“No shop talk, remember. Tonight is all about fun.” (Connie: ‘Empty Orchestra’)
‘Empty Orchestra’ opens with the surreal image of a man in a comical fat sumo costume walking glumly along a corridor and through a door marked with a large ‘9’. The man (Greg) wears a look of weary resignation on his face as he approaches the door leading inside to a karaoke booth. As the door closes behind him a line from a song echoes from another booth – “And you’ll hum this tune forever.” It all suggests an evening to survive not enjoy, conjuring up the grim, enforced jollity of a night out where people are under strict orders to have ‘fun’ and inevitably don’t.
The threat of music continually playing (“…this tune forever…”) loudly and repetitively in a tightly confined space, anchors the idea that a small group of office workers coming together in a karaoke booth to celebrate a workmate’s (Roger) promotion are set to experience the hell that is other people. This sense of a ‘good time’ as a purgatory to be endured hangs heavily over ‘Empty Orchestra’ (the title is the literal translation of ‘karaoke’, but the word ‘empty’ is also suggestive of a soulless, deathless experience) but conversely, the story contains moments of touching poignancy and heartfelt emotion, offering redemption, hope and an optimistic ending.
This ‘Inside No. 9’ doesn’t journey to the pitch black recesses or examine the darkest extremes of behaviour. It stays firmly within recognisable perimeters of human nature, focusing on the turbulent waters of office politics and the small-scale and commonplace circumstances, motives and emotions it provokes. The six office employees (Greg, Connie, Fran, Roger, Janet and Duane) in the karaoke booth are challenged by sexual entanglement, job insecurity, life changing decisions, a marriage break-up and uncertain futures, deal with regret, jealousy, unrequited love, romance, unfaithfulness and bitterness or instigate deception, cruelty, revenge and bullying over the course of the real-time incidents and events depicted in Pemberton & Shearsmith’s potent narrative.
The claustrophobic, enclosed space of a karaoke booth – loud, dark, overpowering – with booming sounds and flashing lights, generates a stifling, disorientating atmosphere closing in and enveloping a group of people experiencing dissatisfaction and pain or negotiating expectations, hopes and dreams.
The unnatural environment of the karaoke booth – an easy place to feel disconnected and removed from the inhibiting social conventions and observances of the workplace – creates the threat of a cauldron of heightened emotions being stirred and unleashed. The possibility of this group of work colleagues’ behaviour becoming freer, more unguarded also comes from the exhortation that is almost expected on a work’s night out to ‘let their hair down’, combined with the loosening effects of alcohol (and assumed too in the ‘pills roulette’ tantalisingly offered by Duane)
Positing office politics in all its detritus glory being played out in this incendiary setting promises the ‘hell (that) is other people’ of oppressive, even cruel behaviour. However ‘Empty Orchestra’ also allows that for every action there is a reaction, one which encourages the possibilities which come with liberating behaviour – the chance for redemptive happiness.
Pemberton and Shearsmith masterfully choose to make the performances of the karaoke songs by the characters an integral and highly distinctive element of this story. The songs become a conduit for the way their lives – and the feelings, emotions and dilemmas which come loaded with it – are revealed and explored throughout the narrative. The writers’ song choices are exemplary, providing a seamless interlinking of character and situation with appropriately matching lyrics, to the point of practically mirroring what the work colleagues are going through.
The performances of the songs are utterly mesmerising, almost self-contained mini dramas (there is a sense of time almost standing still as you watch them – in conception and execution, they’re perfect) by themselves in the way that they encapsulate the feelings and emotions of the characters as they sing them.
The songs are conveyors of emotional expression and character exploration in ‘Empty Orchestra’, an acknowledgement of the close connection between music and human emotion. A song’s dynamic structure, its temporal unfolding over a condensed few minutes, allows emotion to be expressed without restraint. Confrontation or confession can be articulated because the medium of song gives a layer of protection, filtered as it is through performance. Considerable personal emotions can be admitted covertly as someone can hide behind the song whilst at the same time express their true feelings. This is clearly the case with Connie and Greg (who are conducting an office affair) when they sing ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ literally behind the back of Fran (Greg’s girlfriend) but also in plain sight of her, as the lyrics are so close-to-the-bone in terms of being daringly confessional.
Pemberton & Shearsmith use the karaoke songs with remarkable skill and dexterity and in multi-layered ways: To reveal aspects of character, layering emotions or motives as a way to progress the story; as narrative interplay, commentating or offering ironic observation on events as they’re introduced or unfold. There are moments in ‘Empty Orchestra’ where the minutely perfect timing of lyrics and narrative are breathtakingly intricate in the way they intervene and intercede with each other. This level of meticulousness is an absolute prerequisite in all of Shearsmith & Pemberton’s writing.
The way the karaoke performances work almost as self-contained mini dramas can be seen in the opening song ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ The crucial part played by the physical acting involved, in terms of gesture, movement and mime, cannot be underestimated. Greg begins the song alone as he tests the lights in the booth (the UV lighting option appears only momentarily but seeds in the audience’s mind. The effects UV lights cast will come back to haunt Greg and Connie later on) Connie then enters and joins him in song. The choreographed collusion on display relays the nature of their relationship and establishes their characters. Connie indulges in flirting and determined seduction with a flinty hardness in her eyes. She is bold, seemingly confident and coarse (her mimed allusion to fellatio – after Fran has arrived in the room – shows her behaviour is emboldened outside of the office environment) Greg, on the other hand, is the weaker partner, with a tense self-consciousness, hinting at a well of indecisiveness and selfishness in him.
The lyrics of ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ and the way they’re enacted, helps power the narrative (clearly setting out the relationship between Greg, Connie & Fran and the deceit at the heart of it) and vividly shades character detail with striking economy. This song’s lyrics also contain another meaning for Greg, which is highlighted when Roger, their newly promoted boss, turns up. Almost pleadingly he sings “Don’t, don’t you want me?” as he looks across at him. Concerned about redundancy rumours the insecure Greg knows Roger will make the decision about which member of staff to sack and is worried his poor sales figures will put him in the firing line. It is indicative of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s skill at not only suffusing meaning across a script, but of ensuring that the songs they’ve assiduously chosen are made to work as hard as possible in service of the narrative.
The synthesis of song with character in elucidating their internal feelings and personal pain is provided by Roger’s excoriating “Since You’ve Been Gone” and the Connie/Greg/Fran relationship dilemma intimations of “I Know Him So Well’. Both contain kernels of emotional truth whilst also serving as acute summations of their current circumstances, the lyrics practically charting their personal journeys.
Drunk and distressed, Roger almost howls ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’, reliving the pain and anger which his wife’s decision to divorce him has caused (Steve Pemberton rips his vocal cords apart, such is the level of anguished intensity with which he performs the song)
As Connie sings her part of the duet of ‘I Know Him So Well’ she really feels the lyrics’ pertinence to her situation. Her feelings move across a range of emotions – antagonism (“He needs fantasy and freedom”), distress (“No-one is completely on your side”) and despondency (“And though I move my world to be with him, still the gap between us is too wide”) Her mood switches in an instance – from despondency to elation – when she is misled into believing that Fran is the staff member Roger has decided to sack. Her response is perfectly timed to the chorus of the song as she sings “Oh SO good”, thinking that she will now have Greg all to herself.
The final song, which is played as the story reaches its conclusion, is ‘Titanium’, an anthem call to resilience and strength in the face of bullying and cruelty (“You shoot me down, but I won’t fall. Fire away. Fire away”) Janet, the deaf office worker, had been subjected to Connie’s toxicity from the moment she arrived for the staff’s karaoke celebrations. Driven by seething jealousy and corrosive bitterness, Connie moved from passive aggression, onto a cruel prank and finally overt prejudice against Janet’s ‘difference’. The powerful lyrics of ‘Titanium’ can be clearly heard as Janet finally stand up to her bully and exacts just revenge by telling Fran about Connie’s deceit and Greg’s unfaithfulness. Her lip reading skills meant the secret affair was betrayed from Connie and Greg’s own mouths.
Aside from placing the karaoke songs at the narrative centre in order to deepen understanding of the characters and layer meaning at crucial points of the story, Pemberton & Shearsmith’s script actively deploys visual clues and plays with different levels of meaning at particular points within scenes, in order to closely engage the audience with what they’re watching: A camera zoom in on a single line of ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ as its highlighted on the karaoke screen – “You’d better change it back or we will both be sorry” – is a warning sign that Connie and Greg’s affair will have consequences; the playful exchange between Fran, Greg and Connie over which song he’s going to choose is also a humorous reference to the affair that Greg is conducting with Connie and which Fran is blissfully unaware of; the visual representation of ‘lip reading’ (which confirms Connie and Greg’s guilt to Fran) with the neon UV lipstick traces on their mouths from kissing, clearly seen under the UV lighting in the karaoke booth, when it is switched on.
‘Empty Orchestra’ is also distinguished by the use of sound in the way the deaf character Janet’s acoustic experiences and perspective are conveyed and in the portrayal of Janet herself, through the sensitive, nuanced performance of Emily Howlett.
An aural point of view is brought to the fore in the narrative when the action centres on Janet. When she arrives in the karaoke booth she has to adjust/turn off her hearing aid due to the discordant heavy pounding of the sound system. At certain points the sound mix is faded or completely silent as a way of projecting and asserting Janet’s auditory experiences. This and the insertion of subtitles when Janet or another character communicates using sign language embraces inclusivity innovatively.
The character of Janet is portrayed as watchful and aware, keen-eyed and observant of others, as she deliberately keeps herself on the perimeters of the group. Subtle details indicate her empathy and sensitivity (seen in the concern she has for a distraught Roger and the caring touch she takes to hang up his jacket on a door coat hook) and her firm but understated ‘own person’ individuality (her choice of karaoke costume is Boy George, markedly different from the more obvious choices of Connie and Fran)
One of the most touching moments in the story comes when Janet actively seeks a way to experience and enjoy the karaoke music due to her obvious attraction to fellow office worker Duane. She touches a loudspeaker so she can feel the vibrating sound waves as he performs ‘Wham Rap’. It is her way of touching him when she is too afraid to declare her feelings. This scene is echoed at the end when Duane takes Janet’s hand and places it on his chest so she can feel his heart beating beneath her fingers. Their tender connection is a redemptive and heart-warming conclusion – one that is full of hope. It is as moving and emotive as ‘Inside No.9’ has ever been.
‘Empty Orchestra’ is a very affecting piece. There are moments in it that stay with you and replay inside your head, such is the level of poignancy which builds within it, almost like a piece of music reaching a crescendo. The emotions and feelings which exert themselves through the characters’ performances of the songs as the lyrics directly connect with their experiences can’t be properly appreciated with just one viewing. There is so much going on in the interplay between timing, lyrics, narrative and character. This tale would benefit from multiple revisits, as is the case with every ‘Inside No.9’.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith continue to find ever more inventive methods to route and relay a story. With ‘Empty Orchestra’ they gave themselves the challenge of constructing a narrative using pop songs as a key element, whilst keeping it relatable and truthful in terms of character and emotion (“Strange how potent cheap music is” to quote Noel Coward) The approach they take of seeking new ways to innovate in order to never repeat themselves is paying creative dividends. Series three continues to raise the bar ever higher in terms of the sheer quality and extraordinary variety of stories brought forth. It is something the BBC and viewers should be every grateful for – Pemberton & Shearsmith’s imaginations burning ever brighter.
Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith