Inside No.9 Review: Inside No. 9 Live: Halloween Special: ‘Dead Line’

*contains spoilers*

“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.

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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) [1] (“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) [2]

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) [3]

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) [4] ‘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.”[5] 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.”[6]

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.

Inside No. 9 Live

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.

Dead Line

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.

Dead Line tweet

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’.

Dead Line

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)

Dead Line

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’.

Dead Line

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.

Dead Line

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.

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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.

Dead Line

Footnotes

  1. ‘The Times’ – ‘The Scariest Thing about Halloween? Corpsing in a live show’ (Dominic Maxwell) (26th October 2018)
  2. BBC Media Centre – ‘Q&A with Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’ (17th October 2018)
  3. As above.
  4. ‘Radio Times’ – ‘It’s Hard to Scare Us’ (Frances Taylor) (27th October-2nd November 2018)
  5. ‘Daily Star’ – ‘Spooked by Hilda Ogden’ (Peter Dyke and Edward Gleave) (26th October 2018)
  6. As above.

Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Barbara Wiltshire

Producer…Claire McCarthy

Series Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Composer…Christian Henson

Cast

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

Ghost…Sophie Juge

Ghost…Connie Wilkins

BBC Two continuity announcer (voice only)…Beccy Wright

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Inside No.9 Series Four – BFI Preview and Q&A

BFI Southbank (30th October 2017)

*Contains spoilers about ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Once, Removed’ and other aspects of series four of ‘Inside No.9’*

Q&A with Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Adam Tandy and David Kerr, hosted by Justin Johnson

SP – Steve Pemberton (Actor, Writer and creator of ‘Inside No.9’)

RS – Reece Shearsmith (Actor, Writer and creator of ‘Inside No.9’)

AT – Adam Tandy (BBC Producer, ‘Inside No.9’)

DK – David Kerr (Director, ‘Inside No. 9’ (S1) and ‘Inside No. 9’ S4 episodes ‘Zanzibar’ and ‘To Have and To Hold’)

JJ – Justin Johnson (BFI programmer)

This is a complete transcript of the ‘Inside No. 9’ Q&A – featuring Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Adam Tandy and David Kerr – which took place at the BFI Southbank on 30th October 2017, after a preview screening of ‘Zanzibar’ and ‘Once, Removed’, two new episodes from series four. The transcription replicates – as closely as possible – what was said and by whom at the post-screening event. Some of the words spoken on the night were unclear in the audio digital recording I made – to my cloth ears anyway – and I have left these out in order to ensure the transcript is as faithful as I could make it, rather than resorting to guesswork.

Transcribing is a painstakingly slow, unbendingly methodical task to undertake – as I’m personally devoid of those helpful time-saving recording to text software shortcuts – especially when there are five voices to decipher accurately. The occasional verbal overlaps, variations in pitch, voices tailing off and faltering phrasing all have to be contended with as well.  The patience and effort it takes to convert speaking voices to the written page makes the end result all the more satisfying, especially when the Q&A is as entertaining and informative as this one. It’s packed full of illuminating detail on the behind-the-scene pressures and what it takes to bring a new series of ‘Inside No. 9’ to the screen, including the creative challenges that come with tightening shooting schedules and growing budgetary restraints. The creators’ discussion of their working methods and writing inspirations for series four were particularly intriguing and there was even time to briefly talk about the  20th anniversary League of Gentlemen specials that Steve and Reece (alongside Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson) had just finished filming.

So here it is in its unedited glory – 40 minutes of sharp, intelligent and perceptive analysis on ‘Inside No. 9’ from Pemberton and Shearsmith, aided and abetted by Adam Tandy and David Kerr.

Inside No.9 Series Four Q&A at BFI Southbank (30th October 2017)

JJ: Thank you very much for coming back for another preview of another series of ‘Inside No. 9’. It’s something we don’t take for granted at all. It’s really exciting, they are really great episodes. Adam, just to start off with you, they don’t make it any easier do they? In terms of the things that…we look at the kind of conceits, if you like, of the first two episodes. One, from the Shakespeare in iambic pentameter, everything it conjures up, all those kind of plot devices we associate with kind of Elizabethan drama. And then the second one, everything is told in 10 minute increments going backwards.

AT: Well ‘Zanzibar’ was like a delight. The script arrived completely fully formed… just looked at it and said ‘Yes!’

SP: Don’t lie, it was all improvised (audience laughter)

AT: And the BBC went, ah we think we could probably find a hotel somewhere to film that. No. We went the whole hog. We built the set at Pinewood and spent a week there shooting it and it was great. ‘Once, Removed’ on the other hand was quite tricky mentally because the script arrived like that but we all had to disassemble it and make it work the right way round so we could even start to consider how to shoot it. And in fact we ended up shooting it backwards.

RS: We shot it in the order that you didn’t see it. It started happening for us the way you would watch it backwards.

AT: And went forward. But then Monica (Dolan) was in the beginning and the end and she found it I think…she was very forensic wasn’t she? She interrogated the script in a way that I couldn’t follow.

SP: I don’t think we understood it really. We’re hoping somebody, when the DVD comes out, will assemble it the right way round and put it on YouTube so we can watch it.

JJ: How do you decide which story to assign with which director? Because you’ve got, obviously David’s here, you’ve got Jim O’Hanlon who isn’t here tonight though I don’t think, is he?

AT: No. He’s filming. He’s filming in London. He was going to be here. He sends his love.

JJ: And you brought out of the home, you’ve got Graeme Harper back…He worked on two we haven’t seen.

AT: Well there is a kind of, I suppose, a knack to offering the directors the pieces you think they will be most sympathetic to. But sometimes its all about dividing the episodes up a way you can film them practically. So you find you’ve got, in this case it was I think three blocks of two…And I thought David would like the two I gave him, which was this one ‘Zanzibar’ and then ‘To Have and To Hold’, which you haven’t seen.

RS: They’re very different.

AT: Very different.

JJ: So in terms of going back to the blank page sort of situation that you two find yourself with each season. In the past you’ve talked about how with things like ‘The Bill’ where you just thought, you know, a situation in a restaurant. It is similar things kick things off like that for you. Where do the ideas come from?

SP: Well I think with these two…The one we’ve just seen ‘Once, Removed’ has been kicking around since series one. And every series we go back to it “Can we make this work?” and we empty all the bits on all the scenes. We could never find a way in to it really. And I think what opened it up this time was coming up with the very first scene and ending it with the reveal of all the bodies. And it was that line “I can explain” and that kind of unlocked it really because then you’re going to explain how you got to that point. But that has been something that we’ve kicked around for the past three or four years.

Once Removed

RS: We knew we wanted to do a ‘9’ with a kicking off point, with the confusion of that, so we just had to find a way to work back towards that moment, even though it was the beginning.

JJ: The first one, the one that David directed ‘Zanzibar’. I mean was that right from square one you decided we’re going to do something, we’re going to throw lots of Shakespeare into it?

SP: Not really no. That started off talking about…we talked about doing a farce. We talked about it in our very first meeting. We’re going to do a farce in a hotel corridor and the interesting thing will be what you don’t see which was what’s happening in the rooms. Can we make it work in a corridor? And so we made a list of all the different characters, most of whom we ended up putting into it and then when we started looking at it, we had the twins, we had the guy trying to murder the other guy. And it felt a bit contrived, you know, to do it in a contemporary way. And there’s just one of those nice lightbulb moments where you go ‘let’s make it Shakespearean’ and then lets really draw on all the Shakespearean sources that we can. And then we put in things like the love spell and what else did we put in…the suicide, the guy coming to kill himself and the gun became a knife. So it was really putting those two things together. On the one hand it was a farce and on the other hand it was every Shakespeare play you’ve ever seen. In half an hour.

Zanzibar

JJ: David do you remember when you received the script what was going through your mind in terms of how you thought you would approach the…’Zanzibar’?

DK: Sheer terror. No. I mean when you get a No. 9 script from Reece and Steve, you get something which is…something which is pretty complete. You know, as directors in this industry we’re used to getting, you know, half-baked scripts half the time and also, not necessarily down to the writers, but often they’ve been through heaps of notes from execs and all of that. And one of the joys of Reece and Steve’s scripts is that they go through the brain ache before they pass them to anybody else and they’ve gone through the puzzles themselves and worked them out. These scripts are really well evolved and Jon Plowman, who isn’t here tonight, but has been a very effective shield I think from any interventions from elsewhere, so yeah, as a group we’ve been fairly self-sufficient a lot of the time in terms of making these things, which is just as well cos there is never enough money. But, you know, the feeling on reading this was just I mean…the sheer joy of the language, its incredibly rich to get that sort of iambic pentameter and then the intricacy of the farce and the feeling of needing to serve, you know, serve that, in a very contained space. You know, its something I did in the first series as well, that first series of ‘Inside No. 9’. But I think a lot of the challenge on this one was the timing. You know, one door closes, another one opens, trying to try and keep that flow, so there’d be quite long takes, but there’s a lot of precision for something that feels as kind of fluid and flighty and light in many ways, its incredibly demanding in terms of precision and the camera movement and the timing of the actors – many of whom are here tonight I’m very pleased to say.

AT: Ladies & gentlemen, the cast (audience applause)

DK: You know, the other thing is we’re shooting these in five or six days, very little rehearsal.

AT: We did make time for rehearsals which was the key to making the rhyme and the pace of the thing work when we actually shot it. It gave you the chance to plot it all out and choose your shots.

DK: Absolutely.

AT: At that point you weren’t really, you didn’t stick religiously to it.

DK: No, but you know, pretty close. I mean the nearest thing I’d done, I mean I did a Shakespeare last year for the BBC, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – Russell T. Davies. But I guess the nearest thing was ‘A Quiet Night In’, which we did together, which again, you know, it’s a very heightened form – silent comedy – and so you have kind of to embrace the heightened quality of that, but also give it some kind of grounding. And I think, you know, a lot of that was about nailing the tone, the performance, so it kind of felt of a piece, although its, you know, quite a heightened farce.

Zanzibar

JJ: You talk about the precision of it, because it is so meticulously written, I mean presumably there’s not much you can change I presume, either on set or in the edit?

DK: That’s right. I think we barely cut a line.

AT: There’s half a line cut isn’t there?

SP: You couldn’t take half a rhyming couplet out…and even…we very rigorously  made them in blocks, especially from the end point, the last 10 minutes, it’s in blocks of 8 lines, the way Shakespeare would have written, or any of those Elizabethan , Jacobian writers, would have written, and I’d like to think they sweated like we did. You couldn’t…without making the whole thing collapse.

AT: And actually you’d done an awful lot of the work prior…because you must have sat there with a diagram of the rooms, and people going in and out, so we knew where everybody was because all those stage directions are absolutely there in a way they weren’t in Shakespeare’s time.

JJ: In terms of, we’ve talked about it before in previous visits about the kind of casting and so forth. As the show’s become more successful and its been recommissioned and so forth, do you get a bit bolder then in terms of actually writing kind of parts for people or are you still very much thinking the cast can come later.

RS: Yeah. It’s so…long in advance that you write the scripts that you never dare pin your hopes on a person that might just not be free, might want to do it but not be free, so we just write them and then hope that nearer the time that people who spring to mind will be available. Some are cast very close, like a week before, sometimes that short notice. I don’t think we’ve ever had anybody we’ve thought this person would be really good in this part and didn’t get them.  We’ve always just written it, hopefully with good parts for everyone who’s in it. I think as actors we write scripts that we know if you’re an actor reading it and you’re getting offered a part, even if it’s a small part, we try to hook something in to that part that you would think this isn’t a very big part but that line (is) the reason to it, that would be good for me to do. And I think we’ve got that, we’ve used that trick a few times to trap people into saying yes.

AT: And we’re casting while we’re shooting as well. I mean even while we’re doing block one I don’t think we’d got half the cast for block three, so we were still trying to put it together as we’re there, through a process…in order to, to buy ourselves thinking time between the blocks we allow a little extra bit of pre-production between the blocks. So we get a week off to rehearse and to do recces and things.  But that means that we don’t have enough money to do proper pre-production so everything slides for later shows.

JJ: And they are truly kind of great ensemble pieces…I mean if I was talented enough to write a show I’m sure I would give myself all the best lines and everybody else would be like my foils, but actually they are consistently really good ensemble pieces aren’t they?

SP: Yeah. I mean take ‘Zanzibar’ for an example. We decided very early on that we wanted to cast somebody in the dual role, whereas if we were being selfish one of us would have played that cos that’s such a great role. But that was a great opportunity to get somebody like Rory and his clone, who came out of retirement, his evil twin. ..and then yeah. It reminded me of casting ‘Sardines’, which was the very first episode we did in series one. I love having a big cast and we can’t normally afford it, lucky we got the cheapest actors, so…But it was brilliant to look at the whole cast and the range of ages and different character types there were within… ‘Zanzibar’ was a real joy to cast.

Zanzibar

JJ: David obviously when you have two actors playing the same role that presents a certain issue with filming, not least when you’ve only got five or six days to do it in. So that, from a planning point of view, must have taken up an awful lot of your time.

DK: Yeah. I mean…There are a number of ways you can do these scenes when you’ve got the same person playing two roles. You know, there’s the expensive way with the motion control camera and that’s not the route we took. So um…I think there are some technical challenges but you kind of don’t want anyone to be aware of any technical, you know, trickery. You just want them to be in the story and going with the character, going with the comedy. So of course you think about that stuff and you think about it in a way that you’re doing your best to ensure nobody else is thinking about it, I hope.

JJ: Bearing in mind that obviously the show is successful, it’s in its fourth series, the BBC must be now showering you with money…

AT: No. The same as we were getting for series one, I think maybe slightly, maybe slightly less. Slightly less I think. I don’t know, its difficult to say because with a co-production deal we do with Worldwide it does go up and down. It does mean you have to be very frugal about what you can give, so poor David doesn’t get a motion control camera. But Graeme Harper does…

DK: You find creative solutions, but I mean, you know, we were very fortunate and really it was the only way in ‘Zanzibar’, to have a set built. But we could literally only afford the set and no more, and it was, you know, to the point where they were…

AT: Scene hands moving rooms…

DK: Interior bedrooms, but we only had two of them…so we shot them around…

AT: Eight doors but only two rooms. ..one for the left hand side of the corridor, one for the right hand side of the corridor.

DK: There was one point we were thinking can we actually move that during the shot, can we move that room around, so the camera tracks back, there’s another room.

JJ: Are there any stories from this season that either had to be changed considerably because of the financial constrains or just couldn’t work? Or have you got pretty much now what you wanted?

SP: Well there was actually. Was that on series four or three?

AT: No. Four. I just chased…There was one script that came in, just…

RS: What was it?

SP: Too expensive.

AT: Just too expensive.

RS: Oh yes… (audience laughter)

SP: We might do it in the future.

RS: It’s a really good one actually.

JJ: When you spend that time writing a script as well and then it gets rejected.

SP: Can’t get those two days back (audience laughter) To be fair to us, we did ‘Zanzibar’ with 11 characters I think because we had another script which had only two of us in it, which is one of Graeme’s scripts.

AT: And a motion control camera…

SP: But, you know, we do try and think about the budget as a whole over the series and so, um, because we knew we had one episode that was going to be relatively cheap, just the pair of us playing an old double act who hate each other now (audience laughter) We knew that we could then afford to have a bigger cast on ‘Zanzibar’.

AT: But actually this…the cast are slightly larger in this series, very slightly.

SP: What do you mean?

AT: No, the cast I think in terms of numbers. They’re slighter bigger per episode. But that’s because you’ve gone for, I think, bigger, brighter, slightly less horrific stories.

RS: Yeah I think after…We thought that a lot of the third series was quite dark, even for our standards. So I think the tone generally of series four is a bit brighter. There are some nasty ones, but I think generally…’Zanzibar’ is a sort of joyous episode really. Surprisingly I think that’s its own twist in a way. But I think generally they are a bit lighter, aren’t they? We try to be funny, one time…one time (audience laughter)

JJ:  Is one of you a particular fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber? (audience laughter)

RS:  We’ve always had something about Andrew Lloyd Webber. We had a character we could never fit in. There was a man sat trying to tell another man in a pub about, he’s like a tax bore, a bit boring about tax and he was explaining to this other man. Did you see him or did you just hear him?

Once Removed

SP: I can’t remember now.

RS: He had this…around this idea…something to do with Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was “Right. I’m Andrew Lloyd Webber. You…” Explaining about tax and what we would do with the money and he was Andrew Lloyd Webber. It sounds funny but we’ve always wanted to do something.

JJ: Did you have to research any of that or did you actually have a memory about it…Roger Moore…

RS: Oh yeah, that one came (clicks fingers) like that.

JJ: Because all that stuff, its all true stuff.

RS: Yeah, yeah…Julie Convington.

SP: Julie Convington as well.

RS: I mean its so…you had to know about Andrew Lloyd Webber. And if you don’t, you do by the end.

JJ: In terms of coming up with new ideas and so forth. Do you find its still just as easy to come up with stuff or do you have that kind of…writer’s block… kind of moments?

SP: It’s stressful, I mean, you know. When you…it’s not just Day One you’ve got a blank page. You finish the first script and then you’ve got another blank page (as) you start the next one. And I worry about it. I worry about being able to come up with the ideas. But really it’s like anything, you’ve just got to start. And once you’ve started, as long as you’ve got a strong kernel of an idea there, the other stuff will come together. Like I said about ‘Zanzibar’…started as a farce, ended up something farcical but with other ideas. Um, but you could never know, you’ve just got to jump off the cliff and begin. And I think that’s…anyone who does write will know procrastination is your greatest enemy and we do sit and procrastinate a long time before we…

DSCF1116(c) Dodoswords

RS: We talk a lot longer than we write I think because we’re so…um, I think we’ve got a good patter now. We really talk for a long time and decide what scenes are required to make the story work and then we, once we’re really sure of where it’s going, then we begin to write. And that gets over that thing, where you think you’re writing absolutely…you know, where are you going. Avoiding that really helps your spirit…that’s a version. Once you’ve got physically something, even if it’s terrible, you can then sort of ‘we have got a script’, then you can go back and start to layer it and see things… Once the idea is there then the writing (becomes) quite quick.

SP: Can be, yeah.

JJ: If the BBC were to cobble a bit of money together and ask you to do another series, is there another series in you?

RS: Of Number Nine? Yeah, of course.

JJ: It could go on forever?

RS: Yeah, as long as we can keep coming up with the ideas and feel that we haven’t…we’re not repeating ourselves, because we’re too aware of what it’s like to watch a thing and feel disappointed. We’ve been like that since writing ‘The League of Gentlemen’. We’re really hard on ourselves to not feel that it can be levelled at us that we’re doing the same again or we’ve sort of done that script but in different ways…But of course we have, they’re all riddled with things that you can see that are very us I think, when I watch them…

JJ: I wasn’t going to mention ‘The League of Gentlemen’ but seeing as you have. Obviously this is going to come out in January, but it looks like over Christmas we’re going to be treated to the two of you with Adam again and those two other guys. Um, is there anything you are able to share with us? I mean obviously you don’t want to…

RS: Well we filmed it and it nearly killed us. It’s a young man’s game.

JJ: You filmed that really quickly as well, didn’t you?

RS: Yeah. Eighteen days, for three half hours.

JJ: And that was literally about two weeks ago you finished.

SP: One week ago.

RS: So that’s done…its good, I mean….We did it from a place of absolute joy.

AT: It’s not done. It’s in the edit. You mean your bit’s done (audience laughter)

RS: Yes, it’s not put together yet. We had fun doing it. It was purely ‘lets do it, it’ll be fun’. We didn’t need to do it, so it had to be fun and it was. It was really great to return to that world and hope that people will enjoy it.

JJ: It’s three episodes and there’s a story going through the three…

SP: It’s more in common with series one and two. The third series we had a lot more narrative which is something, you know, that we enjoy doing with ‘No. 9’, but League of Gentlemen I think always worked best when it was sort of quite sketch-based. So whilst there will be some through lines a lot of its self-contained sketches. So for a lot of the shoot we were playing one character for half a day, won’t we?

AT: Or sometimes a third of a day.

SP: Yeah yeah.

JJ: In terms of the length of the shoot and the amount of kind of costume changes and numbers of characters you’re playing and stuff, that’s… I mean is that similar to what it was when you were doing it last time around or were doing…or did you have a lot less time to do (it) this time round?

DSCF1110(c) Dodoswords

RS: Yeah, a lot less time. I mean, I think that’s why you don’t see…

AT: You did fifty characters in the first series didn’t you, between you.  And you done – and this is half a series – and you’ve done 35 or 36 characters. So it’s pretty tough on you.

RS: It’s good though. I think its feels like we do dart around and see all the faces that you want to see. It was hard to choose because, like you say, we did so many, we couldn’t do them all. So we had to decide what ones we’d like to see, what we think people would like to see and is there any more stories left to tell. But it was, it actually flowed out of us, once we started writing, it was a fun…It wasn’t like pulling teeth, which it normally is, writing, for me anyway.

JJ: Do you feel this time you’ve sort of shut the door on that bit now or is there always room…

RS: For League of Gentlemen?

JJ: Yeah.

RS: We did it because we wanted people to stop saying “Are you going to do any more League of Gentlemen?”  (audience laughter) We did a round table thing on set and a lot of the journalists came and they said “Do you think they’d commission it today, you know, nowadays?” I said “They have…” (audience laughter) “Would they commission it now?” “They have done!” (audience laughter)

DSCF1108(c) Dodoswords

JJ: We’re going to ask if you could keep these to ‘Inside No. 9’ questions now because we are going to do ‘League of Gentlemen’ in December. So if you want to put your hand up. There’s a question in the very, very front row. There’s a microphone coming down and then after that if we go to the very, very back on that side…for the second question.

Audience question: First of all, I thought it was fantastic…Opposite to the problem of having to come up with a new idea every time, I wondered do you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re sort of frustrated because you’ve come up with a setting or a character or a conceit that you particularly love and it’s difficult to put them down after an half hour episode and you’d like to return to them or do you feel they’re quite complete ideas that you’re happy to sort of put away?

RS: No. Sometimes I do feel like we…you could do more with the scenario or setting. I would have liked to have done more with…I would have six half hours of Mr Warren and Mr Clarke doing witch trials (audience applause) Maybe nobody else would. Sometimes you do think that’s a…that’s a…there’s a series in that. Maybe not. Sometimes the reason why they work well is that they can conclude in an extreme way where there’s no consequences and that’s why you can do it the way we’ve done it. So sometimes you think maybe you couldn’t actually, it’s a nice idea but perhaps you can’t do them after the half hour’s over.

AT: They’ve got a beginning, a middle and an end, unlike so many series now… (just) go on and on and on and on. These are done and dusted in half an hour. Hopefully you’ll have a good time and you take the story away with you and you’ll reflect on it afterwards. It’s not something you can with a lot of TV these days.

Audience question: What were your kind of all-time favourite horror icons…?

RS: Where’s it coming from?

Audience question:  What’s your kind of favourite all-time horror icons you’ve used when creating ‘Inside No. 9’?

SP: We did more in ‘The League of Gentlemen’ I think. ‘Inside No. 9’ I don’t think we do in quite the same way. ‘League of Gentlemen’ we used to make a taster tape to give to the director and all the crew and make a sort of compilation of all our favourite horror films. But now we’d like to think that, you know, people are doing that with our show. And…yeah, we don’t really think in those terms for No. 9…But ‘The Harrowing’ had quite a strong…

RS: Yeah, but then that was more all-out gothic Hammer horror I guess. But yeah, but we don’t really try to…none of it’s parody. We tried to stop doing…when we’re trying to do a scare or whatever…

JJ:  I guess you might say ‘The Harrowing’ and perhaps ‘Witchfinder General’ for the Elizabeth Gadge?

RS: Yeah maybe for ‘Elizabeth Gadge’ and um…’Blood on Satan’s Claw’, that sort of Piers Haggard feel…

AT: Once you’ve done one of those you don’t want to repeat it do you. I mean that’s one of the hard things about doing another series is trying to work out what the tone should be to keep it distinct from all the other episodes. That is quite hard at the beginning of series four, you sit down and think okay what’s this one, okay. So ‘Once, Removed’ for me felt like ‘Memento’ meets ‘Midsomer Murders’ (audience laughter)

Once Removed

JJ: I remember asking you in the first series, we talked a lot more about the anthology series of the 1970s and 1980s. And this was absolutely that time of doing something kind of groundbreaking and sort of revisiting that. But actually now there are quite a lot of…There’s a number of quite important anthology shows out there, like ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Room…’

AT: ‘104’

RS: Yeah, there’s definitely a trend to being accepted that you can do them again which is great.

JJ: Do you feel some pride in that?

RS: We started that (audience laughter)

AT: Original and still the best.

JJ: There’s a question coming from over there…then…the other side.

Audience question:  So with you two writing episodes do you ever find it difficult when you’re given a note because in your mind you’ve got a preconception of the characters?

JJ: It must be quite difficult to direct people who’ve written and conceived and are acting…

SP: A note when we’re filming you mean?

Audience question: Yeah…

SP: Doesn’t happen (audience laughter)

RS: They know to stay well away…

SP: No, we do genuinely, I like to say, work in quite a collaborative way, don’t we. So it’s a collective thing from the point of which we’ve written the script it then becomes a collective thing that we all go into the rehearsal room with and onto the shooting floor with and um, yeah, you know, it’s not difficult to get notes at all.

JJ: David, have you ever had a conversation with them that start with them saying “So David, do you like working on our show?”

DK: No, no…yes they imprison me for a number of weeks. No, I mean the truth is they genuinely are the most kind of open collaborators around. I mean, I guess kind of before I worked with them I sort of imagined they’d be, you know…you know, incredibly specific about “here’s this scene from ‘Witchfinder General’, “here’s this scene from…”, “this performance from Vincent Price” and blah, blah, blah and, you know, sort of lead me to very specific references for each script, each scene. And actually there really wasn’t any of that. I think they gave the scripts to read and they’d always be there to discuss and consult them as I was kind of thinking about sets or we’re talking about costume, you know, any other aspect of the design. So it’s very kind of collaborative and consultative, but it’s always a two-way conversation…

AT: Definitely. I mean, you hadn’t really decided how to play Vince in ‘Zanzibar’ until quite late on. I seem to remember us having conversations about it when we were rehearsing…

RS: Oh yeah, yeah. I know…

SP: That’s because he played Henry in ‘Zanzibar’.

AT: Oh sorry, Henry…All these names.

RS: Yeah. You hope that when you enter into a thing with a lot of people all with the same aim, which is to make it the best it can be, that you, that the director will make you better than you are, you know, you just hope that they’ve got things to say that will change your performance or give you an insight into something that you think I always do it like that actually, it would be good to try something like that.  So you want to hear different viewpoints cos you can’t always be right. You do hope that everyone will contribute and elevate the whole thing from the page. We’ve got a sort of idea of how we imagine the collection of the elements and then they’re put back together in the edit, and then the music changes it, and the edit…

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SP: The important thing I think is we’re allowed to be part of, not allowed, we are a part of that process all the way through. And I think what would be frustrating is if you just filmed your scenes and then you just tuned in to see it on the TV and went that’s not what I meant…We do it all together as a group, from page to final edit.

JJ: We’ve not got a huge amount of time. There’s one over here…

Audience question: You’ve briefly breached outside of TV with the online episode ‘The Inventors’ and the ‘Inside No. 9’ episodes are often compared to stage plays. Have you ever thought of writing an extended episode or a couple of extended episodes for the stage for ‘Inside No.9’?

RS: We haven’t thought of doing one specifically. They sort of…some of them could…would be suited to do that with cos they are often, a lot them, are real time so you could do it with a great cast on stage. Half talked about it, haven’t we? We get a lot of requests from people saying can we have the rights to the script who want to do it as an amateur dramatic. We had ‘Sardines’ didn’t we, someone wanted to do that, and ‘The Bill’ and ‘La Couchette’.

JJ: Have they been done?

RS: We’ve never allowed it (audience laughter) Absolutely not (audience laughter)

SP:  It’s a good idea.

RS:  It’s a good idea and it’s something…

SP:  Would anyone pay to see that? (a scattering of people in the audience say ‘yes’) There’s no way we’re doing that then.

JJ:  We have got enough time certainly for one, maybe two…There’s one over there…

Audience question:  I really enjoyed both the episodes, can’t wait to see the rest. Seeing as you’ve done a silent movie style episode and now a Shakespeare episode, I wondered if you ever consider doing a musical?

SP: Yes that’s on our list. I mean we thought that ‘Empty Orchestra’ was sort of our musical episode in that it was mainly sung through, through the medium of karaoke. But it was a bit like doing the silent episode, we didn’t want to make a ‘silent comedy’ in inverted commas. We wanted it to be silent for a reason…And similarly when we were doing that episode we wanted it to be a musical for the reason that they are genuinely singing karaoke. But I think something that’s something we could have a think about.

RS: Yeah, we can do that.

SP:  Get Andrew Lloyd Webber (audience laughter)

JJ: We have got time for another question. Can we…move a bit further forward. Anyone in the…you found somebody? Go there and then we’ll go to that back row…there’ll be two more.

Audience question:  Number one. Reece, well done for the angriest Hokey Cokey I have ever heard (audience laughter) And secondly, who decides what order they air in and would you change it?

RS: That’s a good question.

AT: Yeah okay. That’s sort of where I come in at the end and I write all of the titles on little bits of card and then I take them to everybody and I say so what order do you think they should be in? And normally I’ve got a fairly good idea and normally everybody sort of agrees. I think we were…It was hard this series because I don’t want to blow my own trumpet here or indeed the trumpet of the boys, but actually I think this is probably the strongest series to date and any of the episodes we’ve got this year could have started the series I think.

JJ: These are episodes one and two aren’t they?

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AT: These are going to be episodes one and two at the moment. But we shuffle it around and the only real thing to bear in mind is that you don’t want to put two episodes that tonally even remotely similar next to each other in the running order. For the first three series we usually had three that had really downbeat endings and three that were slightly less downbeat (audience laughter) The twist was sometimes a happy one and you could interleave them, but that hasn’t happened this year, not going to say which way. Um, so it was a little bit of a harder thing, but I think we all…

SP: We often have a slot and go that’s a sort of scary slot, it could be that one or it could be that one. But we…it’s the differences in tone is what we go for.

JJ: I’d forgotten actually. I played that game with you, in terms of you had the cards, I hadn’t seen the episodes and I had to go ordering them, but I can tell you that’s how he does it. He’s got his pack of cards. And I’ve no idea how it ended up…there. Just one more question, at the very, very back there.

Audience question: Hi guys, I really enjoyed those two episodes. ‘Once, Removed’ like ‘Rellik’ tells a story backwards, tells a murder story backwards and I wondered what particular challenge was it making a comedy like this and also what do you think the makers of ‘Rellik’ will think of your kind of souped-up and speeded up version?

AT: Well we made ours first even though they managed to get theirs out first.

RS: Well happily its shit so… (audience laughter and applause) I’ve not seen it.

AT: It was a little bit like ‘A Quiet Night In’. We had to…we did that thing that you did with ‘A Quiet Night In’ was we took, I don’t know who went down, was it you Steve…went down to the location…yeah, you went down to the house…Jim took you down, you again…Reece again, went down to the house and plotted it through to make sure all of the business would work forwards so…we could then shoot it backwards…

RS: Yeah, we had to know where we’d be at the end of scenes…

AT: So there was quite a lot of work to make sure that that played, including the gags like the mop and the bucket and the gun and the rolled up carpet, because obviously there’s quite a lot of punchlines which are visual reveals in that episode, so they all have to be in exactly the right place to land. I bet ‘Rellik’ didn’t have that problem.

SP: Also we were doing a half hour which is continuous. We weren’t playing with going backwards a few months or backwards a few days. We were going literally 10 minutes back so that the beginning of one scene joined up with the end of the previous scene…it was a nightmare. I mean the good thing about it is that within the half hour episode you get the whole picture and I think that’s the challenge of doing a six or eight part series, is, you know, you can’t do that.

JJ: There’s four episodes still to be seen in the new year. Can you just remind us of some of the names of some of the cast you’ve got coming up in those episodes?

RS: We’ve done one…Nicola Walker.

SP: Zoe Wanamaker.

RS: Ken Cranham.

AT: Noel Clarke.

RS: There’s really…both of Graeme’s are great. We’ve got one that’s…We’ve never done (a) two-hander where it’s just me and Steve, so we thought it would be nice to do that, so that’s a nice one and it is, it’s not a joke, it is actually about a double act that are coming together to do something.

JJ: Steve…I know one of the problems with Graeme is…his ability to laugh constantly on set. You managed to contain him this time?

SP: No we didn’t (audience laughter)

AT: That one is less of a problem. The other one he did laugh a lot, didn’t he?

RS: Yes he did…We’ve done one since…

SP: Well if he’s doing this…he’ll make the sound stop (audience laughter)

JJ: A few months before we’re going to see those. Nearer, we’ll see ‘The League of Gentlemen’. But congratulations and a huge, huge thank you to David Kerr, Adam Tandy, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (audience applause)

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Inside No. 9 Review: Series Four: ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’

*contains spoilers*

“Yes, if you’re going to cry, cry tears of laughter. Your funny bone can never break in two…But laughter is my memory of you…” (Tommy Drake and Len Shelby, ‘Tears of Laughter’: ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’)

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith can wreck your heart like no-one else when they want to. Their writing makes you feel a character’s pain or journey with the sharp intensity of a deeply personal experience, in a way their contemporaries can’t even get close to. Drama and comedy are never far apart for the pair and they know exactly how to time their use, to hold back on one or give both equal prominence in a scene for maximum effect, in order to heighten the impact.

When writing as accomplished and sublime as this is allied with Pemberton & Shearsmith’s supreme acting talent – and the pathos and empathy they bring to almost every role they play – then the results can be genuinely palpable, as in the case of their second story for series four of ‘Inside No. 9’ – the exceptional ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’. Hailed as a classic by fans and critics alike and garnering universal praise, the reaction to it has been nothing short of phenomenal. It has touched and moved people on a scale comparable to the duo’s series two No. 9 ‘The 12 Days of Christine’.

The mark of genius in any creative work is in its ‘rewatchability’, in being able to revisit and see new things there each time you return. ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ has this inbuilt into it because feelings and reactions are intensified – its layers more viscerally experienced – when the realisation of what you are watching is revealed at the end. The story’s meaning changes and what was bittersweet, melancholic and poignant deepens by degrees. With the knowledge of hindsight the narrative becomes inconsolably sadder, emotionally devastating and genuinely profound.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

Multilayered and interwoven with psychological depth, the script is miraculous – a thing of beauty – full of tenderness and sensitivity, deeply humane and acutely affecting.

The story opens in a dusty church hall. A stage props basket stamped with a ‘9’ is wheeled across the floor by a soberly dressed, middle-aged man. The props basket is the cradle for memories, figuratively and literally. The musical accompaniment – the sound of a solo horn playing – is mournful. It evokes a downbeat atmosphere, brimming with sadness and puts a strong sense of the patina of the past into our minds right from the start.

The man, Tommy (‘Thomas’) Drake, finds an old script in the basket, browned with age. He silently watches as another middle-aged man – Len Shelby – arrives, loaded down with bags containing more props. The two men are a former comedy duo, Cheese & Crackers, representatives of the traditional school of comedy, an old fashioned double act straight from the crumbling bastion of variety, who experienced modest success in the 1980s – the “arse end of variety” as Tommy realistically puts it. This was a time when British comedy was starting to undergo a transformation, as cultural shifts and societal changes meant acts such as Cheese & Crackers were vulnerable to changing tastes, where judgments concerning what was funny were beginning to be placed within acceptable and unacceptable frames of reference. They were a comedy pairing who were almost out of time at the height of their career.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

The reason for their coming together again after their break-up 30 years before is only elliptically referred to a couple of times as a ‘last gig’. It is not expanded upon – the who, the what and the why of it is not discussed. The reason for their split is likewise not mentioned.

The dynamics of their relationship are mesmerisingly explored in what is virtually a two-hander between Pemberton & Shearsmith, the first for an ‘Inside No. 9’. The narrative absorbingly studies these two characters – Tommy Drake and Len Shelby – with a deep focus examination of their very different personalities. Over the course of 30 minutes, Tommy and Len and their act are magnified, scrutinized and dissected until we arrive at the truth regarding the cause of their break-up and what lies behind their “one last gig to an invited audience” reunion.

The depth of characterisation is remarkable, both in terms of the layered observations and psychological nuances established by the script and in the wonderful performances of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. These are fully rounded character portrayals, multifaceted and emotionally complex. That this is so brilliantly realised in just half an hour is an astonishing achievement in itself, quite apart from the fact that the script is also working on another thematic level underneath this at the same time.

Within just the first few minutes of being introduced to them we are given a very definite sense of Tommy and Len’s characters. Tommy is serious-minded, dour, analytical and a realist. Len radiates a overtly fulsome cheerfulness but there are strong hints of desperation beneath this happy-go-lucky persona, in the heavy reliance on jokey ripostes and in his over-friendly neediness as he seeks Tommy’s acquiescence. His optimism counters Tommy’s pragmatism but there are indications that the unrealistic dreamer in him carries with it a trace of carelessness and irresponsibility, which stands in contrast to Tommy’s exactitude and methodical approach to comedy and life in general.

This dichotomy is apparent when they rehearse one of their old sketches. Using the format of a job interview, it relies on a quick succession of silly foreign accents and stock comic stereotypes for its laughs, positing Cheese & Crackers’ comedy shtick straight out of the 1980s. They’re inescapably one of those run-of-the-mill, middle-of-the-bill comedy double acts that were a mainstay of television entertainment shows of that era and somewhat dated even then.

The interview sketch shows the chasm between the pair – that was insinuated from the start – widening still further as they argue about the nature of comedy. Tommy labels it as racist and impossible to perform now: “What’s the joke? What are you inviting people to laugh at exactly?” Instinctive and reductive in his approach, Len thinks there’s nothing wrong with it, getting a laugh is all that matters to him: “Just a man doing all daft voices.” He reiterates this ‘end justifies the means’ attitude, defending the idea of cheap laughs, when Tommy castigates the poor material of another of their routines: “Oh come on, a laugh’s a laugh however you word it.” Their disagreement over the interview skit is about much more than comedy – it articulates something about the men themselves. The nuanced difference in the terminology they use when they argue is telling – ‘racist’ (Tommy) and ‘racialist’ (Len) It sets them worlds apart, with Tommy firmly in the present and apparently wanting to forget his past and Len behind the times and defiantly stuck there.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

The forceful tone Tommy takes to warn his former partner against resorting to his old attention seeking antics of mugging to the audience to draw a laugh his way illustrates there is a difficult history between them and that Tommy’s long-held resentments from 30 years before have not been forgotten: “You’d look out and take it as if you’d earned the laugh. Don’t.” What is strongly inferred by Len’s desire to get laughs wherever possible – and by all means necessary – is a deep-rooted insecurity which manifests itself as a desperate need for approval, a need which is fulfilled by making people laugh – the one way he knows to feel liked and admired. This means ‘success’ to him professionally and one that crosses over into personal necessity.

The interplay between Tommy and Len reinforces the marked differences between them at every turn and implies a reason why their lives took such different paths after their break-up. Tommy’s innate ability to plan, organise and analyse, his role as the ‘sensible’ one of the partnership, the ease with which he slips into leadership mode, signifies natural business acumen and helps explain his post show business success, running his own digital marketing company. His small and neat salt and pepper beard suggests Tommy’s (‘Thomas’) adherence to corporate etiquette, always mindful of projecting the correct image to clientele. He is everything that Len is not and vice versa. Len’s almost complete lack of discipline,  his outmoded ways, his dated thoughts on comedy and knee-jerk dismissal of a more considered approach to it, indicates a more reckless, careless attitude to life, which may account for things having gone wrong for him after Cheese & Crackers. His life has indeed hit the doldrums and he admits as much to Tommy when he owns up to now being homeless.

Len’s countenance and unkempt appearance are just as revealing. His dishevelment and the unhealthy red tinge to his skin, the colour associated with the heavily permeating effects of alcohol, hint “that things haven’t been great for you the last few years” as Tommy gently observes.

Subtle changes in Len’s behaviour begin to emerge and escalate as he and Tommy continue to rehearse old sketches, reminisce about their career and discuss the finer points of comedy. He becomes several shades more argumentative, critical, selfish and unpleasant and far less inclined to apologetically defer to the unenthusiastic Tommy to keep him on side. It is the lairy actions of someone emboldened by drink.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

It starts with a surreptitious little nip of whisky in a mug of tea and progresses to a blatant swig from a bottle of beer used as a prop in an old vent sketch he and Tommy try out. When Tommy opens the beer bottle ahead of the run-through he becomes broodily lost in his own thoughts to the extent that midway through the sketch he suddenly halts it with a pained “I can’t. I can’t bear it.” He makes the excuse that it was due to the terrible material of the routine but lingering is the implicit intimation that the bottle of beer aroused tense feelings and difficult memories for Tommy and triggered that reaction from him.

Len’s drink-induced obnoxiousness make the interactions between him and Tommy increasingly contentious and embittered. His confrontational diatribes condemn and blame his former partner, both professionally and personally: “You’re like a shark. You’ve got dead, black eyes”; “You were no fun then. You’ve always been miserable”; “That’s why it all dried up for us. People could sense it…You killed Cheese & Crackers, Tommy.”

Tommy’s evasiveness and reluctance to directly challenge Len with the painful truth regarding the problematic frictions in their relationship and the reason why Cheese & Crackers broke-up are discernible from the start. We can see he finds it easier to divert any long-held recriminatory feelings by instead voicing dissatisfaction with their material, Len’s approach to comedy and his tendency to try and draw all the laughs to him. When Tommy briefly alludes to the Bernie Clifton’s dressing room incident a minute’s silence follows between the pair, both unable to confront its significance or the uncomfortable memories it elicits. Instead an awkward moment is left hanging in the air. However his partner’s growing hostility – and the drinking that precipitates it – make Tommy decide to at last address the dressing room issue directly by invoking it through the re-enactment of Cheese & Cracker’s ‘Brown Bottles’ routine.

An old-fashioned variety skit based on the ‘Ten Green Bottles’ song, the ‘Brown Bottles’ sketch coalesces with painful memories for Tommy which are ignited when he sings its altered lyrics as Len proceeds to drink the contents from ten bottles of beer lined up along the mocked-up wall. There is a catch in Tommy’s voice as he continues through to the end of the song, his repressed emotions returning as he sees Len become increasingly inebriated as each bottle is removed and drunk from. The tension between the silliness of the comedy and the agony and torment that it represents for one of the comedy partners builds and intensifies. The routine culminates with the pay-off joke of Tommy smashing the one remaining bottle over Len’s head who then comically keels over. At the same instance Tommy stops singing and says pointedly and with real vehemence behind it “And no more wall!”

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

Standing as the signifier for the end of the Cheese & Crackers partnership, the skit condenses the reasons behind the break-up into several minutes of skilfully executed comic business. Facing the traumatic memories it represents head on is a cathartic experience for Tommy and enables him to finally confront Len with the long suppressed truth – it was his heavy drinking that ended Cheese & Crackers: “You’re an alcoholic…And Bernie Clifton’s dressing room was the last straw.” Finding Len passed out drunk in the dressing room, choking on his own vomit after he’d abruptly left his partner alone on stage during a performance of the ‘Brown Bottles’ sketch at the Glasgow Pavilion, confirmed to Tommy that neither of them could struggle on as an act when it was destroying them both. The pressure of supporting a self-destructive partner, of being the stable one, the dependable one, the person that Len leant on – a figurative wall fortifying the partnership and their relationship  – was making Tommy miserable “so I walked away” in order to save himself and save Len (“And no more wall”) sacrificing his career for his partner’s sake.

This intense, compelling scene is one of ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ high points, the writing and acting utterly transfixing and full of dramatic impetus. Psychologically complex and emotionally penetrating, the lines are loaded with subtext and nuance which implicitly link to earlier insights we have heard about both men (Tommy castigated for being a misery, Len’s annoying attempts at stealing laughs) They entwine and align with Tommy’s revelatory explanation for the demise of Cheese & Crackers, underpinning his account – and the scene – with a real sense of emotive truth.

‘Brown Bottles’ stands as both a perfectly formed parody of a variety era comedy sketch and as an allegorical representation of the tensions in the Cheese & Crackers partnership that lay at the heart of their break-up. The ten bottles of beer symbolise the scale of Len’s drinking (numerous real-life examples testify to alcohol being the numbing drug of choice for comedians) and the wall on which they’re balanced evokes Tommy’s solid support – as the ‘straight man’ of the act and in the way he’s holding up a partner led astray by booze. Comedy double acts are built on frangible foundations and vulnerable to fractures, reliant as they are on something as arbitrary and subjective as laughter for their survival. Timing and trust are vital in a partnership creating such a fragile concoction and febrile brew. When that trust is betrayed as fundamentally as Len does with Tommy, leaving him literally alone on stage – his comic timing floundering without a partner to bounce off – then the fissures can’t be mended. Trust – and their friendship – has been broken.

Even at this climactic point of tumultuous confrontation and turmoil, Pemberton & Shearsmith balance it with a blackly comic line when Tommy directly refers to Bernie Clifton’s well-known stage prop: “He had to destroy that ostrich, you know” (after Len had vomited over it in his alcohol-induced state) Putting it into the midst of such potent pain to heighten and then release tension is testament to their daring and brilliance.

This powerful scene of intense emotion, centred on the traumatic background to a painful break-up between two friends, achieves its mesmerising depth and such a  forceful hold on our feelings through the committed and heartbreakingly truthful performances of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. It becomes almost too painful to watch at times because it feels so real, with the eyes of both actors filling with tears at its apex.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

If ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ had ended on that confessional climax it would have been an extraordinary work in terms of emotional resonance and poignant power but the audience is then presented with the revelation that Tommy is here to attend Len’s funeral with the arrival of his daughter Leanne, who hands Tommy the order of service and tells him her dad wanted the funeral to be a celebration – “One last gig to an invited audience”. What we had really been watching was Tommy’s mind’s eye, imagining his former partner in that dusty church hall with him as he waited alone with his memories before the start of the service. All at once the story we’ve seen is suffused with new meaning as another level – and new meaning – is revealed in an already densely layered script. It’s the realisation that the Cheese & Crackers reunion is one being played out in Tommy’s imagination and that in reality they’re reuniting only in metaphorical terms, with Tommy returning to deliver a eulogy for his former comedy partner.

The disclosure of the story’s ending is there in plain sight but not discernible without foreknowledge. Those seeded moments and subtle details which permeate the script are only seen and appreciated in retrospect, when what we see and hear are reinterpreted with acquired understanding and we are alert to clues: Tommy’s first words to Len “I wondered if you were going to turn up”  is now filled with telling ambiguity and imbued with double meaning; his vexed “Let’s just get on with it, shall we? I haven’t got long” suggests a sense of urgency in Tommy, preparing himself for the impending funeral and interrupted by memories flooding back to him; the number of times the camera captures Tommy silently observing Len in an almost detached manner, as if in a contemplative mood alone with his own thoughts, thinking about and remembering his friend; the touching simplicity of the exchange “Why have you come then?” (Len) “How could I not?” (Tommy)

The script is expertly structured to suggest Tommy’s imagination has put him and Len back in the room together in order for him to try and work through not only his sense of loss but also the inevitable ambiguous feelings and the resentment he’s lived with for 30 years, since being let down by Len on that fateful night at the Glasgow Pavilion. The depicted one-to-one and increasingly confrontational conversations with his former partner masterfully portray Tommy’s mind trying to come to terms with the emotional impact of “unfinished business” that Len’s death has left him with. The imagined exchanges become a psychological way in, a way of enabling him to say things he had long wanted to express but hadn’t got the chance to when Len was alive.  Tommy’s memories come forth to gather his thoughts and recall his feelings about his late partner, building a narrative and constructing stories in order to make sense of, and attempt to resolve, the contentious elements in their relationship that had accumulated over the years.  In the end we all become a part of someone else’s stories and memories of us and the beautifully crafted writing depicts this in the most profoundly moving way.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

When we fully grasp what we’ve actually been watching it is truly devastating but Pemberton & Shearsmith then intensify the heart-rending jolt even further by delivering the agonising pathos of the letter left for Tommy by Len. Containing £25 and a message written on the back of an old Cheese & Crackers flyer “For Bernie Clifton’s dressing room. Sorry I messed up”, the money represents the amount Tommy paid to replace Bernie Clifton’s destroyed ostrich costume, but it’s the message that really matters, affectingly settling Tommy and Len’s “unresolved business.” It hadn’t been “too late” as Tommy had feared. Encapsulating what their partnership had really meant to Len, it’s a touching last gesture from one friend to another.

The audience is taken to the heights of emotional intensity with this last revelation, the third within a very short space of time. The depth of the anguish it arouses goes beyond dramatic intent. Our hearts have been broken and our feelings devastated by what we’ve watched – the intertwined lives of two men, on a journey through pain, recrimination and finally forgiveness.

There is a redemptive coda in the form of a song and dance routine as Tommy’s imagination reunites him and Len one last time for a performance of Cheese & Crackers’ signature tune ‘Tears of Laughter’ – a cathartic release after the aching sadness. Highly reminiscent of Morecambe & Wise (the dance sequence is close in spirit – and choreography – to their ‘Two of a Kind’ number) Tommy’s memory at last seeks out the happiness his partnership with Len gave him and the song’s lyrics echo that sense of kinship, joy and optimism that comedy – and friendship – can offer as a counterpoint to life’s hardships and vicissitudes. It is both poignant and heart-warming – tears and laughter. ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ is outstanding proof that storytellers and performers as supreme as Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith can break your heart and heal your soul at one and the same time.

Partners in comedy double acts not getting on with each other is a hoary show-business cliché but Pemberton & Shearsmith have taken that trope and made a work of creative genius from it. It is one of their most heartfelt and touching No.9s yet, emotive to the point of gut-wrenchingly moving. In part it is a meditation on the nature of comedy and how porous it is to the passage of time and the social and cultural changes that come with it. The script is charged with a feeling of the ‘remembrance of things past’ in terms of British cultural history of the 1970s and 1980s, which undoubtedly resonated with Pemberton & Shearsmith’s childhood memories of television and the old school comedy of those times. ‘Blankety Blank’, Ted Bovis, The Grumbleweeds, ‘Crackerjack’ and even ‘The Hair Bear Bunch’ are all referenced.

Primarily though it’s about the nature of friendship that is built from a close working relationship and what happens when that’s compromised or breaks down completely, when long developed trust has been destroyed. Its sense of the past and the fractured friendship thematic produces a deep sense of melancholy that pervades the whole piece (comedy and melancholy are so often natural bedfellows) The skilfully modulated writing subtly shows how the unbalanced dynamic in the traditional double act of the ‘funny one’ and ‘straight man’, with its unequal share of laughs and attention under the spotlight of ‘fame’, is a brittle basis for friendship and an insecure one for it to happily co-exist within and endure.

The script is beautifully crafted, working on several levels at once as is always the case with Pemberton & Shearsmith’s writing and loaded with detail. It is an absorbing and engrossing character study as well as a tender portrait of loss and the way people assemble and negotiate their way through a vast array of emotions – anger, regret, sorrow, guilt – and all their thoughts, feelings and memories about a loved one, at a time of grief. The multi-layered characters of Tommy and Len are the thing of this No.9 and it is here that the sublime writing and exemplary acting of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton combine to lift ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ to spellbinding heights. Art, at its very best, helps to explain the human condition and the contradictions that reside within and between people. It enables us to understand life a little better and develop a keener sense of empathy for the fragilities which exist in people. ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’s distinctiveness lies in the psychological exploration of Tommy and Len’s characters and the emotional complexities of their portrayals. Pemberton & Shearsmith care deeply about the people they write and create and in turn make us care. Their empathy drives this story from its low-key opening to compelling climax. It is one of the pair’s greatest writing and acting achievements so far in a career filled with them.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Graeme Harper

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Tommy Drake…Reece Shearsmith

Len Shelby…Steve Pemberton

Leanne…Sian Gibson

Inside No.9 Review: Series Four: ‘Zanizbar’

*contains spoilers*

“Aye, well, it is important to entertain as well as educate. One sometimes has to paint in primary colours.” Vince De Trans: ‘Zanzibar’)

‘Inside No.9’s series four opener is an exhilarating diversion, a playful and fanciful delight, but as one of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s most purely pleasurable 9’s yet, ‘Zanzibar’ may be the lightest of confections but is definitely no mere trifle. It is distinguished by an ambitious artistic device to conflate farce and Shakespeare.

The setting is the ninth floor corridor of a modern, swish hotel, with all of the action taking place outside the guests’ rooms. Different pairs of characters are beset by personal crises, a murder conspiracy or romantic difficulties but – as the prologue spoken by the hotel’s bellboy assures us – fate will soon intervene for or against them at Hotel Zanzibar.

Originally Pemberton & Shearsmith were set upon doing a full pelt farce: “We’re going to do a farce in a hotel corridor…And it felt a bit contrived, you know, to do it in a contemporary way. And there’s just one of those nice lightbulb moments where you go ‘let’s make it Shakespearean’ and then lets really draw on all the Shakespearean sources that we can” (1) (Steve Pemberton)

Being the prodigiously talented writers that they are, Reece and Steve set themselves the difficult writing challenge of replicating the full range of linguistic techniques and literary devices contained in a Shakespearean play (or practically any from the Elizabethan period) They achieved this re-creation with astonishing accuracy and in painstaking detail, of the kind we’ve come to expect from the pair.

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‘Zanzibar’ is written in iambic pentameter, which are unrhymed lines with a defined meter, the meter being made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. A line of verse has five unstressed and stressed syllables, creating a distinctive, inbuilt rhythmic pace when they’re spoken. Blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) is the main linguistic form found in Shakespeare’s plays but Pemberton & Shearsmith’s script adds layers to the richness of the language because it also reverts to rhyme verse several times. Rhyming couplets are used to denote tension, cap scenes as a character exits from the corridor, give the unravelling of plot threads a lyrical significance and invest the story’s climax with an additional flourish. An example of rhyming couplets being used to convey tension occurs about half-way through the story when panicked guest Robert, searching for his elderly mother who is suffering from a loss of memory, speaks in rhyming couplets as he anxiously looks for her along the ninth floor corridor: “I have searched every floor from one to nine, Of my mother, alas, there is no sign. I curse the day she went into Boots. She only wanted Schwarzkopf for her roots…Oh I should never have let her from my sight. I pray that someone’s seen her here tonight.” And when the knotted strands of plot are untangled as the story reaches its resolution-from-confusion ending, blank verse changes to rhyming couplets at two key stages to distinguish significant elements of the climax. Firstly in the lead-up to the moment when separated-at-birth twins Prince Rico and Gus see each other for the first time and then again just after the threat to a happy ending is averted with the containment, via hypnotism, of malevolent plotter Henry, where single lines of couplets are spoken by several different characters, one after another in conversational style: “Vince, you’ve saved the day.” (Colette) “Thank you, child. I’m glad that everyone is reconciled.” (Vince) “I thought I was a goner.” (Mr Green) “No way, Pops.” (Prince Rico) “Let’s lock him in his room and call the cops.” (Fred) The flowing rhythm of the couplets connotes a feeling of relief and suggests there is sense of unity between the characters, now that their problems are resolved and a happy ending for all of them is guaranteed.

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The very occasional dip into prose likewise marks certain points in the proceedings where its use serves a purpose. A conversation in prose takes place near the start when hotel guest Prince Rico wishes to avail himself of ‘off the menu’ room service to satisfy his fetish for sexual degradation, requesting “May we speak plainly once again” so that he and bellboy Fred can conduct the matter in a straightforward, business-like way as he orders up a prostitute willing to perform the kinky practice of golden showers on him.

By any measure this is a finely wrought and exquisitely honed construction in itself but Steve and Reece are well-known for not making things easy for themselves and build even more complexity into the lines of their beautifully rendered creation of a Shakespearean play’s form. Literary devices abound – similes and metaphors commonly wielded by Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights are appropriated in similar rhetorical fashion: “Our love has turned as stale as last week’s bread”; “As soft as new-fallen snow.” (Amber) There is space for an aptronym (where someone’s name amusingly matches their occupation) with the hotel-based nightly show’s hypnotist having the appellation Vince De Trans.  More obscurely is the use of an anadiplosis, a literary device that repeats a word at the end of one clause and then immediately again at the beginning of another: “I’ll try the hypnotism show downstairs” (Robert) As the lift door closes with him inside, the next lift along opens and stage hypnotist Vince and hotel chambermaid Colette depart, with Colette telling Vince “I saw your hypnotism show downstairs.” The use of an anadiplosis draws attention to the concept of hypnotism, offering up the implication that it will have a key part to play in the enveloping plot and the unfolding of it.

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Pemberton & Shearsmith lace their script with archaic words (‘sirrah’, ‘privy’, ‘thine’) which anchor the Shakespearean evocation and mix in several manifestly modern references (‘9/11’ and ‘TripAdvisor’) which feel almost anachronistic given the highly stylised language that surrounds them. Deliberately choosing words like this helps to highlight the heightened quality of ‘Zanzibar’, the narrative revelry of it, the playfulness at its core. Innovatively mixing Shakespeare with farce allows the writers, in one bold move, to amplify the artifice and contrivances of both and give themselves the space to play with this creatively. As Steve Pemberton pointed out during a BFI preview Q&A for series four of ‘Inside No.9’, farce in a contemporary idiom felt too contrived to really inspire their imaginations. The pair have a reputation for work which looks anew at the familiar and ordinary or which approaches narrative from a different angle. Distancing ‘Zanzibar’ from pure farce through Shakespearean allusions – its language form and literary and plot devices – liberates it and gives it a rhythm and a unique life of its own. Pemberton & Shearsmith treat the narrative as very much an artificial construct, toying with its theatricality, underlining the conceit of the thing at certain points in the proceedings. This ‘No.9’ is a light-hearted invention, a knowing presentation, a play with players, dallying with and mixing the different elements – its devices – together to heighten the effect of the piece as something to “entertain as well as educate” (Vince De Trans)

There are referential nods to the works of Shakespeare interwoven throughout the carefully placed lines – partial quotations taken from several of his plays – which teasingly invite the audience to try and spot them and recognise their origins: “And smile and smile…” (Fred) (“That one may smile and smile and be a villain” from ‘Hamlet’); “Sleep well. Sweet Prince.” (Henry) (“Good night, sweet Prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” from ‘Hamlet’); “…Wherein I see myself.” (Amber) (“I swear to three, even by thine own fair eyes. Wherein I see myself ” from ‘The Merchant of Venice’)

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Sourced elements from Shakespeare’s plays suffuse ‘Zanzibar’ in other ways too, informing the various plotlines and in the sketching of several characters: The main plot which revolves around twins, who having been separated at birth arrive as guests on the same hotel floor (the engine which drives the farce based components of mistaken identities and misunderstandings) is derived from ‘The Comedy of Errors’; Henry, Prince Rico’s advisor is an abstraction of two characters from Shakespeare plays. He shares the resentment that Caliban from ‘The Tempest’ felt for his servant relationship with his master Prospero (in Henry’s case, between himself and Rico) as well as the hatching of a plot to kill his master. This malcontent’s slipperiness and desire to reach a more exalted position is also heavily suggestive of ‘Othello’s Iago; Amber being induced into a hypnotic trance by Vince to reignite her love for Gus but whose passions are instead stirred by Robert as the first person she sees once she’s under hypnosis is borrowed from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and the love potion which bewitched Titania and Lysander to fixate on the first person they see when they wake up; Mr Green’s suicidal machinations invoke the references to and depictions of suicide which occur in several of Shakespeare’s plays; the hypnotist’s intervention to stop Henry’s knife wielding threats, which plays a principal part in the outcome of the plot, carries a magic spell undercurrent which is a key theme in ‘The Tempest’.

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The text is scattered with characters intimating or directly commenting on the concocted nature of the piece and peppered with effects that reinforce our awareness of its artifice and theatrical sensibility.

The fourth wall is broken at the very start of ‘Zanzibar’ when the first character we see – Fred, the hotel’s bellboy – delivers a prologue straight to camera to greet our arrival. It feels like the stage curtains have been parted when the lift door opened. The audience is being invited to settle in their seats and watch a play with Fred requesting us to “linger in our corridor” – the ninth floor corridor has become the stage. The description Fred gives of the characters as “mountaineers” who are “on their way up or down” extends the allusion – they are the players about to make their entrances. The bellboy even informs us about the role he’ll be playing – there to “link their ships”. Many of the characters are given one or more monologues to perform, most of which are directed to camera. The monologues work as exposition, driving the plot forward and adding layers to it and also allow the characters to vent their feelings or articulate their motives, all the while creating further dimensions to the inherent theatricality at work. Bellboy Fred underlines this as the story nears its conclusion “So all’s resolved. Just like a theatre play.” Indeed characters even make knowing comments that play up the conceit behind the narrative – the replication of a Shakespearean play in form and content – and some of the devices used in its construction, once more breaching the fourth wall barrier: “Like this iambic foot, you’re stressed. I’m not” (Prince Rico); “That’s what you call dramatic irony” (Mr Green); “It’s more than a rhyming couplet can relay” (Robert)

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The tenets of Shakespeare’s comedic plays chime with many of the elements that feature in classic farce – reliance on coincidences, mistaken identities, contrivances and last-minute resolutions where all the loose ends are neatly tied together.  Their convergences allow Pemberton & Shearsmith to merge Shakespeare and the principles of hotel farce (perfected by Georges Feydeau) seamlessly. Their insertion of Shakespeare into hotel-room farce sees them replace slapstick and broad physical humour associated with traditional farce with literary devices, referential elements and knowingly stylised theatrics.

The exacting meticulousness involved in the writers’ re-creation of Shakespearean form and content is matched by the intricacies entailed in their structuring of the farce in ‘Zanzibar’. The complex plotting, the boxes within boxes construction around room door numbers, characters switching rooms, doors opening and closing, entrances and exits makes your head spin. The developing criss-crossing of mistaken identities, the multiplying of mishaps and misunderstandings builds and builds as the pace speeds up until the plot is tighter than a coiled spring before bursting open like a jack-in-the-box. The sheer graft required to conceive, devise, chart and manoeuvre the entanglement of events and characters into place – the elaborate craft and scrupulous precision of it all – must have made Pemberton & Shearsmith’s brains ache but the perfection reached in its execution was worth it.

The Shakespearean and farcical elements working in tandem complement each other. The rhythm and tempo established by the iambic pentameter lines and the beats and timing of the quickening farce impel each other and gives the narrative a dynamism and energy that’s distinctive and innovative.

The writers’ fondness for wordplay coalesce with Shakespearean bawdiness and ribaldry, which they use to great comic effect in relation to Prince Rico’s sexual peccadillos – his liking for golden showers in particular: “Does Sir prefer the water sign or the earth sign?” (Fred) and in the levels of verbal comic misunderstanding arising from Rico’s mistaken belief that elderly Alice is the prostitute he’s ordered to perform the act. Bawdy wordplay is also deployed in Amber’s hypnotically induced molesting of Robert: “Come let me see thy mighty sword” (Amber) “I wish to keep my sword within its sheath! It’s more like a little dagger anyway” (Robert)

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The narrative interweaving of Shakespeare and farce receives a last referential nod and wink from Pemberton & Shearsmith at the very end of ‘Zanzibar’ when Fred places a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door handle of one of the rooms –  the flourish of a farce motif as the finishing touch.

Although ‘Zanzibar’ glows with the heightened reality of a light and whimsical contrivance it has a grounding as well, a sense of reality in terms of tone and performance which brings a balance to the frivolity and knowing quirkiness. The suicidal Mr Green is a haunted man and through the performance of Bill Paterson has a sad, melancholic quality which inserts some emotional reality into the overtly artificial construct. Likewise, there is a hard and ruthless menace to Henry which gives an edge to events as they unfold on the ninth floor.

There is also an extraordinary attention to detail which Pemberton & Shearsmith always ensure is present in their writing and which is carried over into the collaborative production process during filming. This exacting principle can be seen when elderly, forgetful Alice leaves Prince Rico’s room after she was mistaken for the prostitute he was expecting to administer a golden shower on him. She leaves a trail of wet footprints on the corridor carpet. It’s a small detail, only glimpsed for a few seconds, but illustrates the level of rigour with which the ‘Inside No.9’ creators and their collaborators approach their work – the creative process is a serious business, especially when it involves comedy. No matter how ridiculous or far-fetched the situation being portrayed is, keeping it grounded matters because something is funnier when it is believable or where there is something at risk – in this case, an elderly woman’s dignity. Alice’s idiosyncratic shuffle – her little pigeon-step walk – as she wanders across the ninth floor corridor and moves from room to room has an almost rhythmical, dance-like quality to it which echoes and reflects the layers of rhythm (the lines in iambic pentameter and the farce’s pacing and beats) that infuse ‘Zanzibar’. Giving its heightened reality a grounding and a depth of detail ensures this story is never a flighty excursion but an enchanting concoction, with artistry at its core.

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As the series four opener of ‘Inside No.9’, ‘Zanzibar’ is the lightest creation Pemberton & Shearsmith have produced for their sublime anthology show so far. There is barely a chink of darkness lurking in its recesses (suicidal desires and murder plots accepted) no revelation that requires us to recalibrate our thoughts or feelings. Instead it takes joyous delight in the smart blend of language form and literary devices, alluding to them throughout the piece, drawing attention to the conceit of the whole thing.

Playfulness in there in abundance but its true brilliance lies in the extraordinary, almost virtuoso intricacy of the script – the faithful adherence to the Shakespearean verse and the complex layers of plot in the farce. The richness of the iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets and the tempo and momentum of the farce are masterfully and exquisitely constructed.

There is so much to relish in ‘Zanzibar’ – the rhetorical artfulness, its wordplay, the scatological comic high points, the myriad of misunderstandings, the layers of rhythms enveloping it all.

Pemberton & Shearsmith confidentially acknowledge its artifice and beautifully control and merge all of its elements. Their pre-eminence as writers and actors continues unabated. Just when you think they must have reached a creative pinnacle they give us another incredible piece of work that leaves you wondering where their endless inventiveness will take them next.

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Footnotes

  1. Steve Pemberton, BFI Southbank Q&A at preview screening of series four of ‘Inside No.9’ (30th October 2017)

Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…David Kerr

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Henry…Reece Shearsmith

Robert Hargreaves…Steve Pemberton

Prince Rico/Gus…Rory Kinnear

Mr Green…Bill Paterson

Fred…Jaygann Ayeh

Alice Hargreaves…Marcia Warren

Amber…Hattie Morahan

Colette…Helen Monks

Tracey…Tanya Franks

Vince De Trans…Kevin Eldon

 

The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials

*Contains spoilers*

The first time I ever watched ‘The League of Gentlemen’ was on the night of its television debut – BBC Two, 10pm on the 11th January 1999. The date is burned into my memory in much the same way as I’d never forgotten accidently stumbling upon a late night TV screening of ‘The Wicker Man’ whilst channel hopping back in the mid-1990s. Seeing Edward Woodward in police uniform at the village school investigating the disappearance of a schoolgirl I was initially lured into thinking it was a straightforward police procedural drama until Sergeant Howie and Miss Rose’s conversation turned to Celtic paganism, phallic symbolism and maypoles. Suddenly it became uncomfortable, strange, off kilter and quite unlike anything I had seen before.

‘The League of Gentlemen’ was similarly revelatory but even more so: The unsettling interbred look of Tubbs and Edward, their reactionary attitude to the outside world and the flashpoint moments when outsiders intruded into the ‘Local Shop’; the strongly evocative Ken Loachian feel of the Restart room where Pauline systemically bullied and brutalised despondent jobseekers; the perturbingly strange Denton family where unorthodox beliefs and behaviour began at odd and were pushed by fantastical degrees to the comically bizarre and peculiar; the social observational realism starting point of the Geoff, Mike and Brian triumvirate relationship, propelled by their competitive, toxic masculinity to hilarious extremes; Dr Chinnery’s vet practice, the surreal, twisted inversion of the ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ motif. All of this and then the final scene of episode one hitting home with deadly intent: The Scottish burr of policeman Bobby Woodward, the local shop proprietors being questioned about the disappearance of rambler Martin Lee: It was Sergeant Howie facing recalcitrant locals reimagined and appropriated into the fictional small northern town of Royston Vasey.

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Elemental counterpoints (civilisation versus savagery, rational versus irrational) dark themes exploring cruelty and the fallibility of human nature, an array of references and influences (from horror films to fly-on-the-wall documentaries) inspired, original writing and consummate, nuanced acting were fused to create something highly distinctive and unique. ‘The League of Gentlemen’ had arrived. The disparate elements seamlessly worked together. It was the exceptional sum of all its parts.

The three series of ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and the stand-alone Christmas Special had a dynamism that was mesmerising, intoxicating, electrifying. There had been nothing like it on television before, certainly not comedically. Creatively it was something that only comes around once every generation. Its impact was indelible and groundbreaking and it changed the landscape of British culture. The writing was brilliant and striking, its acting exceptional, committed and performed to the hilt. There was an edgy quality to the distinctive and captivating atmosphere it wove. The emotional depths reached and the interplay of a wide range of influences threaded through it made other comedies, especially sketch based ones, look amateurish and one note. This was a television programme where a laugh could become a scream in an instance, which ran the risk of mirth turning to dust within a space of a scene, where a smile might change to a gasp or the prick of tears in the eyes. The tension held between the two, the laughter and the bleakness, created a feeling of uncertainty which left you wondering what was coming next. Would your emotions be pounded or find relief and release? The alternating, shifting tones nevertheless held together as an overarching, cohesive and compelling creation.

The fictional town of Royston Vasey invoked the notion of small, isolated towns as threatening places, a repository for the dark underbelly of parochialism that can fester there – insularity, narrowness, separatism, localism and the fear of the outsider, of ‘otherness’. It represented provincial burghs – and rurality as a whole – as bubonic not bucolic. Royston Vasey was a place which functioned almost as a character in itself. It encapsulated a certain kind of small town mentality as a residue for desperation, brutality, ferality, anger, despair, failure. It was a space where eccentricities and oddities took root, where weirdness and strangeness were part of the landscape and the everyday high street. The surreal juxtaposition of images in the visual jokes of the opening titles, which featured in each episode of the series, was a condensed illustration of this. Royston Vasey’s location was also cognizant of an identifiable, post-1970s economic and cultural phenomenon – the northern town as a place of decline and decay, whose inhabitants lived lives on the periphery, abandoned, neglected and forgotten. The furrows of folk horror and rural gothicness in the show bled into all of this. ‘The Wicker Man’ was used as the obvious starting point but other horror film references were mined and dispersed into the mix, as well as a general affinity for the macabre.

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The League themselves were informed by a northern sensibility but one that defiantly struck out against northern miserabilism, the clichéd, sterile and restrictive stereotyping that embraced and overemphasised deprivation and ‘northernness’: Legz Akimbo’s ‘No Home 4 Johnny’ in series two and ‘Scumblina’ of the Local Show tour being prime examples. Instead, it was Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood who were key influences, most notably on the naturalistic, social observational areas of their writing and in the vibrancy of many of their characters’ phraseology. Cultural minutiae, social embarrassment and awkward exchanges resonant in the colloquial detail of the particular choice of words and the specificity of brand names (“I love my little soaps, Iris. Eden au Lac, Montreux. The Inn at the Mystic, The Dan in Haifa” – Judee Levinson; “I’ve been washing my hair with Fairy Liquid for the past fortnight” – Pauline Campbell-Jones) It is there in the frayed melancholy of characters’ curtailed ambitions and the small sadnesses that attach to them (Les McQueen, Geoff Tipps)

One crucial aspect of ‘The League of Gentlemen’ that made it so singular and unusual – and helped secure its richly deserved reputation – was the dramatic depth and emotional truth reached by its characters.  It was unheard of in sketch comedy, certainly atypical within the half hour comedy format and unparalleled given the range and number of characters involved. That a significant number of the characters were grotesques – in behaviour, attitude, temperament and sometimes even physically – made their humanising even more extraordinary, given they initially appeared  to be monstrous and appalling. Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are brilliant actors. Because they also wrote the material (alongside the non-acting Jeremy Dyson) it meant the level of understanding and connection to the characters they portrayed was there from the start. They knew them inside out and were therefore able to bring between-the-lines subtextual reverberations to the scripts. This foundation helped to finesse nuanced levels of empathy and pathos and create dimensions of feeling through the slightest of tonal shifts in the performances. The actors’ inherent knowledge of their material breathed multi-layered subtleties into the characters that went beyond the superlative quality of the writing.

‘The League of Gentlemen’s sketch-dominated format for series one and two never worked in a straightforward way. In a reversal of the usual sketch show-based approach, the sketches were always there to serve the characters, not the other way round. This was because The League’s focus was primarily character comedy. Series one and series two deployed episodic narrative structure, making the sketches work more like scenes, with a loosely built-in story arc for the main character pairings or groupings. The sketches were more akin to devices that revealed the characters’ interrelationships within each of their groupings – Pauline, Mickey and Ross; Geoff, Mike and Brian; Iris and Judee; the Dentons and Benjamin; Tubbs and Edward. They weren’t always about working towards a punchline or needing to punctuate a scene with a catchphrase. Scenes built and developed stories that had a defined trajectory within each set of characters that ran parallel to each series’ main through-plot. The sophistication, intelligence and strength of The League’s writing was self-evident from the start.

If there is a particular feature shared by Royston Vasey’s characters it is one of failure. They are trapped by their own inadequacies – it is the essence of who they are and the basis for the comedy and  pathos that come from them. Pauline was glaringly unsuited to helping the unemployed find work; Geoff hated his job and knew he was no good at it; Ollie’s ‘issue based’ plays only succeeded at being both inappropriate and offensive; Les McQueen couldn’t let go of his dream of finding a way back into the music business even though Crème Brulee were only third rung journeymen to begin with. Failure often manifests itself in malevolent behaviour as an outlet for discontentment or unhappiness and this was startlingly apparent in the League’s characters:  Pauline’s bullying and casual cruelty, Geoff’s endemic anger, the fits of rage in Ollie. Likewise, feelings of disappointment and regret can evoke strong undercurrents of melancholy and bleakness, both of which are woven through each episode of ‘The League of Gentlemen’.

The extremes of behaviour inherent in some characters (viciousness, brutality, callousness) and the mournful quality and sense of sadness that were an intrinsic part of others – palpable and inescapable across the three series – are what makes the show so brilliantly dark. Bleakness runs right through it like a draught in a morgue. Thematically it’s as jet black a television programme as has ever been. It grew a shade darker as it went along, culminating in the blacker than a raven’s wing dipped in molasses of series three. Over the course of three highly memorable series, subjects such as poverty, pederasty, abusive relationships, destructive co-dependency, infant death, anorexia, suicide, necrophilia were layered between every depiction of human failing and frailty it was possible to portray.

Fans and admirers of the series and of its four extraordinarily gifted creators kept the memory of the show close. What it meant to them became, if anything, stronger the further away in time it grew. Partly this was nostalgia for something that was loved and adored but it was also down to Jeremy, Mark, Steve and Reece maintaining such a fertile level of productivity – professionally and creatively. Their imaginations remained as prolific and potent as ever.

As it neared the 20th anniversary of their BBC debut, the Radio Four series ‘On the Town with The League of Gentlemen’, the quartet made an auspicious and very welcome announcement – they were back writing again for an anniversary TV special of ‘The League of Gentlemen’.

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When they reunited to write over the summer the material poured out of them (according to Reece Shearsmith) so much so that they wrote far more than was needed for an hour long special. The result was that fans were instead blessed with three new half hour episodes – The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials.

Anniversary Specials: 1: Return to Royston Vasey

“Apparently there was a place called Sodom which was full of incense, buggery and murder. Eventually it was destroyed. Shat on by God from a great height. Welcome to Royston Vasey.” (Bernice Woodall Mayor of Royston Vasey)

Episode one of The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials starts with a direct reference to the beginning of the very first episode in 1999: Benjamin Denton is reading a letter on a train as a voiceover recites its contents, only for the camera to pull back and reveal a nosy old lady is sitting next to him reading the letter aloud. Linking back to the genesis of the TV series, when the camera pulls back this time we see a nude Val Denton talking as Benjamin tries to focus his attention on his phone. A series one reference is overlaid with a series two reference to the Denton’s ‘Nude Day’. However there is something different about Val – the merkin has grown ever more hirsute, it’s now of feral proportions and her breasts have sagged noticeably.

In the time it has taken to watch the opening joke the intent of The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials has been set: A scattering of nostalgic abstractions, some self-referential nods to fans’ knowledge of the three series and the characters’ backstories integrated with a narrative thrust that firmly establishes us in the present, a present that resonates around the vicissitudes of ageing, decline and the unforgiving march of time.

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It is essentially the same but also different as the changes are most definitely rung for nearly every character as we’re reacquainted with them one by one over the course of the episode. “I think we felt that if it felt like it had just come back on again, it had never been away, that would be the best feeling about it” (1) (Reece Shearsmith) However the League were adamant that a simple ‘greatest hits’ retread would have never satisfied them.

The evocation of the passage of time is reiterated when local journalist Ellie arrives in the town and proceeds to walk along the high street. The town itself is redolent with decline, decay and the visible effects of austerity. Royston Vasey’s name sign is covered in dirt, piles of rubbish bags and an old mattress lie outside the railway station and most the shops are boarded up – cue a slew of sight gags. Then there are the food banks, including a literal one in the form of an ATM dispensing sandwich fillings. We are unmistakably in the contemporary Britain of 2017.

We briefly reunite with Iris Krell before she vanishes into thin air after going inside a newly unveiled photo booth on the high street. The mystery of the photo booth, from which its patrons disappear almost as soon as they enter, is one of the two through-stories which are linked across the three specials. The other being the threat is to the very existence of Royston Vasey with the proposed moving of the boundary line to incorporate it into one of the nearby bigger towns, making it locally and cartographically extinct by completely erasing it from the map. Mayor Bernice Woodall un-altruistically mounts a campaign to save it when she learns this will mean her free care parking space will go.

One of the main narrative functions of ‘Return to Royston Vasey’ is to re-establish the audience with the town’s characters. These are made up of either vignette revisits or a more deeply sustained look inside their lives with story arcs taking us on character’s journeys beyond this first episode. The one-stop returns – Mr Chinnery’s veterinary surgery has stayed open for bloodletting business; Henry and Ally remain obsessed with films; Herr Lipp’s pederasty still engenders double entendres as an expression of his creepy proclivities; Barbara, the transsexual cab driver is now immersed in the vocabulary of today’s cultural politics, assailing her customers about the use of appropriate gender neutral terms and the notion of safe spaces with proselytizing zeal. The script beautifully delineates these characters in their fleeting returns. The brief excursions to illustrate ‘where are they now’ are delicately balanced between acknowledging the intervention of time and in a couple of cases, notably defying it. Herr Lipp and Chinnery appear untouched by the passing years, satisfying audience expectation by staying exactly the same.

Mr Chinnery and the exploding hedgehog was a perfectly worked unsettling trip down memory lane, that disorientating juxtaposition of the detritus of animal remains within the comforting setting of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. The carnage of spiny remnants skewering the faces of a mother and daughter, the tension ratcheted up with the queasy insertion  of a children’s nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ to delay the cathartic release of expectation fulfilled was signature League of Gentlemen, timed and executed to perfection.

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With Henry and Ally the passing of the years meant inevitable change and one that felt slightly sad. Obviously middle aged but psychologically still somehow infant men-children, the pair, now trying to flog black market DVDs to indolent teenagers, seemed stuck in the past, clinging to their youthful obsessions and unaware of how much time had moved on. It was melancholic and a scene which subtly alluded to The League of Gentlemen Special’s all-encompassing theme of mortality.

The remaining characters have journeys to go on, ones which begin with the meticulous layering of changed circumstances. The Denton’s scrupulously ordered, highly regimented and hygiene-obsessed domain has degenerated into a chaotic, disordered rubbish tip. The home is low lit, with the sublime cinematography of director of photography Mattius Nyberg enshrouding it in oppressive dark shadows, summoning up a feeling that grief and gloom are hanging heavily over it. Their house has run down and been diminished by familial loss, Benjamin having returned to Royston Vasey to attend his Uncle Harvey’s funeral. Benjamin’s underlying unease is considerably increased with his reintroduction to the Denton twins. Now adults, they still speak in unison, finish each other’s sentences and radiate a spookiness that easily suggests an imitate knowledge of grimoires and a facility for casting spells.

Al, one of the sons unfortunately cursed with having Pop as a father, is now married to Tricia, who we met back in series two, where she was molested and frightened away by Pop during an excruciating family meal. Pop is the behemoth of Royston Vasey, utterly irredeemable – and through Steve Pemberton’s remarkable performance –  the dark soul of humanity is given its fullest, and most disturbing, expression. His unwelcome return into Al’s life is heralded in gothically dramatic fashion, with Pop turning up on Al’s doorstep at night as a storm rages, a metaphor for the troubled emotions (and deeply buried memories) that Pop’s reappearance stirs in Al. The look of shock on his face as he sees his father for the first time in years says it all.

Returning to the trio of Geoff, Mike and Brian to see how life had treated them in the intervening years was the comic highlight of ‘Return to Royston Vasey’. The fissures, strains, stresses and shifting allegiances in their relationship had always been superbly conveyed over the three series and continued here unabated.  Brian’s life has remained one of middling success which aligns perfectly to his inoffensive, middle-of-the-road, somewhat ineffectual personality – he’s now a manager in a building society.  Geoff, the perpetual loser has got fatter and is now trying to deal with his reduced circumstances of part-time employment, appealing to Brian that he’s “on the bones of his arse” as he desperately embellishes an absurd business plan that is rejected as soon as the proposal leaves his lips.  He’s still devoid of the basic sensitivities and social skills needed to successfully negotiate someone through life. Even Mike’s life has taken a turn for the worse. Geoff tells Brian, with a touch too much glee, that Mike’s wife Cheryl is now morbidly obese and bedbound. The scene ends with Mike asking Geoff to kill his wife and Geoff, without missing a beat, agreeing to it. This brilliantly sustained and hilarious scene appears to be almost effortless because the laughs develop and arise purely from the characters. There is a flow, rhythm and cadence to it which is naturalistic and wholly convincing. From the character continuity of Geoff’s complete lack of self-awareness to the quietly exasperated reactions of Mike and Brian, it articulates a truth about the chasm between deluded self-image and impotent reality and the patient tolerance of unspoken friendship. All of that is there and more in the Geoff, Mike and Brian relationship. It is nuanced, inspired and peerless work, a beautifully defined and finely honed character comedy creation.

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For some fans the re-emergence of Tubbs and Edward in the closing minutes of the episode was the most eagerly awaited character revival of all. They have an iconic status beyond the show itself  and one that now deeply resonates due to Brexit. The characters seem to have anticipated – and now practically define – a version of the narrow parochialism that has dominated and afflicted public discourse over recent years. Bearing the facial scars from the fire which engulfed the Local Shop when it was burnt down by an irate mob at the end of series two, Tubbs and Edward have been reduced to living as squatters in a condemned council flat and have even, rather pathetically, constructed an infantile version of a pop-up shop in their dimly lit lounge. From the outset of council worker Lyndsey and journalist Ellie’s fateful encounter with them it is clear that the Tattysyrup duo are as unreconstructed localist as ever. They are proudly atavistic to the tips of their pig-like noses, with Tubbs still positively antediluvian (“dockalments”) They haven’t changed but rather, as almost prophetic conduits, their mindset now chimes with and connects to the vagaries of our current social climate.  Edward’s instruction to Tubbs to “get undressed” at the close of episode one is like a hypnosis trigger phrase – debauchery and torture are sure to follow. Any outsiders unfortunate enough to have crossed their path – in this case the hapless Lyndsey and Ellie – are now destined to become mere numbers on a long list of victims.

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Nothing prepares you emotionally for the scene involving Pauline. At the start it feels like time has receded because nothing appears to have changed. She is back as a Restart officer with Ross and Mickey as returning jobseekers. Knowing her, Ross and Mickey’s complex tripartite relationship it’s a confusing set up, a denial of everything we know about their complicated backstories. We wonder what the League are doing – it’s as if we’re watching an outtake from series one, even though we clearly know things have moved on in Royston Vasey. And then the rug is pulled from under us.  What the audience is watching is a session of Pauline’s reminiscence therapy – she is suffering from dementia. It is a moment which takes your breath away. All at once the scene has metaphorised into something completely different and it is heartbreakingly poignant. The decision to approach and touch upon this subject is a brave and daring one and it is quite brilliantly done. Mortality is brought to us head on and there is no hiding place, no small crumb of comfort to be found. One of the series’ most vibrant, multi-dimensional and strangely sympathetic characters has been felled by a disease which destroys the person from the inside, their personality hollowed out until only a husk remains, where the very essence of their being retreats and shrinks away, leaving just an empty shell of what they once were. To condemn a character as memorable as Pauline to this fate makes the scene one of the most starkly tragic and extraordinary things the Gentlemen have ever written. Those little details – the empty box of Pauline’s pens, the way Mickey earnestly mimes picking up a pen in an attempt to somehow help his wife, the moment when Pauline stands alone, lost and confused in the corridor – make you inwardly gasp, sucker punched by how vivid the loss feels.

What is most strikingly evoked in episode one of the Anniversary Specials is a powerful sense of decline. The multi-layered script blends several important elements together – the re-establishing of the characters in the present, the initiating of arcs, whilst also providing space to revisit other characters in brief and memorable ways. The pace is impeccably controlled and the scenes beautifully structured. The script also elicits a powerful undercurrent of mortality, a subtle feel for the inexorable, inevitable passing of time and this is deftly carried forward into the second episode as well. What is induced is an almost reflective melancholy, more pronounced than ‘The League of Gentlemen’ had been before. What was a strikingly entwined aspect of  series 1-3 has been elevated to the profoundly inescapable. It is what helps to set these Anniversary Specials apart as something substantial, meaningful and far beyond the perimeters of a simple exercise in nostalgia.

Anniversary Specials: 2: Save Royston Vasey

Our initial reunion with the characters was the focus of episode one. It brought the present circumstances of their lives into sharp relief, introducing a thematic that coalesced around decline, mortality and time’s unremitting pace. With the second episode we move with precision and beautifully timed beats between characters’ arcs established in episode one as they’re further developed. ‘Save Royston Vasey’ is also distinguished by a narrative which mediates between reality and a separation from it, in which stories,  fantasies and distancing techniques are used by some of the characters as a way of coping with the disappointments, difficulties or emotional pain in their lives.

As a creative statement of design the episode opens with a dream sequence as we’re reintroduced to Ollie Plimsolls, the permanently aggrieved theatre-in-education self-styled writer, director, actor. He uses the artistic triumphant of a fantasy Olivier Award win to settle old scores in an acceptance speech, as 20 years of embittered resentment and acrimonious lack of professional success is tumultuously played out in his unconscious mind. This reverie is broken by someone telling him he has a class with Year Nine. The sad reality of Ollie’s life is that he is now a drama teacher in a secondary school. A close-up on his face as he wakes up and finds himself back in his diminished real world shows it etched with the weary look of someone who’s been disappointed by life, a sadder and more quietly acquiescent man than the persona in his dream.

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Later in the episode when Ollie arrives to take his class he appears to be a beloved teacher, practically hero-worshipped by the roomful of 13-14 year olds and full of the same hyped enthusiasm he had when he led Legz Akimbo. So adored is he as a teacher his pupils have secretly arranged a reunion of Legz Akimbo with Phil Procter and Dave Parkes to mark Ollie’s retirement from teaching. The theatre troupe perform a typical excruciatingly bad play, where the sensitive and difficult ‘issue’ of child abuse is handled with appalling bad taste and cack-handed ignorance (the word ‘peadophile’ unfurled on a banner across the stage being one of the many low high points)

As the scene progresses the gap between the implausibility of what we are witnessing (cheering pupils chanting ‘Sir’, Dave and Phil keen to reform Legz Akimbo and go back on the road) and believable, credible reality is stretched beyond limits until Ollie finally realises it’s still a dream (the conceit sustained across several scenes) The dream has been a way of delaying the immediate reality of an impending session with his unruly, uncontrollable class who care so little about him they barely acknowledge his existence except to throw insults. In a brilliant, silent piece of acting by Reece Shearsmith, the physically diffident and nervous way Ollie steals past his pupils is a sad contrast to the bounding, confident physicality in his dream. Another close-up on Ollie’s resigned yet haunted face as he stands in front of the class contains an even sadder, deeper truth: When someone feels life has passed them by, that their hopes and dreams have vanished, then sometimes entering into fantasy is a way of escaping, of gaining emotional sustenance, when reality is too much to bear. Ollie’s Legz Akimbo days were marked by an almost megalomaniacal sense of self-importance and the divide between his glaring lack of talent and reality was eventually going to snap. That final close-up of Ollie, an accumulation of life’s disappointments contained in his face, was a poignant point of closure.

The bingo caller scene involving Toddy, a new character written for the Anniversary Specials, is an achingly moving tragi-comic monologue, the kind that Mark Gatiss has always excelled at in ‘The League of Gentlemen’. As elderly Toddy calls out numbers for a group of bingo patrons he almost unobtrusively begins to reminisce. The numbers help him to recall points in his life, at first touching on small but telling moments before they build to an emotional opening up of his most private, painful memories.  The bingo lingo colloquialisms help him explore and express his innermost feelings because they act as a distancing device for him, providing Toddy with the space to confront and deal with them directly. The sometimes ribald parlance of bingo language is like a protective layer, allowing him to find a route to his emotions and speak about them. The bingo numbers and patter hold a weight of subtext which resonates with Toddy’s memories as he recollects his life’s journey, its detours and travails: By 26 he’d “never been kissed”, revealing the loneliness, isolation and lack of intimacy in his life; “dirty Gertie. Number 30”, his feelings of guilt over sexual desires; “Legs 11…legs 11”, meeting Cream, a transgender woman in a Thailand bar and falling in love; “Heaven’s Gate. 78”, tragically losing Cream to a hospital caught infection, following a sex change operation.

Toddy’s single scene has the emotional depth of a life laid bare. Mark Gatiss’ outstanding virtuoso acting is delivered with a touching sensitivity which is extraordinarily affecting. Suffused with feeling, Toddy’s monologue shows there are discreet ways to cradle pain, a world away from the flights of fancy contained in a dream, by expressing deeps wells of emotion through the self-protecting artificiality of professional jargon, where aching memories are safely borne through the idiom of bingo .

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Mike’s request to Geoff to kill his obese wife Cheryl gives Geoff the chance to act out the professional soldier fantasy he’s long been attached to, going back to the time he was in the Territorial Army. As he approaches the Harris’ home at night in order to carry out the ‘mercy killing’ (as Mike terms it) he’s dressed in ridiculous over-the-top army fatigues and his face is camouflaged. The scene gives Reece Shearsmith’s sublime talent for physical comedy a chance to shine: Convinced he has professional soldiering credentials, Geoff executes over-the-top ‘ninja’ style moves – ludicrous sideways crab movements, a gingerly executed roll, rapid criss-crossing of his arms in front of his body as if he’s fighting his way through dense foliage and an absurd pole dancer held pose behind a street lamp as if he is stealthily hiding from the enemy. It’s a hilariously choreographed and perfectly timed piece of comic business, conveying how important Geoff’s ex-army status and ‘skills’ are in giving him a sense of self-worth and that he is approaching his ‘mission’ with the upmost seriousness.

Geoff’s attachment to and acting out of his army fantasy life is an idealised substitute for the abiding sense of failure that is his real life and the inadequacies, regrets and unhappiness which make it up. Of course being Geoff he even messes up in his fantasy. He mistakenly goes to the wrong house and ends up murdering Pauline, smothering her with a cushion. That sometimes painful divide between fantasy and reality is brought home with a start when we are shown the aftermath of Pauline’s murder. What had started out as hilariously funny, as Geoff manoeuvred his way with extravagant soldiering stealth to the house, has turned into devastating tragedy.

In a touchingly moving moment, all the more so for being understated, we see Pauline’s broken glasses on the bedroom floor, an imprint of her lipstick on the cushion and a pen on a string (like the one Mickey gave her as a present in series one – “like Swap Shop”) In the end all that remains of a person once they’re dead are the belongings they’ve collected through life and the memories of those left behind. When the camera tilts up to a framed photo on a bedside table it’s of Pauline and Mickey on their wedding day, wordlessly conveying the idea that those memories will be strong and faithfully kept and honoured by the man she loved and who loved her.

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The loss of Harvey Denton and the Denton women’s mourning for him – and their once meticulously clean and tidy home – reaches a resolution of sorts in episode two. The grown-up Chloe and Radclyffe eerily resemble Angela Pleasance in ‘From Beyond the Grave’, which effectively primes the viewer to suspect it is their creepy intention to use magic spells to bring their father back, especially as they speak in rhymes, suggestive of the method used to cast them.

Their dream of returning their father to the house involves his resurrection using a toad as the vessel and Benjamin as the unwilling host. Benjamin says “This is madness, madness” as the embalmed body of Uncle Harvey passes into his body (Shearsmith puffs out his cheeks and top lip in a perfection recreation of toad face Denton) Once again the power of fantasy and wish fulfilment (however far into the realms of the extreme and bizarre they are) has exerted itself within the context of a difficult, painful reality.

Lastly, Tubbs and Edward are still secure inside their flat, now with a rapidly developing hostage situation on their hands. Thanks to Tubbs’ confused interaction with modern technology (masterly comic interplay with an iPhone by Steve Pemberton) she mistakenly switched their prisoner Ellie’s pilfered phone to video mode, alerting the media to the fact that the journalist and council worker Lyndsey are being held hostage in the flat. Edward raving that “It’s time we took back control” and “It’s time to become local” conveniently captured on the phone, ramp up the Brexit association – which had been lightly intimated in ‘Return to Royston Vasey’ – to one of Zeitgeist proportions: “…although we’ve never been a satirical show in that sense, there’s lot of stuff in there, “taking back control” which is just inevitably there because it’s in the ether” (2) (Mark Gatiss)

Mayor Bernice readily exploits the hostage situation to bolster her ‘Save Royston Vasey’ campaign by making a connection between the two, inciting the crowds gathering outside the flat. This and a descending media, complicit in the exploitation of the misappropriated narrative, interweaves the underlying Brexit theme even further into the Tubbs and Edward scenes.

Episode two still carried the evocative sense of decline and mortality established in episode one but moved it into an exploration of how people draw on and use narratives by constructing stories or engaging in dreams and fantasies, ones that are better than the real life situations they’re in or the experiences they’re trying to cope with.  The passing of time along life’s journey produces a repository of narratives to draw from: Ollie and Geoff derived a form of comfort and diversion with their fantasies; Toddy’s recitation of bingo’s narrative language – its stock phrases and parlance – was the outlet he used to contain his pain. When reality interceded as a counterpoint to these fictions it made the poignancy starker and the characters’ vulnerabilities and humanity even more moving.

Anniversary Specials: 3: Royston Vasey Mon Amour

Episode three turns by ever more acute degrees from odd and weird to outlandish and nightmarish. It is full of imaginative Grand Guignol extravagance that at its peak reaches the level of near madness. It  perhaps goes as close to the edge of extreme as ‘The League of Gentlemen’ has ever gone. It is a triumph for the bespoke and authored voice – a distinctive and unique vision. No-one else, except perhaps David Lynch, could even come close to the concepts and imagery unleashed in ‘Royston Vasey Mon Amour’. Where else but in ‘The League of Gentlemen’ would there be moments as daringly bizarre and disturbing as paper plate face masks by way of Ed Gein, torture by Peri peri olives, a photo booth contraption as sinister as Sweeney Todd’s barber’s chair, a mucus covered toad coughed up by its human host?

There are scenes in episode three which contain behaviour and incidents that come at us from eccentric or surreal angles, which at first may appear difficult to decipher, but they’re driven by an internal logic which makes perfect sense when aligned with and understood through the prism of the creators’ singular universe.

The characters’ story arcs begun in episode one each reach a crescendo in ‘Mon Amour’. Given the territories they reside in are ones of heightened reality to begin with (by degrees of greater or lesser emphasis) the directional pull towards their fantastical conclusions is both logical and fitting.

Beneath the dysfunctional family history between Pop, Al and Richie, with its mafia allusions transposed to a family-run newsagent business, resided patriarchal control through fear, parental authoritarianism and sadistic bullying and abuse. Al and Richie were left traumatised by their treatment at the hands of their father. It was the reason for Al’s fearful reaction to Pop’s unannounced return and his firm resolve not to tell his father where Richie was now. Through unsettling mind games involving Al’s teenage daughters Pop had forced him to give up Richie’s secret. Pop vowed revenge on his second son for breaking the strict family code of complete subjugation to his demands and wishes.

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Richie’s own deli shop is the climatic setting for the story. Threatening torture by Peri peri olives and ‘Picnic’ bars, the terror that Pop induces in Richie has a disturbing subtext – that he carries memories of terrible childhood abuse by his father . When Pop contemptuously dismisses his son as “A fairy who loves fairy stories” it’s a seeded moment redolent with meaning. The Pop, Al, Richie storyline appears to reach an absurdist ending with Pop turning into a genie who is tricked into a glass jar by Al’s wife Tricia, allowing Richie to trap him in there forever. The sequence is then revealed to have been Richie’s wish fulfilment fantasy (a link back to a key thematic of episode two) played out in his head when in reality he’s snapped and stabbed his father to death (“I got you, I got you, I got you, I got you”) The connotations are inescapable: Being able to trap an abusive and terrifying father up in a bottle forever so he can’t hurt or scare him anymore is an abused child’s comforting fantasy, one that a child who read fairy tales (like Richie did) might have imagined. It’s a small child’s fantasy resolution for getting rid of an abuser. Pop’s reference to Richie as being a lover of fairy tales may have been Pop’s usual inventory of verbal abuse against his son but it helped permeate the ending of their story with poignant meaning.

The resolution of Pop, Al and Richie’s tale has eye-catchingly Grand Guignol touches and the re-emergence of the demonic Papa Lazarou in episode three draws similarly demented, macabre ideas and images together, culminating in a nightmarish vision that is, quite literally, a subterranean hell: An underground mine beneath the town from which Lazarou is free to excavate, capture and imprison Royston Vasey’s women at will. With dark irony it is very much Papa Lazarou’s ‘safe space’ (in a grim reversal of the kind that Barbara evangelized about in episode one) as it is protected, secure and hidden away from prying eyes. The secret gateway to this hell is the high street’s photo booth, which has been unceremoniously dumping its female visitors into the dark cavern prison below via the booth’s tipping seat.

With Papa Lazarou’s startling return the two through-plots of the Anniversary Specials – the mysterious photo booth and the threat to Royston Vasey’s existence from the boundary change are connected and merged. It is the Mayor herself, Bernice Woodall, who is both Lazarou’s enabler and the initiator of the boundary change. She agreed to the town’s land being sold for fracking – the reason behind the boundary change – and was forced into signing Royston Vasey’s land over to Papa Lazarou (“He didn’t pay me a penny. I had no choice. He made me”) fracking being an ideal cover for his underground mine.

Using the reality of a current issue – fracking – which is imbued with controversy and anxiety and then putting the weirdest, strangest and Grand Guignolist twists onto it , making no apologies for the bold and bizarre logic of its own unique world is something few creators have the fearless imaginations to convincingly pull off. David Lynch is one that can and The League of Gentlemen most definitely are another.

Papa Lazarou is unique among the League’s characters in having virtually no backstory. He just exists, he is what he is, appearing and reappearing in Royston Vasey almost at will. He is the ultimate inscrutable fiend, informed by our very darkest fears. The third episode summons him up and bestows on him the status of a literal devil, with complete command over his little corner of hell.

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‘Royston Vasey Mon Amour’ also pushes internal world oddness to new, mad extremes with the climax to the Denton’s story. The resurrected Harvey is so riven by appalled self-disgust at the thought of being trapped inside Benjamin’s body, convinced it’s a place polluted by onanism and constant self-abuse, that he’s compelled to escape his confinement. This decampment makes Benjamin retch and cough up the toad vessel, resplendent in a coating of mucus. It’s yet another unorthodox high point in an episode bursting with them.

The denouement to the Tubbs and Edward siege storyline pushes the Brexit inferences to the fore more than ever. The editorialising platitudes of tabloid newspapers and the clichéd words parroted by expedient career politicians are mercilessly parodied when a triumphant Edward speaks to the media after a successfully negotiated end to the siege: “Our father raised us to stand up to the schoolyard bully”, “A victory for common sense”, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” are spouted in a perfect recreation of a knee-jerk, ignorant mind, conversant only with cliches, rather than informed by knowledge. The whole debased political culture  and discourse through which Brexit has been manipulated and propagandised is then ridiculed with a concluding Tattysyrup soundbite that lances it to the hilt: “This is a local town for local people…a local country for local people…and the will of local people will prevail”. It is only when Tubbs and Edward have almost made good their escape that their serial killer tendencies are uncovered, with the discovery of the hostages in a back bedroom, their faces cut off, behind bloodied paper plate masks.

With climactic irony the incestuous pair manage to evade capture only for Tubbs to step into the infernal booby trap of the high street photo booth and become yet another mined wife for Papa Lazarou, imprisoned inside his personal purgatory chamber.

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Amid all the inspired blood-spattered horror and enveloping peaks of strangeness as episode three builds to its conclusion, space is found for a quiet revisit from Les McQueen, now a professional floor polisher. He seems to have made peace with his past and his dreams of recapturing the small glories of his old music career. When he tells Slim, the former ‘Manchester Scene’ music producer, whose floor he’s just polished, that “They do tend to scuff…over time” it is laden with a profound inference. Ostensibly he’s talking about a polished floor but more pertinently he is inwardly referring to his own life and admitting that over time hopes and dreams erode and fade (even though a trace of yearning still remains)

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This touching moment of melancholic contemplation (so tonally different from the imaginative extremities and Grand Guingolism permeating most of the finale) is  echoed in the beautifully subdued coda of the final scene, which delicately defuses the heightened intensity of the rest of episode three. The emotive, memorable goodbye at the train station, where we see Les McQueen about to go off to Herzlovakia, with renewed hope, his dreams of reviving his music career awakened and Benjamin bidding farewell to Auntie Val and Royston Vasey is a standout TV moment of this or any other year.

Benjamin’s departing words “But you know Auntie Val, sometimes you can’t go back but you can visit” is an achingly poignant, elegiac ending to the Anniversary Specials and frames The League of Gentlemen’s feelings about Royston Vasey – their unique and unforgettable creation – with almost poetic eloquence. Their deep love and affection for it is apparent from the title they gave to the third episode – ‘Royston Vasey Mon Amour’ (Royston Vasey My Love) That last line was full of tender and genuine feeling, in the words themselves and in the way it was acted by Reece Shearsmith and Mark Gatiss. It came from a place of real, unaffected emotion.

The League made it clear from the moment the Specials were announced, through to the media publicity just before the programmes aired, that their motive for making them was because they wanted to, not because they had to. The line itself “Sometimes you can’t go back but you can visit” defined their approach to the Specials and to the nostalgia that inevitably attached to them. Rather than sentimentally recapture the past preserved in aspic they were clear the revisit was from the viewpoint of the present. Alert to the show’s legacy but aware they had no wish to clone the original meant the three Specials had the Gentlemen’s creative ambition and inventiveness stamped right through it, like a mark of quality assurance. It guaranteed they were special in every possible sense of the word and the best of all tributes to those indelible characters and their world.

Watching the Anniversary Specials one can plainly see that the League gave a great deal of thought about what they wanted to do with their characters when they revived them to mark the 20th anniversary of their BBC debut.

The Specials celebrate the characters who last inhabited their influential and iconic television series 15 years ago (or 12 years before in ‘The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse’ film) The references and influences which infuse the Specials all come from their own ‘The League of Gentlemen’ TV series (1999-2002) “We just, because we were looking back, being influenced by our own show in a way, so we just focused on the characters and what we wanted to do with them” (3) (Steve Pemberton)

Reflecting back on the three episodes and taking them together you can really see how they’re propelled by the character’s stories, how they’re structured towards a series of cliffhangers around each of the character groupings and their developing arcs. You feel involved in what has and is happening to them and compelled to see what will happen next. The episodes are so densely packed, structurally tight and rely on beautifully rendered stories carrying us forward in the lives of the characters. We are left, for example, longing to know what will happen to Geoff, Mike and Brian now the murder plot involving Mike’s wife has gone tragically awry, how will Mickey cope without Pauline and are Tubbs and Edward ever going to be reunited?

We’re as invested in the characters’ lives as we would be if they were real people that we knew personally because in a sense this is what they’ve become to us. The League of Gentlemen have always been adept at and conscious to give depth and humanity to their characters. With the Specials they specifically thought about them as people with 15 additional years of accumulated life and about how things would have changed for them through the passing years. This is what gave episode one such a strong sense of decline and mortality and why episode two underpinned this and allowed time and space for characters to retreat into reveries of fantasy and wish fulfilment or to confront life’s disappointments and pain through displacement and distancing.

The boldness and daring of the third episode felt at times like being on-board a helter skelter ride as it gathered speed. Ideas and images came at us from all directions as we experienced the characters’ stories draw to a close with astonishing intensity, but a tightly controlled one, held in place by the League’s masterly command of their material as the quiet, reflective ending clearly illustrated. “…it was much more about being inside the characters than perhaps thinking about that way we used to think when we were younger…this was much more about telling these characters’ stories” (4) (Jeremy Dyson)

The League’s revisit to Royston Vasey with these three specials was done with an intelligence and undaunted fearlessness that few creators can aspire to, yet alone reach. Their ambition was matched by their commitment  to remain true to the characters. This is why 15 years on The League of Gentlemen are still without equal creatively and why the Specials were such an extraordinary artistic achievement.

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Footnotes

  1. Reece Shearsmith, BFI Southbank Q&A at the preview screening of ‘The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials’ (12th December 2017)
  2. Mark Gatiss, BFI Southbank Q&A at the preview screening of ‘The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials’ (12th December 2017)
  3. Steve Pemberton, BFI Southbank Q&A at the preview screening of ‘The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials’ (12th December 2017)
  4. Jeremy Dyson, BFI Southbank Q&A at the preview screening of ‘The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials’ (12th December 2017)

Writers…Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith

Director…Steve Bendelack

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…The League of Gentlemen

Director of Photography…Mattius Nyberg

Costume Designer…Claire Finlay-Thompson

Music composed by…Joby Talbot and Jeremy Holland Smith

Cast

Anniversary Specials: 1: Return to Royston Vasey

Lyndsey/Val Denton/Mickey/Murray Mint/Brian Morgan/

Iris Krell/Mr Chinnery/Al…….…Mark Gatiss

Mike Harris/Pauline/Tubbs/Herr Wolf Lipp/Ally/

Pop/Barbara (voice only)………..Steve Pemberton

Geoff Tipps/Benjamin Denton/Ross/Henry/Edward/

Bernice Woodall/Pamela Doove (voice only)………Reece Shearsmith

Ellie…Lyndsey Marshal

Receptionist…Gemma Paige North

Daisy…Isla Neild

Mum…Jackie Knowles

Workman…Shaun Mason

Chloe…Francesca Knight

Radclyffe…Lily Knight

Dr Fisher…Andrew Readman

Orderly…Simon Smithies

Little girl…Ruby Longshaw

Mr Webster…Hylton Collins

Tricia…Sian Gibson

Jennifer…Sammy Oliver

Maisy…Claire Cornmell

Radio 4 announcer…Seb Soanes

Anniversary Specials: 2: Save Royston Vasey

Val Denton/Toddy/Lyndsey/Phil Proctor/

Murray Mint/Al………Mark Gatiss

Mike Harris/Tubbs/Dave Parkes/Pop/Harvey Denton……..Steve Pemberton

Geoff Tipps/Edward/Benjamin Denton/Ollie Plimsolls/

Bernice Woodall………..Reece Shearsmith

Carol…Christina Tam

Ellie…Lyndsey Marshal

Tricia…Sian Gibson

Jennifer…Sammy Oliver

Maisy…Claire Cornmell

Billy…Charlie Concannon

Jamilla…Surejya Mckenzie

Carl…Sam Couriel

Chloe…Francesca Knight

Radclyffe…Lily Knight

News producer…Emma Bispham

News reporter…Duncan Watkinson

Eddie…Ellis Todd

Anniversary Specials: 3: Royston Vasey Mon Amour

Val Denton/Lyndsey/Murray Mint/Al/

Les McQueen/Gordon/Gina Beasley……..Mark Gatiss

Pop/Tubbs/Charlie Hull……Steve Pemberton

Edward/Benjamin Denton/Stella Hull/Bernice Woodall/

Papa Lazarou/Slim/Richie………..Reece Shearsmith

Ellie…Lyndsey Marshal

TV Anchor…Tina Daheley

Commentator…Matthew Parris

Luigi…John de Main

Scott…Kris Mochrie

Gareth Chapman…David Morrissey

Swot…Adam Pemberton

Chloe…Francesca Knight

Radclyffe…Lily Knight

Tricia…Sian Gibson

News reporter…Duncan Watkinson

Herzoslovakian woman…Vesna Stanojevic

The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials – BFI preview and Q&A

BFI Southbank  (12th December 2017)

*Contains spoilers about The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials*

Q&A with Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, hosted by Justin Johnson

JD – Jeremy Dyson (Writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)

MG – Mark Gatiss (Actor, writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)

SP – Steve Pemberton (Actor, writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)

RS – Reece Shearsmith (Actor, writer and member of The League of Gentlemen)

JJ – Justin Johnson (BFI programmer)

This is an as accurate-as-possible transcript of The League of Gentlemen Q&A at the BFI Southbank, an event held to publicly premiere two of the three League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials. The new episodes were made to mark the 20th anniversary of their debut at the BBC – the Radio Four series ‘On the Town with The League of Gentlemen’, first broadcast in 1997, the year they won the Perrier award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Set in the town of Spent rather than Royston Vasey, it introduced many of the League’s most well-known and enduring characters to a wider audience after several highly productive, critically acclaimed and crucially important years on the comedy fringe circuit. The slog of the fringe years were vital to the Gents, enabling them to create and hone their highly distinctive material and develop their already notable writing and performing skills even further.

The tremendous warmth and enthusiasm of the audience reception for the two new episodes screened at the BFI was testament to the abiding legacy of the League, the strength and quality of their work and the utterly indelible characters they created, which has held firm in the pantheon of British culture – like a perverse vice grip – in the 15 years since the last TV series. Gazing upon those characters up on screen was akin to seeing old friends again after a long time apart. Speaking for myself, it conjured up an adrenaline rush of emotions – a bona fide goosebumps moment. As Joby Talbot’s iconic theme music began the audience broke into a round of spontaneous applause, suggesting that similar feelings were being experienced across the auditorium.

The two (of three) 20th Anniversary Specials watched that night were a truly exceptional cut above the usual comedy (and other artistic) reunions experienced by expectant, and too often disappointed, fans.  It has always been about the characters for the League, of remaining true to them and respectful of their stories and world.  Empathy and humanity were a constant element in their portrayal due to the intelligence and complexity of the material and the consummate acting of the performers.  It is why we care about the characters and why we love them when at first sight they appear defiantly unlovable. The way the Gents rang the changes in the new shows to acknowledge the passing of time and the causal cruelties of prowling age since we last visited Royston Vasey gave us moments of poignancy that made your heart ache. Allied to those pools of emotion, the episodes were also gloriously, uproariously funny – waves of laughter echoed back and forth across NFT 1 throughout both of the half hour programmes.

The League of Gentlemen Specials were superbly crafted, with the superlative writing and acting we’ve come to expect from the League, coupled with stunning cinematography and music which gave a beauty to the bleakness that was almost breathtaking. You instinctively felt that everyone involved in this production was working collaboratively and at the very top of their game, overwhelmingly proud to be part of it. The League of Gentlemen’s sublime artistry engenders – and deserves – nothing less.

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The League of Gentlemen Anniversary Specials Q&A at the BFI, with Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith

JJ: Well thank you very much for letting us premiere those episodes in your company. Really, really hilarious, moving, horrific. Just about everything you kind of hope for from a League of Gentlemen episode. I know in the past one of the things that certainly I know, three of you have been on this stage quite a lot over a number of years and you’ve talked about the fact that ever since the show finished you’ve constantly had people coming up to you ‘When’s the League coming back? When’s the League coming back?’ But now you’ve delivered that, are you ready for that to start all over again?

SP: Absolutely. The first question we’re asked now is ‘Will you do more?’ But no, it’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time and it was just a question of when we were going to do it and we really didn’t start putting it together till the summer, did we? Sort of around sort of June we started writing it, with shoot dates in September October.

JJ: That’s incredibly quick in terms of turnaround, especially when you see both the kind of the quality of the writing and the depth you go into. It’s not, it’s so much more than a sketch show. I was thinking of the first series was a bit more sketch-based perhaps but actually these are proper…there’s a proper kind of story arc going through here, there’s a proper kind of, you know, Mark with his bingo man, the real feeling when people felt, when they realised about Pauline and the horrible kind of mistake and so forth. So obviously you spend a lot of time sort of working on that, but actually no, in terms of the turnaround for the shooting, you’re all those different characters.

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MG: It’s very much…I make comparison, when we did our Christmas Special which I still think is probably the best thing we did, it was very much borne of a great feeling of joy and excitement about doing it, you know, let’s make a portmanteau horror film for Christmas, why not just do it…and this had a very similar feel of just, I’ve said it many times now but we did (it) because we wanted to not because we had to. So it was fun and that just helped the whole thing. It felt just very, very live.

JJ: And was there anything from a very basic kind of cost point of view, because obviously the BBC budget, the sketch show…shows with lots of characters like that are very expensive to put on. Was there anything you wanted to do but couldn’t do or did you actually achieve everything you wanted to?

RS: Well I think when we first mooted the idea we were going to do an hour special and then we wrote more than that and we thought…and actually it was helpful in a way to tell the narratives cos we were able, suddenly going back to the way it used to be, which was half an hour, to end on these cliffhangers and I think that the structure’s probably better than the originals that were more just everything but the kitchen sink and sketches so…but we found that they are very expensive to do, that’s why you don’t really see them anymore. Sketch shows are rare because so many locations, so many characters and we had trouble just doing the ones we had to do in this and this is quite pared down considering what we used to do which was many more characters, but it’s still a lot for these days I think.

MG: The one thing we actually genuinely couldn’t afford though was Dr Chinnery and the gorilla (audience laughter) Stay tuned (audience laughter)

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JJ: I think there’s plenty in there to reward people who haven’t seen the show before but equally the people who’ve seen the very first episode of the first series, things like Class 2B twenty years on or the reading of the letter on the train, I mean, did you have to go back and revisit those or were they actually already there in your mind from then?

JD: We are…cos that opening we talked about a couple of years ago…

RS: Yeah yeah, exactly yeah.

JD: So no. You…It was after we started writing that you went back to look more, didn’t you?

MG: I haven’t…Honestly, people always say these things but you sort of don’t look back and watch your old stuff and I think I sort of started it a few times and never carried on. But I deliberately went back and ended up watching the first two series to sort of remind myself how some of the voices…And it was really interesting and you genuinely do see things in a very different way after all these years. I used to get quite cross personally with people who said it was too dark, ‘I can’t watch that…’ People are so wussy aren’t they? And then what struck me after all these years, it’s nothing to do with like gore or horror or anything superficial in that way. It is incredibly dark. Thematically, very, very bleak, which is why I love it (audience laughter)

RS: Tonally it’s all over the place, the original shows. They are clearly four young men who’ve been given a television programme and all their influences and things they love are just in it. You can really tell that.

JJ: A lot of the time you were acting up in age, but you’ve probably reached some of those ages now…

SP: And beyond.

JJ: And in terms of when you were writing the scripts, did you go back into your old pairings again or did you write it amongst the four?

JD: No, we did it like we used to do it, which was we sort of started as a four sharing ideas, seeing what made everyone laugh and then we went into our pairings.

RS: More in the room together…

JD: We were. Cos there’s quite a lot of lines and bits that can change…

RS: …as we went through it…

JD: …laughing together, like…

MG: There’s one bit which is in episode three which genuinely came out through discussion…

JD: Crying with laughter…

MG: Crying with laughter, and just thinking…

JD: …the idea of doing something…

MG: …so absurd and why don’t we just do it. It’s like that’s why we’re here.

JJ: How does it work? How do the four of you plan the narrative kind of arcs so to speak…Does that come out of you then returning the bits of writing. How does the process actually work?

SP: Well for this we decided the best way forward was to just go off and look at each character and think about where they would be now. In the case of someone like Pauline for example, of course, she’s left that job and yet what we really wanted to write, our instinct, was to get her back in the Restart room. So that was the starting point when we started thinking about that, well in what universe would she be back in the Restart room and that lead us on to that idea. And similarly with the local shop, obviously these characters almost died in S3 (audience laughter) Luckily the special effects weren’t quite good enough to render it so you could believe the train went right in front of them. But we thought, you know, that shop’s been burnt down, we need them to be in their own shop so that’s why we recreated the shop in the flat. So it’s really just one at a time thinking about the characters and then Mark and Jeremy did the same. We brought it all together and said right, and then it’s like a big jigsaw, you’ve just got to decide what the through line is and that’s when we settled on the boundary change.

MG: We wanted it to be very simple like S1 which is just about the new road, it’s like, I think, any kind of series arc, I think the best ones in any show are quite, very gettable, you know. But then we found years ago people would say ‘What’s happening…about the road?’ We’d go ‘Fuck the road’ (audience laughter) what about the funny stuff in-between? Maybe people will be obsessed about boundary changes this time.

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JJ: As well as age, you know, taking us all over after 20 years, comedy does change and what’s acceptable and what isn’t acceptable changes. And when you’re, I mean you address this in a sense when you’ve got the Babs character and obviously thinking about transgender issues and so forth, but recently when Matt Lucas was doing some stuff on the back on his ‘Little Britain’ book and his autobiography, he talked about how now they perhaps wouldn’t introduce some of the characters they originally created or bring them back. Was that a big source of debate about what you could or couldn’t bring back?

RS: Well we had conversations about what we thought. It was completely led by what we…with the characters that we had, cos there’s so many we could have chosen so many different ways to go. But we thought what’s still got legs. And then we were very, very, very careful, as we always are, about we might wanted to shock or not. You know, I think one of our strengths is that we don’t do it casually. I think we really earn the moments when it’s shocking because you’re with the characters and you care, you care when Pauline dies. Can you believe we killed Pauline (audience laughter)

League of Gentlemen

MG: It’s like the train, it hasn’t really happened. The cushion missed her (audience laughter)

RS: I think we are responsible that way. We learnt very early on that you’ve got to… there’s a great responsibility when you’re piping your wares into people’s houses. That’s what Edward would say “Piping your wares into people’s houses” (Edward Tattsyrup voice) (audience laughter) and I think we are careful. We had long arguments, not arguments, debates about what we think is acceptable, without being toothless about it.

MG: You’ve got to be conscious that times have changed and all sorts of things are very…it’s a very different world but at the same time, there’s no point in bringing this show back if it’s just anodyne  and it isn’t what it used to be. So I think there’s lots of things in the world, particularly at the moment, which are very ripe for satire and although we’ve never been a satirical show in that sense, there’s lots of stuff in there, you know, ‘taking back control’ etc, which is just inevitably there because it’s in the ether.

JJ: Bearing that in mind, were there any characters you just couldn’t bring back or was everyone fair game in that respect?

SP: I think we thought everyone was fair game and we just wanted to do the right thing with each of those characters and we didn’t want to cheat the audience out of not seeing those characters, that they’re enjoy it so…

JJ: Are there any characters that you’ve not shown so far that will come in episode three?

Unidentified members of the League: Yes (audience laughter)

JJ: I’m not going to ask who they are, but now that’s intriguing. And in terms of working with the BBC and just in terms of kind of constraints and so forth, was there anything that they felt uncomfortable with you showing or were they…

JD: It was remarkable actually. We were…just as it used to be, we were just free to do it and trusted and, you know, obviously Adam our producer was part of that process and he has a sense, he plays the part of the BBC in terms of where he thinks the line (would) be. It was often the opposite of what you’d think, with us wanting to edit ourselves and Adam, no, no, you know, you must do it and…

MG: It’s his fault (audience laughter)

AT: (Adam Tandy, in the audience) You bastards (audience laughter)

JJ: In 20 years, one thing that’s definitely now become part and parcel of our lives is social media and everything that goes with that. But you managed to kind of pretty successfully keep this secret in terms of a lot of the character stuff and a lot what was going on. Was that something, was it all kind of closed or was that something, you know, a lucky kind of accident?

RS: It didn’t feel like it at the time. It was very busy in Hadfield when we were filming it. A lot more interest than we ever had first time round but, and as you say, there were people filming it and I was ‘Oh no, it’s all going to be ruined’ but I think people have kept it to themselves really. It’s not, I don’t feel like it’s been…

MG: However we would now like to publicise it a lot (audience laughter)

JJ: One thing that we watched in the first series is actually the kind of laugh track, the live laughter that goes through it. And this time and obviously by the time of S3 as well you didn’t have that, and actually, almost as a piece of drama, I think is improved by that, isn’t it?

SP: Yeah we never really liked the laughter track but we were given all kinds of statistics about how people wouldn’t accept it as a comedy without the laughter track and at the time it was just when ‘The Royle Family’ was coming through so we…we just started in 1999 and I think Caroline Aherne was the real game changer there and we’ve got an awful lot to thank her for. And so by the time S3 came along we were able to say look, you know, 90 percent of comedies now don’t have a laughter track. I think, you know, it would have been very odd to have put one on this. I think it wouldn’t have suited it at all.

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MG: We got the first edit and I just wrote…’Needs a laugh track’ (audience laughter)

SP: Well, that’s why we invited this audience here. We’ve recorded your laughter (audience laughter)

JJ: It must have been great to hear the live response to the episodes, especially as it’s so new and not knowing how they were going to be received.

JD: Yeah, it’s always good to get a laugh.

JJ: Jeremy, from your point of view I know you don’t perform with the others and in the film you were played by Michael Sheen. I mean is there really nothing that would have persuaded you to kind of make an appearance or do you ever make cameos we’re just not aware of?

JD: Actually I do have one…cameo in this, in the third episode…I’m not an actor, you know, that’s all it is. There’s no mystery to it. I don’t have that skill set and nor had the ambition or thought of myself in that way. So if I was up there doing it you’d notice the difference. So that’s all it is…

JJ: And obviously Adam is the producer but you have a kind of producing role in a sense, don’t you?

JD: Well historically I did on the series, less so this time just because of time (we had to produce it) but I think the thing is, it’s an odd dynamic but it was always quite useful because, particularly when I was embedded in production, because I became a channel between them and production and that, you know, was definitely a good thing in terms of what was on screen. So, but we’re all heavily involved in it because we’re, you know, all used to making stuff now. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.

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MG: One thing we were determined to do is to bring back our great director Steve Bendelack (audience applause) We combed the gutters of Central Manchester (audience laughter) and there he was…

JJ: I always think it must be difficult as a director when you’ve got the people who created the show and wrote the show and are performing in the show, I mean I know he obviously directed all the previous stuff anyway, but how does that work in a kind of practical way? Do you try and get involved in the direction or just leave him totally to it?

RS: I think you trust it’s, that he’ll do it better than we could. We’ve got an eye on what, how we imagined it but he’s able to come up and say ‘Did you mean like that bit in ‘The Shining’ or whatever it might be and the references…so it’s very easy to be able to work with Steve because he gets our mindset, he’s like a fifth member…

JJ: And of course your previous producer, Sarah Smith, who worked at Aardman, directed ‘Arthur Christmas’, is now, you know, an impresario with her own animation film studios…which is a good thing obviously. You didn’t have her around this time but you did have, as you say, have Adam who you two have worked with on ‘Inside No.9’, how did it work out with Adam?

SP: It was great. I mean Adam was still a part of the process right at the very beginning cos he was… contract to his job title was…or something, but he was definitely there in the room.

JD: Adam prepared the very first budget for what was the pilot. Is that right Adam?

AT: (Adam Tandy, in the audience) Yep.

SP: It’s been a brilliant collaboration. We tried to get as many people back as we could and I think it was really only Steve, Adam and our sound recordist David…

MG: All kinds of new people…and all kinds of brilliant people. It just felt like they’d always been there and a lot…only right toward the end in the last two days in the studio, lots of people said ‘I fought for this job’, which was lovely, really very touching. A lot of people had grown up with the show, terrifyingly…just really very, very keen to work on it, which is very touching.

JJ: Can you remember right at the start when you decided…which characters …you most wanted to bring back? Were there certain characters…and you actually kind of enjoyed writing for?

JD: They’re the ones that are in it.

RS: There are a few arcs which are not in it cos there’s no room but we definitely wanted to do Geoff, Mike and Brian again. I mean even though they’re sort of, there isn’t a joke about them really. They’re sort of like real people. We say of all of them that could be the one we do a sitcom of. I showed my daughter it for the first time and she said ‘Oh right that Geoff is just you turned up a bit’ (audience laughter)

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MG: Turned down a bit (audience laugher)

JJ: The Shearsmith family are here and I understand they’ve never actually properly seen an episode of ‘The League of Gentlemen’?

RS: No. It’s horrific (audience laughter)

JJ: How are you feeling about that conversation?

RS: I don’t know…They’ll have to say it’s good or else I’ll… (as Geoff Tipps) I don’t know what I’ll do (audience laughter)

JJ: You talk about the characters of Geoff and so forth. Last time we saw them…as you refer to on the screen, they were inside an elephant in Papa Larazou’s zoo.

RS: We had this thing, we were never quite sure if it would work or not. We wanted, when Geoff says ‘You still having flashbacks about being stuck in that elephant?’ We did have an idea of having a flashback from S3 of him in the elephant, just a quick ‘Aaaarrrggghhh’ (audience laughter) but it was mad. It was enough to say it without seeing it.

JJ: Before I open up and get some questions from the audience, just a couple of quick sort of going back to the start thing cos there are a lot of people here who probably won’t have heard you talk about this stuff. But, first of all I just want to do a quick…Is it true you were originally going to be called The Porn Dwarfs?

SP: It was one of the names on the list. There was a list and we, I don’t think we came that close to it did we? The League of Gentlemen always sounded a little bit sort of Oxford and Cambridge but I’m very glad we went with it in the end because it has, it bears no meaning, you know, resemblance to the show itself, so in that way it kind of suits it. Porn Dwarfs is a terrible name (audience laughter)

JJ: Papa Lazarou is based on a real character that you and Steve both knew. You and Reece both knew?

RS: He was our landlord (audience laughter) He didn’t look like that (audience laughter) He sounded like it. And yes, I mean, I’ve done the story a hundred times but he was, he had this insistent way of ringing the house and I’d not dealt with the paperwork so Steve was always being hounded by him to talk to him. He’d ring up and he’d leave messages “Hello Steve” (Papa Lazarou voice) “I’d like to speak to Steve” (Papa Lazarou voice) (audience laughter) I don’t know why but we just thought it was a funny thing…“I’ve got a hoover belonging to you” (Papa Lazarou voice) (audience laughter) Why are you laughing? (audience applause)

JJ: And the other thing is that Pauline was your Restart officer, pretty much.

RS: She was my…yeah also my Restart officer. I used to come back. I was sent on every Restart course going. Steve was also on the dole and never went to one. It’s that weird thing where you get picked and they were picking on me. But fortunately for the world, we had her. And she was exactly like that, she was obsessed with pens, they were like gold dust in the room and…so yeah, I used to come back and I was going to do Pauline because I was experiencing Pauline first hand.

JD: She began in a one-act play that you wrote…

RS: Yeah, we did yeah…Yes, that first. It’s called ‘The Honeymoon Period’, we never did it in the end. But yeah, so I was going to do Pauline but then I said to Steve…I don’t know why you did it, why did you do it? Why did you steal it from me?

SP: You said I don’t want to do this, I think it was too traumatic. I think your actual quote was “I think you’d do this better than me” (audience laughter) I’m pretty sure that was the quote.

RS: And it’s true.

JJ: Are there any other characters that are kind of based as much in kind of reality as those are?

RS: Ollie’s another one. He was another one I had…

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SP: Dentons.

JJ: Who were the Dentons?

JD: They were…

RS: You were Benjamin weren’t you?

JD: …I was Benjamin and they were kind of family friends I had to go and stay with (audience laughter) and made to feel very welcome.

JJ: Okay, well I’m going to open up. I know there’s going to be lots of questions…a hand’s just gone up immediately…and on the very, very back row…and we’ll go to that one next…

Audience question: Given how many times you must have been asked since the last series, when are you going to do another series, how great was the temptation to just do greatest hits from yourself? Was there a temptation to just do old jokes and revisit old characters rather than try and do something new?

JD: No. We would never have been satisfied with that.

RS: I think you couldn’t could you cos it’d be such a…you’d be disappointing, for people who really like it…there’s nothing new. I mean essentially it’s the same but different this. I feel like it’s slightly more crafted cos I think we’ve got better, but I think you wouldn’t…fans would be cheated if it was ‘Mau Mau’ again or whatever.

MG: Also we…the third series is very different. It was quite controversial at the time. I think it’s found its time, people seem to like it and the film is very high concept and we thought we’ve sort of done that, actually in a way the most radical thing to do is to go back and just say ‘Where are they now?’ Obviously there are some new things but it is mostly a revisiting.

RS: We did talk around a lot about what it should be, there’s lots of high concept ideas…and ‘clever, clever’ ideas that we could have done with the return, but in the end I think we felt that if it felt like it had just come back on again, it had never been away, that would be the best feeling about it and that’s what we tried to do, so it’s just come back on, it’s like ‘Oh yes, that again’.

MG: It’ll be finished by Wednesday, that’s it. All gone.

JJ: There’s a question at the very back…

Audience question: I know it’s very simple but when you came to it, who were you most excited to play again?

SP: Good question. I was excited to play Pauline I think, yeah, especially going back to classic Pauline, as we saw, so that was good.

MG: I’d probably…I’d say Les or Mickey.

RS: I really enjoyed doing Ollie this time round, that was great fun to do, one of his issue-based plays (audience laughter)

JJ: Let’s get the very, very far side over there, there’s a hand right over the side there and let’s try…second row back, very, very far side there…people always get left out that side.

Audience question: Firstly before the question, a thank you from me. I assume people in this room come to The League and Vasey at different points in their life. I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing that I was about eleven when I first encountered The League and Vasey, but it’s kind of shaped my sense of humour throughout the years from a young chap, so thank you to me, from me to you. The question, the world seems to be getting slightly more and more Royston Vasey-like, especially in the last 20 years and I wondered whether that is fuel for you guys, do you see it as a barb to try and beat the escapades that seem to come out daily, especially with the rise of social media or is that a tricky thing to do or is it always a contest against the real world?

SP: I don’t think we thought too much about the real world…I mean obviously the past two years have been really crazy and there were an awful lot of political cartoons drawn of the Local Shop and a local country for local people and that was sort of put out there and it felt like, you know, that was something that was on our minds. And so this whole thing about boundary change and statehood and you know…It did seem Royston Vasey as a metaphor for the whole country, but it was never a satirical show, it was never…we didn’t scour the news for ideas, we just centred it on character and as long as we do that it will stay true to Royston Vasey and I think if we tried to go a bit too political it would, just wouldn’t have felt the same so…you think that’s fair to say?

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MG: I was watching ‘Day of the Triffids’ the other day and thinking what a rosy view of the future (audience laughter)

Audience question: Two questions. One, Jeremy ,when you do your cameo, do you use your own voice or are you dubbed again?

JD: It’s a silent cameo. No, there’s some whimpering (audience laughter)

Audience question: And secondly, please tell me this is being released on Blu-ray with a commentary?

MG: People don’t do discs anymore do they? They have it downloaded into their brains or something (audience laughter)

SP: We think it’s doubtful. We’d love to do it but we think it’s doubtful just because it’ll be coming out quite quickly.

Audience question:  Could you record one like with the ‘Inside No.9’ first series, where you kind of made one up?

SP: We could do yeah. Is that what you’d like us to do? (people in the audience say ‘Yes’ and applaud) Come on then…Dear ‘BBC Worldwide’…

JJ: Before we go to the next question, I’ve only just remembered that Adam said earlier and its apparently absolutely true and it’s an exclusive I think, that on Monday, if you go onto Ebay and type in ‘Bab’s Cab van’, they are selling the van (audience laughter) It’s going to be for sale. You could be the proud owner of Bab’s Cab van.

MG: That’s how we’re clawing back our budget (audience laughter)

JJ: Let’s have some questions from the centre this time. So we’ve got one right in the very, very middle and then another one sort of towards the middle of the very back row.

Audience question: So you spoke earlier about how the show sort of progressed from its early days, more like a traditional sketch show, had a laugh track and so on, then by the third series had more of an arc and now then today it’s rarer to see those kinds of shows. Where do you see the future of the sketch show? Do you see them happening more or do you think…becoming more high concept?

RS: I don’t know. All I know…There’s Tracey Ullman, which you work on don’t you?

JD: I do yes.

RS: You’re to blame for that (audience laughter) so…they’re really expensive and I think, obviously she’s a different kettle of fish cos she’s well-known, but I mean, live circuit you get a lot of sketch shows. ‘Gein’s Family Giftshop’, which we saw them in Edinburgh and we had them in ‘Inside No.9’, are great but I don’t know if there’s any move that they’re going to be on telly any time soon. I really hope that they do but it’s just a rarer thing…

MG: It’s always cyclical. When we started stand-up had been so dominant and we kind of started to ride a bit of a wave, character comedy coming back in…and then, now it’s…stand-up is so lucrative, I mean I was talking to our agent about this a couple of months ago and she said a lot of new people that they meet or take on, they just want to go straight on a panel show and then sell out Hammersmith Apollo, a kind of…there’s a trajectory to it which is very attractive but you have to put the work in as well, so I just don’t know where the spaces are and in terms of TV you’re not aware of them like you used to. I mean in a lot of ways I think strangely TV comedy has become very disparate. We’re…I’m not aware of it as a BBC presence or a BBC Two presence the way I used to be. It seems much more disparate.

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JD: I think we were, we say this a lot but we were very fortunate just for timing because now the way people consume television is completely different, so you could, you know, still make an impact with a show being on at a particular time. I remember when The League first went out and people could talk about it the next day at work and that…that’s gone because people don’t really watch…

MG: It hasn’t has it, that’s the thing. Nobody knows anything. So suddenly that’s true and then suddenly a show will be, like ‘Blue Planet’…

JD: I mean with comedy…

MG: ‘Blue Planet’s quite funny (audience laughter)

JJ: At the very, very back…

Audience question: I’d like to echo the thought of the gentleman down there. The League, it’s shaped my life and it’s such a big influence…

MG: What have we started (audience laughter)

Audience question: It’s true, it’s true, I can’t deny it. So yeah my question was since you finished the last series way back when, now are there any influences and references you’ve taken from TV and comedy and new horror films over these last twenty years and put them in…stick them in the new show?

SP: Not quite as much as we did. I mean when we were first starting out we used to make teaser tapes to give to Steve and to the production and so, you know, cos we just had so many films on our minds that we wanted to bring into this, you know, melting pot. And I think this time round we didn’t really do that, did we? We just, because we were looking back, being influenced by our own show in a way, so we just focused on the characters and what we wanted to do with them. That’s not to say that we haven’t, you know, watched them and enjoyed a lot of stuff in the intervening years…but I can’t think of anything specific.

JD: It was a slightly different process in that sense because it was much more about being inside the characters than perhaps thinking about that way we used to think when we were younger. It was the excitement of kind of grabbing the stuff that you loved and fusing it with what you were making up, and this was much more about telling these characters’ stories. So yeah, different.

JJ: Time for a couple more. One on the aisle just over here and one at the very, very front row down here.

Audience question: So why have you killed Pauline given that everyone loves here…and Steve how did you feel knowing they were going to be your last scenes as Pauline?

SP: Yeah, well as you can see I wasn’t there on the actual…I couldn’t bear to be there. No I’ll…We thought it would be more poignant to show, to not see Pauline on the bed, although we did like the idea of seeing her without glasses on for the first time ever…it would have been too much. That’s what we’ve always lived by, and to prove with Tubbs and Edward, not always final. She’ll be very much missed, although…

MG: If it was Geoff who was going to kill her, obviously she’s not dead (audience laughter)

SP: I wonder whether I should say that there may be a chance of seeing Pauline again, if we were to say go on tour next year (audience applaud and cheer) If we do that maybe you should keep an eye out next week for an announcement and maybe Pauline will come back. And that’s just between us (audience laughter)

JJ: You’ve just given that exclusive actually, it’s a pre-exclusive now…

SP: It’s a pre-exclusive.

JJ: Wow, that’s fantastic news.

MG: That’s my interview with Lorraine fucked (audience laughter)

Audience question: Thanks gentlemen, that was really good. I’m another poor sod whose life’s been improved by The League. I really enjoyed the reference to No.9 in the first episode. Does this mean that there’s going to be any characters from The League maybe showing up in ‘Inside No.9’?

SP: Cross-pollinating.

Audience question: Cross-pollinating.

SP: No I don’t think so. I mean they’re two separate shows. We liked that little nod and we thought that was enough. There is also on the sort of makeshift counter you will, I don’t know if you can even see it, but the hare from No.9 is there so…no, but we wouldn’t want to suddenly have characters from No.9 in League and vice versa. They’re two separate projects so…

JJ: Mark and Jeremy will sue you as well.

SP: Yeah absolutely, like a shot.

JJ: Was there another lined up? I forget…no okay. Let’s go over there and over on this side there.

Audience question:  I was just thinking, having watched new ‘Twin Peaks’ Reece – I don’t know if anybody else watched new ‘Twin Peaks’ – but was there anything from that, having enjoyed it, you were like ‘Ooh, that’s an interesting way to bring something back’ after a time away?

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RS: Well it was certainly, yeah, funny you should say cos it was going out when we were sort of in the process of doing it…and me and my black suit, I was thinking I am a bit like Dale coming back…but it was a funny parallel cos it was we’ll see you again in 25 years. It did feel like we were doing these characters that have, I think, people have, you know, they’ve stayed around in people’s minds, something endured about them. ‘Twin Peaks’ was extraordinary. That was an example of a…someone completely left to their own devices, you know, it was such a singular thing. And I think, you know, we are in a lot of ways…it was…so blessed cos we are not tampered with…another Ollie play (audience laughter) So it’s great to have that…We have it in No.9 when we’re completely, we write the things and we present them and there’s so little change isn’t there and that’s what great about…I think you can tell it’s authored and that’s what missing I think in a lot of things. You look at things and think that probably was once a good idea but it’s slightly being catered for everyone and now no-one finds it to their taste. But this was very much our thing.

MG: We were very lucky all those years ago. We did, I remember when we were doing our live stuff on the Fringe…I remember one particular producer came to see us and said we really liked it but all the sketches are too long and too dark. You need two girls, you need songs. All these things and then we stuck to our guns, we did it and that sort of became the new orthodoxy, the new rule, darkness is fine, darkness is in and then of course, you know, then you need to break that rule again to make something new and that’s the thing I always find a bit disappointing across the board, in drama as well, is that actually the things that break through are the totally unexpected things and actually if people should do anything is to encourage an authored voice and a world view and a take on something which is distinctive, not like oh if we make it a bit more like that people will maybe watch it and then you end up with a kind of curate’s egg (audience applause)

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JD: It’s that brilliant thing that Jon Plowman always used to say, there’s a big difference between what people think they want and what they actually want and they don’t know what they actually want until…

MG: 2017 everyone (audience laughter)

JJ: There’s time for one more question…and the final question, there’s a sort of little group over there…You’ve got one lined up have you?

Audience question: I just wondered how your professional experiences in the interim years between the series affected your creative processes or approaches for this series, with your experiences on ‘Inside No.9’, ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Happy Valley’, whether that changed anything this time round?

RS: I think it feels more, the episodes themselves are much more structured so each step of the way each return to a character feels like you’ve got a cliffhanger and you’re leaning in, wondering what… the next thing will happen. I don’t think we quite had that in the same way in the sketch show version.

JD: It’s all more about story and structure and putting things together and so, you know, that really impacted when we were compiling the show, we’ve developed, you know, skills that we just didn’t use to have and that makes a difference.

MG: And we also needed less old age make-up.

JJ: One final, final question, just from the cluster over there…

Audience question: This comes from being a big fan of S3 and I was just wondering why you’ve done some back-pedalling with some of the characters, like…

MG: Always the last question (audience laughter)

Audience question: …Geoff’s face. I was just wondering if there was a reason behind any of the reversals?

Unidentified member of the League: You mean?

Audience question: Tubbs and Edward not being dead despite…

RS: Well that’s explained (audience laughter)

Audience question: …Geoff’s face needing surgery?

RS: Oh yeah, well you know what, we actually did a make-up test with me with old scars on my face as Geoff to cater for you (audience laughter) and then realised there’s only one of you and all the other people wouldn’t care less (audience laughter and applause)

JJ: At the very, very start of our conversation I talked about the fact that people are always going to keep asking that question. But, you know, you’re coming back, you’re going to do a tour, you’re obviously feeling great…those characters again. I mean, would you, could you? Will it ever happen again do you think or is that it?

RS: It has. That’s it (audience laughter)

JJ: We’re not going to have a 40th later, you know?

SP: We’re not planning on it, are we? Who knows. Who knows.

JJ: As you say it’s not something you’ve done because you’ve had to, it’s only cos you wanted to…who knows how you many feel in the X years to come. So Steve a little bit of hope in that, in that respect. I know Reece you’re off to Broadway in the new year doing ‘Hangmen’ again, which is great.  And Jeremy, you’ve got ‘Ghost Stories’ coming out next year, the film. Mark’s going to be on Christmas Day, ‘Doctor Who’. Steve, you got a plug?

SP: ‘Inside No.9’ is coming back (audience applause and cheers)

JJ: Another series.

SP: 2nd January.

JJ: Good luck with those. A huge good luck with the show next week. I cannot wait to see episode number three and really just a dream come true I think for all of us in the room. So thank you very much Reece, Jeremy, Mark and Steve (audience applaud and cheer)

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Inside No. 9 – A Special Anthology Screening

Celluloid Screams: Sheffield Horror Film Festival (Saturday, 21st October 2017)

*Contains spoiler about ‘The Devil of Christmas’*

Q&A transcript: With Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Inside No. 9 producer Adam Tandy

I was lucky enough to attend this unique event at Sheffield’s annual Celluloid Screams festival. Unique in that this was the first time ‘Inside No.9’ had been given the honour of a curated anthology screening. The three episodes – handpicked by the creators themselves – were all from the three series already broadcast, making it distinct from the BFI’s two episode previews for each new series.

At least this was what the audience thought they were going to get. Instead, after watching S1’s ‘The Harrowing’ and S2’s ‘Séance Time’ on the big screen, Steve and Reece made a surprise announcement –  we were going to have an exclusive series four preview, with the debut public screening of ‘Tempting Fate’.  The gathered fans’ unexpected gift of a new ‘Inside No. 9’ was given a very enthusiastic reception. The episode was all we’ve come to expect from the exceptional standards established by ‘Inside No.9’ –  yet another sublime offering from Shearsmith and Pemberton.

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Afterwards Steve and Reece were joined on stage by Inside No. 9’s producer Adam Tandy to take questions from the audience. It was a very insightful Q&A which went into fascinating detail about the behind-the-scenes production of the series and the creative processes involved in writing and filming the episodes, as well as wider discussions revolving around – among other topics – advice for aspiring actors and writers, difficulties with sourcing shooting locations, filming inside people’s houses and their inspirations from childhood and beyond.

Armed with a newly brought digital voice recorder I recorded the Q&A with the aim of transcribing it when I got back to my hotel room. I assumed a Q&A lasting about 25 minutes would only take me about an hour to transcribe. I was seriously wide of the mark – naively underestimating the ‘pulling teeth’ tedious, exacting nature of the thing and the amount of time and effort required to do it properly. Transcribing several people speaking – with all the attendant natural pauses, variations in pitch and tone, unclear words and background noises – is a challenge when you don’t have helpful but expensive transcription software, with its smart speech to text conversions. It’s actually a painstakingly slow process when you’ve only got the old-fashioned method at your disposal. It meant replaying the recording over and over again in order to aurally decipher words or phrases I couldn’t hear properly and double check I’d correctly written down what was said.

At about 1.30am I caught my reflection in my hotel room’s table mirror, sat hunched over several sheets of paper with a pen in my hand, a pair of tiny earphone pieces pushed into my ears.  It was a ‘Harry Caul from ‘The Conversation’ sat in a room at the Overlook Hotel going slowly mad’  moment, to mix and mash film references from two seminal American movies.  That one hour transcribing task ended up taking more than four hours. Maybe I’m just ploddingly slow.

I hope I’ve accurately captured Celluloid Scream’s excellent Inside No. 9 Q&A – what was said and who said it. I’ve obsessed and agonised over possible misheard words or undecipherable sentences, convinced every phrase spoken counted and that if I missed something then nuances of meaning or revealing details would be lost. Steve, Reece and Adam spoke thoughtfully, analytically, entertainingly and with humour about Inside No.9 in particular and the creative process and production challenges in general. Hopefully fans that missed the Q&A – and those who did attend and want to revisit it – will see this reflected in the words they spoke as written down in this transcribed Q&A.

Below is the complete transcript of the evening’s questions and Steve, Reece and Adam’s answers, reproduced as faithfully as possible. I’ve summarised any audience member’s question – if there was any extraneous aspects to it – the kernel of what was being asked is what’s important.

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Inside No. 9 Special Anthology Screening Q&A at Celluloid Screams (21st October 2017)

Host Q:  Post The League of Gentlemen, post Psychoville, you decided to embark on an anthology show. When did that idea first come to you and could you perhaps talk about the lineage of that type of show?

Steve:  It came really out of doing ‘Psychoville’ and we did an episode that was very self-contained in one room and we really liked writing in that format because sometimes when you put limitations down it makes you much more inventive. We weren’t sure whether to continue with ‘Psychoville’ or try something new. We had a meeting, didn’t we, in the BBC and on the way there we thought we’d better have an option B in case they don’t want any more ‘Psychoville’ and our option B was to do a series of these plays, these self-contained plays and it grew out of that. But the idea was always to have great variety in the episodes and its really interesting watching three back to back like that cos they’re obviously chosen cos it’s a horror festival, but we never wanted to make just scary short stories. We wanted funny ones, psychological ones, dramatic ones, farcical ones and its been (a) fantastic writing exercise for us.

Host Q:  To what extent does the number 9 of the particular episode – is that the starting point as some are obviously very key to the story, where some are perhaps less so?

Reece:  The 9 really is not an important thing. We do the story and think what can the 9 be attached to it.  It’s not really that way round. We can always stick a 9 on anything we write. So that’s what we do with that.

Adam:  In fact we change it sometimes, don’t we? There is one in the new series that we actually changed. We got to the first day and said ‘hang on’ we’ll do something different. It didn’t make a jot of difference did it.

Host Q:  One of the ones that is really strong in terms of horror is ‘The Devil of Christmas’. Perhaps comment on the production of that, obviously is quite specific in terms of the style and the production of that as well.

Reece:   Well we…I think in the wake of doing the anthology formats we thought it would be great to do one that’s sort of literally in the lineage of where we’d got it from. So we thought let’s do one that’s set sort of around the ‘Armchair Thriller’ or ‘Beasts’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ or  ‘Play for Today’. We thought it be great to do one sort of from that era, not do a pastiche but do something that was authentically…look like it was from that time. So that was the starting point and I think actually we were going to do an idea with Krampus, that’s right isn’t it Steve. We sort of wrote it straight and it was so hokey and sort of cod and a bit arch that we thought actually just to do it straight doesn’t fit but to do it via as if it was from 1979, 1980, suddenly that freed it, allowed it to have all the bad exposition and bad acting and it seemed to be in keeping with telling (that) kind of story. It was sort of quite predictable in a way but classic sort (of) twist in the tale type thing and to house it in that exercise was good. Then we had the idea of having it sort of outside itself with the director’s commentary thing which helped once again sort of to take the curse off it being quite an obvious trope filled episode. We were thinking we could do that. I thought they’d be able to film it and then there be an app thing you could get that could put all the scratches on it and make it look old fashioned but of course that doesn’t really exist so then it was up to Adam to think well lets actually try to do it and he sourced cameras from that time didn’t you? I’ll let Adam continue.

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Adam:  Yes. That wasn’t the very first thing I thought. The first thing I thought was ‘Oh Christ, how are we going to do this’ and they put a line in the first page of the script. It says ‘There are smears all over the screen as we see the camera track past some candles’. I thought there’s no way of doing that even with modern post-production without spending millions of dollars, without going back to the way they used to do it. So I phoned up some people and found out that that equipment did exist, only used as props, but given enough time they could probably take them apart and rebuild them, so they did. And then I asked BBC Two whether they would be interested in taking an episode of ‘Inside No.9’ that was actually Standard Definition and 4×3 not 16×9. Once they’d got over the initial shock they then said okay, give it a go…Are you sure there isn’t an app that can do that for you? So that’s how we did it. We got some people out of retirement, some equipment out of retirement, rebuilt the equipment, rebuilt the people and we decided to make it like an old-fashioned TV drama, which meant lots of outside rehearsal and marks on the floor and two days, we made it in two days in a studio in Elstree, which I think is the same studio, or next to the studio where they’d made Nigel Neale, ‘Beasts’, which was probably one of our inspirations.

Reece:  We gave ‘Beasts’ to Jessica Raine to look at the acting, the arch…in those days, the acting was…all surface, there was no…playing the subtext, it was all very arch and she really got it perfectly. So she was really in keeping with that world and of course, there was the chance to do the really horrible ending when it was revealed to be a snuff movie. Sorry if I’ve spoilt it if you haven’t seen it.

Adam: How did you find the rehearsal process, that rehearsal process?

Steve:  Yeah it was a very different rehearsal process because normally we’d do a week read through and we would spend an afternoon talking to the actors, reading through the scenes. On this we got together with the director Graeme Harper and we had four days or was it five days with the set marked out and cos it was a multi-camera production as Adam said, filmed in two days, we needed to know exactly where we were going to be and Graeme needed to know where we were exactly going to be for the camera positions and that was so we could get all the mistakes in as well, where we were sort of blocking each other but not ridiculously so. And Rula Lenska of course was well used to all this and I think maybe to begin with thought we were taking the piss (audience laughter) But we all got on really well with it and I think its one of the best episodes that we’ve done and it certainly got a strong reaction.

Host Q: So we’ll open it to audience questions…

Audience Q: What sort of advice would you give to aspiring actors and actresses who really want to write and star in their own work?

Steve:  Well I think one of the best pieces of advice is to be creative and write for yourself as well. That was what we started off doing. If you’re an actor you study acting, you come out, you have to wait for other people to give you a job. And if you can be self-reliant, if you can write things and nowadays you don’t just have to write things for the stage which was what we did when we started. You can write things and make them pretty cheaply and get them out there. You can film, get the edited, get them online. So my advice, if you’ve got any inclination at all to write as well as act then definitely pursue  that and the more you do it the better you’ll get. So yeah, that would be my advice.

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Reece:  I don’t have any (audience laughter) I don’t like encouraging anybody else (audience laughter) Edinburgh Festival was the thing that got us noticed by anybody cos that last week of the Festival, where TV people come and descend and scout around looking for things they think might be of interest. And that was where we got the attention. I think it was slightly before. Sarah Smith. We were at the Canal Café and she spotted us and then we went to Edinburgh and from there got the Radio Four thing. I think you just can’t stop, be of the mind. Don’t stop if you really want to do it, if you’re inclined to pursue it. I don’t remember having a plan between us all that we’d do a live show that would get us a television series. (We) just sort of couldn’t do it, could not do it. So we just pursued it and it was a long…it was 1994 we were doing it in pubs a long time before we filmed the TV version of it at the end of 1998. So it was a lot of years of just friends coming and supporting us, of us doing the same thing, sometimes with exactly the same audience. I used to say to Jeremy ‘Why are we doing it? Everyone out there has already seen it. They’re just coming out of kindness.’ We just sort of didn’t stop.

Adam:  Its Steve point isn’t it. Just keep working, even if it’s unpaid, get out there, get your work seen by people and that’s the way to do it. I mean I started out as an actor and I made the mistake of just sitting alone at home waiting for the telephone to ring. And now I’m a producer. That shows you doesn’t it.

Steve:  And the other thing you can do if you’re very fortunate, find good producers and executive producers who really get your work because that is worth its weight in gold. For us to work with Adam and Jon Plowman, which we’ve done for many years now and has been absolutely fantastic. So you have to be a bit lucky. Perseverance is the key. Good luck.

Audience Q:  Just want to ask you about locations. How are your experiences with finding locations at different points in your career and also have you had any strange experiences like people hanging around?

Adam: It has changed. I used to be a locations manager in my long journey up to being a producer, for about a year. I found it a hateful job, going around knocking on doors, literally cold calling people. I was doing something for BBC Children’s and I knocked on the door and this lady – a bit like Tubbs actually – said ‘Yes’. ‘I’m from the BBC and would you like us to come and film in your house’. ‘No. Not at all’ and shut the door. And I’d given her my card. No, I told her who I was ‘Adam Tandy’ and had shown her my ID card. And she then phoned up my department, BBC Children’s, and said ‘Do you have anybody called Adam Tandy working for you?’ and they denied it. So as a result of that I was reported to the police and I’m on the police records computer as a sometime con artist that claimed to be a locations manager for the BBC (audience laughter) Things have actually changed a bit since then. There’s less cold calling cos there’s less time to make things, so we use the same building. We’ve used Langleybury three times.

Steve:  Four

Adam: Four times. And we can’t use it anymore because ‘Harlots’, the BBC Two show, is now in there. So the same buildings get used again and again and again. And a lot of the really well-known ones and some of the ones you wouldn’t recognise, just ordinary houses, are on the books of agencies, specialist agencies. And part of the deal is you sign up with an agency, someone is allowed to come and film on payment of a fee. The fees have gone up but you can always get into places now.  That’s how location managing’s done. You ring up an agency and say you’re looking for this type of thing. That’s sort of how it works now.

Steve:  The first thing we ever made was called ‘Highgate House of Horror’ and we made it with our own video cameras in our flat and I think that’s the place to start really. Finding, using what you’ve got around you, that you don’t have to pay extra for. Yes, start with what you know.

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Reece:  We’ve had funny experiences cos often a funny thing happens when you’re filming in someone’s house (that) you get. You might be filming upstairs and they say there’s a green room downstairs if you want to go and sit in there – it’s just a living room – while we get the lighting set up. And you go and the people that own the house are just pottering about and you end up just sitting on their sofa while they’re having their breakfast. That – the funny situation. We nearly did a No.9 on it, we thought it was a bit too…cos its such a particular thing when you’re just sat with a family that own the house, trying to make small talk with them when you’ve got nothing in common.  We were doing one League of Gentlemen and it was the lady’s birthday that morning – well all day in fact (audience laughter) and she was in her nightgown with a glass of champagne sat opposite me and Steve and we were like ‘Alright’. ‘It’s my birthday’. ‘Happy Birthday’. ‘Yessss’ (audience laughter) A sickly feeling.

Adam:  It is actually better to go to an agency these days. ‘Tempting Fate’ is shot on a set which we built. The reason I give to people – well  it’s a flat, it’s a tiny council flat. We need to build it because it’s really tight and you can’t get in and out of the rooms. You have to make it a bit bigger for the cameras. That’s part of the reason. The other reason is I’m slightly phobic. The last time I tried to film on a council estate, in a flat with a load of stuff in it, I arrived on the first day of filming to discover a piece of paper sellotaped to the door that says ‘Dear BBC. We don’t want any filming. Please go away. We’ve gone on holiday.’ So be warned.

Audience Q:  I just want to say how great the ‘Tempting Fate’ was. It really was amazing. My question is, one of the good things about ‘Inside No.9’ is these guest casts. Have you ever wondered about doing an episode that’s just you two starring in it?

Reece:  Wow. Well you sort of pre-empted. We’ve done one in the next series. Yeah, we thought that ourselves and I think we wanted to do one, just a two-hander between me and Steve, so there is one in the next series. So yes to answer your question, we’ve done it.

Steve:  We play a jaded old double act that can’t stand each other (audience laughter)

Audience Q: Carrying on the horror theme from the festival. What stories or films did you have when you were growing up that inspired your work, like through the ages?

Reece:  Right from being too young to see them I used to watch the horror double bills, that don’t happen anymore of course, and wait for the colour Hammer one at 1.05 in the morning. The Universal one first and you’d see ‘Dracula’ and then ‘Hands of the Ripper’ or something at five past one in the morning. Right very early on we had a strange like-mindedness about horror films, very particular. I’ve said this many times, but we all had a collective memory of Bonfire Night in 1976 when none of us went out to look at the fireworks, we all stayed in to watch ‘Carry on Screaming’. Slightly horrific horror theme and we all did it and have that memory. That right from an early age has been an influence. And then more so, real-life documentaries, that often comes into the work a lot as well. We try not to completely parody things. If we do a horror thing, we try to make it sort of a bit scary as well as being funny. It’s a hard thing to do both – scary and funny. You’re constantly tousling with the tone you are setting, breaking the tension with a laugh as a relief and then building it up again.

Steve:  For me it was the ones that you started watching and you didn’t even know they were horror films. ‘The Wicker Man’ or ‘Don’t Look Now’ are the two favourites I remember so clearly watching cos I was so scared by the endings of those films, but they don’t begin like traditional horror films, if you like. We just have a very broad range of influences and we bring it all to bear as you can see. I mean ‘The Wicker Man’. There’d be no Tubbs & Edward in the local shop without ‘The Wicker Man’.

Audience Q:  It always comes across that you have a great time filming and performing, even the sad ones. I’ve always just wanted to know what has been your favourite or the most fun or enjoyable to actually perform and film?

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Reece:  Of the No. 9’s?

Audience Q:  Yeah the No.9’s or anything really.

Reece:   Well of the No.9’s I really enjoyed doing the witchcraft trial. I enjoy that world cos I’m fascinated by it anyway and to play a sort of Matthew Hopkins type character was great fun. David Warner was great in that. It was very cold I remember in that barn. It was freezing cold. That was good fun. I enjoyed that one.

Steve:  I enjoyed doing ‘A Quiet Night In’ cos there were no lines to learn (audience laughter) apart from the fact that we filmed it in July so for the night shoots we had to wait until half past ten for it to get dark, so we had five or six through- the-night didn’t we?

Adam:  We ended up having to do six and we shouldn’t have needed it as it was in one location but because it was summer it wasn’t night long enough and we were filming in a glass house.

Inside No. 9

Steve:  But having said all that it was really fun. And there’s one in the new series called ‘Zanzibar’ which is set in a hotel corridor and we had quite a big cast. There was about ten or eleven of us and that’s always tremendous fun doing those big cast ones as well. But yeah they’re all great. We love all of them.

Adam: Yeah ‘Zanzibar’ watch out for that. We’re probably going to start series four with that one. That’s probably the most fun I’ve had on a set for a long time, for a week. The pace was incredible and the performances are amazing. So watch out for that.

Host:  On that note, I think we’re out of time (audience aw, groan and mock boo)

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