‘Cold Comfort’ is as stark and bleak as Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have ever been. Making their directorial debut, they deliver an ‘Inside No 9’ which is technically audacious and narratively compelling. Combining striking, experimental camerawork with a brilliant exploration and dissection of modern life disconnection, alienation and discontent, it is grimly mesmerising and emotionally riveting.
The story follows Andy, a new volunteer at a branch of Comfort Support Line (CSL), a Samaritans-style organisation for lonely and distressed people to talk through their problems. It provides them with an outlet to express their feelings over the phone to a sympathetic stranger. The volunteers are there to provide what CSL supervisor George calls “active listening”. Following a brief induction, Andy plunges right in and starts taking calls. His callers are the quietly desperate and isolated, needing to talk about their unhappiness, disappointments and anxieties. They seem to take comfort from unburdening themselves down the end of a telephone line. Andy however appears rather bored and perplexed by what he seems to regard as their mediocre problems and concerns. At this early stage, ‘Cold Comfort’ is thematically reminiscence of an observational documentary, showing the mundane workings of an office environment, capturing the minutiae of life there in its attendant day-to-day aspects: Liz is a long-serving volunteer who sits in a listening booth behind Andy, she has no respect for her supervisor George and is openly sarcastic to him; the personality clash and backbiting between Liz and another volunteer, Joanne; divisive office politics, with Liz’s steadfast aim to be a ‘friend’ to the callers at odds with the approach recommended by George and followed by Joanne; George’s weak attempts at humour as he introduces Andy to his assigned booth, describing it as “compact and bijou”. Pemberton & Shearsmith’s introductory foregrounding of this joyless and humdrum environment places the viewer within a very recognisable world, albeit an office where volunteers need to attune their ears to possibly masturbating callers.
However, the highly stylised camerawork through which we view the call centre is the oppose of dully familiar and induces a sense of disquiet from the very start. It is shot as if we are watching everything through CCTV cameras positioned across the office. A split screen gives us four different camera viewpoints, helping to create tension and a heightened feeling of unease, with the audience uncertain where to direct their gaze, in case something happens onscreen from any of the camera points. The main camera is unwaveringly focused on Andy’s listening booth, fixed at mid-level seated position and viewed almost full-screen. On the right hand side we are given three separate smaller sized camera views throughout various parts of the CSL building – George’s control room, a corridor and a high angle view of the whole office, where the volunteers are ensconced in their listening booths. The date and time is displayed at the bottom of the main screen to mimic the look of an actual CCTV camera.
The CCTV conceit enables the viewer to eavesdrop on Andy’s volunteer experience – his conversations with office colleagues, his succession of telephone calls from those seeking comfort and how he handles them. This intense scrutiny involves placing the viewer into an almost participatory form of intrusive surveillance. We watch Andy as he is exposed to the camera’s detached, unblinking and unforgiving eye. The audience is increasingly complicit in this and by ever greater degrees, uncomfortably so. The CCTV camerawork also visually implies and implicates an association between modern technology and a growing sense of dislocation in modern life, the way it can isolate people from meaningful social interaction and increase feelings of alienation.
The date and time coded main screen allows us to chronologically pinpoint what happens to Andy at Comfort Support Line and is one of many unobtrusively conveyed snippets of information subtly deployed throughout the script. His time in the office is imparted through beautifully paced scenes, all shot in relatively long takes with no cuts and visually punctuated by the screen going black between each of them.
The way the characters’ heads are cut off from the tops of their bodies when they stand within range of Andy’s booth, due to the fixed position of the camera, is a bold, rule-breaking shot – a strike against the established visual conventions of the framing codes for television. Highly disconcerting, it acts as a disquieting alert, skilfully evoking a sense of queasy foreboding – that things are not quite right or ‘normal’ in this office – as Andy’s CSL experience shifts inexorably towards a shattering, dreadful conclusion.
The catalyst for Andy’s descent into personal hell is when he takes a call from a troubled teenage girl called Chloe. She informs him she’s taken an overdose of tablets but does not want him to summon help, but rather just to talk to her as she slips over the edge towards death. Then she requests that he sings Take That’s ‘Shine’ to her.
Beautifully acted by Pemberton, it’s an unsettling but quietly moving scene which exposes emotions in unexpected ways, discovering pathos from a surprising source – an oft-heard Take That song. Who’d have thought that it had the potency to be that touching and affecting? It is a perfect illustration of the exceptional skill Pemberton & Shearsmith have in creating poignancy and the moments which contain it.
The trauma of this call sets in motion a horrendous sequence of events. After hearing what he thinks is a young girl dying, Andy immediately receives another call, from an old woman who is very upset at the death of one of her cats. In the midst of his emotional turmoil, Andy handles her with wince-inducing insensitivity that is unthinkingly cruel, telling the vulnerable, lonely woman that it was “only a cat” and that she can get another one.
We are subtly made aware that Chloe’s call has stirred up dormant emotions in Andy. As he listens on the phone to the elderly cat lady, he takes hold of the photo of his late sister that he had pinned up in his booth. Her death was the motivation for him to volunteer at CSL in the first place and the inference from this telling gesture is that Andy’s sister killed herself. Andy has fatally allowed his own emotions to get in the way, even though he was warned against it and advises the same to another volunteer later on. Physically isolated, mentally troubled and emotionally distressed in that enclosed, tight space of his office booth, the audience watches Andy’s near disintegration as he grows increasingly vulnerable, put under immense pressure and pushed to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Scene by scene, the psychological horror is ratcheted up as misery after misery is heaped upon him: From the trauma of Chloe’s phone call to shock and guilt when he learns the elderly woman grieving for her cat has killed herself. Then panic and mental terror as ‘Chloe’ begins to ‘stalk’ him with a series of progressively alarming phone calls.
The visceral emotions which overwhelm Andy – as he pays a very heavy price for one act of knee-jerk cruelty – are seen through the unyielding, merciless gaze of the CCTV camera. The audience has now become a passive observer of someone else’s distress and suffering – Andy’s – through the fixed CCTV installed above his office booth, allowing us as viewers to voyeuristically indulge in a man’s life unravelling before our eyes.
The hoax phone calls made by ‘Chloe’ are in the end exposed as an ‘inside job’, one that has been hidden in plain sight on the split screen and anticipated through artfully constructed layering of conversational detail. Andy’s nemesis turns out to be George, who we discover has been making these ‘nuisance’ calls for years, posing as CSL callers. Clues are dropped like little bombs into the script, ticking away before going off at the story’s climax, delivering a punch to the stomach that almost takes one’s breath away as we watch a CCTV recording played back of George posing as ‘Chloe’ in that devastating phone call to Andy.
Carefully seeded moments take on powerful significance in retrospect: Victoria, the volunteer Andy is replacing, is on ‘gardening leave’ because “she had three dead dads in two days” and it “tipped her over the edge”; George telling Andy “we’ve all snapped at certain points” as he tries to reassure him after the old woman’s suicide; George losing it and angrily snatching the phone from Liz’s grasp when she is in the middle of a personal phone call.
The first telephone call made by ‘Chloe’ is actually seen in its entirety in front of our eyes in the corner of the screen from one of the fixed camera viewpoints, with George hunched over his desk in his office, seemingly looking at his computer, throughout the whole of Andy’s conversation with ‘Chloe’ – hidden in plain sight, quite literally.
The exposure of George as the hoaxer is only reached through the prism of nuanced misdirection which points towards Liz as the guilty party: The ever changing cat photos on her desk; her comment to Andy that PPI stands for “persistent pain in the intestines” echoes ‘Chloe’ complaint of stomach cramps; ‘Chloe’ repeats a line Liz said to Andy – “I know where you are”. The CCTV recording revealing George as ‘Chloe’ – a small source of light illuminating his face – is a compelling moment. His eyes look dead, his face unshaven and weary, with a hint of despair. The screen freezes and holds this potent image in freeze-frame before it then goes black.
That frozen image of George is suffused with despondency and an undercurrent pessimism. What drove him to do what he did remains obscure, elusive, difficult. His phone call to Andy in the very last scene, where he says (by way of explanation) that he wanted someone to ‘listen to me’ after years of listening to others, is spoken with an almost playful cadence in his voice, as if he is toying with and teasing Andy, before he delivers the final blow with one last piece of shocking news. Maybe what made George do it was a pervasive mix of unhappiness, dejection, resentment and frustration. What motivated him is never pinpointed, but left open and ambiguous, hidden in the murky recesses of George’s mind. Perhaps it is unknowable, even to George himself.
It is this discomfiting, unresolved conclusion to the story and the invocations of loneliness, sadness, bitterness and isolation throughout it that make this ‘Inside No 9’ so pitch black. The brief pay-off in the very last moments of the story – Andy confronted by the elderly cat lady’s grieving son with a gun – delivers one more sucker punch for the viewer already floored by that final image of George. ‘Cold Comfort’ sees Pemberton & Shearsmith’s dark imaginations at full rein, with brilliant technical innovations which help to emphasis the story’s mundanely grim setting, enhance its narrative themes and draw out the intricate layers in the script. Although there are moments of touching poignancy, what the writers reach for and achieve here is a real sense of bleakness, in which they take an idea and push it to its darkest ends.
Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Directors…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Callers…Edward Easton, Vilma Hollingbery, Kate Hughes, James Meehan, Vicky Hall (voices only)