensate for something that is missing.

The spatial remoteness also evokes the space between David and Louise. They are never placed physically close to each other, they’re always spaced apart. It is a metaphor for the gap in understanding between them and their inability to express their feelings to one another.

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Breaches in symmetry and the breaking of pairings are present in the house and there is also one which occurs at a crucial point in the story: The dining table has only three chairs – the symmetrical  pattern of its two pairs of chairs is broken as one chair is missing; the high angle shots of the hallway highlight the mismatched staircase carpet and hall rug – the stair carpet has a square checker pattern, the hall rug has none – symmetry is ruptured; the unsettling image of Ted cut in half as he stands partially hidden by a fire hearth as he leaves the house – after claiming he is the shoe’s rightful owner – is a vision of half a person. It is David’s point of view shot representing his fractured state of mind (his mind’s eye quite literally) in which he sees half a person because his disturbed thought processes are dominated by the concept of pairs (“two halves”)

Drawing forth these breakages in symmetrical pairings arouses a mood of slowly creeping dread as the story moves towards its dreadful revelation, which in all its tragic and poignant detail explains the reason for David’s psychotic behaviour.

Pemberton & Shearsmith’s ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ script is outstanding in the way it mines seams of telling detail to expose cracks in David and Louise’s relationship and damage to a family caused by the lasting pain of loss and the residues of tragedy. Conversely as a tender counterpoint, their writing also conveys wells of emotion in showing Louise’s love and compassion for her husband trapped in mental turmoil, as well as her exasperation, desperation and fear as she tries everything in her power to halt and prevent his inexorable descent into obsession and psychosis.

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The couple are unable to address the grief they share between them. They mute their feelings, too scared to express them in case it awakens the agony of their loss: When Louise challenges David over his absurd ‘Lost Shoe’ poster campaign she reaches a point where she can go no further in trying to reason with him and is about to say something else but stops herself and then there is a momentary silence between the pair (She could be concerned that directly confronting David about what lies behind his troubling behaviour might worsen his condition. A reference later on – “You know he’s not been well” (Louise) – suggests her husband’s mental fragility is not new) In the same way, the seemingly innocent exchange between Louise and daughter Sally about where hymns are sung – “Like a funeral?” is followed by a telling silence from Louise before she answers. What is left unsaid says so much about their familial loss. The gaps and silences between words hold so much tension, emotion and meaning about the buried pain which they do not talk about.

It is striking that we mainly see Louise interacting with and caring for Sally, even though David is the stay-at-home parent. On one of the few occasions he is seen taking an interest in his daughter he is very sharp with her, telling her off for using the shoe as a pretend car for her doll. The delicately drawn inference is that Sally is a painful reminder of the past for David and a present which he can’t come to terms with. This implication becomes starkly clear in the scene where young Sally recites the titular nursery rhyme to her father. The line “one shoe off, one shoe on” seems to make almost playful reference to the shoe that David had been obsessed with, but another line “Diddle Diddle Dumpling, my son John” is like a punch to the stomach for him, a look of loss and pain flood across his face as he reacts to hearing the word ‘son’. Sally is the catalyst for David’s memory of unspoken trauma to reassert itself.

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From the opening scene it is apparent how careful Louise is around David, always mindful of what she says and more importantly of what she doesn’t. She is often shown trying to shift his attention away from the shoe, focus his mind on activities or encourage an interest in work opportunities. Only occasionally does her tenderness turn into irritation when she tries to challenge her husband’s perplexing obsession and disconnection from reality. Chris and Ted follow her sympathetic approach in their noticeably gentle interactions with David, treating his bizarre, disturbing behaviour with consideration, sensitivity and humanity. The sympathy shown towards David in ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ helps to hone and give coherence to the heart-rending human tragedy which is at the core of the story.

Pemberton and Shearsmith delineate David’s perturbing behaviour and damaged psyche with moments of eye-catching absurdity, insight and subtlety. Their unparalleled skill at locating deeper meaning in lines and passing moments – whose inferences are only properly understood when the end of the story is reached – bring emotive layers and depth to the portrayal of David’s mental upheaval and inner pain.

Across the timeline of the seasons in which the story takes place, David is often seen standing in isolation at a window, looking outside. He seems distracted, lost and in a tumult of pain, as if seized by a feeling of desolation. It is also evident when he is seen vacuuming, staring blankly ahead, a numb expression on his face. From the first time we see David, as he spots the discarded shoe on the street, he has a haunted quality, a hint of sadness in the eyes. All of these manifestations illustrate the pathological state of his mind.

The writers use two key incidents to show the growing decline in David’s mental state – the dining room scene where he demands Chris times him for two minutes to show he can go that long without mentioning the shoe and the interrogation scene in which he questions Ted at length to determine if he’s the shoe’s rightful owner. Both have an absurdist comic edge in which ridiculously surreal situations are depicted with upmost seriousness. At the same time, the multi-layered brilliance of the writing undercuts the dark humour with disquieting elements which contain troubling portents: As David is being timed during the challenge not to speak about the shoe for two minutes he tells his wife “This is very cruel what you’re doing you know”. It is a line which brings you up with a start as it expresses the pain he is carrying inside him. He could just as well be speaking to himself, admonishing his own mind for the cruelty of the mental disorder he is suffering from. Immediately after his failure to complete the challenge David appears agitated and gripped by a mania, speaking rapidly to Chris as ideas about the shoe pour out of him. Reaching far beyond the comedic absurdity of the initial situation it is a scene which becomes extremely unsettling to watch because we can see David is moving ever closer to a complete mental breakdown.

The interrogation scene between David and Ted goes even further in its perfectly pitched comic absurdity than the dining room timing challenge. As David realises he will have to give up the shoe to Ted he is overcome with emotion which seems to come from somewhere deep inside him. Not only does he refer to the shoe as him “Here he is. I’ve looked after him” but he also grasps it close to his face, his lips touching it, almost kissing it. When he pleads “Could you just give me a minute please. I’m finding this really hard” the distress is real and the sadness it provokes in David deeply upsetting and disturbing. The revelation at the very end that David and Louise are bereaved parents and that their young son Joseph died (Sally’s twin brother) makes David’s emotional ‘goodbye’ to the shoe here utterly heartbreaking in retrospect.

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Louise forces David to confront his pain and grief in the very last scene after he’s discovered her subterfuge with her old college friend Ted, done in order to put an end to David’s obsession with the shoe. The couple finally express their feelings and directly address the loss of their son (this intensely emotional scene is acted with extraordinary feeling and nuance by Reece Shearsmith and Keeley Hawes) Whilst Louise sought to not let grief destroy her by focusing all her attention on Sally, David’s only way of managing and controlling his loss was by restoring the natural order of things (there is nothing more ‘unnatural’ than the loss of a child for a parent) in his own mind through pairs – the putting together of halves. His reasoning told him twins were “two halves” and that “They should be together”, hence his inordinate need for pairs (and fixation with reuniting them) physically and psychologically.

Pemberton & Shearsmith leave enough troubling ambiguity in the closing moments to allow for the dreadful possibility (entirely in the audience’s mind) that David’s psychosis, obsession with pairs and need for ‘halves’ to be ‘together’ may have lead him to kill Sally: The equivocation of “They should be together” could equally mean ‘together’ alive in David’s mind, rather than the grim ‘together’ in death. Even the idea that he has killed Ted is only alluded to – Louise sees fresh blood on David’s hand – without it ever being confirmed (“Can’t remember” is all David says) The ambivalence of the final scene – the insinuated act of violence and even the horribly suggestive suspicion of filicide that hangs in the air –   feels completely in keeping with the disquieting atmosphere and creeping dread that chillingly pervades the whole piece.

The CCTV footage played over the end credits shows David placing his own shoe on the street, before he sets off on his run, in order to later ‘find’ it. The shoe never instigated his pathological obsession or unbalanced state of mind, but helped him find a way to project it, to express it emblematically. As he says to Louise “It’s not about the shoe is it. It was never about the shoe”. The writers’ flourish with the CCTV clip demonstrates that David  already harboured deeply ingrained issues and mental upheaval long before he ‘found’ the shoe.

The assured virtuosity of ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ shows yet again that the work of Pemberton & Shearsmith has a level of inventiveness, bleaky comic vision and emotional depth other writers can only dream of and aren’t even attempting.  No-one else is coming close to the dramatic scale, multiplicity of telling detail and seeding complexity which they infuse into their writing.

‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ has an extraordinary brittle, mournful quality woven through it which subtly conveys a tangible sense of loss, grief and regret from the start. Distinguished by an absorbing, mesmerisingly heartfelt performance by Reece Shearsmith as a man so tragically damaged by bereavement that he can only find solace and meaning in pitiful obsession, its pervasive melancholic atmosphere and emotional eloquence are things rarely achieved across a six part drama series yet alone within just 30 minutes. That ‘Inside No.9’ has not so far even had a single BAFTA Television Awards nomination – yet alone win – for work of this masterful quality and creative originality is a travesty. It clearly shows how tunnel visioned and moribund the genre categories of television awards are when no place can be found in the BAFTA pantheon for a programme as magnificent and imperishable as this.

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Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Guillem Morales

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

David…Reece Shearsmith

Louise…Keeley Hawes

Sally…Rosa Strudwick

Chris…Steve Pemberton

Ted…Mathew Baynton

Radio presenter…Danny Baker

Inside No.9 Review: Series Three: ‘Empty Orchestra’

*contains spoilers*

“No shop talk, remember. Tonight is all about fun.” (Connie: ‘Empty Orchestra’)

‘Empty Orchestra’ opens with the surreal image of a man in a comical fat sumo costume walking glumly along a corridor and through a door marked with a large ‘9’. The man (Greg) wears a look of weary resignation on his face as he approaches the door leading inside to a karaoke booth. As the door closes behind him a line from a song echoes from another booth – “And you’ll hum this tune forever.” It all suggests an evening to survive not enjoy, conjuring up the grim, enforced jollity of a night out where people are under strict orders to have ‘fun’ and inevitably don’t.

The threat of music continually playing (“…this tune forever…”) loudly and repetitively in a tightly confined space, anchors the idea that a small group of office workers coming together in a karaoke booth to celebrate a workmate’s (Roger) promotion are set to experience the hell that is other people. This sense of a ‘good time’ as a purgatory to be endured hangs heavily over ‘Empty Orchestra’ (the title is the literal translation of ‘karaoke’, but the word ‘empty’ is also suggestive of a soulless, deathless experience) but conversely, the story contains moments of touching poignancy and heartfelt emotion, offering redemption, hope and an optimistic ending.

This ‘Inside No. 9’ doesn’t journey to the pitch black recesses or examine the darkest extremes of behaviour. It stays firmly within recognisable perimeters of human nature, focusing on the turbulent waters of office politics and the small-scale and commonplace circumstances, motives and emotions it provokes. The six office employees (Greg, Connie, Fran, Roger, Janet and Duane) in the karaoke booth are challenged by sexual entanglement, job insecurity, life changing decisions, a marriage break-up and uncertain futures, deal with regret, jealousy, unrequited love, romance, unfaithfulness and bitterness or instigate deception, cruelty, revenge and bullying over the course of the real-time incidents and events depicted in Pemberton & Shearsmith’s potent narrative.

The claustrophobic, enclosed space of a karaoke booth – loud, dark, overpowering – with booming sounds and flashing lights, generates a stifling, disorientating atmosphere closing in and enveloping a group of people experiencing dissatisfaction and pain or negotiating expectations, hopes and dreams.

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The unnatural environment of the karaoke booth – an easy place to feel disconnected and removed from the inhibiting social conventions and observances of the workplace – creates the threat of a cauldron of heightened emotions being stirred and unleashed. The possibility of this group of work colleagues’ behaviour becoming freer, more unguarded also comes from the exhortation that is almost expected on a work’s night out to ‘let their hair down’, combined with the loosening effects of alcohol (and assumed too in the ‘pills roulette’ tantalisingly offered by Duane)

Positing office politics in all its detritus glory being played out in this incendiary setting promises the ‘hell (that) is other people’ of oppressive, even cruel behaviour. However ‘Empty Orchestra’ also allows that for every action there is a reaction, one which encourages the possibilities which come with liberating behaviour – the chance for redemptive happiness.

Pemberton and Shearsmith masterfully choose to make the performances of the karaoke songs by the characters an integral and highly distinctive element of this story. The songs become a conduit for the way their lives – and the feelings, emotions and dilemmas which come loaded with it – are revealed and explored throughout the narrative. The writers’ song choices are exemplary, providing a seamless interlinking of character and situation with appropriately matching lyrics, to the point of practically mirroring what the work colleagues are going through.

The performances of the songs are utterly mesmerising, almost self-contained mini dramas (there is a sense of time almost standing still as you watch them – in conception and execution, they’re perfect) by themselves in the way that they encapsulate the feelings and emotions of the characters as they sing them.

The songs are conveyors of emotional expression and character exploration in ‘Empty Orchestra’, an acknowledgement of the close connection between music and human emotion. A song’s dynamic structure, its temporal unfolding over a condensed few minutes, allows emotion to be expressed without restraint. Confrontation or confession can be articulated because the medium of song gives a layer of protection, filtered as it is through performance. Considerable personal emotions can be admitted covertly as someone can hide behind the song whilst at the same time express their true feelings. This is clearly the case with Connie and Greg (who are conducting an office affair) when they sing ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ literally behind the back of Fran (Greg’s girlfriend) but also in plain sight of her, as the lyrics are so close-to-the-bone in terms of being daringly confessional.

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Pemberton & Shearsmith use the karaoke songs with remarkable skill and dexterity and in multi-layered ways: To reveal aspects of character, layering emotions or motives as a way to progress the story; as narrative interplay, commentating or offering ironic observation on events as they’re introduced or unfold. There are moments in ‘Empty Orchestra’ where the minutely perfect timing of lyrics and narrative are breathtakingly intricate in the way they intervene and intercede with each other. This level of meticulousness is an absolute prerequisite in all of Shearsmith & Pemberton’s writing.

The way the karaoke performances work almost as self-contained mini dramas can be seen in the opening song ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ The crucial part played by the physical acting involved, in terms of gesture, movement and mime, cannot be underestimated. Greg begins the song alone as he tests the lights in the booth (the UV lighting option appears only momentarily but seeds in the audience’s mind. The effects UV lights cast will come back to haunt Greg and Connie later on) Connie then enters and joins him in song. The choreographed collusion on display relays the nature of their relationship and establishes their characters. Connie indulges in flirting and determined seduction with a flinty hardness in her eyes. She is bold, seemingly confident and coarse (her mimed allusion to fellatio – after Fran has arrived in the room – shows her behaviour is emboldened outside of the office environment) Greg, on the other hand, is the weaker partner, with a tense self-consciousness, hinting at a well of indecisiveness and selfishness in him.

The lyrics  of ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ and the way they’re enacted, helps power the narrative (clearly setting out the relationship between Greg, Connie & Fran and the deceit at the heart of it) and vividly shades character detail with striking economy. This song’s lyrics also contain another meaning for Greg, which is highlighted when Roger, their newly promoted boss, turns up. Almost pleadingly he sings “Don’t, don’t you want me?” as he looks across at him. Concerned about redundancy rumours the insecure Greg knows Roger will make the decision about which member of staff to sack and is worried his poor sales figures will put him in the firing line. It is indicative of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s skill at not only suffusing meaning across a script, but of ensuring that the songs they’ve assiduously chosen are made to work as hard as possible in service of the narrative.

The synthesis of song with character in elucidating their internal feelings and personal pain is provided by Roger’s excoriating “Since You’ve Been Gone” and the Connie/Greg/Fran relationship dilemma intimations of “I Know Him So Well’. Both contain kernels of emotional truth whilst also serving as acute summations of their current circumstances, the lyrics practically charting their personal journeys.

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Drunk and distressed, Roger almost howls ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’, reliving the pain and anger which his wife’s decision to divorce him has caused (Steve Pemberton rips his vocal cords apart, such is the level of anguished intensity with which he performs the song)

As Connie sings her part of the duet of ‘I Know Him So Well’ she really feels the lyrics’ pertinence to her situation. Her feelings move across a range of emotions – antagonism (“He needs fantasy and freedom”), distress (“No-one is completely on your side”) and despondency (“And though I move my world to be with him, still the gap between us is too wide”) Her mood switches in an instance – from despondency to elation – when she is misled into believing that Fran is the staff member Roger has decided to sack. Her response is perfectly timed to the chorus of the song as she sings “Oh SO good”, thinking that she will now have Greg all to herself.

The final song, which is played as the story reaches its conclusion, is ‘Titanium’, an anthem call to resilience and strength in the face of bullying and cruelty (“You shoot me down, but I won’t fall. Fire away. Fire away”) Janet, the deaf office worker, had been subjected to Connie’s toxicity from the moment she arrived for the staff’s karaoke celebrations. Driven by seething jealousy and corrosive bitterness, Connie moved from passive aggression, onto a cruel prank and finally overt prejudice against Janet’s ‘difference’. The powerful lyrics of ‘Titanium’ can be clearly heard as Janet finally stand up to her bully and exacts just revenge by telling Fran about Connie’s deceit and Greg’s unfaithfulness. Her lip reading skills meant the secret affair was betrayed from Connie and Greg’s own mouths.

Aside from placing the karaoke songs at the narrative centre in order to deepen understanding of the characters and layer meaning at crucial points of the story, Pemberton & Shearsmith’s script actively deploys visual clues and plays with different levels of meaning at particular points within scenes, in order to closely engage the audience with what they’re watching: A camera zoom in on a single line of ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ as its highlighted on the karaoke screen – “You’d better change it back or we will both be sorry” –  is a warning sign that Connie and Greg’s affair will have consequences; the playful exchange between Fran, Greg and Connie over which song he’s going to choose is also a humorous reference to the affair that Greg is conducting with Connie and which Fran is blissfully unaware of; the visual representation of ‘lip reading’ (which confirms Connie and Greg’s guilt to Fran) with the neon UV lipstick traces on their mouths from kissing, clearly seen under the UV lighting in the karaoke booth, when it is switched on.

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‘Empty Orchestra’ is also distinguished by the use of sound in the way the deaf character Janet’s acoustic experiences and perspective are conveyed and in the portrayal of Janet herself, through the sensitive, nuanced performance of Emily Howlett.

An aural point of view is brought to the fore in the narrative when the action centres on Janet. When she arrives in the karaoke booth she has to adjust/turn off her hearing aid due to the discordant heavy pounding of the sound system. At certain points the sound mix is faded or completely silent as a way of projecting and asserting Janet’s auditory experiences. This and the insertion of subtitles when Janet or another character communicates using sign language embraces inclusivity innovatively.

The character of Janet is portrayed as watchful and aware, keen-eyed and observant of others, as she deliberately keeps herself on the perimeters of the group. Subtle details indicate her empathy and sensitivity (seen in the concern she has for a distraught Roger and the caring touch she takes to hang up his jacket on a door coat hook) and her firm but understated ‘own person’ individuality (her choice of karaoke costume is Boy George, markedly different from the more obvious choices of Connie and Fran)

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One of the most touching moments in the story comes when Janet actively seeks a way to experience and enjoy the karaoke music due to her obvious attraction to fellow office worker Duane. She touches a loudspeaker so she can feel the vibrating sound waves as he performs ‘Wham Rap’. It is her way of touching him when she is too afraid to declare her feelings. This scene is echoed at the end when Duane takes Janet’s hand and places it on his chest so she can feel his heart beating beneath her fingers. Their tender connection is a redemptive and heart-warming conclusion – one that is full of hope. It is as moving and emotive as ‘Inside No.9’ has ever been.

‘Empty Orchestra’ is a very affecting piece. There are moments in it that stay with you and replay inside your head, such is the level of poignancy which builds within it, almost like a piece of music reaching a crescendo. The emotions and feelings which exert themselves through the characters’ performances of the songs as the lyrics directly connect with their experiences can’t be properly appreciated with just one viewing. There is so much going on in the interplay between timing, lyrics, narrative and character. This tale would benefit from multiple revisits, as is the case with every ‘Inside No.9’.

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith continue to find ever more inventive methods to route and relay a story. With ‘Empty Orchestra’ they gave themselves the challenge of constructing a narrative using pop songs as a key element, whilst keeping it relatable and truthful in terms of character and emotion (“Strange how potent cheap music is” to quote Noel Coward) The approach they take of seeking new ways to innovate in order to never repeat themselves is paying creative dividends. Series three continues to raise the bar ever higher in terms of the sheer quality and extraordinary variety of stories brought forth. It is something the BBC and viewers should be every grateful for – Pemberton & Shearsmith’s imaginations burning ever brighter.

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Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Guillem Morales

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Greg…Reece Shearsmith

Roger…Steve Pemberton

Connie…Tamzin Outhwaite

Fran…Sarah Hadland

Janet…Emily Howlett

Duane…Javone Prince

Chantel…Rebekah Hinds

Inside No. 9 Review: Series Three: ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’

*contains spoilers*

“She was devious and deadly. Perfect for a cryptic crossword setter.” (Professor Squires: ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’)

There may be other ‘Inside No. 9’s that are more narratively experimental or layered with greater emotional complexity but for sheer boldness of concept and execution ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ would be hard to improve upon. It is one of the most dementedly brilliant, enthrallingly unsettling and striking ‘Inside No. 9’ stories there has been so far.

A three-hander with Pemberton, Shearsmith and a superb Alexandra Roach (as Professor Squires, Dr Jacob Tyler and Nina/Charlotte respectively) it features genuinely disquieting human behaviour and provocatively nasty psychopathic deeds contained within a disquisition on cryptic crosswords, in which the themes of artfulness, deception and revenge are played out, interwoven with theatrical and gothic allusions, both referential and intertextual.

Near the very start of ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ a torch is shone around a darkened room, alighting on several objects which will become central to the story: A photograph of Professor Squires (whose tutor’s room this is) holding a trophy, a statue of the ancient mythical creature of the Sphinx and a large crossword grid, waiting to be unveiled (both literally and metaphorically)  This opening scene is suffused with symbolic suggestion (being ‘in the dark’, searching for clues, attempting to uncover concealed meaning)  which are central to the dynamics of ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ story itself, and indeed, the operating principle for cryptic crosswords themselves.

The objects which the torch spots around Squire’s room are presented almost as if they’re props on a stage. They are foregrounded and given due prominence, just as an unloaded gun is minutes later, the one Squires almost playfully threatens Nina the intruder with when he first discovers her (a close shot showing it being put safely away in a desk drawer by Professor Squires is a foregrounding that turns out to be a forewarning) The specific way these objects are presented emphasises the metatheatricality of this particular Inside No. 9 story. The nature of theatre and performance is alluded to and explored throughout the script as the story develops. Theatrical references and connotations abound: Everything from Greek tragedy, revenge plays, Pygmalion, Chekhov’s gun, ‘Theatre of Blood’ to Peter Shaffer’s ‘Sleuth’ are either directly referred to or indirectly signalled. A theatrical sense of artifice is highlighted by the use of the night-time storm raging outside to announce key themes and plot developments as they occur with flashes of lightning and thunder claps permeating the professor’s room. They are like a visual and aural equivalent of a musical fanfare, heralding the arrival of something important which should be paid special attention.

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Much of ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ centres on the battle of the wills between Professor Squires and Nina. Their initial hesitancy quickly develops into apparent mutual admiration and the good-willed rapport of a pupil-teacher relationship, as the classics tutor mentors Nina in the art and deduction of cryptic crosswords (the professor chose Sphinx as his crossword setter pseudonym because the overtones associated with the ravenous mythical creature’s deadly riddle were pleasing to him) When their real feelings, motivations, intentions and attempted outmanoeuvres are revealed, their verbal exchanges take on entirely different meanings – that of scrutinizing and role playing as they prod, probe and size each other up. Their guises are performances which conceal their true selves behind fake faces: “That is so clever. I knew you were devious” (Nina); “Don’t guess Nina dear. Deduct” (Squires); “Don’t patronise me professor. I only want to learn” (Nina); “Another word for big picture, a grand scheme” (Squires) “Plan” (Nina)

Their banter is actually a stratagem, involving deception, ambiguity and manipulation behind the back-and-forth word play, as they attempt to outwit each other to achieve their ends. As each make attempts to gain the upper hand and exert control over the other the filling in of clues on the crossword grid becomes their major focus. The more answers  one of them reveals they know the more the power play switches in their favour. The prior knowledge that they both display – as the crossword answers prove to be prescient of the disturbing events unfolding – show the pair each had a carefully thought out plan: “The asphyxiation of the Sphinx” (Nina); “I swapped cups” (Squires). It isn’t coincidental that Nina (which far from incidentally is also the name of a special feature of a crossword grid) tells Professor Squires that her ‘boyfriend’ is studying architecture at the university. Architecture after all is about design and structure in planning. This is analogous of the painstakingly careful planning both Nina and Squires think they’re executing on each other.

The seeded clues which Pemberton and Shearsmith plant throughout the narrative are something they’re renowned for. These devices tick away like time bombs – intimations, connotations and subtle traces of information – and prove to be incendiary over thirty minutes (“My bark is worse than my bite” (Squires) comes back to haunt the professor when he is forced to eat a ‘slither’ of Nina/Charlotte’s flesh by Doctor Tyler in a diabolical act of revenge; “Competitive solving can be quite combative. Blood has been spilled” (Squires) is revealed by Nina/Charlotte to be literally true in her brother Simon’s case – the professor’s cheating him out of winning the Cambridge Cruciverbalist Club’s trophy lead directly to his suicide) In many ways the pair’s writing and cryptic crosswords share similar attributes of misdirection and concealment. Just as cryptic crosswords involve making connections from elusive phrases and deciphering lines to find answers, so Inside No. 9 ploughs much the same furrow: Lines are schemes containing new or double meanings, opaque phrases acquire depth or become revelatory. This shared operating strategy is underscored by way of Professor Squire’s explanation to Nina about how cryptic crosswords work: “I can give you some pointers”; “Not a word wasted”; “Every word is chosen for its letters…and don’t take anything for granted” all of which are redolent and characteristic of Pemberton and Shearsmith’s writing too.

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The professor’s true nature comes sharply into focus once the effects of the neurotoxin poison (from a deadly species of fish) renders marine biology student Nina/Charlotte physically immobile as the toxins start to shut down her body. Squires is shown to be lascivious and sexually aggressive. For him young women are conquests he feels fully entitled to enjoy (As he says to Dr Tyler “Bloody dangerous leaving me along with a girl in this condition. All I could do not to slip her one”). In an extremely discomforting scene he kisses the slowly dying Nina/Charlotte full on the lips and moves his hand under her skirt and up her thigh. We begin to comprehend that his choice of the name Sphinx is an apt one for him. He is a devourer of flesh to satisfy his sexual desires: “And so the mighty Sphinx consumes the flesh of his conquest” (Tyler) Choosing ‘underslip’ as one of the answers for his newly compiled crossword heightens this sense of his moral slipperiness. The obvious enjoyment he took in deceiving Nina and winning the battle of wits with her suggest the scope cryptic clues have given him to practice cunning and duplicitousness bleed into other parts of his life and are deeply ingrained in him.  The implications from this are that he likes to be in control and wield power. As he admits he is not above “showing off”. What other reason is there to explain his motivation for compiling the crossword which spelt out (literally) the key parts of both Nina/Charlotte and his own pre-planned double crosses. As Dr Jacob Tyler points out, Squires’ love of showing off and need to be in control enabled Tyler to successfully set his own trap of betrayal and revenge: “How do you explain this? You compiled this crossword two days ago. It proves premeditation”; “You even concealed the murder weapon. I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist” (Tyler) Squires is truly hoist by his own petard. His own crossword has, to all intents and purposes, become a signed confession of guilt.

Inside No.9 series 3

Nina/Charlotte’s terrible fate has gothic resonance woven right through it. Its motifs of female entrapment/constraint, the ancient and archaic, sexual threat and unequal power are all implicitly present: Nina/Charlotte is literally trapped/imprisoned inside her own body due to the effects of the poison in the switched cups; the old-fashioned and rarefied setting of a tutor’s room at an old Cambridge college; the sexual threat from Squires after Nina/Charlotte is incapacitated produces a strong feeling of queasiness; the representation of unequal power is clearly seen in the reprehensible behaviour of both Squires and Tyler, with Squires committing sexual assault on a helpless woman and Tyler coldly sacrificing his daughter in order to exact the poetic revenge he has envisioned for years – “This is my revenge Nigel”.

There is a tragic poignancy attached to Nina/Charlotte, a sense that she doesn’t deserve what has cruelly befallen her. Two images of her are impossible to forget: A wide shot as she is sat alone and vulnerable on a chair in Squires’ room, unable to escape or fight back; the close-up shot on her face with a single tear running down it, as she learns and takes in her father’s betrayal and the appalling extent of his revenge.

Inside No.9 series 3

Dr Jacob Tyler is an erudite psychopath, as well-versed in the ancient texts of the classics as Squires is. He uses this knowledge to enact a revenge that references the cornerstones of Greek tragedy and the ancient revenge play – murder, madness and cannibalism (primarily Seneca’s ‘Thyestes’)

His revenge on Squires progressively builds by calculated degrees to a horrific climax, where what he imparts to the professor is so terrible to contemplate that a subtle but direct invocation to suicide – “A little present for you there Nigel” (Tyler) – leads Squires to immediately blow his brains out. The unveiling of Tyler’s revenge begins with him instructing the professor in a brisk, business-like way: “I want you to eat her. Not all of her of course. Just a slither.”  His outrageous and vile request is reluctantly submitted to by means of threat, blackmail (‘leverage’ as Tyler calls it) and blatant deceit.

The slow burn madness of Tyler has taken years to ferment and grow: “Its crazy isn’t it what the unhinged mind is capable of”. Squires is driven to his sudden act of madness (where suicide is seen as the only way out) when he is told that the young man, whose death he was held responsible for, was Tyler’s son and the final disclosure, that both Charlotte and Simon (the young man) were in fact his children, not Tyler’s. The professor’s nemesis deliberately imparts these psychologically shattering revelations to ensure Squires is mentally completely broken apart.

Shearsmith & Pemberton layer Tyler’s revenge with multiple textual references, including Greek tragedy, mythology and early revenge plays. Their use of a wide range of texts and acknowledgement of the interrelationships between them add weight and depth to the climactic scenario, gives additional meaning to the lines spoken by Tyler and Squires and anchors the audience’s knowledge and understanding of the denouement. It helps to magnify and bring extra frisson to the final outcome of this exceptional Inside No. 9 story.

‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ exerts a hypnotic hold from beginning to end. It has such a heady brew of influences which Pemberton & Shearsmith’s astonishing inventiveness and innate intelligence use and control impeccably. It contains one of the most visceral moments an Inside No. 9 (indeed any British television) has ever had. The scene involving the cutting, cooking and consuming of a piece of human flesh is shudderingly grisly and repellently grim, as it should be. However it is done to serve the interests of the story and not for sensational effect. When Tyler orders Squires to commit cannibalism he does it with a precise, coldly clinical logic. It is depicted in this way in order to show how deeply Tyler’s madness has driven his reasoning to the very depths of depravity.

The episode is proof – if any was needed – that Shearsmith & Pemberton possess two of the most extraordinary imaginations of any writers working in television today. That a plot revolving around cryptic crosswords could be this compelling, ingenious and intense -where every single line counts – illustrates the duo can choose any subject to weave a story around. It is exceptional talent, the propensity and discipline to work extremely hard at what they do, an incredible attention to detail and their labour of love passion that enable them to do it.

Inside No.9 series 3

Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Guillem Morales

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Professor Nigel Squires…Steve Pemberton

Dr Jacob Tyler…Reece Shearsmith

Nina/Charlotte…Alexandra Roach

Inside No. 9 Review: Series Three: ‘The Bill’

*contains spoilers*

The start of ‘The Bill’ conjures up memories of The League of Gentlemen’s Geoff, Mike and Brian triumvirate – the Northern businessmen friends whose relationship was forged in childhood and as work colleagues at the local plastics factory. It was a toxic male grouping, dominated by Geoff’s overwhelming sense of failure, his corrosive jealousy and disproportionate rage.

The opening scenes of ‘The Bill’ show a trio of northern businessmen friends at the end of the evening in a high end restaurant (‘N!ne’)  as they entertain a business associate from London. There is a semblance of post-match camaraderie and down-time relaxation following a game of badminton.

From the moment we are introduced to the four male characters as director Guillem Morales’ camera glides forward through the restaurant in order to fix its close gaze on the table where they are seated, the room is one of testosterone-filled masculine interaction. It is an incendiary atmosphere which grows increasingly heated and fractious in a short space of time, as their behaviour deteriorates from typical alpha male banter, posturing, boorish jokes and lewdness into scorn, hostility, resentment, bitterness, malevolence, belligerence, combativeness and physical violence. A groundswell develops from initial bullish disagreement over who is to pay the restaurant bill and escalates out of control, descending into savagery as intense emotions, hidden feelings and personality clashes are stripped away and laid bare. The bill becomes the blue touch-paper which is lit and then explodes in recrimination and anger.10996130-high

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s script is, as always, simply extraordinary, working across several different levels at once. Crafted with an economy of style so that every line counts, it is suffused with telling detail. At the same time, the progression of the narrative is done with systemised precision so that every twist and turn is carefully placed with a painstaking degree of coherence and logic. The established format for which Inside No. 9 is known – taking a familiar situation or setting and shifting by degrees into unexpected or surprising territory is never done at the expense of the story, but always to serve it.

Pemberton and Shearsmith’s writing often involves several distinctive elements: Their talent for the absurd – taking a simple idea, pushing it to the extreme and into very dark recesses, but within its own internal rationale. A prime example of this in ‘The Bill’ is Malcolm and Archie’s knife game challenge (Five Finger Fillet) where the pair’s dysfunctional competitiveness as to who wins the privilege of paying the bill is taken to the precipice. It is acted and filmed with unflinching, unnerving seriousness – an absurdist situation which shows up the ridiculousness of the machismo mindset. Shearsmith and Pemberton also have a particular ear for how ordinary people speak in social situations, which comes from the pair catching bits of overheard conversation and then running with it to create dialogue which has a natural rhythm, energy and movement. The duo’s material is also adept at social observation, societal tensions and the fallout from them, as well as depicting the human traps that people are caught in as a result. The multilayeredness which characterises their work has thematic, analytical and psychological depth and scope, as well as well-defined, convincingly drawn characters which propel narrative complexity. Prime examples of all of these are interlaced throughout ‘The Bill’.

The League’s Geoff, Mike and Brian antecedent to ‘The Bill’s  Malcolm, Archie and Kevin examined masculinity through the mired failure that was Geoff’s life – his rage and anger at his sense of continual disappointment, his jealousy of the more successful Mike and conversely his intense need to be his best friend. In ‘The Bill’ the tenets of manliness are traversed across money, competitiveness, one-upmanship and dominance. This is Mamet-esque domain: The characters of Malcolm, Archie, Kevin and their outsider guest, Craig, are enmeshed in mind games of assertiveness, superiority and control from the start. The unpaid bill becomes the catalyst for the group dynamics to be probed, tested, challenged and fought over, with keen rivals Malcolm and Archie the main culprits. Their seemingly spiralling out-of-control battle of wills pulls Craig further in the longer it goes on.

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It is noticeable that the issue of money dominates the group’s conversation from the beginning and the quarrelsome lows that it descends into. For this group of men it has merely become a means to an end. Money’s raison d’etre – its most important purpose – is how high in the social hierarchy it can place someone. It confers status, superiority, power and control – the levers of masculinity. The lines spoken by the protagonists illustrate just how attached the characters are to this particular interpretation of maleness and how they’re enslaved to this version, whether they’re satisfied by it or not (“I know that all you Northerns are very poor, what with your Christmas clubs and your diddums”, “Expensive cos its worth it” – Craig; “You just get this little starter. I’ll pay for the proper grown-up meal next time. Well done” – Malcolm; “You’re a control freak. Why can’t I have a pat on the back ‘Good old Archie’ for a change? Swooping in and claiming every act of generosity” – Archie) Adherence to this strident, unforgiving masculinity (as expressed in lines such as those) give rise to very unattractive behaviour within the group – belittling, ridicule, passive aggression, bullying – including inflections on the North-South divide and class.

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The driving force behind these male relationships is a constant striving to reach the best possible position within the group, as they sit around the restaurant table. The manifestation of this will to power designates that your rival/rivals must be made to feel inferior, less successful, less of a man and money is the enabler of this, the restorative balm of male pride – hence the battle of wills over who pays the bill.  This is why what starts as verbal glancing blows and slaps before moving onto words which land punches ends with Malcolm, Archie, Kevin and Craig’s physical skirmish, as they all try to grab the bill. In the brilliantly choreographed ‘fight’ sequence, the small rectangular piece of paper becomes almost a symbolic Excalibur which all four men are desperate to grasp in their hands. To them it represents something which has capacity to bestow power and status.

This treatise on masculinity and the consequences of it on group dynamics and the individuals themselves is played out through the brilliantly delineated characters.  Kevin is the milquetoast of the quartet – meek, pernickety and careful with his money to the point of penny-pinching. This makes an object of Malcolm and Archie’s mockery (aspersions to his money being ‘shrapnel’ and him being a ‘blue cock’) He stays above the fray of the argumentative Malcolm and Archie, content to have his little victories of cultural superiority (his aside correcting Malcolm about ‘Outrageous Fortune’ being a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, not a Bette Midler film) He alludes to not being as financially well-placed as the other, purposely sidelining himself to the group’s perimeters. Jason Watkins plays Kevin to beautifully nuanced perfection. His bits of business carefully counting out his money and forlornly searching in his little purse are a joy.

Archie desperately wants to upscale his position within the group and challenge the two dominant alphas at the table – Malcolm and Craig, but lacks the ability and confidence to do it. He is prickly, insecure, with strong currents of resentment and simmering anger, which readily erupts (“We all know you’re really rich Craig”; “He’s putting you in his pocket in case he needs you at a later date”; “Yes, because you’re a selfish prick”)   Malcolm is extrovert, loud, domineering, aggressive, blustering and wanting to be the centre of attention. He and Archie are a toxic mix and Reece & Steve act them with an electrifying energy – their intensifying argumentative battle has a vehemence and viciousness which is mesmerising.10996195-high

Craig appears to be the most confident and successful out of all of them but there are intimations that beneath the surface he is not as assured as he seems, but instead troubled and dogged by a sense of ennui. His lecherous side is often to the fore (“I wouldn’t mind splitting you four ways”) he admits he craves excitement and would be happy to move on from his current life. At one point he confesses to dreading the week long business conference and all that comes with it. He also appears to have secrets he is desperate to hide (he strictly instructs the au pair looking after his children back at the hotel that a specific drawer and wardrobe must not be opened) Philip Glenister masterfully portrays the duality and ambiguity in the character and also brings a fleetingly glimpsed haunted quality to Craig.

Of course what we have gleaned about the group dynamics and indeed the unfolding events of the evening are turned on their head with the reveal – that Malcolm, Archie, Kevin and Anya (the waitress) are con artists attempting an elaborate scam on the London outsider, which climaxed with what Craig thought was his accidental killing of the waitress and a cover-up operation which he was going to pay £200k for.

With the knowledge of hindsight, what was being enacted in front of us was an act of deception, orchestrated to apply maximum psychological pressure on a prime candidate for manipulation and entrapment – an outsider for whom even the regional colloquialisms were confusing, yet alone the toxic group dynamics of a trio of relative strangers.

The participants were performing to a tightly run script designed to press all the right buttons with which to unsettle, unnerve and pressurise someone to the point where caught in the eye of the storm of an escalating situation of dysfunctional behaviour, emotions and actions, entrapment would be difficult to withstand. Pemberton and Shearsmith’s writing is therefore operating on two levels at once. It conveys the scorched tempers as machismo competitiveness and simmering resentments take hold in increasingly disturbing and threatening ways. At the same time it also shows how the four characters unleashing the con have pinpoint command of everything, controlling the timing of every disagreement and quarrel, pausing the action to allow the worsening situation to sink in with Craig, before switching back to apply the pressure again with further acts of suggestion or by upping the ante to raise the stakes even higher.

Clues are scattered for the audience to pick up on but as so often the case with an Inside No. 9 these are usually realised only after a second or multiple viewings: “There’s plenty of money swilling around up here you know, as long as you know where to look for it” (Malcolm to Craig); “Shall I split you four ways?” (Anya to Craig); “You shouldn’t bring Susie into it Malcolm. That’s wrong” (Kevin to Malcolm, subtly admonishing him for going off-script); “Sounds like you do this on a weekly basis” (Craig to Archie, before the scam breaks down); the moment when Kevin glances across at Craig to see his reaction and gauge whether the scam is working on him, following a particularly heated exchange between Malcolm and Archie.10996286-high

The final flourish shows Craig now ensconced as a member of the gang, playing a waiter as they attempt to pull off exactly the same con on another victim. References alluding to discontentment with his life had peppered his conversations with Malcolm, Archie and Kevin as the scam on him was taking place. There had also been indications that Craig carried problematic and rather dodgy baggage himself (his secrecy over what was kept in the drawer and wardrobe in his hotel room and the fact he had ready access to £200k in cash from his own safe) In retrospect, it made his transition to trickster a logical outcome of the story. That he would end up as part of the team was even signalled halfway through with a high angle camera overhead shot of the four men seated in a circle around the table as they drink a toast. It was a strong visual clue hinting that they were now irreversibly bound together as a group.

‘The Bill’ is distinguished by a simple challenge – how to sustain, develop and conclude an argument over real-time. What is more, beneath this premise accumulates much else besides: An encapsulation of a certain type of male behaviour in all its appalling glory, perceptive social observation, sharp psychological insight and compelling characters.

Eschewing the technical intricacies of ‘The Devil of Christmas’ for a story that appears quite simple at first sight, Pemberton and Shearsmith once again prove their work always carries a strong undercurrent of complexity and depth. The pair’s writing deliberately ‘throws down the gauntlet’ to an audience to very closely watch how a story unfolds because in their world things are never as they first appear. Things are always more complicated, messy and nasty – and always for a reason.

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Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Guillem Morales

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Archie…Reece Shearsmith

Malcolm…Steve Pemberton

Anya…Ellie White

Kevin…Jason Watkins

Craig…Philip Glenister

Tim…Callum Coates

Inside No. 9 Review: Series Three: ‘The Devil of Christmas’

*contains spoilers*

“I very nearly didn’t do this film, but there was so little work around I felt I couldn’t say no. The week before I’d had a meeting about Worzel Gummidge, but Pertwee had his favourites. I knew that from Who” (Dennis Fulcher, ‘The Devil of Christmas’)

Since 2014, two series of ‘Inside No. 9’ have produced 12 original stories of such masterly construction & distinctive brilliance that it has established itself at the apex of quality British television. Greeted with the sort of acclaimed critical reception and audience appreciation reserved for the very few, its consistently high standards have been truly exceptional.

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s remarkable writing for the series involves taking an idea or premise and moving it along surprising routes & at unpredictable angles, with the aim of confounding expectations of narrative trajectory whilst shaking up viewers’ inclinations and assumptions.

The No. 9 of the title is a single setting – often as not, the commonplace, mundane or familiar – a place for an extraordinary story to develop, emotionally or thematically (and often both) with customary depth & dark predilection.

Shearsmith & Pemberton have also given themselves the creative room to experiment with the form of their perfectly formed playlets (S1’s ‘A Quiet Night In’ was wordless; S2’s ‘Cold Comfort’ narrative was told using only CCTV camera shots)

Any ‘Inside No. 9’ stands up to numerous viewings and not just because of its striking quality. In order to see the encompassing creativity in its totality, several watches may be required to fully appreciate the multi-layered levels it is operating on. Looking again at an episode is like coming anew to something not fully understood the first time: Juxtaposed ideas and different elements emerge from the density of detail contained within; the cultivated, precise way the denouement was reached is revealed, as well as how those surprises along the journey were shaped & intimated; nuances originally missed are picked up on. All in all, a deeper appreciation of the complex layers & a better understanding of the Faberge egg of intricate construction involved in Pemberton & Shearsmith’s writing comes from watching a No. 9 story more than once.

Over two series it has become abundantly clear just how much Inside No. 9’s two creators are in total command of their unique work. Their depth of care, attention to detail and meticulousness is beyond compare. The artistry involved, the scope of imagination brought to bear on each story is simply astonishing – ‘Inside No. 9’ really is a labour of love for them.

Now we have a level of excitement in anticipation of series three which is hard to contain, especially after a BBC press release said that it “promised to raise the bar even higher”.

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‘The Devil of Christmas’ is the first story of the third series but was broadcast as a ‘Christmas special’ ahead of the transmission of the rest of the series in early 2017.

The title is the name of the fictional 1970s TV play presented to us (after the Inside No. 9 opening credits end) with such unerring accuracy of a specific oeuvre of TV melodrama of the period, that it almost takes on the weight of a historic artefact, so close is it in reproducing the look, feel & tone of that television era.

In ‘The Devil of Christmas’ a middle-class family arrive to spend the seasonal holidays at an Austrian chalet. Julian Devonshire is accompanied by his young wife Kathy, Celia, his forthright mother, dripping in fur and his young son Toby. Prompted by a picture on the chalet wall, local guide Klaus informs them it is of Krampus, a demon-like creature that represents the dark side of St. Nicholas Day, who punishes naughty boys & girls by hurling them into “the flames of hell”. It is a story that appears to frighten the nervous Kathy.

The patina of the age is recreated with pitch perfect authenticity: The step-back-in-time technical production processes & associative shooting limitations; impeccable adherence to the narrative techniques & devices reserved for this specific television brand; the full use of generic tropes & clichés; the careful delineation of recognisable 1970s cultural mores, its prevalent attitudes & sensibilities. This is the driven meticulousness of Pemberton & Shearsmith at work and it suffuses every scene of ‘The Devil of Christmas’.

It is also a No. 9 that is experimental in the way that it plays with, deconstructs and re-imagines this particular TV drama format in a distinctly dark way, dissecting narrative conventions through the intervening interplay of metatextuality.

At one level ‘The Devil of Christmas’ is an obsessively faithful reproduction of a particular British televisual milieu of the 1970s – namely the studio bound TV dramas – or more appropriately melodramas – with thriller, mystery & horror based themes at their heart. Made on minimum budgets, they strove for maximum effect through exaggeration & overstatement in acting & script and the predominance of plot & action in place of subtlety, character development & depth. It was the case of getting to ‘the thing of it’ as efficiently & intensely as possible precisely because of the budgetary limitations. They were the schlocky, less nuanced distant relations of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s M.R. James adaptations for the BBC (Reece & Steve have sited ITV anthology series ‘Thriller’ & ‘Beasts’ as inspirations for ‘The Devil of Christmas’)

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The exemplary observance in duplicating this 1970s TV archetype at practically carbon copy level was manifold. It was filmed in a highly restrictive way on 1 inch videotape stock, 4:3 aspect ratio, using authentic 1970s multi-camera broadcasting technology[1]. The tube-based TV cameras were operated by old crew members with sourced studio lighting equipment of the era. It was cut & edited in the studio as it was shot, as was the practice in those days. The 625 line PAL cameras used are the cause of the light trails seen in the episode, leaving their vapour-like traces in the air. The softened picture quality with slightly hazy definition & colour bleeds is the effect from degraded videotape as it is edited and re-edited. The director Graeme Harper was himself a veteran of 1970s TV dramas.

The nostalgic technical precision taken to film it was exacting & the immaculate replication used to showcase the technical limitations of ‘The Devil of Christmas’ TV play itself is a significant aspect of the show-within-a-show conceit of the episode.

Working within the parameters of a flawless imitation, ‘The Devil of Christmas’ is positioned with well-judged subtlety to feasibly convince as a TV play that could have actually been broadcast in the 70s. Nothing is heavily overdone to place it too far beyond believability & into the realms of ‘Acorn Antiques’ or ‘Gareth Marenghi’s Darkplace’, the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ of comedic parodies.  The technical inadequacies, production errors, affected style & dated sensibilities are done with a delicate palette & avoid broad brushstrokes.

It is impeccably pitched, only heightened for parody occasionally. It is a pastiche that is perfectly judged across every narrative feature & production element: Script: The language veers back & forth between hyperbole & the overdramatic – “What a gloomy thought. Catch our deaths”, “Shaking like a leaf”, “Brush my hair Julian. You know I’ve never liked thunder” and wooden exposition.  It is flavoured with archaic terminology such as ‘mummy’ & ‘granny’. There is also the superb detail of the characters’ names – & the actors playing them within the ‘play’ – reflecting a robust middle-classness, redolent of many TV plays of the time. Camera shots: It is full of static two-shots which only emphasis the studio bound artificiality, multi-camera set-up & the theatrical placing of the actors. The over-conscious use of camera pans & zooms in order to create the allusion of space (and flowing movement which comes from it) as opposed to the actual confines of a television studio set and the limited space caused by the unwieldy and large TV studio cameras. Sound effects: The slight mistimed sound cues on a face slap & the phone being placed back down; the abrupt stop on the sound of a blizzard as soon as the chalet door is shut. Lighting: The way that the holiday chalet is flooded with light when only one small table lamp is apparently turned on. Acting:  Kathy’s sudden leap to fervent heights of earnest over-emoting, which just as quickly die away; the affected repertory acting tones of Julian; the awkward, self-consciousness of the child actor, seen in the way he mechanically recites his lines & theatrically rubs his eyes when he wakes up. Production errors:  Actress Nancy Mason’s (playing Celia) slightly missed mark highlights the theatrical stiltedness & studio setting of the piece; the way the child actor walks up the stairs carrying the fork used in the earlier dinner scene; the very brief glimpse of a television camera in shot. Cultural attitudes: The casual sexism & latent misogyny vividly displayed in ‘The Devil of Christmas’ is totally in keeping with prevailing 1970s social mores. Husband Julian patronises & treats wife Kathy as if she is a little girl, whilst she is submissive & jittery. Having an actress dressed head to toe in fur as Rula Lenska’s character is would be contentious now, but unremarkable for the times. Likewise, the idea that whipping horses with a switch was accepted practice – when Julian explains to son Toby what switches are for – places the TV play securely in a different era. The past really is another country.

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There are numerous subtle shadings like these peppered throughout ‘The Devil of Christmas’. Some are imperceptibility slight & only become noticeable, as smallest details do, after viewing the episode a number of times. A real feeling is generated that these are the sort of small fluffs & technical oversights in a studio production, bound by a tight budget, that were judged as acceptable to let pass back in the 1970s. This was the time before VCR, DVDs & iPlayer, when viewers only had the chance to watch a programme as it was being broadcast.

Shearsmith & Pemberton’s intricate writing skilfully positions the 1970s drama so that it works on two levels. Namely, as the precise reproduction of a 70s timepiece, imbued with technical shortcomings & production errors and as a melodrama itself, containing enough narrative power to pull in & exert a hold on the audience on its own merits. Well established devices are interwoven through it to firmly anchor the familiar melodramatic terrain with a plotline that is entertainingly & comfortably predictable: A seemingly innocent, dutiful wife is actually an unfaithful & duplicitous woman who uses the Krampus legend to drive her husband’s suspicious mother and the inconvenient step-son Toby away in order to stage a fright & deliberately cause husband Julian’s fatal heart attack.

Clichéd flourishes like a bitchy mother-in-law, heart condition pills & inferences to marital difficulties & a first wife layer it convincingly. Indeed Kathy’s noticeably over-the-top histrionics cleverly work twice over – as a recognisable element of overt theatricality seen in a certain type of 70s TV drama, but also as an integral part of the plot, where Kathy’s overplayed nerves could well be seen to be part of her scheme to manipulate events in her favour as part of her murderous plan.

At the very beginning of ‘The Devil of Christmas’, before the opening titles in red gothic lettering roll over old film stock of an Austrian landscape, there is a brief shot of a VTR clock board noting the studio recording date & TV title & an audible countdown from the TV gallery. It is Pemberton & Shearsmith’s way of priming the audience, hinting that what we are about to watch is not all that seems to be. This behind-the-scenes vestige of the production process was something never normally seen by the viewing public when a programme was broadcast. That it is there as ‘The Devil of Christmas’ starts signals that this isn’t going to be a simple pastiche of a ‘golden age’ TV genre. Five minutes into the action the fruity intonations of TV director Dennis Fulcher are heard for the first time, in an apparent director’s DVD commentary for this old 1970s TV show.

The meta nature of the commentary cuts through & breaks up the familiar 1970s TV drama linear narrative. A sense of the unusual suggested at the very start of the programme is reinforced & a creeping unease starts to exert itself, despite Fulcher’s seemingly amiable asides & reminiscences, happily pointing out production mistakes & actors’ deficiencies. There are additional interruptions to the narrative flow – the videotape rewinding, unedited takes & re-takes, behind-the-scene footage & the sound of directions being given from the studio gallery. This ratcheting up of metatextual complexity increases doubt in the audience about what they think they’re watching. The outtakes could be part of a DVD extra package but these are never normally seen within the TV show itself, as part of the viewing experience, so the feeling of discomfort grows that something is not quite right.

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The queasiness pervades what the audience thinks is the final scene, which ends with Kathy chained to a bed, screaming in close up as a pair of fake hairy hands (of the Krampus costume worn by her lover Simon) move threateningly towards her. It is deliberately off-kilter because it does not persuade as a frightening climax.  It feels as if it has gone on one scene beyond the generic conventions of the TV drama would deem the right place to end it  – with Kathy & her lover embracing after succeeding in their plot to kill Julian (Dennis Fulcher admits as much in his ‘commentary’) Then plastic sheeting is spread across the bed and the nastiest climax possible is realised – Kathy’s actual terror (or rather Penny’s, the actress playing her) as it becomes apparent she is part of, and victim for, a snuff film. Its an unsparingly shocking & brutal ending, as dark as ‘Inside No 9’ has ever been. A forewarning to the dreadful conclusion which unfolds before us was spoken by Kathy early on (& repeated again near the end) when she says “catch our deaths”. The figurative language of the 70s melodrama is revealed to be hauntingly true in the most literal sense.

The revelation that Dennis Fulcher’s commentary was in fact a police interview pulls us into the present in a highly disturbing way. A modern awareness of the 1970s understands it had an unsavoury & sordid underside, attendant with the underlying misogyny. It was a time when sexual assault & abusive treatment of girls & women occurred within the television industry, when there was a culture of people looking the other way as horrendous things were done. The disclosure that we were listening to Fulcher being interviewed by the police is bleakly resonant. It evokes the idea of the past being scrutinised in the present, of it catching up with some of those who were around in the 1970s, of police investigations like Operation Yewtree being headline news.

When the audience learns the uncomfortable truth about the ‘commentary’, Fulcher’s words come back to taunt. Shearsmith & Pemberton’s beautifully crafted lines for him work by being hidden in plain sight. When their context is revealed, the layered clues they contain transform their meaning (“Otherwise I think we got away with it”, “Very hard to find a good child given the subject matter of the film”)

Likewise, viewers’ original perception of Dennis Fulcher  – as a likeable purveyor of insider titbits, as an unpretentious man enthusiastically denigrating his ‘The Devil of Christmas’ inadequacies – take a drastic volte-face.  In the wake of now knowing that the thing he takes great delight in talking about is a snuff film he directed, he now appears to be quite the psychopath. The pleasure emanating from his voice carries the feeling of someone who is really enjoying the attention. Recalling him saying “I needed to be there for the climax” with such relish is now chilling.

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s brilliantly inventive work continues to astound. They are always finding innovative ways to deliver a story. There is nothing else like ‘Inside No. 9’ on television, nothing which even comes close to its imaginative power or the extraordinary layers of nuance interwoven into its narratives.

‘The Devil of Christmas’ strove for far more than a painstakingly precise pastiche, even though they took the exact reproduction of a 1970s TV drama to new heightens of precision. Shearsmith & Pemberton’s writing is always interested in so much more. It explores new ways of seeing or understanding what we already know – the everyday or the familiar -with the inclusion of the unexpected.

By imitating a 1970s TV drama in such magnified detail & making a virtue of the wide ranging subtleties in it, the audience’s attention was drawn away & distracted from seeing what was really taking place – the preparation of a snuff film. In this way it replicates the cover that was ‘The Devil of Christmas’ TV play, which Dennis Fulcher hid his intentions behind as well.

Fulcher’s ‘commentary’ was one of the multilayering metatexual elements permeating ‘The Devil of Christmas’. The narrative potential of a commentary & the way it can be used to introduce subtexts, plot & character development was explored to startling effect by Pemberton & Shearsmith themselves in their ‘Inside No. 9’ series two commentaries on SoundCloud. A commentary can deliver its own narrative or complement & add complexity to other ones, as the intriguing slyness & ambiguity of Fulcher’s demonstrates.

The experimental use of metatextuality in this episode not only subverted the 1970s TV drama that was presented to the audience, it also showed how television itself is watched & consumed now, how its constituent parts can be broken up and examined to create new meanings.

‘The Devil of Christmas’ was memorable in so many different ways. The complex multilayeredness, conveyed in both its meticulousness & narrative innovations, brought dynamism to Shearsmith & Pemberton’s imaginative way of telling a story. The distinctiveness of the brilliantly recreated 1970s drama made the denouement even more shocking, unsparing and bleak.

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s opener to series three showed them at the very peak of their powers and illustrated why there is no-one else even coming close to what they can achieve in just 30 minutes of television.

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Footnote

  1. An in-depth, behind-the-scenes magazine article by George Bevir details the authentic 1970s technical production processes used to film ‘The Devil of Christmas’, including an interview with producer Adam Tandy [‘Broadcast’, 16th December 2016, p.24-25]

Writers… Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Graeme Harper

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers… Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Julian Devonshire/Brian…Steve Pemberton

Klaus/Simon/Ralph Cosgrove…Reece Shearsmith

Kathy Devonshire/Penny…Jessica Raine

Celia/Nancy Mason…Rula Lenksa

Toby…George Bedford

Dennis Fulcher (voice)…Derek Jacobi

Young Dennis…Naz Osmanoglu

Interviewer (voice)…Cavan Clerkin

In Praise of a Performance – Reece Shearsmith in ‘The Dresser’: The Synthesis of Role and Performer…the Alchemy of Character and Actor

“I just like things to be lovely. No pain, that’s my motto” [Norman, ‘The Dresser’, Act I]

“We all have our little sorrows, ducky, you’re not the only one. The littler you are, the larger the sorrow. You think you loved him? What about me? [Norman, ‘The Dresser’, Act II]

At its very best, the theatre is a unique artistic experience, both for the actor on stage and the audience in the auditorium.

For the actor, theatre acting not only involves the necessities of concentration and discipline, but also offers a freedom to explore and develop the role, bound only by the strictures within the character. There is the creative space to make choices of nuance and emphasis and introduce bits of business which give further expression to a character’s inherent quality.

Detailed study of the text, fertile creative rehearsal and especially the rigours of eight performances a week, enable the actor to delve deeper between and behind the lines of the original play text, to articulate what is left unsaid, whilst honouring the truth & essence of the part.

The craft of stage acting is about developing a greater understanding of a character – their desires, dilemmas and desperation, what motivates and drives them – with the actor forging new layers of emotion latent in the play and within the role. This is by dint of the journey of discovery and growth that an actor goes through when they spend time, physically and emotionally, with a character during a play’s run.

It is the close relationship an actor has with a part he is playing for a marked length of time that is at the heart of the theatre experience for the audience as well. The distillation of choices – the ability to alter and play with variations in shading, detail and expression –  which is exclusively available to the stage actor, is the creative distinctiveness special to the theatre. Moments captured on stage are delicately different & subtly change at each performance, thereby making every performance a unique event for audiences too.

Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play about a tyrannical actor manager and his dresser offers an abundance of riches for the two actors playing the central characters. Brilliantly written, there is a profusion of multifaceted attributes and an almost epic scale of dimensions to Sir (the actor manager) & Norman (the dresser) The play’s thematic explorations of loneliness, isolation, failure & the different ways people react against, fight, succumb to or settle for the accumulated disappointments in life, is given pathos and believability through the layered depths of the two main characters.

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In essence, ‘The Dresser’ is a deeply moving and humane play and in Sean Foley’s superlative production the key parts of Sir and Norman are played by Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith. Stott is an acting titan with a distinguished career of deservedly high reputation and critical acclaim for a wide range of roles. He has an exalted status and pre-eminent theatrical charisma attached to him, making him utterly perfect for the part, even before his first entrance as Sir.

Matching him is Reece Shearsmith, a consummate, supremely talented actor, who has always been adept at portraying the duality in a character and has a keen eye for layering detail in a role. Allied to this are his unsurpassed comic skills, with a near genius ability to find humour in and mine laughs from almost any line or situation. He also has an extraordinary capacity for reaching the inner truthfulness in a role, bringing a depth of emotional intensity, as if he is living and experiencing a character’s feelings for real. It goes beyond empathy to total emotional commitment to the part he’s playing.

It is this acting prowess that enables Shearsmith to become the perfect personification of Norman, from the very first breathe of his opening line to the last turn of his head & final stare (into the abyss) at the end, as he stands alone and completely crushed in Sir’s dressing room. He makes the part completely his own. It is as defining a performance of the role as the original Norman, Tom Courtenay’s, was.

Norman’s multi-layered complexity is a manifestation of his troubled past, the present sustenance, dilemmas & issues borne in his current position of dresser and relationship with Sir and his future fears – that what he currently clings to will soon end due to the vicissitudes of the actor manager’s age and health.

This totality of a life is brilliantly denoted with an impeccable actor’s skill by Reece Shearsmith. He anchors the multifarious elements in Norman (fastidious, discrete, confidant, carer, waspish, camp) and his multiple characteristics (bitterness, resentment, anger, despair) in the detailed choreographed physicality of his performance, with beautifully precise gestures, posture and changing countenance. Each fleeting facial expression gives something away and the “soulful eyes” of Norman are reflected in the twin pools of sadness that Reece summons from his own eyes. Then there is the tone and emphasis given to particular words and phrases, and the timing and beats that Shearsmith gives to certain lines – yet another intrinsic part of the meticulous work involved in constructing his performance.

The distinct choices made in Reece Shearsmith’s nuanced acting align faithfully to the dresser’s character and help to reveal Norman’s interior life (his past, present and anxious future) coalescing inside him. The array of subtleties which are involved draws the audience further in and encourages them to look with greater intensity at what is being depicted on stage: The more closely one looks and sees, the better you understand Norman – what his past was, his current motivations and the extent of his vulnerabilities.

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One side of Norman’s life alluded to in the play is his past, which he refers to elliptically, carefully disengaging from the difficulties and troubles he has experienced (intimations around fragility, depression, a breakdown & a spell in Colwyn Bay are referred to as having happened to an illusory friend) by invoking his “I had a friend” stories diffusely.

There are many traits to this man and one elicited from the dualism in Reece’s performance is Norman’s need to conceal, to be in control, closed-in, guarded. This can be seen in the detail of his slicked down short hair, in the bib apron that sheaths him, in the fastidious way he mans his domain and serves Sir and in those glimpsed moments in the dressing room and as he stands in the wings watching Sir, where Norman seems shut down, momentarily lost in his own thoughts. These carefully delineated components in Shearsmith’s portrayal produce a feeling of a life having been lived on the periphery and in the shadows. Norman’s homosexuality is lightly signalled but there are enough derogatory remarks by other characters (“nancy-boys”, “buggers”, “pansy fraternity”) to know this was a time when gay men lived under perpetual threat and fear of discovery, where being discreet and hidden was a way to survive.

Norman’s past makes reference to his attempts at an acting career (he has an aptitude for learning lines, recalling swathes of dialogue and reminding Sir of opening lines) That he was attracted to a profession which is about performance & pretence is telling. That it represented something important to him and fulfilled a need is illuminated in a beautifully played moment by Reece, when Norman acts out a scene from ‘Outward Bound’ with animated enjoyment.

Shearsmith’s creative decision to foreground Norman’s campness in his portrayal – through gesture, a fluidity in his body language and an exaggerated tone to his voice – reinforces the idea that performance is a form of protection for Norman. Camp is heightened behaviour, in which ostentatiousness and artifice are used to form an impression of command and being in control. There is a dynamism and energy associated with camp which Norman uses to bolster his position and own sense of usefulness and importance. Amplified energetic endeavours –  he keeps himself busy and immersed in activity – is a distraction from his fraying inner doubts and done to convince himself that he is indispensable to Sir. There is such an energy and drive to Shearsmith’s performance in Act I. The liveliness and forced cheerfulness (“It’s a disease…hopefulness” as Madge terms it) he gives Norman is discernible and striking. You really get a sense of the dresser’s desperation behind it and the feeling that he is not only trying to rescue Sir but also save himself.

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When Ronald Harwood wrote ‘The Dresser’ the era of the actor manager touring theatre companies – Sir and Norman’s world – was already part of a bygone age, a distant memory. The play makes clear that the realm of the actor manager was a hierarchical and unyielding one, built on rank and status, with the entire company subsumed beneath the power and capriciousness of Sir.

Although the altruistic noble cause of bringing culture to the provinces was its idealised, messianic public service creed, as ‘The Dresser’ relates, its domain was as much to serve the egotism and ambition of the actor manager. The weekly rotating of Shakespeare plays was the means by which the actor manager could achieve a legendary acting reputation, building up a set of definitive Shakespearean performances. The play cites how the eluded prize of a knighthood and the favoured echelon of actors rankles Sir, in a profession infected with jealousy, insecurity and competitiveness.

Single-minded focus, self-absorption, selfishness and obsession drive Sir. There is no room for considering the feelings of others. For Norman, who derives his fragile sense of self-worth & life’s purpose from being Sir’s dutiful dresser, the thin veil of illusion that Sir holds him in the kind of regard which he aches for (and the out of reach hope for a little approbation and attention) is rapidly descending by the time the audience first meets him, in a perturbed mood in Sir’s dressing room. It is why, when the audience sees the pair alone together, as Norman rouses, placates and prepares Sir –with an almost missionary zeal – to give his 227th performances as King Lear, the dresser is also seeking solace from a neatly tucked away bottle of alcohol.

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Although it is set in a theatrical world that has passed, ‘The Dresser’ also feels remarkably prescient and resonant in its depiction of the titular character in the grip of a destructive co-dependency. When Harwood wrote the play, co-dependency was not yet in the arena of public discourse or widely recognised beyond a circle of experts, but Norman has the full spectrum of co-dependency symptoms: Seeing oneself as indispensable to the care receiver; a tendency to become hurt when their efforts aren’t recognised; an exaggerated sense of responsibility; an extreme need for approval and recognition; a fear of being abandoned; chronic anger & feelings of inadequacy.

Over the course of the play, Sir censures Norman harshly several times, reminding him of his lowly status, that theirs is a master-servant relationship based on the dresser’s servitude. When Sir fails to praise or even thank him backstage during the intervals of the Lear performance – when the dresser is desperately seeking it the most – the audience watches Shearsmith (as Norman) almost visibly crumble, his face registering desolation.

The climax of the play unleashes a deluge of emotion from Reece. It is what the relationship between Sir and his dresser has been leading up to. Shearsmith’s performance scales to new heights of greatness, as the crushed Norman’s emotions shatter and a torrent of feelings – anger, pain, bitterness, outrage, regret, distress – come pouring out. There is such a truthful, natural force to the way Reece expresses Norman’s damaged, broken sense of self that it is truly devastating to watch. One is hushed, mesmerised and completely transfixed – it feels like a cry from the heart that speaks to anyone who has given everything to someone and had nothing back in return. The intensity of emotional commitment from Reece is so realistically grounded in pure truthfulness that not even a semblance of actorly artifice can be traced. It is as if he is experiencing Norman’s pain for real as he faces the traumatic realisation that he has given sixteen years of his life and is now alone and left with nothing. So forceful is that final, emotionally gut-wrenching scene in the dressing room that it becomes Norman’s storm – to match the one in King Lear – such is the outpouring of rage, emotional potency and heartbreaking poignancy in Shearsmith’s acting. The first time I saw Reece perform Norman’s last scene I was left overwhelmed and stunned. It was simply an extraordinary moment in the theatre for me – to witness an actor give of himself to that extent.

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The difference between a consummate performance and one that touches greatness is in the journey of discovery that reveals a character in its totality, the depth of emotion reached and in the range and variation of nuance and subtlety used in exploration of the part. Above all (when the role is one in an already established play) it is when the actor brings something new and different to the portrayal, creating a deeper and revelatory understanding of the role than has gone before.

Reece Shearsmith’s Norman is one of the great stage performances of recent times in a production of ‘The Dresser’ that is exemplary in every way and as close to perfection as it gets.

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Cast

Reece Shearsmith……Norman

Ken Stott……Sir

Harriet Thorpe……Her Ladyship

Selina Cadell……Madge

Simon Rouse……Geoffrey Thornton

Adam Jackson-Smith……Oxenby

Phoebe Sparrow……Irene

Creatives

Playwright……Ronald Harwood

Director……Sean Foley

Producers……Mark Goucher/Mark Rubinstein Ltd/Jonathan Church Productions

Set Designer……Michael Taylor

Stage Manager……Sid Higgins

Production

Richmond Theatre, Brighton Theatre Royal, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham (12th September-1st October 2016)

Duke of York’s Theatre (5th October 2016-14th January 2017)

Chichester Festival Theatre (25th January-4th February 2017)