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 & performed by the brilliant creative partnership of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.
The anthology of six ‘No 9s’ were inventive & mesmerising, delivering some of the small screen’s most outstanding moments of last year – brimming with comedic highs, ferocious misdeeds & 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 different characters brings a breadth to the stories in terms of mood & feeling. The gothic & grotesque of Reece & Steve’s previous works is muted & sparsely rationed. Inside No 9’s tales are linked by a tone that can only come from the masters of confounding audience assumptions. Pemberton and Shearsmith play with and subvert expectations with perfectly pitched uneasiness & queasiness, where the often unremarkable physical setting of the stories generates a tension with the unfolding narrative. The world they create, and the characters within it, gradually strip away at the familiar, safe backdrop to reveal anything from unpleasant behaviour, shocking acts to a possibly horrific denouement.
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 tested and discomforted and are sometimes 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 & 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 with 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 & are written as plays, by their fixed setting & 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 and Pemberton’s always adhered to creative distinction of never succumbing to easy route predictions or audience 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 becomes wound as tightly as a watch spring 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 opposition to the neat and particular Maxwell, skilfully setting up a potential source of conflict. 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 & their relationship is one of relaxed teasing & gentle bickering, with a long married couple’s intimate knowledge & understanding of their faults and foibles. In contrast, the last two passengers taking up space in the berth – Shona, a no-nonsense Australian backpacker & a fellow backpacker she’s picked up, ‘trustafarian’ Hugo, a sloaney posh boy – are young, libidinous & 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 & increase the noise dynamics in the train cabin. The cinematography deploys tight shots & disconcerting, unnatural camera angles along, above & below the three layers of the sleeping berth to reinforce & heighten the restrictive feeling & extreme confinement of the characters.
As concocted by Shearsmith & Pemberton, these enclosed conditions help deliver a perfectly formed, small scale farce, with classic, vivid examples: the sexual comic misunderstanding between Jorg, Kath & Les; the sexual conquest between Shona & 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 & cultural attitudes and differences expressed & 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 & Kath and Les have conversational intimacies that bring a depth & warmth, 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 come out of nowhere & are the faultline of so many comedy programmes) They are beautiful vignettes written with an unerring feel for how people actually speak, capturing a pure 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 scatological relish is undercut by knowing one of the passengers has gone missing from the berth & the uneasy feeling this induces is compounded by upsetting news taking place off-screen – what appears to be a body on the tracks & an allusion to suicide.
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 a grimness 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 in perfect symmetry – and have the skill and confidence to pull it off so superbly other than Pemberton and Shearsmith?
The ending deftly completes a superlative piece of storytelling and achieves a resolution that connects two of the passengers in a satisfyingly ironic way.
‘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, tightly scripted and finely honed, each word and gesture is integral to it as a whole – every line has meaning and importance.
Reece and Steve 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 & tell it as well as possible.
Series two of ‘Inside No 9’ promises to deliver original, unique, imaginative television to our screens and 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