“I knew this would happen. Makes us look stupid” (Reece Shearsmith: ‘Dead Line’)
“What are they saying on Twitter?” (Steve Pemberton: ‘Dead Line’)
The way it was done, the sheer audacity of the whole thing left one almost open-mouthed in admiration and amazement. The chutzpah of Pemberton & Shearsmith and the ‘Inside No.9’ production team to attempt it and what’s more triumphantly pull it off in this digital age of non-linear broadcasting, social media cynicism and excessive media publicity disclosure takes a stroke of genius of Wellesian proportions.
Who could have predicted THAT ‘Inside No.9 Live Special’? The power of it pulled you in to its brilliantly constructed orbit and did not release its grip until the end credits had faded from the screen. Following its transmission a small scattering of tweets announced they hadn’t been taken in and claimed they knew exactly what the creators were going to do. Oh really? Putting these attention-seeking, self-declared seers aside, overwhelmingly the response to ‘Dead Line’ from fans and critics alike was unrestrained praise, more deserved hosannas thrown in the creators’ direction and a ‘hands held up’ acknowledgement they’d been duped by the trickery.
‘Dead Line’ was a mesmerising interplay of manipulation, misdirection, experimental narrative form, meta winks and nods, archive footage, intertextuality, urban myth, superstition and audience interaction contained within the running engine of a live broadcast. Its ambition dazzled and astonished in equal measure.
The way it built and developed was dizzying in its complexity. The control and precision involved, the minute detail and hair’s breadth timing took the meticulous construction of masters.
Not only was ‘Inside No. 9 Live: Dead Line’ a creative and technical coup for Pemberton & Shearsmith, they succeeded in making it event television in its truest sense – that increasingly rare occasion when a programme, bound by the moorings of scheduled television, unifies viewers through a shared experience. ‘Dead Line’ unnerved, thrilled and delighted those watching as it transmitted live. This at a time of increasingly fragmented audiences and disconnected viewing habits, where the linear broadcast tradition is no longer the norm for many people.
When the live Halloween Special was announced by the BBC several months ago it confirmed the broadcaster’s high regard for the No.9 series. The live edition would mark ‘Inside No. 9’s 25th story, a significant milestone which made you realise and appreciate No. 9 had already produced 24 sublime, completely unconnected stories – an extraordinary rate and range of creativity and imagination.
Offering Pemberton & Shearsmith the challenge of a live broadcast was a rare honour in the modern broadcasting age. The few programmes who’ve had it bestowed on them, such as ‘EastEnders’ and ‘Coronation Street’, were to mark and honour significantly bigger anniversaries than a 25th episode and commissioning it as a Halloween special acknowledged its creators’ horror predilections.
The media build-up in the weeks leading up to its broadcast date was couched in very particular terms. A perusal of the material initiated during this period – the BBC’s official press release and its online replication by TV and comedy websites as well as Pemberton & Shearsmith’s Abney Park cemetery photoshoot to which the media were invited and where a number of pre-arranged interviews were conducted – set the frames of reference around which the publicity was generated for ‘Inside No. 9 Live’. It helped fix expectations for the Halloween Special in the minds of the audience and put down markers surrounding anticipation of the live broadcast. In interviews, Pemberton & Shearsmith emphasised the frisson of excitement and sense of trepidation involved in broadcasting live due to the possibility of something going awry (“We did think, ‘Is it just a headache for us? Does the audience just grimly watch on thinking, is anything going to go wrong?”) (Reece Shearsmith)  (“It’s much more like how they used to do it in the old days. A lot of prep, a lot of build-up and one chance to get it right”) (Steve Pemberton) 
The pre-broadcast publicity also made sure the synopsis for ‘Dead Line’ (the established title of the live episode) and its featured characters were outlined in enough detail to prime viewers as to what they’d be seeing as the live broadcast kicked off: Arthur Flitwick (Pemberton) finds an abandoned mobile phone in a graveyard and attempts to contact its owner, plunging him “into a nightmare of his own making” (as the BBC’s media centre release stated it). The other featured characters were a reverend (Shearsmith) and one guest actor, Stephanie Cole, as a parishioner. It firmly established a belief that the Halloween Special would take its lead from the bygone years of television where live broadcasts featured programmes shot within the confines of a multi-camera studio and bound by theatrical conventions. Pemberton & Shearsmith spoke about how ‘Inside No. 9’ was in many ways a throwback to this era of television (“Also it harks back to the ethos of ‘Inside No. 9’, which is ‘Play for Today’ and ‘Armchair Thriller’ thing”) (Reece Shearsmith) 
The one notable thing that the production team were reticent about was the studio they were going to use for the broadcast. Elliptical reference was made to it not having been finalised yet. Series producer, Adam Tandy, in a ‘Radio Times’ interview, where he talked about the logistics of “extra safeguards” being in place to ensure things didn’t go wrong (again those at the heart of the ‘Inside No. 9’ Halloween enterprise made sure press interviews anchored the connotation between live television and the chance of mishaps) enigmatically mentioned the studio chosen for the broadcast (“And I can’t confirm exactly where we’re filming it. We’re still trying to sort out the contracts and haven’t paid for it yet. Also, we don’t want people turning up on the night.”) (Adam Tandy)  ‘Inside No.9 Live’s central premise – spectres contaminating the studio equipment and disrupting the transmission (which was how it unfolded on the night) made Tandy’s “we don’t want people turning up on the night” line a sly wink-of-the-eye seeding.
Then a couple of days ahead of ‘Inside No. 9’s live broadcast a bizarre news story appeared in the ‘Daily Star’ (and then repeated in ‘The Sun’ the very next day) The headline ran ‘Spooked by Hilda Ogden’ and under the subheading ‘Inside No. 9 Halloween Special’ it reported that “Corrie’s ghosts have scared off the cast of the cult comedy.” It revealed how the site of the old Granada studios was the location Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith had wanted to use for the special but BBC bosses had done a U-turn after it emerged some of ‘Coronation Street’s dead cast members reportedly haunted the place. Adding more spice to the phantasm brew the article informed readers a Catholic priest had been called in to perform an exorcism there in 2017 after a band rehearsing at the disused location were spooked when some of their equipment exploded: “BBC chiefs decided they could not risk any on-air mishaps or glitches when the live show goes out on Sunday.”
A piece of tabloid frippery – the Granada site was nixed due to logistical practicalities (as producer Adam Tandy explained in a post-transmission ‘Broadcast’ magazine piece) but the hyperbole added even more grist to the programme publicity mill. The ‘Inside No. 9’ angle in the ‘Daily Star’ story must surely have come from the production team, as it was so perfectly aligned with what transpired during the live broadcast on the evening of the 28th October.
The anticipatory conditioning produced by the publicity added layer after layer of expectation onto the Halloween special, building a framework of plausibility around it in order to influence viewers’ receptiveness as they watched ‘Inside No.9 Live’. The meticulous care involved in the set-up – its multilayeredness, scope and the carefully staged release of information – was pranking of the highest order. “A lot of prep, a lot of build-up” indeed. The seeding was a mix of truth, embellishment, nuanced suggestion and fakery and it was worked quite brilliantly by the creators and their producer: The excitement attached to a live broadcast partly because of the possibility of something going wrong; the safeguards in place for that eventuality; alluding to “like how they used to do it” televisual past of live broadcasting with multi-camera filming and theatrical conventions to the fore; establishing the scenario and characters of ‘Dead Line’ in order to secure the audience’s prior knowledge; late in the day references to hauntings and ghosts (Pemberton & Shearsmith’s appearance on BBC One’s ‘The One Show’ another case in point); the question mark hanging over the studio location.
Journalists who disseminated dutifully and produced the write-ups were magnificently manipulated as Pemberton, Shearsmith and Tandy, in cahoots with the BBC’s publicity department, harnessed mainstream and social media and seeded away mischievously, prodigiously propagating duplicity. The misdirection was exemplary in aim, execution and effect. Most people readying themselves to watch the live special really did expect a traditional multi-camera live studio experience. Even the continuity announcer’s “stand by studio” as the broadcast was about to begin chimed with those conventions from the past.
The pretence was an act of creative genius by Pemberton & Shearsmith because in truthfully revealing the starting point of ‘Dead Line’ – what viewers actually watched in its opening few minutes – there was a credibility which grounded the manipulation with a credence that audiences might not otherwise have accepted, given ‘Inside No.9’s reputation is about ripping away the comfort blanket of expectation. With ‘Inside No.9 Live’ Pemberton & Shearsmith’s epithet as mirth-makers of the macabre was transformed into that of magicians of Mephistopheles (its etymological breakdown being ‘mephis’ – disperser/scatterer and ‘tophel’ – plasterer of lies)
‘Inside No.9 Live’ begins in accordance with what viewers had been led to expect. Arthur Flitwick enters his flat (a No. 9 jack-o-lantern pumpkin next to his front door), unpacks his shopping including a mobile phone he’d found in the graveyard of the local church, turns on the radio and busies himself in the kitchen. Suddenly a disquieting, disembodied voice is heard to utter “he’s stopped breathing” (possibly “and stop breathing” – it is too indistinct to be sure) It’s muted, an almost imperceptible aural interference (easily confused with the voices on the radio) but it is there, coming from nowhere, seemingly floating in the ether, a queasy invasion of an ordinary domestic setting. It is an off-kilter moment that catches us unawares. The story then continues normally enough. We are introduced to a second character – Moira O’Keefe – who Arthur calls on the mobile phone, her number being the last one dialled on it. Five minutes in – as Arthur is paid a visit by the local vicar, the slightly creepy Reverend Neil (who’s been enrolled to help reunite the mobile phone with its owner) – the sound cuts out, leaving the actors silently conversing in character and viewers perturbed that important plot elements might be being missed. Brief fragments of conversation between the vicar and Arthur fade in and out before we cut to a continuity caption screen “We are sorry for the break in this programme and are trying to correct the fault” and a convincingly apologetic continuity announcer. A return to the developing three hander of ‘Dead Line’ is briefly attempted before BBC Two admits defeat and announces the postponement of the live episode. Instead in its place they repeat ‘A Quiet Night In’ (the irony of which is pleasingly indicative of the playfulness to come) from series one. At precisely nine minutes in, as the opening titles for ‘A Quiet Night In’ roll, the convincing fissuring of the live broadcast is accomplished with pitch perfect authenticity.
Playing with the recognisable live broadcasting tropes of technical faults, false restarts and unscheduled replacement programmes, which the watching audience is undoubtedly familiar with, the duplicitousness is the culmination of the misdirection and seeding we’d been fed in the weeks leading up to the event. The unfolding brilliance of the narrative disruption is so very finely tuned and consummately timed that it’s a stunningly choreographed technical feat in itself.
The turbulence in the minds of viewers caused by the apparent shattering of their broadcast experience, of the promised and looked forward to live edition of ‘Inside No.9’, was a bold strategy to undertake and Pemberton & Shearsmith are magisterial in the way they push it as far as possible in a daring ‘who will blink first’ game with the audience. Not only is a tightrope being walked by appearing to run a repeat almost a third of the way into the scheduled live programme but ‘A Quiet Night In’ is shown for as long as running time practicalities would allow – a minute and a half – to lull us into accepting that what is happening live before our eyes is real – namely, an actual safeguard solution initiated because of a live broadcast technical disaster. It ran the risk of disappointed viewers switching their TVs off or changing channels, but the creators hold firm in carrying out their sublimely conceived mischief to the hilt.
It is then that Pemberton & Shearsmith finally show their impeccable creative hand as the playfulness becomes clear and the true intentions of ‘Inside No.9’ are unveiled, when a ghoulish apparition in Victorian dress suddenly appears on ‘A Quiet Night’s In’s playout, eerily superimposed onto the original programme.
The beautifully delineated build-up routed through the lead-in hoax ‘Dead Line’ subtly imparts narrative elements that dominate the live special once the carapace of pretence has been broken with ‘A Quiet Night In’s ghostly takeover: Flitwick has a distinctly Dickensian ring to it and the name Evangeline (mentioned as being the daughter of Elsie Mitchell, who is the owner of the lost mobile phone) is decidedly old-fashioned. This understated evocation of the past – the Victorian past – gently seeds the main thematic at play in ‘Inside No.9 Live’, namely, the past haunting the present in insidious ways. It is this intersecting of the past and the present – the clash between old versus modernity – which is slyly advanced in the opening minutes of the fabricated story when we hear the disembodied voice (“stopped breathing”) and again when Arthur answers the ringing mobile phone he found only to hear a morass of white noise (and barely distinguishable vocals) at the other end of the line. These strange, brief and elusive interludes kindle a feeling of an oblique counter live broadcast being attempted, one that once we’ve seen the Victorian wraith inserted into ‘A Quiet Night In’ implicitly infers figurative and literal ‘ghosts in the machine’ machinations. There is even a touch of meta intertextuality pitched into the mix of the fake ‘Dead Line’ as Arthur Flitwick’s phone number is a direct reference to The League of Gentlemen’s infamous character, Pop.
When the predetermined expectations of ‘Inside No.9 Live’ are overturned and a story saturated in hyperreality is unleashed, the lightly scattered nuances encountered in the counterfeit tale are carried over and foregrounded. For the remainder of ‘Inside No. 9 Live’ Pemberton & Shearsmith’s storytelling expands to new experimental heights. Taking advantage of the scope of multimedia, the Halloween special is transformed into a cleverly constructed, playful and stimulating work, dissecting and rupturing narrative form, using the template of postmodernism. There are several distinct realities interacting and interceding on the other in the live broadcast, all of which play a part in creating the overarching hyperreality of the piece.
The hyperreality has been with us from the start – or taking into account the pre-broadcast manipulation and misdirection of the publicity build-up, even before that – because Arthur Flitwick, Reverend Neil, Moira O’Keefe and the mock ‘Dead Line’ are an essential part of the thing too in terms of the immersive ‘liveness’ of the event as it unfurls in intense, unpredictable, unforgettable ways.
Pemberton & Shearsmith’s creative intentions for ‘Inside No.9 Live’ are two-fold: Devising an episode where the viewing experience is greatly enhanced by watching it live and producing a story which achieves the distinctive high standards its creators have an enviable reputation for.
Seeing it as-it-happens in the context of ‘Inside No.9’s live broadcast crucially allows doubt to be put in the audience’s mind over what is real, what is fake – where does the reality of what they’re watching begin and end? Viewers are propelled into an absorbing, mesmerising mind game being played on them by the creators as each of ‘Inside No.9 Live’ concurrent realities are built, developed and carefully interwoven into the disruptive narrative as a whole.
The invigorating, heightened form of experience that ‘liveness’ brings adds piquancy for the audience during those moments which entertainingly fixate on and emphasis the fact it is live. The apotheosis for this is reached with Reece Shearsmith’s live tweet to viewers during the show as he plays himself stranded in the dressing room of the television studio due to ‘Dead Line’s technical breakdown: ‘Are me and Steve Pemberton on BBC Two now?’ It is a moment of pure meta origami, so extraordinary are its intricate layers: Shearsmith, playing a version of himself, invites the audience to take part and respond to what they’re watching live – to play an active role in the meta reality of it all. Moments like this help to make the fact the Halloween special is live an integral part of the experience and how it is best appreciated.
Pemberton & Shearsmith’s other main aim for ‘Inside No.9 Live’ is to ensure the story – and the way it is told – has their prerequisite hallmark of invention, complexity and meticulous attention to detail. Their tale for Halloween takes the trope of supernatural hauntings and transforms it into an extraordinary postmodern viewing experience of immersive hyperreality. Not only do the creators take the conventional parameters of a live broadcast and shatter them they also give us their own idiosyncratic take on a ghost story for the multimedia age.
The writers’ penchant for experimental storytelling is showcased to brilliant effect in ‘Inside No.9 Live’. Its hyperreality (which is the overriding ‘thing’ of the live special) is realised through the interplay of various realities criss-crossing within the complex narrative once the game is afoot and we’re in post-technical breakdown/post fake ‘Dead Line’ territory. Relocated to the innards of the television studios through a roaming camera’s eye, live time is signalled by a digital code clock display on the top right hand corner of the screen, informing viewers that ‘Inside No.9’ is still on air, still live, still happening, but in a very different way to what audiences had been lead to expect.
The constructed realities exist as distinct elements at first – separate entities in the interruptive narrative structure of ‘Inside No.9 Live’ as a whole. As the live broadcast continues there is leakage as the narrative builds and develops which starts to obliterate the space between them. The realities deployed by Pemberton & Shearsmith in the Halloween special can be defined as mythos/myth reality, meta reality and established reality.
Mythos/myth reality: Superstitious notions surrounding the existence of ghosts and haunted places cursed by bad luck no longer have the social and cultural hold on communities that they once did. Urban myth has replaced folklore and traditional beliefs and it is here stories concerning supernatural experiences and rumours about paranormal activities coalesce, to be enjoyed almost ironically, as a form of popular entertainment and tabloid excess.
Assiduously chosen archive footage is the audience’s gateway in to the mythos reality constructed for ‘Inside No.9 Live’, one reflecting the urban mythology about ghosts, with its strong link to popular culture: Bobby Davro’s wince-inducing accident during the filming of a 1990s television game show is the first archive clip viewers see. Its inclusion at first appears to be completely random and rather odd but it’s entwined into the enveloping narrative, its relevance later seeded by Pemberton, with the accident being an example of the ‘curse’ that’s befallen Granada studios; several well-chosen and cleverly edited sequences from a 2005 edition of ‘Most Haunted’ investigating ghostly goings on at the Manchester studios of ‘Coronation Street’ includes the startling revelation that the Granada studios are sited next to a Victorian mass grave.
The archive recordings are used to aggrandise the urban myth about Granada studios being haunted and struck by bad luck because of it. The clips provide ‘evidence’ to furnish ‘Inside No.9 Live’s ‘ghosts in the machine’ thematic with ‘facts’, giving the mythos reality thread the semblance of ‘truth’.
The hyperreality which distinguishes the live special – where the line between reality and a simulation of it is eroded, making it harder for viewers to perceive what is real and what isn’t – culminates in the seamless editing of a faked news report straight into an authentic clip. The fictitious news report concerning the suicide of Alan Starr, a television studio props man suffering from a diagnosed psychosis, who’d been convinced ghosts had infected the TV studio equipment, is audacious approximation of fake reportage to that of genuine archive footage. Placing it directly before a real clip – a 1980s ‘Granada Reports’ news story about a fire at a warehouse used by Granada studios to store sets and props – helps to blur the line between fact and fiction, dissolving reality to the status of myth/mythos.
The inclusion of archive material in ‘Inside No. 9 Live’ is reminiscent of the documentaries of film-maker Adam Curtis, who makes striking use of old film and TV clips to help explain how power works in society. In choosing an array of archive clips for the live special Pemberton & Shearsmith are attempting to show how myth is shaped and developed to a level of prominence, attaining the stature (and weight) of reality behind it to exert an influential grip on the imagination.
What’s more, the decision to feature old clips in the live broadcast was a creative one done to convey how archive footage is used to reconstruct the past in the present. Archives represent the past captured and preserved forever. Film and television recordings are a powerful manifestation of and link to the past – a representation of the images and voices of the dead emblematically caught and trapped in celluloid, video or digital aspic. Pemberton & Shearsmith subtly suggest that the dead are mechanically ‘imprisoned’, with the potential to be reanimated and resurrected repeatedly. It is an idea they posit as a figural ‘ghosts in the machine’ adjunct to the main literal ‘ghosts in the machine’ theme of ‘Inside No.9 Live’. In the closing moments of the special, just after viewers have witnessed Pemberton & Shearsmith’s apparent deaths on live television at the hands of the studio invading ghosts, there is a brief clip of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s 25th October 2018 appearance on ‘The One Show’ immediately followed by their ‘A Quiet Night In’ characters’ gunshot-to-the-head deaths replayed again and again and again.
The juxtaposing of these recordings are as if the ghosts infecting the TV studio equipment have again intervened in the live broadcast to insert their own dark, mockingly ironic joke at Pemberton & Shearsmith’s expense. Inserting these particular clips into the narrative gives explicit expression to the figurative ‘ghosts in the machine’ symbolism attached to archive footage as the mechanical representation of the dead, which enables the past to be placed into the present in potentially disquieting and disturbing ways.
Meta reality: Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton playing recognisable versions of themselves in ‘Inside No.9 Live’ is self-referentiality at its most sustained and brilliantly realised. ‘Inside No.9’ has never been as playfully knowing as it is here, with the meta designed to serve a purpose beyond humorous intent. Seen waiting around in their studio dressing room after the live broadcast has been unceremoniously halted, searching the abandoned studio backstage and interacting with guest actress Stephanie Cole (also playing ‘herself’) the duo’s established personas are ones which many viewers – and fans especially – would be familiar with as they’re the clearly defined heightened versions of themselves which Pemberton & Shearsmith have developed and played with since The League of Gentlemen (utilized for elements of the DVD commentaries and extras and most significantly in ‘The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse’ film)
The pair perform their meta selves to the hilt: Shearsmith is prickly, full of pent-up anger and quick to deliver to a barbed remark (“Start again? Pathetic”; “No-one knows that anyway. Who fucking cares? It’s not even Halloween.”) Pemberton is placatory and even-tempered, a yang to his writing partner’s yin. The meta reality strand of ‘Inside No.9 Live’ recalls Pemberton & Shearsmith’s extraordinary ‘SoundCloud’ commentaries for series two of ‘Inside No.9’ which they posted online for fans. A sublime meta creation of edgy pranking, it pushed the boundaries of discomfort due to the highly convincing enactment of a bickering, needling relationship tailspinning into resentment, toxic anger and finally violence. The ‘SoundCloud’ commentaries were such a memorably visceral experience because the meta made it feel so close to the bone. Similarly, the meta reality constructed for the Halloween special intensifies viewers’ experience of the live broadcast because the watching audience is almost made to feel like they’re an unseen character in it. Much of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s dressing room conversations (seen from a high angle camera to make viewers feel like they’re eavesdropping on them) centre around what viewers are thinking and saying online about the disaster of the abandoned live broadcast of ‘Dead Line’. As they wait around with nothing to do, they spend time on their smartphones gleaning the social media reaction (“What’s going on with ‘Inside No.9’? Is this part of the twist? Oh do fuck off.” Reece Shearsmith) (“I bet everyone thinks we’ve deliberately done it.” Steve Pemberton) Pemberton & Shearsmith’s meta foregrounding of the audience as they anticipate predictable social media cynicism in relation to ‘Inside No.9 Live’ increases viewers’ sense of participation in the live viewing experience. The creators’ references to them is an act of inclusion which helps to make the audience feel they’re interacting with the live event, most tangibly when Reece Shearsmith’s tweets during the live broadcast, soliciting viewers to respond. ‘Inside No.9 Live’s meta reality intensifies the audience’s emotional investment which comes from watching it live. They’re truly immersed in the experience of the liveness.
Pemberton & Shearsmith holding forth on the “totally impenetrable” ending advanced for (the fake) ‘Dead Line’ and Stephanie Cole’s shortcomings as Moira O’Keefe are the pair’s amplified versions of themselves having playful fun at their own expense (“I’ve got no interest in television.” Reece Shearsmith) and sharing that joke in an almost conspiratorial way with viewers. The meta reality implicates the audience in the ‘liveness’ in a participatory manner, almost as if they’re guests with a part to play. It involves a level of complicity on the part of the viewer – a willing party privy to the knowing intrigue created by Pemberton & Shearsmith. The audience recognises Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are portraying versions of themselves – their meta ‘parts’ – but there is ambiguity about how far the exaggerated elements of their personas are pushed into the realms of invention. The hyperreality of the live special embraces those feelings of doubt in viewers’ minds about how real or contrived Pemberton & Shearsmith’s meta ‘selves’ are. It is another layer amongst a multiplicity of layers created by the complementary realities in ‘Inside No.9 Live’.
The intertextual referencing of other horror/supernatural works dotted around the meta reality thread adds further nuances to the narrative palette. They’re an acknowledgement by Pemberton & Shearsmith of their creative influences and inspirations and are, by implication, visual citations which the audience is encouraged to pick up on and identify: The wallpaper in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s studio dressing room is an exact reproduction of the hexagon patterned carpet in the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’; the ghostly image of studio props man Alan Starr (who we’d earlier been told had killed himself at the television studios) looming into view in the background as the camera tracks across the empty studio, his face framed by the window of a door, recalls the creepy appearance of the menacing Peter Quint at a window in the 1961 film ‘The Innocents’; Steve Pemberton’s practical joke on Reece Shearsmith – jumping out in the dark at him wearing a scary rubber mask – is a direct reference to BBC’s 1992 ‘Ghostwatch’ in which the exact same prank is pulled by Craig Charles.
Established reality: The deception generated for the ‘Inside No.9’ episode that never was – ‘Dead Line’ – is the live special’s established reality and remains a reference point even when the mythos/myth and meta realities take over and drive the narrative into hyperreality experimentation. Not only does the pre-broadcast publicity misdirection leave remnants because ‘Dead Line’ became a stated ‘fact’ in the weeks beforehand, but in its few minutes of existence before rupturing ‘Dead Line’s conventional narrative offers subtle portents (oblique allusions to the Victorian age, technology being subjected to snatches of audio interference) of what is to come. The unsettling ‘ghosts in the machine’ intrigue advanced in the post-‘Dead Line’ reality threads are forged in the established reality of those opening scenes.
The hoax ‘Dead Line’ is revisited in the midst of the two simultaneous realities with the partial playback of the rehearsal tape. Pemberton & Shearsmith’s painstaking attentiveness is such that the contrivance of ‘Dead Line’ is still crafted with an exacting level of detail, maintaining adherence to the illusion as real – that it was the ‘Inside No.9’ story they’d planned to broadcast live. The faking of this established reality is observed with utmost care. The ‘fact’ a ‘rehearsal tape’ exists sustains the pretence to its logical conclusion – the recorded rehearsal of ‘Dead Line’ was the workaround solution in place in case things went wrong with the live broadcast.
The rehearsal tape gives viewers the opportunity to see ‘Dead Line’s interrupted story re-established, with Pemberton & Shearsmith providing enough elliptical exposition in the lines exchanged by Arthur Flitwick and Moira O’Keefe to stitch the broken tale back together again and move it forward with credible semblance. The plot progression involving a will bequest as a motive for murder was subtly seeded in ‘Dead Line’s first scene, with the advert for a will-writing company playing on the radio in Arthur’s kitchen. Pemberton & Shearsmith even layer the ‘fake’ script of ‘Dead Line’ with their customary meticulousness so that the established reality of the rehearsal tape is convincingly played out to the audience.
The established reality of ‘Dead Line’ briefly reignited through the rehearsal tape breaks down and is overtaken by meta reality when Stephanie Cole brings a halt to proceedings to ask about her character’s motivation. The earlier disagreement between Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith over what Shearsmith termed the ‘impenetrable’ ending then resurfaces as the tape continues to run and one form of reality replaces another.
As the live broadcast’s hyperreality narrative progresses we see the differentiated realities begin to bleed into each other as Pemberton & Shearsmith weave the threads together. This helps the audience start to see the events unfolding before them in connective rather than fragmentary terms as ‘Inside No.9 Live’ evolves from a high concept game of pranking into highly effective storytelling, which is what Pemberton & Shearsmith want to achieve above all else: The meta reality of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith as ‘themselves’ in their dressing room sees Pemberton reading out urban myth stories he’d googled about Granada Studios being haunted, mentioning the suicide of a studio props man and the warehouse fire which destroyed costumes for ITV’s ‘A Jewel in the Crown’ drama series. It’s a forward signal to a part of the mythos reality strand which comes near the end of the special – the faked news report about (the fictional) Alan Starr’s suicide and the archive ‘Granada Reports’ clip about Granada studios’ warehouse fire. The diffused mixing of meta and myth realities heightens the uncertainty which is the key to the live broadcast – how much of it is real and where does the fabrication begin and end?
The Victorian costumed apparition spotted in the corner of the TV studio green room is a visual representation of the mythos reality invading the meta reality of the studio setting, which it increasingly does as the live broadcast continues. The myth reality interpolation of the meta reality begins to dominate ‘Inside No.9 Live’ as the creeping unease – suggested by the prowling camera moving and observing every corner of the abandoned television studio – becomes an ever more menacing and palpable presence.
The climactic manifestation of myth reality’s physical and elemental permeation of meta reality occurs when Stephanie Cole’s meta self is possessed by unseen ghostly forces and becomes Alan Starr’s unwitting conduit (“Alan says they’ve always been here, before us, before the studios. We shouldn’t be here, this is their home.”) When she talks about the ghosts infecting the cables and television equipment and that the technology makes them stronger we hit a Knealesque seam of malignant strangeness, where the seemingly defunct title of the prank ‘Dead Line’ takes on dreadful new significance: The ghosts (the dead) invade the present and modern technology (television studio cables) is the route (line) they use. This is the moment in the live broadcast when the story – beyond the live phenomenon of the Halloween special – asserts itself, intertwining the threads of the different realities tighter and tighter together as the narrative gathers momentum towards its fatal conclusion.
With ‘Inside No.9 Live’, Pemberton & Shearsmith’s mission to find ever more imaginative ways to tell a story hits new heights of the sublime. Reeling off a list of superlatives feels superfluous when trying to describe the mesmerising impact of the Halloween special, both as a live event and as a work of artistic ingenuity.
The logistics of the special – and its ambition – were on a scale not attempted by ‘Inside No.9’ before. It was not just the risky tightrope walk of the live broadcast itself but the scrupulous misdirection set-up of the pre-broadcast publicity behind it. The press releases and media interviews were a platform of inspired manipulation, the success of which was essential to the whole daring enterprise. The subterfuge needed to pull off such an inspired broadcasting hoax must have taken intensive planning and a lot of hard work. That it was done with such aplomb is testament to all of ‘Inside No.9’s talented production team.
‘Inside No.9 Live’ also gave Pemberton & Shearsmith the welcome opportunity to experiment with narrative form once again and the hyperreality of the thing, in conception and execution, involved a rich tapestry of complexity which was honed to perfection: The meta playfulness was one of the most striking elements of the Halloween special (and the first time meta has been used in an ‘Inside No.9’ story, although the standout online commentaries for series two of ‘Inside No.9’ may have sparked Pemberton & Shearsmith’s mischievous inclinations) and gave the episode some its funniest – and edgiest – moments; the audience immersion and online interaction, informed and invigorated by the live experience was skilfully interwoven into the script; the fake elements punctuating the narrative were delicately shaded and persuasively subtle. These all added colour and depth to the live special, as part of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s expansive creative canvas.
The multiple levels on which the narrative operated – the intersecting, competing realities – and the degree of detail behind each of them – was quite extraordinary. The writing attained a density of layering and insightful juxtaposition that served both the brilliant execution of the live broadcast and the strength and supremacy of the story. It’s further proof – although surely none is needed – of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s remarkable talents as writers, which just seem to grow and expand with every new series of ‘Inside No. 9’.
Nothing can quite recapture the frisson of anticipation and excitement that came from experiencing ‘Inside No.9 Live’ as it happened on the evening of 28th October 2018. Just the fact it was broadcast live, a comparatively rare thing nowadays (not pre-recorded and broadcast ‘as live’) gave it a significance that was the starting point for Pemberton & Shearsmith’s conspiring inventiveness. But what made it an ‘event’ – as in exceptional – and memorable in an unforgettable sense – was the astonishing way it played with viewers’ expectations and with narrative and broadcasting conventions to completely upturn our perception of reality. The resulting palpable tension and audience exhilaration as it unfolded live on air was the singular artistry of Pemberton & Shearsmith at work and the Halloween special was their most ambitious ‘Inside No.9’ yet. Even if you weren’t there to experience the live thrill and luxuriate in the unpredictability of it all, the unparalleled quality and inherent rewatchability of their remarkable piece of pranking genius makes it an unmissable creative work, however and whenever you experience it.
- ‘The Times’ – ‘The Scariest Thing about Halloween? Corpsing in a live show’ (Dominic Maxwell) (26th October 2018)
- BBC Media Centre – ‘Q&A with Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’ (17th October 2018)
- As above.
- ‘Radio Times’ – ‘It’s Hard to Scare Us’ (Frances Taylor) (27th October-2nd November 2018)
- ‘Daily Star’ – ‘Spooked by Hilda Ogden’ (Peter Dyke and Edward Gleave) (26th October 2018)
- As above.
Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Series Producer…Adam Tandy
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Arthur Flitwick/Himself…Steve Pemberton
Reverend Neil/Himself…Reece Shearsmith
Moira O’Keefe/Herself…Stephanie Cole
Alan Starr…Robin Berry
Laura Howarth (news reporter)…Chandrika Chevli
Older woman in radio advert (voice only)…Yvonne D’Alpra
Younger woman in radio advert (voice only)…Emma Stannard
Radio presenter (voice only)…Rich Keeble
BBC Two continuity announcer (voice only)…Beccy Wright