“I don’t know what’s wrong with me Mum. I’m getting everything jumbled up” (Christine Clarke: ‘The 12 Days of Christine’)
After watching this extraordinary story for the first time I couldn’t do anything for several minutes other than sit in silence feeling overwhelmed. For a television programme or film to have this sort of startling effect is very rare indeed. I knew I had just seen 30 minutes of the most powerful television in years – an unforgettable masterpiece. It had held me spellbound and reached emotions deep inside of me to devastating effect, leaving me deeply moved and affected. I know I will always remember where I was when I first saw ‘The 12 Days of Christine’, such was its initial astonishing impact and even more, the compelling potency that stays with you, its many mesmerising moments haunting your thoughts.
Great art illuminates by making connections between things. These interconnections allow us to gain a different sense and meaning of the world which can move, influence and sometimes even bring comfort. The artistry at the heart of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s work – their exceptional inventiveness and meticulous writing – in tandem with ‘Inside No. 9’s array of creative talents behind the scenes, came together as one through the process of alchemy to produce a work of stunning quality with ‘Christine’, that will last as long as storytelling survives as a vital part of human interaction and understanding.
‘The 12 Days of Christine’ deals with universal themes of life & death and time & memory, but with startling ingenuity, complexity and intelligence. Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith’s script is also suffused with humanity and compassion for the richly drawn and multilayered titular character, Christine Clarke.
The story ends with the death of Christine in a car crash. It is how the narrative takes us to this point – and the journey through Christine’s life – that makes this particular ‘Inside No 9’ so exceptional. It’s a complex and deeply felt meditation on memory and how it works; how we mark the passing of time; what happens when life gets measured against the idealised values we place on it, the gap between them and reality when wrong choices, human failings and circumstances intervene and how this produces feelings of disappointment and a sense of failure.
The narrative is a stunningly constructed timepiece that represents Christine’s life and memory through 12 scenes, each a different month in chronological order but set across a flash-forward timeline stretching over a dozen years. It’s an intricate boxes within boxes conceit as it also conveys Christine’s ‘life flashing before her eyes’, near (to) death experience as her life ebbs away trapped in the crashed car. The writing here is nothing short of remarkable as it has to work on several levels at once without revealing what it is that the audience is watching – the ‘life review’ of a woman who is close to death. It’s an elliptical exposition, conceptually complex and experimental. The chronology of the 12 scenes over 12 months across 12 years, is at the same time, non-linear – disruptive, discordant, distorted – with out-of-synch memories seeping in to carry a sense of foreboding that something is happening to Christine’s mind: The Valentine’s card from a boyfriend who had died years before; the confusion over her hand getting burnt by a firework sparkler when she was little and her panic, believing it had happened to her son Jack. It’s a brilliantly conceived representation by Shearsmith & Pemberton, signifying that Christine’s cognitive processes have become disrupted and disturbed as her unconscious mind causes her memory to fragment and fracture in her state of limbo between life and death. At the same time, allusions to the car crash begin to bleed into scenes as Christine’s subjective experience of the car accident see her haunted by nightmarish visions of a stranger attempting to take her young son, causing her emotions to become increasingly panicked. Fleeting images & sounds across the scenes of her life take on horrific symbolic significance when we discover, at the end, the tragic accident that has befallen her. The flickering Christmas tree lights are like tiny spasms as she drifts between the conscious and the unconscious – the fluctuations in her mind as she hangs between life and death; the sound of her husband Adam trying to close an over packed suitcase could imply CPR on the dying woman; Christine stepping on her son’s toy cars scattered on the floor.
The creeping intimations of the car crash are shown to full effect in a frighteningly expressionistic sequence where eggs are smashed against her flat’s walls, a ceiling light flashes on and off as Christine is terrified by a stranger in a rain mac and glasses coming towards her (the man who unwittingly caused her to crash her car) It’s Christine’s dreamlike, intangible experience of the car crash, with the broken eggs from a shopping bag on the car floor and the flashing lights of the emergency services seen through the car window.
As well as the striking examination of memory and time, ‘The 12 Days of Christine’ is also a evocative psychological study of a woman at key stages in her life. It delves into Christine’s inner self and looks at her hopes, fears, insecurities and disappointments, achieving an emotional depth across those 12 short scenes that is simply staggering. We get to know, sympathise and really care about this woman in just 30 minutes. Shearsmith & Pemberton’s Christine is a fully rounded, multifaceted character. They draw her with such sensitivity, understanding and telling detail that the story becomes an exploration of her psyche as well as her memory.
The range of emotions and feelings depicted over Christine’s 12 days require a consummate actress and Sheridan Smith is perfect. She brings such natural empathy and warmth to any role she plays – we don’t want anything bad to happen to her. What Christine goes through over the course of her story is portrayed with such naturalistic, heartfelt honesty by Smith as to be almost felt and experienced for real. She achieves a level of authenticity that makes us care deeply about Christine and feel that we know her. The scenes from Christine’s life start at a point of elation and hopeful expectations, but early on troubling signs impinge – a rather problematic relationship with her mother and an inference that her father has a traumatic, progressive illness. As her timescale advances so Christine’s life becomes incrementally sadder and more fraught, her disappointments accumulate and her misery accelerates. Much of this unhappiness forms around her relationship with her partner Adam as it deteriorates over time.
In the birthday party scene, we clearly see new mother Christine is brittle and vulnerable, her confidence gone. She is humiliated by both Adam and Zara, his attractive female work colleague. Their insensitive comments about her weight jab at her low self-esteem and their seemingly growing intimacy heightens her insecurity. It’s a brilliant, low-key sequence, full of insinuation and implicit suggestion regarding Adam and Zara’s relationship and all the more painful to watch because of it.
As Christine’s life unravels even further, her regrets and sorrows grow. On her son’s first day at school she becomes overwhelmed at the bleakness of her life. As she holds a music CD that reminds her of happier times (music being a prime stimulant of memory) she is overcome by a crying jag. It’s here that the memory of her late father consoles her, with Christine holding an imaginary conversation with him sat just behind her. It is a revealing (and foreshadowing) observation that memory can be used to comfort at times of stress and crisis. The appearance of her dead father is a foreboding of Christine’s 12th and final scene. That Christine’s father had dementia is a potent detail included by Steve & Reece and made even more powerful because dementia is never mentioned, only alluded to. It’s a disease where reasoned thinking and conscious thoughts are disturbed and broken, where memory becomes disjointed. It echoes what has been gradually happening to Christine as the scenes progress towards her 12th day.
Christine’s 12th day is surely the most moving, poignant and audacious scene that Pemberton & Shearsmith have yet written. What appears at first to Christine to be a Christmas reunion and dinner with family and friends becomes the heart-rending realisation (“I don’t want the present”) that the distilled, fast-forward rush of memories – increasingly jumbled, confused and distressing – is the configuration of her dying brain. Her unconscious memory has gathered together those she loves and who love her, so that she can say goodbye.
Director Guillem Morales conveys this revelation with exceptional skill as the scene cuts to a semi-conscious Christine in the car, her head on the steering wheel, her eyes flickering almost imperceptibly, recalling the flickering of the Christmas tree lights. In a brilliantly edited montage, previously seen image and sound fragments are replayed and intercut with images and sounds detailing the aftermath of the car crash: A fireman lifting Christine from the wreckage is spliced alongside Adam in his fireman’s fancy dress costume carrying Christine on a drink-infused New Year’s Eve first encounter; the lights on the Christmas tree blend with the flashing lights of the emergency service vehicles. The fragments – snatches of memory – are pieced together like circuits connecting in Christine’s brain, as she becomes aware of what has happened to her, and the perplexing, troubling things that we’ve seen over the preceding 28 minutes are at last given melancholic clarity and tragic meaning.
The final scene of Christine & those closest to her gathered around the Christmas table so she can say goodbye is both unbearably sad and redemptively comforting. Although Christine had remembered her life as full of regrets and disappointments, failing to live up to what she had hoped it would be (“I just didn’t think it would turn out like this”) as death descends on her she is consoled andsoothed, through memory, with the knowledge that she was and is loved.
It’s a consolation that is bittersweet though because Reece & Steve include moments in that goodbye scene that are as heartbreakingly memorable as anything ever produced for television, so gut-wrenchingly perfect they almost take your breath away: Christine’s son, dressed as an angel for a school nativity play, hugs her goodbye; the final, tight shot on Christine as mixed emotions flit across her face – distress, sadness, acceptance – then a wistful smile and one last look, almost straight to the camera, as she says “Goodbye everyone, I love you”. They show that simple, understated gestures and facial expressions can articulate affecting emotional truth more powerfully than eulogising words.
Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith’s ‘The 12 Days of Christine’ was revelatory, even for them, two creators whose work has always been brilliant and distinctive and who have always strived to maintain and better their exacting standards. It was ambitious yet subtle, intricate but epic and achieved a beautiful elegiac majesty that was simply astounding and transfixing to watch. ‘Inside No 9’ has highlighted their extraordinary talents as writers in particular and with ‘The 12 Days of Christine’, created a piece of drama that will be loved, talked about and remembered for years to come as deeply moving and exemplary storytelling. Pemberton & Shearsmith are peerless. Only two into the six of series two of ‘Inside No 9’ but already its surpassing the achievements of series one and that in itself is quite a feat.
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Jack…Joel Little/Dexter Little