“Yes, if you’re going to cry, cry tears of laughter. Your funny bone can never break in two…But laughter is my memory of you…” (Tommy and Len, ‘Tears of Laughter’: ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’)
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith can wreck your heart like no-one else when they want to. Their writing makes you feel a character’s pain or journey with the sharp intensity of a deeply felt experience, in a way their contemporaries can’t even get close to. Drama and comedy are never far apart for the pair and they know exactly how to time their use, to hold back on one or give both equal prominence in a scene for maximum effect, in order to heighten the impact.
When writing as accomplished and controlled as this is allied with Pemberton & Shearsmith’s supreme acting talent – and the pathos and empathy they bring to any role they play – then the results can be genuinely palpable, as in the case of their second story for series four of ‘Inside No. 9’ – the exceptional ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’. Hailed as a classic by fans and critics alike and garnering universal praise, the reaction to it has been nothing short of phenomenal. It has touched and moved people on a scale comparable to the duo’s series two No. 9 ‘The 12 Days of Christine’.
The mark of genius in any creative work is in its ‘rewatchability’, in being able to revisit and see new things there a second or multiple times. ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ has this inbuilt into it because reactions are altered and feelings intensified when the realisation of what you are watching is revealed at the end. The story’s meaning changes and what was bittersweet, melancholic and poignant deepens by degrees. With the knowledge of hindsight the narrative becomes inconsolably sadder, emotionally devastating and genuinely profound.
Multilayered and interwoven with psychological depth, the script is miraculous – a thing of beauty – full of tenderness and sensitivity, deeply humane and acutely affecting.
The story opens in a dusty church hall. A stage props basket stamped with a ‘9’ is wheeled across the floor. It is the cradle for memories, figuratively and literally. The musical accompaniment – the sound of a solo horn playing – is mournful. It evokes a downbeat atmosphere, full of melancholy and puts a strong sense of the patina of the past into our minds from the start. Tommy (‘Thomas’) Drake finds an old script in the basket, browned with age. He silently watches as another middle-aged man – Len Shelby – arrives, loaded down with bags containing more props. The two men are a former comedy act, Cheese & Crackers, representatives from the traditional school of comedy, an old fashioned double act from the crumbling bastion of variety, who experienced modest success in the 1980s, the “arse end of variety” as Tommy realistically puts it. It was a time when British comedy was starting to undergo a transformation, as cultural shifts and societal changes meant acts such as Cheese & Crackers were vulnerable to changing tastes and judgments concerning what was funny were beginning to be positioned within acceptable and unacceptable frames of reference. They were a comedy pairing who were almost out of time at the height of their career.
The reason for their coming together again after their break-up 30 years before is only elliptically referred to a couple of times as a ‘last gig’. It is not expanded upon – the who, the what and the why of it is not discussed. The reason for their split is likewise not mentioned.
The dynamics of their relationship are mesmerisingly explored in what is virtually a two-hander between Pemberton & Shearsmith, the first for an ‘Inside No. 9’. The narrative absorbingly studies these two characters – Tommy Drake and Len Shelby – with a deep focus examination of their very different personalities. Over the course of 30 minutes, Tommy and Len and their act are magnified, scrutinized and dissected until we arrive at the truth regarding the cause of their break-up and what lies behind their “one last gig to an invited audience” reunion.
The depth of characterisation is remarkable, both in terms of the layered observations and psychological nuances established by the script and in the wonderful performances of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. These are fully rounded character studies, multifaceted and emotionally complex. That this is so brilliantly realised in just half an hour is an astonishing achievement in itself, quite apart from the fact that the script is working at another thematic level underneath this at the same time.
Over the course of the first few minutes we are given a very definite sense of Tommy and Len’s characters. Tommy is serious-minded, dour, analytical and a realist. Len radiates an overtly exterior cheerfulness but there are strong hints of desperation beneath his happy-go-lucky persona, in the heavy reliance on jokey ripostes and in his over-friendly neediness as he seeks Tommy’s acquiescence. His optimism counters Tommy’s pragmatism but there are indications that the unrealistic dreamer in him carries with it a trace of carelessness and irresponsibility, which stands in contrast to Tommy’s exactitude and methodical approach to comedy and life in general.
This dichotomy is apparent when they rehearse one of their old sketches. Using the format of a job interview, it relies on a quick succession of silly foreign accents – and stock comic stereotypes – for its laughs. It posits Cheese & Crackers’ act as straight from the 1980s, one of those middle-billed comedy double acts that were a mainstay feature of TV entertainment shows of that era, and somewhat dated even then.
The interview sketch shows the fissures between the pair that were insinuated from the start, widening still further, as they argue about the nature of comedy. Tommy labels it as racist and impossible to perform now: “What’s the joke? What are you inviting people to laugh at exactly?” Instinctive and reductive in his approach, Len thinks there’s nothing wrong with it, getting a laugh is all that matters to him: “Just a man doing all daft voices.” He reiterates this ‘end justifies the means’ attitude, defending the idea of cheap laughs, when Tommy castigates the poor material of another skit – their dire vent sketch: “Oh come on, a laugh’s a laugh however you word it.” Their disagreement over the interview sketch is about much more than comedy – it articulates something about the men themselves. The nuanced difference in the terminology they use when they argue is telling – ‘racist’ (Tommy) and ‘racialist’ (Len) It sets them worlds apart, with Tommy firmly in the present and wanting to forget his past and Len behind the times and defiantly stuck there.
The forceful tone Tommy takes to warn his former partner against resorting to his old attention seeking antics of mugging to the audience to draw a laugh his way illustrates there is a difficult history between them and that Tommy’s long-held resentments from 30 years before have not been forgotten: “You’d look out and take it as if you’d earned the laugh. Don’t.” What is strongly inferred by Len’s desire to get laughs wherever possible and by all means necessary is a deep-rooted insecurity manifesting itself in a desperate need for approval, a need which is fulfilled by making people laugh. This means ‘success’ to him, a way to be liked and admired.
The interplay between Tommy and Len reinforces the marked differences between them at every turn and implies a reason why their lives took such different journeys after their break-up. Tommy’s sensible, systematised mind denotes a business brain and helps explain his post show business success, running his own digital marketing company. Len’s lack of discipline, his outdated thinking and dismissal of a more considered approach to comedy suggests a more reckless attitude to life, which may account for things going wrong for him after Cheese & Crackers. His life has indeed hit the doldrums and he admits as much to Tommy when he owns up to having become homeless.
Len’s countenance and general appearance are just as revealing. He is dishevelled, connoting “that things haven’t been great for you the last few years” (Tommy) and his skin has an unhealthy red tinge to it, the colour associated with the heavily permeating effects of alcohol.
Subtle changes in Len’s behaviour begin to intensify as he and Tommy continue to rehearse old sketches, reminisce about their career and discuss the finer points of comedy. He becomes several shades more argumentative, critical, selfish and unpleasant and far less inclined to apologetically defer to the unenthusiastic Tommy to keep him on side. It is the lairy actions of someone emboldened by drink.
It starts with a surreptitious little nip of whisky in a mug of tea and progresses onto a blatant swig from a bottle of beer used as a prop in an old vent sketch he and Tommy try out. When Tommy opens the beer bottle ahead of the run-through he becomes momentarily lost in his own thoughts and midway through the sketch he suddenly halts it with a pained “I can’t. I can’t bear it.” He makes the excuse that it was due to the terrible material, but the underlying intimation is that the bottle of beer aroused uncomfortable feelings in Tommy and triggered that reaction from him.
Len’s drink-induced obnoxiousness make the interactions between him and Tommy increasingly contentious and embittered. His confrontational diatribes condemn and blame his former partner, both professionally and personally: “You’re like a shark. You’ve got dead, black eyes”; “You were no fun then. You’ve always been miserable”; “That’s why it all dried up for us. People could sense it…You killed Cheese & Crackers, Tommy.” Tommy’s evasiveness and reluctance to challenge Len with the truth are discernible from the start, with him finding it easier to divert any long-held recriminatory feelings into voicing dissatisfaction with their material, Len’s approach to comedy and his tendency to try and draw all the laughs to him. When Tommy briefly alludes to the Bernie Clifton’s dressing room incident a minute’s silence follows between the pair, both unable to confront its significance or the uncomfortable memories it provokes. However, his partner’s growing hostility and the drinking that precipitates it make Tommy decide to at last address the dressing room issue directly by invoking it through the re-enactment of Cheese & Cracker’s ‘Brown Bottles’ sketch.
An old-fashioned variety skit based on the ‘Ten Green Bottles’ song, the ‘Brown Bottles’ sketch coalesces with painful memories for Tommy which are elicited as he sings its altered lyrics as Len proceeds to drink the contents from ten bottles of beer lined up along the mocked-up wall. There is a catch in Tommy’s voice as he continues through to the end of the song, his repressed emotions returning as he sees Len become inebriated as each bottle is removed and drunk from. The tension between the silliness of the comedy and the agony and torment that it represents for one of the comedy partners builds and intensifies. The sketch culminates with the pay-off joke of Tommy smashing the one remaining bottle over Len’s head, who then comically keels over. At the same instance, Tommy stops singing and says pointedly, and with real feeling behind it “And no more wall!”
Standing as the signifier for the end of the Cheese & Crackers partnership, the skit condenses the reasons behind the break-up into several minutes of skilfully executed comic business. Facing the traumatic memories it represents head on is a cathartic experience for Tommy and enables him to finally confront Len with the long suppressed truth – it was his heavy drinking that ended Cheese & Crackers: “You’re an alcoholic…And Bernie Clifton’s dressing room was the last straw.” Finding Len passed out drunk in the dressing room, choking on his own vomit after he’d abruptly left his partner alone on stage during a performance of the ‘Brown Bottles’ sketch at the Glasgow Pavilion, confirmed to Tommy that neither of them could struggle on as an act when it was destroying them both. The pressure of supporting a self-destructive partner, of being the stable one, the dependable one, the person that Len leant on – a figurative wall fortifying the partnership and their relationship – was making Tommy miserable “so I walked away” in order to save himself and save Len (“And no more wall”) sacrificing his career for his partner’s sake. This intense, compelling scene is one of ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ high points, the writing and acting are utterly transfixing and full of dramatic impetus. Psychologically complex and emotionally penetrating, the lines are loaded with subtext and nuance which implicitly link to earlier insights about both men (Tommy’s misery and Len’s annoying attempts at stealing laughs which hinted at a latent insecurity) They entwine and align with Tommy’s revelatory explanation about the demise of Cheese & Crackers, underpinning the scene with a real sense of emotive truth.
‘Brown Bottles’ stands as both a perfectly formed parody of a variety era comedy sketch and as an allegorical representation of the tensions in the Cheese & Crackers partnership that lay at the heart of their break-up. The ten bottles of beer symbolise the scale of Len’s drinking (numerous real-life examples testify to alcohol being the numbing drug of choice for comedians) and the wall on which they’re balanced evokes Tommy’s solid support – as the ‘straight man’ of the act and in the way he’s holding up a partner led astray by booze. Comedy double acts are built on frangible foundations and vulnerable to fractures, reliant as they are on something as arbitrary and subjective as laughter for their survival. Timing and trust are vital in a partnership creating such a fragile concoction and febrile brew. When that trust is betrayed as fundamentally as Len does with Tommy, leaving him literally alone on stage – his comic timing floundering without a partner to bounce off – then the fissures can’t be mended. Trust – and their friendship – has been broken.
Even at this climactic point of dramatic confrontation and turmoil, Pemberton & Shearsmith balance it with a blackly comic line that directly refers to Bernie Clifton’s well-known stage prop: “He had to destroy that ostrich, you know” (Tommy) Putting it into the midst of such potent pain to heighten and then release tension is testament to their daring and brilliance.
This powerful scene of intense emotion, centred on the traumatic background to a painful break-up between two friends, achieves such mesmerising depth and a particular forceful hold on our feelings through the committed and heartbreakingly truthful performances of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. It becomes almost too painful to watch at times because it feels so real, with the eyes of both actors filling with tears at its apex.
If ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ had ended on that confessional climax it would have been an extraordinary work in terms of emotional resonance and poignancy, but the audience is then presented with the revelation that Tommy is here to attend Len’s funeral, with the arrival of his daughter Leanne, who hands Tommy the order of service and tells him her dad wanted the funeral to be a celebration – “One last gig to an invited audience”. What we had really been watching was Tommy’s mind’s eye, imagining his former partner in that dusty church hall with him, as he waited alone with his memories before the start of the service. All at once the story we’ve seen is suffused with new meaning as another level is revealed in an already densely layered script. It’s the realisation that the Cheese & Crackers reunion is one being played out in Tommy’s imagination and that in reality they’re reuniting only in metaphorical terms, with Tommy returning to deliver a eulogy for his former comedy partner.
The disclosure of the story’s ending is there in plain sight, but not discernible. Those seeded moments and subtle details which permeate the script are only seen and appreciated in retrospect, when what we see and hear are read with acquired knowledge and we are alert to clues: The ambiguity of Tommy’s first words to Len “I wondered if you were going to turn up” is imbued with double meaning; Tommy’s vexed “Let’s just get on with it, shall we? I haven’t got long” suggests a sense of urgency in Tommy, preparing himself for the impending funeral and interrupted by memories flooding back to him; the number of times the camera captures Tommy silently observing Len in an almost detached manner, as if in a contemplative mood alone with his own thoughts, thinking about and remembering him; the touching simplicity of the exchange “Why have you come then?” (Len) “How could I not?” (Tommy)
The script is expertly structured to suggest Tommy’s imagination has put him and Len back in the room together in order for him to try and work through his ambiguous feelings and the resentment he’s lived with for 30 years, since being let down by Len on that fateful night at the Glasgow Pavilion. The pictured conversations with his former partner are his mind trying to come to terms with the emotional impact of the “unfinished business” that Len’s death has left him with. It’s a way of saying stuff he had wanted to say but hadn’t had the chance to when Len was alive. Tommy’s memories gather and recall his thoughts about him, telling stories in order to make sense of and attempt to resolve the contentious nature of their relationship that had accumulated down the years. In the end, we all become someone else’s story and memories of us and the beautifully crafted writing depicts this in the most profoundly moving way.
When we fully grasp what we’ve actually seen it is truly devastating but Pemberton & Shearsmith then deliver the heartrending pathos of the letter left for Tommy by Len. Containing £25 and a message written on the back of an old Cheese & Crackers flyer “For Bernie Clifton’s dressing room. Sorry I messed up”, the money represents the amount Tommy paid to replace Bernie Clifton’s destroyed ostrich costume, but it’s the message that really matters, affectingly settling Tommy and Len’s “unresolved business.” It hadn’t been “too late” as Tommy had feared. Encapsulating what their partnership had really meant to Len, it’s a touching last gesture from one friend to another.
The audience is taken to the heights of emotion with this last revelation, the third within a short space of time. The intensity of the emotional wrench goes beyond dramatic intent. Our hearts have been broken and our feelings devastated by what we’ve watched – the intertwined lives of two men, on a journey through pain, recrimination and finally forgiveness.
There is a redemptive coda in the form of a song and dance routine as Tommy’s imagination reunites him and Len one last time for a performance of Cheese & Crackers’ signature tune ‘Tears of Laughter’ – a cathartic release after the aching sadness. Highly reminiscent of Morecambe & Wise (the dance sequence is close in spirit – and choreography – to their ‘Two of a Kind’ number) Tommy’s memory at last seeks out the happiness his partnership with Len gave him and the song’s lyrics echo that sense of kinship, joy, optimism and friendship that comedy can offer as a counterpoint to life’s hardships and vicissitudes. It is both poignant and heart-warming – tears and laughter and ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ is outstanding proof that storytellers and performers as supreme as Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith can break your heart and heal your soul at one and the same time.
Partners in comedy double acts not getting on with each other is a hoary show-business cliché but Pemberton & Shearsmith have taken that trope and created a work of creative genius from it. It is one of their most heartfelt and poignant No.9s yet, emotive to the point of gut-wrenchingly moving. In part it’s a meditation on the nature of comedy and how porous it is to the passage of time and the social and cultural changes that come with it. The script is charged with a feeling of the ‘remembrance of things past’ in terms of British cultural history of the 1970s and 1980s, which undoubtedly resonated with Pemberton & Shearsmith’s childhood memories of television and the old school comedy of those times. ‘Blankety Blank’, Ted Bovis, The Grumbleweeds, ‘Crackerjack’ and even ‘The Hair Bear Bunch’ are all referenced.
Primarily though it’s about the nature of friendship built through a close working relationship and what happens when that’s compromised or breaks down completely, when long developed trust has been destroyed. Its sense of the past and the fractured friendship thematic produces a deep sense of melancholy that pervades the whole piece (comedy and melancholy are so often natural bedfellows) The skilfully modulated writing subtly shows how the unbalanced dynamic of the traditional double act of the ‘funny one’ and ‘straight man’, with its unequal share of laughs and attention, is a brittle basis for friendship and an insecure one for it to happily co-exist within and endure.
The script is beautifully crafted, working at several levels at once, as is always the case with Pemberton & Shearsmith’s writing, and loaded with detail – it is an absorbing and engrossing character study. The multi-layered characters of Tommy and Len are the thing of this No.9 and it is here that the sublime writing and exemplary acting of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton combine to lift ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ to spellbinding heights. Its distinctiveness lies in the psychological exploration of both characters and the emotional complexities in their portrayals. Pemberton & Shearsmith care deeply about the people they write and create and their empathy drives this story from its low-key opening to compelling climax. It is one of the pair’s greatest writing and acting achievements so far in a career filled with them.
Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Tommy Drake…Reece Shearsmith
Len Shelby…Steve Pemberton