“She was devious and deadly. Perfect for a cryptic crossword setter.” (Professor Squires: ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’)
There may be other ‘Inside No. 9’s that are more narratively experimental or layered with greater emotional complexity but for sheer boldness of concept and execution ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ would be hard to improve upon. It is one of the most dementedly brilliant, enthrallingly unsettling and striking ‘Inside No. 9’ stories there has been so far.
A three-hander with Pemberton, Shearsmith and a superb Alexandra Roach (as Professor Squires, Dr Jacob Tyler and Nina/Charlotte respectively) it features genuinely disquieting human behaviour and provocatively nasty psychopathic deeds contained within a disquisition on cryptic crosswords, in which the themes of artfulness, deception and revenge are played out, interwoven with theatrical and gothic allusions, both referential and intertextual.
Near the very start of ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ a torch is shone around a darkened room, alighting on several objects which will become central to the story: A photograph of Professor Squires (whose tutor’s room this is) holding a trophy, a statue of the ancient mythical creature of the Sphinx and a large crossword grid, waiting to be unveiled (both literally and metaphorically) This opening scene is suffused with symbolic suggestion (being ‘in the dark’, searching for clues, attempting to uncover concealed meaning) which are central to the dynamics of ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ story itself, and indeed, the operating principle for cryptic crosswords themselves.
The objects which the torch spots around Squire’s room are presented almost as if they’re props on a stage. They are foregrounded and given due prominence, just as an unloaded gun is minutes later, the one Squires almost playfully threatens Nina the intruder with when he first discovers her (a close shot showing it being put safely away in a desk drawer by Professor Squires is a foregrounding that turns out to be a forewarning) The specific way these objects are presented emphasises the metatheatricality of this particular Inside No. 9 story. The nature of theatre and performance is alluded to and explored throughout the script as the story develops. Theatrical references and connotations abound: Everything from Greek tragedy, revenge plays, Pygmalion, Chekhov’s gun, ‘Theatre of Blood’ to Peter Shaffer’s ‘Sleuth’ are either directly referred to or indirectly signalled. A theatrical sense of artifice is highlighted by the use of the night-time storm raging outside to announce key themes and plot developments as they occur with flashes of lightning and thunder claps permeating the professor’s room. They are like a visual and aural equivalent of a musical fanfare, heralding the arrival of something important which should be paid special attention.
Much of ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ centres on the battle of the wills between Professor Squires and Nina. Their initial hesitancy quickly develops into apparent mutual admiration and the good-willed rapport of a pupil-teacher relationship, as the classics tutor mentors Nina in the art and deduction of cryptic crosswords (the professor chose Sphinx as his crossword setter pseudonym because the overtones associated with the ravenous mythical creature’s deadly riddle were pleasing to him) When their real feelings, motivations, intentions and attempted outmanoeuvres are revealed, their verbal exchanges take on entirely different meanings – that of scrutinizing and role playing as they prod, probe and size each other up. Their guises are performances which conceal their true selves behind fake faces: “That is so clever. I knew you were devious” (Nina); “Don’t guess Nina dear. Deduct” (Squires); “Don’t patronise me professor. I only want to learn” (Nina); “Another word for big picture, a grand scheme” (Squires) “Plan” (Nina)
Their banter is actually a stratagem, involving deception, ambiguity and manipulation behind the back-and-forth word play, as they attempt to outwit each other to achieve their ends. As each make attempts to gain the upper hand and exert control over the other the filling in of clues on the crossword grid becomes their major focus. The more answers one of them reveals they know the more the power play switches in their favour. The prior knowledge that they both display – as the crossword answers prove to be prescient of the disturbing events unfolding – show the pair each had a carefully thought out plan: “The asphyxiation of the Sphinx” (Nina); “I swapped cups” (Squires). It isn’t coincidental that Nina (which far from incidentally is also the name of a special feature of a crossword grid) tells Professor Squires that her ‘boyfriend’ is studying architecture at the university. Architecture after all is about design and structure in planning. This is analogous of the painstakingly careful planning both Nina and Squires think they’re executing on each other.
The seeded clues which Pemberton and Shearsmith plant throughout the narrative are something they’re renowned for. These devices tick away like time bombs – intimations, connotations and subtle traces of information – and prove to be incendiary over thirty minutes: “My bark is worse than my bite” (Squires) comes back to haunt the professor when he is forced to eat a ‘slither’ of Nina/Charlotte’s flesh by Doctor Tyler in a diabolical act of revenge; “Competitive solving can be quite combative. Blood has been spilled” (Squires) is revealed by Nina/Charlotte to be literally true in her brother Simon’s case – the professor’s cheating him out of winning the Cambridge Cruciverbalist Club’s trophy lead directly to his suicide.
In many ways the pair’s writing and cryptic crosswords share similar attributes of misdirection and concealment. Just as cryptic crosswords involve making connections from elusive phrases and deciphering lines to find answers, so Inside No. 9 ploughs much the same furrow: Lines are schemes containing new or double meanings, opaque phrases acquire depth or become revelatory. This shared operating strategy is underscored by way of Professor Squire’s explanation to Nina about how cryptic crosswords work: “I can give you some pointers”; “Not a word wasted”; “Every word is chosen for its letters…and don’t take anything for granted” all of which are redolent and characteristic of Pemberton and Shearsmith’s writing too.
The professor’s true nature comes sharply into focus once the effects of the neurotoxin poison (from a deadly species of fish) renders marine biology student Nina/Charlotte physically immobile as the toxins start to shut down her body. Squires is shown to be lascivious and sexually aggressive. For him young women are conquests he feels fully entitled to enjoy (As he says to Dr Tyler “Bloody dangerous leaving me along with a girl in this condition. All I could do not to slip her one”). In an extremely discomforting scene he kisses the slowly dying Nina/Charlotte full on the lips and moves his hand under her skirt and up her thigh. We begin to comprehend that his choice of the name Sphinx is an apt one for him. He is a devourer of flesh to satisfy his sexual desires: “And so the mighty Sphinx consumes the flesh of his conquest” (Tyler) Choosing ‘underslip’ as one of the answers for his newly compiled crossword heightens this sense of his moral slipperiness. The obvious enjoyment he took in deceiving Nina and winning the battle of wits with her suggest the scope cryptic clues have given him to practice cunning and duplicitousness bleed into other parts of his life and are deeply ingrained in him. The implications from this are that he likes to be in control and wield power. As he admits he is not above “showing off”. What other reason is there to explain his motivation for compiling the crossword which spelt out (literally) the key parts of both Nina/Charlotte and his own pre-planned double crosses. As Dr Jacob Tyler points out, Squires’ love of showing off and need to be in control enabled Tyler to successfully set his own trap of betrayal and revenge: “How do you explain this? You compiled this crossword two days ago. It proves premeditation”; “You even concealed the murder weapon. I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist” (Tyler) Squires is truly hoist by his own petard. His own crossword has, to all intents and purposes, become a signed confession of guilt.
Nina/Charlotte’s terrible fate has gothic resonance woven right through it. Its motifs of female entrapment/constraint, the ancient and archaic, sexual threat and unequal power are all implicitly present: Nina/Charlotte is literally trapped/imprisoned inside her own body due to the effects of the poison in the switched cups; the old-fashioned and rarefied setting of a tutor’s room at an old Cambridge college; the sexual threat from Squires after Nina/Charlotte is incapacitated produces a strong feeling of queasiness; the representation of unequal power is clearly seen in the reprehensible behaviour of both Squires and Tyler, with Squires committing sexual assault on a helpless woman and Tyler coldly sacrificing his daughter in order to exact the poetic revenge he has envisioned for years – “This is my revenge Nigel”.
There is a tragic poignancy attached to Nina/Charlotte, a sense that she doesn’t deserve what has cruelly befallen her. Two images of her are impossible to forget: A wide shot as she is sat alone and vulnerable on a chair in Squires’ room, unable to escape or fight back; the close-up shot on her face with a single tear running down it, as she learns and takes in her father’s betrayal of her and the appalling extent he is willing to go in his desire for revenge.
Dr Jacob Tyler is an erudite psychopath, as well-versed in the ancient texts of the classics as Squires is. He uses this knowledge to enact a vengeance that references the cornerstones of Greek tragedy and the ancient revenge play – murder, madness and cannibalism (primarily Seneca’s ‘Thyestes’)
His malicious retribution on Squires progressively builds by calculated degrees to a horrific climax, where what he imparts to the professor is so terrible to contemplate that a subtle but direct invocation to suicide – “A little present for you there Nigel” (Tyler) – leads Squires to immediately blow his brains out. The unveiling of Tyler’s revenge begins with him instructing the professor in a brisk, business-like way: “I want you to eat her. Not all of her of course. Just a slither.” His outrageous and vile request is reluctantly submitted to by means of threat, blackmail (‘leverage’ as Tyler calls it) and blatant deceit.
The slow burn madness of Tyler has taken years to ferment and grow: “Its crazy isn’t it what the unhinged mind is capable of”. Squires is driven to his sudden act of madness (where suicide is seen as the only way out) when he is told that the young man, whose death he was held responsible for, was Tyler’s son and the final disclosure, that both Charlotte and Simon (the young man) were in fact his children, not Tyler’s. The professor’s nemesis deliberately imparts these psychologically shattering revelations to ensure Squires is mentally completely broken apart.
Shearsmith & Pemberton layer Tyler’s revenge with multiple textual references, including Greek tragedy, mythology and early revenge plays. Their use of a wide range of texts and acknowledgement of the interrelationships between them add weight and depth to the climactic scenario, gives additional meaning to the lines spoken by Tyler and Squires and anchors the audience’s knowledge and understanding of the denouement. It helps to magnify and bring extra frisson to the final outcome of this exceptional Inside No. 9 story.
‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’ exerts a hypnotic hold from beginning to end. It has such a heady brew of influences which Pemberton & Shearsmith’s astonishing inventiveness and innate intelligence use and control impeccably. It contains one of the most visceral moments an Inside No. 9 (indeed any British television) has ever had. The scene involving the cutting, cooking and consuming of a piece of human flesh is shudderingly grisly and repellently grim, as it should be. However it is done to serve the interests of the story and not for sensational effect. When Tyler orders Squires to commit cannibalism he does it with a precise, coldly clinical logic. It is depicted in this way in order to show how deeply Tyler’s madness has driven his reasoning to the very depths of depravity.
The episode is proof – if any was needed – that Shearsmith & Pemberton possess two of the most extraordinary imaginations of any writers working in television today. That a plot revolving around cryptic crosswords could be this compelling, ingenious and intense – where every single line counts – illustrates the duo can choose any subject to weave a story around. It is their exceptional talent, the propensity and discipline to work extremely hard at what they do, an incredible attention to detail and their labour of love passion that enables them to do it.
Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Professor Nigel Squires…Steve Pemberton
Dr Jacob Tyler…Reece Shearsmith