The start of ‘The Bill’ conjures up memories of The League of Gentlemen’s Geoff, Mike and Brian triumvirate – the Northern businessmen friends whose relationship was forged in childhood and as work colleagues at the local plastics factory. It was a toxic male grouping, dominated by Geoff’s overwhelming sense of failure, his corrosive jealousy and disproportionate rage.
The opening scenes of ‘The Bill’ show a trio of northern businessmen friends at the end of the evening in a high end restaurant (‘N!ne’) as they entertain a business associate from London. There is a semblance of post-match camaraderie and down-time relaxation following a game of badminton.
From the moment we are introduced to the four male characters as director Guillem Morales’ camera glides forward through the restaurant in order to fix its close gaze on the table where they are seated, the room is one of testosterone-filled masculine interaction. It is an incendiary atmosphere which grows increasingly heated and fractious in a short space of time, as their behaviour deteriorates from typical alpha male banter, posturing, boorish jokes and lewdness into scorn, hostility, resentment, bitterness, malevolence, belligerence, combativeness and physical violence. A groundswell develops from initial bullish disagreement over who is to pay the restaurant bill and escalates out of control, descending into savagery as intense emotions, hidden feelings and personality clashes are stripped away and laid bare. The bill becomes the blue touch-paper which is lit and then explodes in recrimination and anger.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s script is, as always, simply extraordinary, working across several different levels at once. Crafted with an economy of style so that every line counts, it is suffused with telling detail. At the same time, the progression of the narrative is done with systemised precision so that every twist and turn is carefully placed with a painstaking degree of coherence and logic. The established format for which Inside No. 9 is known – taking a familiar situation or setting and shifting by degrees into unexpected or surprising territory is never done at the expense of the story, but always to serve it.
Pemberton and Shearsmith’s writing often involves several distinctive elements: Their talent for the absurd – taking a simple idea, pushing it to the extreme and into very dark recesses, but within its own internal rationale. A prime example of this in ‘The Bill’ is Malcolm and Archie’s knife game challenge (Five Finger Fillet) where the pair’s dysfunctional competitiveness as to who wins the privilege of paying the bill is taken to the precipice. It is acted and filmed with unflinching, unnerving seriousness – an absurdist situation which shows up the ridiculousness of the machismo mindset. Shearsmith and Pemberton also have a particular ear for how ordinary people speak in social situations, which comes from the pair catching bits of overheard conversation and then running with it to create dialogue which has a natural rhythm, energy and movement. The duo’s material is also adept at social observation, societal tensions and the fallout from them, as well as depicting the human traps that people are caught in as a result. The multilayeredness which characterises their work has thematic, analytical and psychological depth and scope, as well as well-defined, convincingly drawn characters which propel narrative complexity. Prime examples of all of these are interlaced throughout ‘The Bill’.
The League’s Geoff, Mike and Brian antecedent to ‘The Bill’s Malcolm, Archie and Kevin examined masculinity through the mired failure that was Geoff’s life – his rage and anger at his sense of continual disappointment, his jealousy of the more successful Mike and conversely his intense need to be his best friend. In ‘The Bill’ the tenets of manliness are traversed across money, competitiveness, one-upmanship and dominance. This is Mamet-esque domain: The characters of Malcolm, Archie, Kevin and their outsider guest, Craig, are enmeshed in mind games of assertiveness, superiority and control from the start. The unpaid bill becomes the catalyst for the group dynamics to be probed, tested, challenged and fought over, with keen rivals Malcolm and Archie the main culprits. Their seemingly spiralling out-of-control battle of wills pulls Craig further in the longer it goes on.
It is noticeable that the issue of money dominates the group’s conversation from the beginning and the quarrelsome lows that it descends into. For this group of men it has merely become a means to an end. Money’s raison d’etre – its most important purpose – is how high in the social hierarchy it can place someone. It confers status, superiority, power and control – the levers of masculinity. The lines spoken by the protagonists illustrate just how attached the characters are to this particular interpretation of maleness and how they’re enslaved to this version, whether they’re satisfied by it or not (“I know that all you Northerns are very poor, what with your Christmas clubs and your diddums”, “Expensive cos its worth it” – Craig; “You just get this little starter. I’ll pay for the proper grown-up meal next time. Well done” – Malcolm; “You’re a control freak. Why can’t I have a pat on the back ‘Good old Archie’ for a change? Swooping in and claiming every act of generosity” – Archie) Adherence to this strident, unforgiving masculinity (as expressed in lines such as those) give rise to very unattractive behaviour within the group – belittling, ridicule, passive aggression, bullying – including inflections on the North-South divide and class.
The driving force behind these male relationships is a constant striving to reach the best possible position within the group, as they sit around the restaurant table. The manifestation of this will to power designates that your rival/rivals must be made to feel inferior, less successful, less of a man and money is the enabler of this, the restorative balm of male pride – hence the battle of wills over who pays the bill. This is why what starts as verbal glancing blows and slaps before moving onto words which land punches ends with Malcolm, Archie, Kevin and Craig’s physical skirmish, as they all try to grab the bill. In the brilliantly choreographed ‘fight’ sequence, the small rectangular piece of paper becomes almost a symbolic Excalibur which all four men are desperate to grasp in their hands. To them it represents something which has capacity to bestow power and status.
This treatise on masculinity and the consequences of it on group dynamics and the individuals themselves is played out through the brilliantly delineated characters. Kevin is the milquetoast of the quartet – meek, pernickety and careful with his money to the point of penny-pinching. This makes an object of Malcolm and Archie’s mockery (aspersions to his money being ‘shrapnel’ and him being a ‘blue cock’) He stays above the fray of the argumentative Malcolm and Archie, content to have his little victories of cultural superiority (his aside correcting Malcolm about ‘Outrageous Fortune’ being a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, not a Bette Midler film) He alludes to not being as financially well-placed as the other, purposely sidelining himself to the group’s perimeters. Jason Watkins plays Kevin to beautifully nuanced perfection. His bits of business carefully counting out his money and forlornly searching in his little purse are a joy.
Archie desperately wants to upscale his position within the group and challenge the two dominant alphas at the table – Malcolm and Craig, but lacks the ability and confidence to do it. He is prickly, insecure, with strong currents of resentment and simmering anger, which readily erupts (“We all know you’re really rich Craig”; “He’s putting you in his pocket in case he needs you at a later date”; “Yes, because you’re a selfish prick”) Malcolm is extrovert, loud, domineering, aggressive, blustering and wanting to be the centre of attention. He and Archie are a toxic mix and Reece & Steve act them with an electrifying energy – their intensifying argumentative battle has a vehemence and viciousness which is mesmerising.
Craig appears to be the most confident and successful out of all of them but there are intimations that beneath the surface he is not as assured as he seems, but instead troubled and dogged by a sense of ennui. His lecherous side is often to the fore (“I wouldn’t mind splitting you four ways”) he admits he craves excitement and would be happy to move on from his current life. At one point he confesses to dreading the week long business conference and all that comes with it. He also appears to have secrets he is desperate to hide (he strictly instructs the au pair looking after his children back at the hotel that a specific drawer and wardrobe must not be opened) Philip Glenister masterfully portrays the duality and ambiguity in the character and also brings a fleetingly glimpsed haunted quality to Craig.
Of course what we have gleaned about the group dynamics and indeed the unfolding events of the evening are turned on their head with the reveal – that Malcolm, Archie, Kevin and Anya (the waitress) are con artists attempting an elaborate scam on the London outsider, which climaxed with what Craig thought was his accidental killing of the waitress and a cover-up operation which he was going to pay £200k for.
With the knowledge of hindsight, what was being enacted in front of us was an act of deception, orchestrated to apply maximum psychological pressure on a prime candidate for manipulation and entrapment – an outsider for whom even the regional colloquialisms were confusing, yet alone the toxic group dynamics of a trio of relative strangers.
The participants were performing to a tightly run script designed to press all the right buttons with which to unsettle, unnerve and pressurise someone to the point where caught in the eye of the storm of an escalating situation of dysfunctional behaviour, emotions and actions, entrapment would be difficult to withstand. Pemberton and Shearsmith’s writing is therefore operating on two levels at once. It conveys the scorched tempers as machismo competitiveness and simmering resentments take hold in increasingly disturbing and threatening ways. At the same time it also shows how the four characters unleashing the con have pinpoint command of everything, controlling the timing of every disagreement and quarrel, pausing the action to allow the worsening situation to sink in with Craig, before switching back to apply the pressure again with further acts of suggestion or by upping the ante to raise the stakes even higher.
Clues are scattered for the audience to pick up on but as so often the case with an Inside No. 9 these are usually realised only after a second or multiple viewings: “There’s plenty of money swilling around up here you know, as long as you know where to look for it” (Malcolm to Craig); “Shall I split you four ways?” (Anya to Craig); “You shouldn’t bring Susie into it Malcolm. That’s wrong” (Kevin to Malcolm, subtly admonishing him for going off-script); “Sounds like you do this on a weekly basis” (Craig to Archie, before the scam breaks down); the moment when Kevin glances across at Craig to see his reaction and gauge whether the scam is working on him, following a particularly heated exchange between Malcolm and Archie.
The final flourish shows Craig now ensconced as a member of the gang, playing a waiter as they attempt to pull off exactly the same con on another victim. References alluding to discontentment with his life had peppered his conversations with Malcolm, Archie and Kevin as the scam on him was taking place. There had also been indications that Craig carried problematic and rather dodgy baggage himself (his secrecy over what was kept in a drawer and wardrobe back at his hotel room and the fact he had ready access to £200k in cash from his own safe) In retrospect, it made his transition to trickster a logical outcome of the story. That he would end up as part of the team was even briefly signalled halfway through with a high angle overhead camera shot of the four men seated in a circle around the table as they drink a toast. It was a striking composition – and a strong visual clue – hinting that they were or would soon become irreversibly bound together as a group.
‘The Bill’ is distinguished by a simple challenge – how to develop, sustain and conclude an argument seen over real-time. What is more, beneath this premise accumulates much else besides: An encapsulation of a certain type of male behaviour in all its appalling glory, perceptive social observation, sharp psychological insight and compelling characters.
Eschewing the technical intricacies of ‘The Devil of Christmas’ for a story that appears quite simple at first sight, Pemberton and Shearsmith once again prove their work always carries a strong undercurrent of complexity and depth. The pair’s writing deliberately ‘throws down the gauntlet’ to an audience to very closely watch how a story unfolds because in their world things are never quite as they appear at the start. Things are always far more complicated, messy and nasty – and always for a reason.
Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith