The second series of ‘Inside No. 9’ is one of the most welcome and anticipated returns of the television year. The first series was highly acclaimed by both critics and viewers for its compellingly told standalone stories, beautifully written and performed by the brilliant creative partnership of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.
The anthology of six ‘No. 9s’ were inventive and mesmerising, delivering some of the small screen’s most outstanding moments of last year – brimming with comedic highs, ferocious misdeeds and touching poignancy, interwoven with a tenacious wrong-footedness that was, by turns, both playful and profound.
The pair’s ‘The League of Gentlemen’ & ‘Psychoville’ had episodic, overarching narratives with a multiplicity of plotlines and an almost epic sweep of arcs for its cast of grotesques. In comparison, ‘Inside No. 9’ comes with the stated aim of restricting the action to a single location, a relatively small number of characters and a pared down, hemmed in narrative, that logistically confines but liberates its creators.
Each week a completely new setting with a different range of characters brings a remarkable breadth to the stories in terms of mood and tone. The gothic and grotesque of Reece and Steve’s previous works is muted and sparsely rationed. What links Inside No. 9’s tales are an encompassing principle that can only come from the masters of confounding audience assumptions. Pemberton & Shearsmith play with and subvert expectations with perfectly pitched queasiness, where the often unremarkable physical settings for the stories generate a tension within the unfolding narratives. The self-contained and fully formed worlds they create, and the brilliantly realised characters that inhabit them, gradually strip away at the familiar backdrops to reveal behaviour that ranges from unpleasant to shocking, with denouements that are often mercilessly grim and occasionally horrific.
What is also noticeable is that they are stories with a kernel of morality at their heart – another important element of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s sensibility. The characters are always tested and discomforted and are often the instigators of misery or cruelty. There is an emotional resonance articulated through the protagonists that brings poignancy to the quiet terror or savage fearsomeness. ‘Inside No. 9’ delivers big themes on a small, intimate scale.
The series is notable for its technical standards that aspire to the level of a collection of short films, defiantly resisting the limitations usually placed on a ‘comedy show’. It’s lit, shot and edited with a cinematic flair to convey a dramatic scale, helping the process of creating and telling a story with impact.
‘Inside No. 9’ is also remarkable for the immersive experience that comes when watching it. The beautifully intricate storytelling demands our full attention – it can’t merely ‘wash over’ you. The series has the same comparably intense experience as watching a brilliant theatrical production. The stories lend themselves to and are written as plays, by their fixed setting and small cast of characters. There is an intensity and sharpness to the narrative drive that comes with telling a complete story in just 30 minutes. That force is heightened by Shearsmith & Pemberton’s closely observed creative distinction of never succumbing to predictable resolutions or merely serving audience’s usual predilections.
And so to the first episode of series two – ‘La Couchette’. Set on board a sleeper train travelling from Paris to Bourg St Maurice, in a six bunk berth – a setting of safe normality, albeit a highly claustrophobic one. The characters are introduced in relatively quick succession as they arrive to bed down for the night. Dr Maxwell is already ensconced in sleeping compartment number nine. Overly fastidious and uptight (beautifully delineated by Reece Shearsmith) he gradually is wound as tightly as a watch mainspring as his hopes for a good night’s sleep are assailed by his fellow passengers. Jorg, a dishevelled, flatulent German (a fine Pemberton grotesque) is the first stranger to enter the couchette. He is the perfect visual personification of antithesis, a 180 degree opposite to the neat and particular Maxwell, which skilfully sets up the promise of a potential source of conflict between these two characters from the beginning. Kath and Les, a comfortably married, middle aged couple are the next to arrive in the already cramped space. They are travelling to their daughter’s wedding and their relationship is one of relaxed teasing and gentle bickering, with a long married couple’s intimate knowledge and understanding of their faults and foibles. In contrast, the last two passengers taking up space in the berth – Shona, a no-nonsense Australian backpacker and a fellow backpacker she’s picked up, ‘trustafarian’ Hugo, a sloaney posh boy – are young, libidinous and ready for debauchery.
This sextet of disparate travellers are confined within a stifling, oppressive space. It’s an environment primed for the opposing personalities to rub each other up the wrong way, where differences are magnified & bristling resentments grow. For a group of people in such close proximity, every noise and sound becomes a loud cacophony. Mention must be made here of the technical achievements in this episode. Sound is used innovatively, with the audio level mixed high to exaggerate and increase the noise dynamics in the train cabin. The cinematography deployed is all tight shots and disconcerting, unnatural camera angles along, above and below the three levels of the sleeping berth to reinforce and heighten the restrictive feeling and extreme confinement of the characters.
As concocted by Shearsmith & Pemberton, these enclosed conditions help deliver a perfectly formed, small scale farce, with wonderfully vivid examples: the sexual comic misunderstanding between Jorg, Kath & Les; the sexual conquest between Shona and Hugo, who bed down for sex in embarrassingly close quarters to the other travellers, running the potential risk of discovery. Alongside the broader, farcical elements are seamlessly woven nuanced subtleties of the comedy of embarrassment and manners, with the divergent social and cultural attitudes and differences expressed or unwittingly betrayed by the passengers producing a multitude of cherishable lines and fine character detail.
As always with Reece and Steve’s writing, the surprising catches the viewer unawares with a tender shift in mood from what initially is a full pelt, comedic tilt depicting strangers forced to endure an overtly cramped train journey together. Both Shona and Hugo and Kath and Les have conversational intimacies that bring depth and warmth to the proceedings, with unexpected wells of feeling and emotion. Their words flow with a naturalistic authenticity which arises from character and attitude (as opposed to the clunkingly inserted, self-conscious ‘funny line’ which clumsily arise from nowhere and are the fault line of so many comedy programmes) They are beautifully written vignettes, with an unerring sense of how real people actually speak, encapsulating a genuine, authentic Bennett-esque quality which Shearsmith & Pemberton have shown since their early League of Gentlemen years.
When a shocking incident occurs in the sleeping berth the previous discomforts that the passengers have coped with become secondary. The undiscovered dead body of a passenger falls down from one of the middle bunks and the stakes all of a sudden become much higher than quarrelsome irritations and simmering discontent. It’s a dramatic shift in gear that the writers always do so well. The tension is heightened and the story layered with a question of conscience. The inconvenience that a dead body presents (to several of the occupants) becomes a moral dilemma to challenge the passengers. Their own values and codes of morality come into play and become the focus for the remainder of their journey together.
There is one scene in ‘La Couchette’ that is an exemplary example of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s unique brilliance. It comes when Jorg is faced with a bodily function emergency and has to defecate into a shoe box. This moment of abrasive scatological relish is undercut by knowing one of the passengers has gone missing from the berth and the uneasy feeling this induces is compounded by what is then imparted off-screen – something resembling a body is seen further along on the rail tracks (and the strong allusion to suicide which comes with this news)
The risible farcicality allied to a creeping sense of dread gives the audience a sharp emotional jolt even as they laugh. It has the effect of leaving the viewer wrung out by the absurdity of the gross out moment played in parallel with an appalling horror that threatens to burst through as a possibly devastating suicide on the railway line. Who else would come up with the masterstroke of combining the two together – the comedic and the tragic conveyed with such symmetry and timing – and have the skill and confidence to pull it off so superbly other than Pemberton & Shearsmith?
The ending deftly completes a superlative piece of storytelling and achieves a resolution that connects the two most visually contrary passengers – Maxwell and Jorg – in a satisfyingly ironic way, with a pleasingly ‘just deserts’ conclusion.
‘La Couchette’ has all the sublime artistry we have come to expect from Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. It is meticulously and artfully constructed with a sureness of touch by two creators at the very peak of their powers. Brilliantly drawn characters and a tightly scripted, finely honed narrative with every line counting, each word and gesture integral to it as a whole.
Pemberton & Shearsmith are exceptional storytellers, their writing is ingenious, incisive and full of telling detail. The intricacies in their work are deployed to tell a good story and to tell it memorably and uniquely, as only they can.
Series two of ‘Inside No. 9’ promises to deliver original, inventive and imaginative television to our screens and it may even succeed in topping the extraordinary standards achieved by series one.
Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Dr Maxwell…Reece Shearsmith