“I very nearly didn’t do this film, but there was so little work around I felt I couldn’t say no. The week before I’d had a meeting about Worzel Gummidge, but Pertwee had his favourites. I knew that from Who” (Dennis Fulcher, ‘The Devil of Christmas’)
Since 2014, two series of ‘Inside No. 9’ have produced 12 original stories of such masterly construction and distinctive brilliance that it has established itself at the apex of quality British television. Greeted with the sort of acclaimed critical reception and audience appreciation reserved for the very few, its consistently high standards have been truly exceptional.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s remarkable writing for the series involves taking an idea or premise and moving it along surprising routes and at unpredictable angles, with the aim of confounding expectations of narrative trajectory and shaking up viewers’ proclivities and assumptions.
The No. 9 of the title is a single setting – often as not, the commonplace, mundane or familiar – a place for an extraordinary story to develop, emotionally or thematically (and often both) with customary depth and dark predilection.
Shearsmith & Pemberton have also given themselves the creative room to experiment with the form of their perfectly formed playlets (S1’s ‘A Quiet Night In’ was wordless; S2’s ‘Cold Comfort’ narrative was told using only CCTV camera shots)
Every ‘Inside No. 9’ stands up to numerous viewings and not just because of their remarkable quality. In order to see the encompassing creativity in its totality, several rewatches of a No.9 story enable the viewer to begin to fully appreciate the multi-layered levels it is operating on. Revisiting an episode is like coming anew to something not discerned to its fullest extend from the first initial watch: Juxtaposed ideas and contrasting elements emerge from the density of detail contained within; the cultivated, precise way the denouement was reached is revealed; how those surprises along the journey were shaped and intimated are better understood; nuances originally missed are picked up on. All in all, a deeper understanding of the complex layers and a finer grasp of the Faberge egg of intricate construction involved in Pemberton & Shearsmith’s writing comes from seeing a particular No. 9 story more than once.
Over two series it has become abundantly clear just how much Inside No. 9’s two creators are in total command of their unique work. Their depth of care, attention to detail and meticulousness is beyond compare. The artistry involved, the scope of imagination brought to bear on each story is simply astonishing – ‘Inside No. 9’ really is a labour of love for them.
Now we have a level of excitement in anticipation of series three which is hard to contain, especially after a BBC press release said that it “promised to raise the bar even higher”.
‘The Devil of Christmas’ is the first story of the third series but was broadcast as a ‘Christmas special’ ahead of the transmission of the rest of the series in early 2017.
The title is the name of the fictional 1970s TV play presented to us (after the Inside No. 9 opening credits end) with such unerring accuracy of a specific oeuvre of TV melodrama of the period, that it almost takes on the weight of a historic artefact, so close is it in reproducing the look, feel and tone of that television era.
In ‘The Devil of Christmas’ a middle-class family arrive to spend the seasonal holidays at an Austrian chalet. Julian Devonshire is accompanied by his young wife Kathy, his young son Toby and Celia, his forthright mother, dripping in fur. Prompted by a picture on the chalet wall, local guide Klaus informs them it is of Krampus, a demon-like creature that represents the dark side of St. Nicholas Day, who punishes naughty boys and girls by hurling them into “the flames of hell”. It is a story that appears to frighten the nervous Kathy.
The patina of the age is recreated with pitch perfect authenticity: The step-back-in-time technical production processes and associative shooting limitations; impeccable adherence to the narrative techniques and devices reserved for this specific television brand; the full use of generic tropes and clichés; the careful delineation of recognisable 1970s cultural mores, its prevalent attitudes and sensibilities. This is the driven meticulousness of Pemberton & Shearsmith at work and it suffuses every scene of ‘The Devil of Christmas’.
It is also a No. 9 that is experimental in the way that it plays with, deconstructs and re-imagines this particular TV drama format in a distinctly dark way, dissecting narrative conventions through the intervening interplay of metatextuality.
At one level ‘The Devil of Christmas’ is an obsessively faithful reproduction of a particular British televisual milieu of the 1970s – namely the studio bound TV dramas – or more appropriately melodramas – with thriller, mystery & horror based themes at their heart. Made on minimum budgets, they strove for maximum effect through exaggeration & overstatement in acting and script and the predominance of plot and action in place of subtlety, character development and depth. It was the case of getting to ‘the thing of it’ as efficiently and intensely as possible precisely because of the budgetary limitations. They were the schlocky, less nuanced distant relations of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s M.R. James adaptations for the BBC (Reece & Steve have sited ITV anthology series ‘Thriller’ & ‘Beasts’ as inspirations for ‘The Devil of Christmas’)
The exemplary observance in duplicating this 1970s TV archetype at practically carbon copy level was manifold. It was filmed in a highly restrictive way on 1 inch videotape stock, 4:3 aspect ratio, using authentic 1970s multi-camera broadcasting technology. The tube-based TV cameras were operated by old crew members with sourced studio lighting equipment of the era. It was cut and edited in the studio as it was shot, as was the practice in those days. The 625 line PAL cameras used are the cause of the light trails seen in the episode, leaving their vapour-like traces in the air. The softened picture quality with slightly hazy definition and colour bleeds is the effect from degraded videotape as it is edited and re-edited. The director Graeme Harper was himself a veteran of 1970s TV dramas.
The nostalgic technical precision taken to film it was exacting and the immaculate replication used to showcase the technical limitations of ‘The Devil of Christmas’ TV play itself is a significant aspect of the show-within-a-show conceit of the episode.
Working within the parameters of a flawless imitation, ‘The Devil of Christmas’ is positioned with well-judged subtlety to feasibly convince as a TV play that could have actually been broadcast in the 70s. Nothing is heavily overdone to place it too far beyond believability and into the realms of ‘Acorn Antiques’ or ‘Gareth Marenghi’s Darkplace’, the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ of comedic parodies. The technical inadequacies, production errors, affected style and dated sensibilities are done with a delicate palette and avoid broad brushstrokes.
It is impeccably pitched, only heightened for parody occasionally. It is a pastiche that is perfectly judged across every narrative feature and production element:
Script: The language veers back and forth between hyperbole & the overdramatic – “What a gloomy thought. Catch our deaths”, “Shaking like a leaf”, “Brush my hair Julian. You know I’ve never liked thunder” and wooden exposition. It is flavoured with archaic terminology such as ‘mummy’ and ‘granny’. There is also the superb detail of the characters’ names – and the actors playing them within the ‘play’ – reflecting a robust middle-classness, redolent of many TV plays of the time.
Camera shots: It is full of static two-shots which emphasis the studio bound artificiality, the production’s multi-camera set-up and the theatrical placing of the actors. The over-conscious use of camera pans and zooms done in order to create the allusion of space (and the flow of movement which comes from it) to compensate for and attempt to overcome the actual confines of a television studio set and the limited space caused by the unwieldy and large TV studio cameras (but only draws attention to the physical restrictions even more).
Sound effects: The slight mistimed sound cues on a face slap and the phone being placed back down; the abrupt stop on the sound of a blizzard as soon as the chalet door is shut.
Lighting: The way that the holiday chalet is flooded with light when only one small table lamp is apparently turned on.
Acting: Kathy’s sudden leap to fervent heights of earnest over-emoting, which just as quickly die away; the affected repertory acting tones of Julian; the awkward, self-consciousness of the child actor, seen in the way he mechanically recites his lines and theatrically rubs his eyes when he wakes up.
Production errors: Actress Nancy Mason’s (playing Celia) slightly missed mark highlights the theatrical stilted quality and studio setting of the piece; the way the child actor walks up the stairs carrying the fork used in the earlier dinner scene; the very brief glimpse of a television camera in shot.
Cultural attitudes: The casual sexism and latent misogyny vividly displayed in ‘The Devil of Christmas’ is totally in keeping with prevailing 1970s social mores. Husband Julian patronises and treats wife Kathy as if she is a little girl, whilst she is submissive and jittery. Having an actress dressed head to toe in fur as Rula Lenska’s character is would be contentious now, but unremarkable for the times. Likewise, the idea that whipping horses with a switch was accepted practice – when Julian explains to son Toby what switches are for – places the TV play securely in a different era. The past really is another country.
There are numerous subtle shadings like these peppered throughout ‘The Devil of Christmas’. Some are imperceptibility slight and only become noticeable, as smallest details do, after viewing the episode a number of times. It helps to generate a convincing, totally authentic feeling that these are the sort of small fluffs and technical oversights in a studio production, bound by a tight budget, that were judged as acceptable to let pass back in the 1970s. This was the time before VCR, DVDs, catch-up TV and iPlayer, when viewers only had the chance to watch a programme once, as it was being broadcast.
Shearsmith & Pemberton’s intricate writing skilfully positions the 1970s drama so that it works on two levels. Namely, as the precise reproduction of a 70s timepiece, imbued with technical shortcomings and production errors and as a satisfying melodrama in itself, containing enough narrative power to pull in and exert a hold on the audience on its own merits. Well established devices are interwoven through it to firmly anchor the familiar melodramatic terrain with a plotline that is entertainingly and comfortably predictable: A seemingly innocent, dutiful wife is actually an unfaithful and duplicitous woman who uses the Krampus legend to drive her husband’s suspicious mother and the inconvenient step-son Toby away in order to stage a fright and deliberately cause husband Julian’s fatal heart attack.
Clichéd flourishes like a bitchy mother-in-law, heart condition pills and inferences to marital difficulties and a first wife layer it convincingly. Indeed Kathy’s noticeably over-the-top histrionics cleverly work twice over – as a recognisable element of overt theatricality seen in a certain type of 70s TV drama, but also as an integral part of the plot, where Kathy’s overplayed nerves could well be seen to be part of her scheme to manipulate events in her favour as part of her murderous plan.
At the very beginning of ‘The Devil of Christmas’, before the opening titles in red gothic lettering roll over old film stock of an Austrian landscape, there is a brief shot of a VTR clock board noting the studio recording date and TV title plus an audible countdown from the TV gallery. It is Pemberton & Shearsmith’s way of priming the audience, hinting that what we are about to watch is not all that seems to be. This behind-the-scenes vestige of the production process was something never generally seen by the viewing public when a programme was broadcast. That it is there as ‘The Devil of Christmas’ starts signals that this isn’t going to be a simple pastiche of a ‘golden age’ TV genre. Five minutes into the action the fruity intonations of TV director Dennis Fulcher are heard for the first time, in an apparent director’s DVD commentary for this old 1970s TV show.
The meta nature of the commentary cuts through and breaks up the familiar 1970s TV drama linear narrative. A tinge of the unusual which was suggested with the visible VTR clock countdown at the very start of the programme is reinforced and a creeping unease starts to exert itself, despite Fulcher’s seemingly amiable asides and reminiscences, happily pointing out production mistakes and actors’ deficiencies. There are additional interruptions to the narrative flow – the videotape rewinding, unedited takes and re-takes, behind-the-scene footage and the sound of directions being given from the studio gallery. This ratcheting up of metatextual complexity increases doubt in the audience about what they think they’re watching. The outtakes could be part of a DVD extra package but these are never normally seen within the TV show itself, as part of the viewing experience, so the feeling of discomfort grows that something is not quite right.
The queasiness pervades what the audience thinks is the final scene, which ends with Kathy chained to a bed, screaming in close up as a pair of fake hairy hands (of the Krampus costume worn by her lover Simon) move threateningly towards her. It is deliberately off-kilter because it does not persuade as a frightening climax. It feels as if ‘the thing of it’ has gone on one scene beyond the generic conventions of the TV drama would normally deem the right place to end it – with Kathy and her lover embracing after succeeding in their plot to kill Julian (Dennis Fulcher admits as much in his ‘commentary’) Then plastic sheeting is spread across the bed and the nastiest climax possible is realised – Kathy’s actual terror (or rather Penny’s, the actress playing her) as it becomes apparent she is part – and victim of – a snuff film. Its an unsparingly shocking and brutal ending, as dark as ‘Inside No 9’ has ever been. A forewarning to the dreadful conclusion which unfolds before us was spoken by Kathy early on (and repeated again near the end) when she says “catch our deaths”. The figurative language of the 70s melodrama is revealed to be hauntingly true in the most literal sense.
The revelation that Dennis Fulcher’s commentary was in fact a police interview pulls us into the present in a highly disturbing way. A modern awareness of the 1970s acknowledges that it had an unsavoury and sordid underside, attendant with the underlying misogyny. It was a time when sexual assault and abusive treatment of girls and women were known to have occurred within the television industry, when there was a culture of people looking the other way as horrendous things were done. The disclosure that we were listening to Fulcher being interviewed by the police is bleakly resonant. It evokes the idea of the past being scrutinised in the present, of past crimes and misdemeanors catching up with some of those 1970s celebrity figures and their cohorts, of police investigations like Operation Yewtree making regular headline news.
When the audience learns the uncomfortable truth about the ‘commentary’, Fulcher’s words come back to taunt. Shearsmith & Pemberton’s beautifully crafted lines for him work by being hidden in plain sight. When their context is revealed, the layered clues they contain transform their meaning (“Otherwise I think we got away with it”, “Very hard to find a good child given the subject matter of the film”)
Likewise, viewers’ original perception of Dennis Fulcher – as a likeable purveyor of insider titbits, as an unpretentious man enthusiastically denigrating his ‘The Devil of Christmas’ inadequacies – take a drastic volte-face. In the wake of knowing that the thing he has been taking great delight in talking about is a snuff film he directed, he now appears to be quite the psychopath. In retrospect, the pleasure emanating from his voice carries the feeling of someone who is really enjoying the attention. Recalling him saying “I needed to be there for the climax” with such relish has turned into something disturbingly chilling.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s brilliantly inventive work continues to astound. They are always finding innovative ways to deliver a story. There is nothing else like ‘Inside No. 9’ on television, nothing which even comes close to its imaginative power or the extraordinary layers of nuance interwoven into its narratives.
‘The Devil of Christmas’ strove for far more than a painstakingly precise pastiche, even though they took the exact reproduction of a 1970s TV drama to new heightens of precision. Shearsmith & Pemberton’s writing is always interested in so much more. It explores new ways of seeing or understanding what we already know – the everyday or the familiar -with the inclusion of the unexpected.
By imitating a 1970s TV drama in such magnified detail and making a virtue of the wide ranging subtleties in it, the audience’s attention was drawn away and distracted from seeing what was really taking place – the preparation and making of a snuff film. In this way it replicates the cover that was ‘The Devil of Christmas’ TV play, which Dennis Fulcher hid his intentions behind as well.
Fulcher’s ‘commentary’ was one of the multilayering metatexual elements permeating ‘The Devil of Christmas’. The narrative potential of a commentary and the way it can be used to introduce subtexts, plot and character development was explored to startling effect by Pemberton & Shearsmith themselves in their ‘Inside No. 9’ series two commentaries on SoundCloud. A commentary can deliver its own narrative or complement and add complexity to other ones, as the intriguing slyness & ambiguity of Fulcher’s demonstrates.
The experimental use of metatextuality in this episode not only subverted the 1970s TV drama that was presented to the audience, it also showed how television itself is watched and consumed now, how its constituent parts can be broken up and examined to create new meanings.
‘The Devil of Christmas’ was memorable in so many different ways. The complex multilayeredness, conveyed in both its meticulousness and narrative innovations, brought dynamism to Shearsmith & Pemberton’s imaginative way of telling a story. The distinctiveness of the brilliantly recreated 1970s drama made the denouement even more shocking, unsparing and bleak.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s opener to series three showed them at the very peak of their powers and illustrated why there is no-one else even coming close to what they can achieve in just 30 minutes of television.
- An in-depth, behind-the-scenes magazine article by George Bevir details the authentic 1970s technical production processes used to film ‘The Devil of Christmas’, including an interview with producer Adam Tandy [‘Broadcast’, 16th December 2016, p.24-25]
Writers… Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers… Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Julian Devonshire/Brian…Steve Pemberton
Klaus/Simon/Ralph Cosgrove…Reece Shearsmith
Kathy Devonshire/Penny…Jessica Raine
Celia/Nancy Mason…Rula Lenksa
Dennis Fulcher (voice)…Derek Jacobi
Young Dennis…Naz Osmanoglu
Interviewer (voice)…Cavan Clerkin