Inside No. 9 Review: Series Four: ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’

*contains spoilers*

“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.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

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.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

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.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

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.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

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!”

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

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.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

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.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

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.

Bernie Clifton's Dressing Room

Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Graeme Harper

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Tommy Drake…Reece Shearsmith

Len Shelby…Steve Pemberton

Leanne…Sian Gibson

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Inside No.9 Review: Series Four: ‘Zanizbar’

*contains spoilers*

“Aye, well, it is important to entertain as well as educate. One sometimes has to paint in primary colours.” Vince De Trans: ‘Zanzibar’)

‘Inside No.9’s series four opener is an exhilarating diversion, a playful and fanciful delight, but as one of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s most purely pleasurable 9’s yet, ‘Zanzibar’ may be the lightest of confections but is definitely no mere trifle. It is distinguished by an ambitious artistic device to conflate farce and Shakespeare.

The setting is the ninth floor corridor of a modern, swish hotel, with all of the action taking place outside the guests’ rooms. Different pairs of characters are beset by personal crises, a murder conspiracy or romantic difficulties but – as the prologue spoken by the hotel’s bellboy assures us – fate will soon intervene for or against them at Hotel Zanzibar.

Originally Pemberton & Shearsmith were set upon doing a full pelt farce: “We’re going to do a farce in a hotel corridor…And it felt a bit contrived, you know, to do it in a contemporary way. And there’s just one of those nice lightbulb moments where you go ‘let’s make it Shakespearean’ and then lets really draw on all the Shakespearean sources that we can” (1) (Steve Pemberton)

Being the prodigiously talented writers that they are, Reece and Steve set themselves the difficult writing challenge of replicating the full range of linguistic techniques and literary devices contained in a Shakespearean play (or practically any from the Elizabethan period) They achieved this re-creation with astonishing accuracy and in painstaking detail, of the kind we’ve come to expect from the pair.

Zanzibar

‘Zanzibar’ is written in iambic pentameter, which are unrhymed lines with a defined meter, the meter being made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. A line of verse has five unstressed and stressed syllables, creating a distinctive, inbuilt rhythmic pace when they’re spoken. Blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) is the main linguistic form found in Shakespeare’s plays but Pemberton & Shearsmith’s script adds layers to the richness of the language because it also reverts to rhyme verse several times. Rhyming couplets are used to denote tension, cap scenes as a character exits from the corridor, give the unravelling of plot threads a lyrical significance and invest the story’s climax with an additional flourish. An example of rhyming couplets being used to convey tension occurs about half-way through the story when panicked guest Robert, searching for his elderly mother who is suffering from a loss of memory, speaks in rhyming couplets as he anxiously looks for her along the ninth floor corridor: “I have searched every floor from one to nine, Of my mother, alas, there is no sign. I curse the day she went into Boots. She only wanted Schwarzkopf for her roots…Oh I should never have let her from my sight. I pray that someone’s seen her here tonight.” And when the knotted strands of plot are untangled as the story reaches its resolution-from-confusion ending, blank verse changes to rhyming couplets at two key stages to distinguish significant elements of the climax. Firstly in the lead-up to the moment when separated-at-birth twins Prince Rico and Gus see each other for the first time and then again just after the threat to a happy ending is averted with the containment, via hypnotism, of malevolent plotter Henry, where single lines of couplets are spoken by several different characters, one after another in conversational style: “Vince, you’ve saved the day.” (Colette) “Thank you, child. I’m glad that everyone is reconciled.” (Vince) “I thought I was a goner.” (Mr Green) “No way, Pops.” (Prince Rico) “Let’s lock him in his room and call the cops.” (Fred) The flowing rhythm of the couplets connotes a feeling of relief and suggests there is sense of unity between the characters, now that their problems are resolved and a happy ending for all of them is guaranteed.

Zanzibar

The very occasional dip into prose likewise marks certain points in the proceedings where its use serves a purpose. A conversation in prose takes place near the start when hotel guest Prince Rico wishes to avail himself of ‘off the menu’ room service to satisfy his fetish for sexual degradation, requesting “May we speak plainly once again” so that he and bellboy Fred can conduct the matter in a straightforward, business-like way as he orders up a prostitute willing to perform the kinky practice of golden showers on him.

By any measure this is a finely wrought and exquisitely honed construction in itself but Steve and Reece are well-known for not making things easy for themselves and build even more complexity into the lines of their beautifully rendered creation of a Shakespearean play’s form. Literary devices abound – similes and metaphors commonly wielded by Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights are appropriated in similar rhetorical fashion: “Our love has turned as stale as last week’s bread”; “As soft as new-fallen snow.” (Amber) There is space for an aptronym (where someone’s name amusingly matches their occupation) with the hotel-based nightly show’s hypnotist having the appellation Vince De Trans.  More obscurely is the use of an anadiplosis, a literary device that repeats a word at the end of one clause and then immediately again at the beginning of another: “I’ll try the hypnotism show downstairs” (Robert) As the lift door closes with him inside, the next lift along opens and stage hypnotist Vince and hotel chambermaid Colette depart, with Colette telling Vince “I saw your hypnotism show downstairs.” The use of an anadiplosis draws attention to the concept of hypnotism, offering up the implication that it will have a key part to play in the enveloping plot and the unfolding of it.

Zanzibar

Pemberton & Shearsmith lace their script with archaic words (‘sirrah’, ‘privy’, ‘thine’) which anchor the Shakespearean evocation and mix in several manifestly modern references (‘9/11’ and ‘TripAdvisor’) which feel almost anachronistic given the highly stylised language that surrounds them. Deliberately choosing words like this helps to highlight the heightened quality of ‘Zanzibar’, the narrative revelry of it, the playfulness at its core. Innovatively mixing Shakespeare with farce allows the writers, in one bold move, to amplify the artifice and contrivances of both and give themselves the space to play with this creatively. As Steve Pemberton pointed out during a BFI Q&A for series four of ‘Inside No.9’, farce in a contemporary idiom felt too contrived to really inspire their imaginations. The pair have a reputation for work which looks anew at the familiar or ordinary or which comes at narratives from a different angle. Distancing ‘Zanzibar’ from pure farce through Shakespearean allusions – its language form and literary and plot devices – liberates it and gives it a rhythm and a unique life of its own. Pemberton & Shearsmith treat the narrative as very much an artificial construct, toying with its theatricality, underlining the conceit of the thing at certain points in the proceedings. This ‘No.9’ is a light-hearted invention, a knowing presentation, a play with players, dallying with and mixing the different elements – its devices – together to heighten the effect of the piece as something to “entertain as well as educate” (Vince De Trans)

There are referential nods to the works of Shakespeare interwoven throughout the carefully placed lines – partial quotations taken from several of his plays – which teasingly invite the audience to try and spot them and recognise their origins: “And smile and smile…” (Fred) (“That one may smile and smile and be a villain” from ‘Hamlet’); “Sleep well. Sweet Prince.” (Henry) (“Good night, sweet Prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” from ‘Hamlet’); “…Wherein I see myself.” (Amber) (“I swear to three, even by thine own fair eyes. Wherein I see myself –” from ‘The Merchant of Venice’)

Zanzibar

Sourced elements from Shakespeare’s plays suffuse ‘Zanzibar’ in other ways too – informing the various plotlines and in the sketching of several characters: The main plot which revolves around twins, who having been separated at birth arrive as guests on the same hotel floor (the engine which drives the farce based components of mistaken identities and misunderstandings) is derived from ‘The Comedy of Errors’; Henry, Prince Rico’s advisor is an abstraction of two characters from Shakespeare plays. He shares the resentment that Caliban from ‘The Tempest’ felt for his servant relationship with his master Prospero (in Henry’s case, between himself and Rico) as well as the hatching of a plot to kill his master. This malcontent’s slipperiness and desire to reach a more exalted position is also heavily suggestive of ‘Othello’s Iago; Amber being induced into a hypnotic trance by Vince to reignite her love for Gus but whose passions are instead stirred by Robert as the first person she sees once she’s under hypnosis is borrowed from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and the love potion which bewitched Titania and Lysander to fixate on the first person they see when they wake up; Mr Green’s suicidal machinations invoke the references to and depictions of suicide which occur in several of Shakespeare’s plays; the hypnotist’s intervention to stop Henry’s knife wielding threats, which plays a principal part in the outcome of the plot, carries a magic spell undercurrent which is a key theme in ‘The Tempest’.

Zanzibar

The text is scattered with characters intimating or directly commenting on the concocted nature of the piece and peppered with effects that reinforce our awareness of its artifice and theatrical sensibility.

The fourth wall is broken at the very start of ‘Zanzibar’ when the first character we see – Fred, the hotel’s bellboy – delivers a prologue straight to camera to greet our arrival. It feels like the stage curtains have been parted when the lift door opened. The audience is being invited to settle in their seats and watch a play with Fred requesting us to “linger in our corridor” – the ninth floor corridor has become the stage. The description Fred gives of the characters as “mountaineers” who are “on their way up or down” extends the allusion – they are the players about to make their entrances. The bellboy even informs us about the role he’ll be playing – there to “link their ships”. Many of the characters are given one or more monologues to perform, most of which are directed to camera. The monologues work as exposition, driving the plot forward and adding layers to it and also allow the characters to vent their feelings or articulate their motives, all the while creating further dimensions to the inherent theatricality at work. Bellboy Fred underlines this as the story nears its conclusion “So all’s resolved. Just like a theatre play.” Indeed characters even make knowing comments that play up the conceit behind the narrative – the replication of a Shakespearean play in form and content – and some of the devices used in its construction, once more breaching the fourth wall barrier: “Like this iambic foot, you’re stressed. I’m not” (Prince Rico); “That’s what you call dramatic irony” (Mr Green); “It’s more than a rhyming couplet can relay” (Robert)

Zanzibar

The tenets of Shakespeare’s comedic plays chime with many of the elements that feature in classic farce – reliance on coincidences, mistaken identities, contrivances and last-minute resolutions where all the loose ends are neatly tied together.  Their convergences allow Pemberton & Shearsmith to merge Shakespeare and the principles of hotel farce (perfected by Georges Feydeau) seamlessly. Their insertion of Shakespeare into hotel-room farce sees them replace slapstick and broad physical humour associated with traditional farce with literary devices, referential elements and knowingly stylised theatrics.

The exacting meticulousness involved in the writers’ re-creation of Shakespearean form and content is matched by the intricacies entailed in their structuring of the farce in ‘Zanzibar’. The complex plotting, the boxes within boxes construction around room door numbers, characters switching rooms, doors opening and closing, entrances and exits makes your head spin. The developing criss-crossing of mistaken identities, the multiplying of mishaps and misunderstandings builds and builds as the pace speeds up until the plot is tighter than a coiled spring before bursting open like a jack-in-the-box. The sheer graft required to conceive, devise, chart and manoeuvre the entanglement of events and characters into place – the elaborate craft and scrupulous precision of it all – must have made Pemberton & Shearsmith’s brains ache but the perfection reached in its execution was worth it.

The Shakespearean and farcical elements working in tandem complement each other. The rhythm and tempo established by the iambic pentameter lines and the beats and timing of the quickening farce impel each other and gives the narrative a dynamism and energy that’s distinctive and innovative.

The writers’ fondness for wordplay coalesce with Shakespearean bawdiness and ribaldry, which they use to great comic effect in relation to Prince Rico’s sexual peccadillos – his liking for golden showers in particular: “Does Sir prefer the water sign or the earth sign?” (Fred) and in the levels of verbal comic misunderstanding arising from Rico’s mistaken belief that elderly Alice is the prostitute he’s ordered to perform the act. Bawdy wordplay is also deployed in Amber’s hypnotically induced molesting of Robert: “Come let me see thy mighty sword” (Amber) “I wish to keep my sword within its sheath! It’s more like a little dagger anyway” (Robert)

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The narrative interweaving of Shakespeare and farce receives a last referential nod and wink from Pemberton & Shearsmith at the very end of ‘Zanzibar’ when Fred places a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door handle of one of the rooms –  the flourish of a farce motif as the finishing touch.

Although ‘Zanzibar’ glows with the heightened reality of a light and whimsical contrivance it has a grounding as well, a sense of reality in terms of tone and performance which brings a balance to the frivolity and knowing quirkiness. The suicidal Mr Green is a haunted man and through the performance of Bill Paterson has a sad, melancholic quality which inserts some emotional reality into the overtly artificial construct. Likewise, there is a hard and ruthless menace to Henry which gives an edge to events as they unfold on the ninth floor.

There is also an extraordinary attention to detail which Pemberton & Shearsmith always ensure is present in their writing and which is carried over into the collaborative production process during filming. This exacting principle can be seen when elderly, forgetful Alice leaves Prince Rico’s room after she was mistaken for the prostitute he was expecting to administer a golden shower on him. She leaves a trail of wet footprints on the corridor carpet. It’s a small detail, only glimpsed for a few seconds, but illustrates the level of rigour with which the ‘Inside No.9’ creators and their collaborators approach their work – the creative process is a serious business, especially when it involves comedy. No matter how ridiculous or far-fetched the situation being portrayed is, keeping it grounded matters because something is funnier when it is believable or where there is something at risk – in this case, an elderly woman’s dignity. Alice’s idiosyncratic shuffle – her little pigeon-step walk – as she wanders across the ninth floor corridor and moves from room to room has an almost rhythmical, dance-like quality to it which echoes and reflects the layers of rhythm (the lines in iambic pentameter and the farce’s pacing and beats) that infuse ‘Zanzibar’. Giving its heightened reality a grounding and a depth of detail ensures this story is never a flighty excursion but an enchanting concoction, with artistry at its core.

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As the series four opener of ‘Inside No.9’, ‘Zanzibar’ is the lightest creation Pemberton & Shearsmith have produced for their sublime anthology show so far. There is barely a chink of darkness lurking in its recesses (suicidal desires and murder plots accepted) no revelation that requires us to recalibrate our thoughts or feelings. Instead it takes joyous delight in the smart blend of language form and literary devices, alluding to them throughout the piece, drawing attention to the conceit of the whole thing.

Playfulness in there in abundance but its true brilliance lies in the extraordinary, almost virtuoso intricacy of the script – the faithful adherence to the Shakespearean verse and the complex layers of plot in the farce. The richness of the iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets and the tempo and momentum of the farce are masterfully and exquisitely constructed.

There is so much to relish in ‘Zanzibar’ – the rhetorical artfulness, its wordplay, the scatological comic high points, the myriad of misunderstandings, the layers of rhythms enveloping it all.

Pemberton & Shearsmith confidentially acknowledge its artifice and beautifully control and merge all of its elements. Their pre-eminence as writers and actors continues unabated. Just when you think they must have reached a creative pinnacle they give us another incredible piece of work that leaves you wondering where their endless inventiveness will take them next.

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Footnotes

  1. Steve Pemberton, BFI Southbank Q&A at preview screening of series four of ‘Inside No.9’ (30th October 2017)

Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…David Kerr

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Henry…Reece Shearsmith

Robert Hargreaves…Steve Pemberton

Prince Rico/Gus…Rory Kinnear

Mr Green…Bill Paterson

Fred…Jaygann Ayeh

Alice Hargreaves…Marcia Warren

Amber…Hattie Morahan

Colette…Helen Monks

Tracey…Tanya Franks

Vince De Trans…Kevin Eldon

 

Inside No. 9 Review: Series Three: ‘Private View’

*contains spoilers*

“One of the disciplines in art is collage, the assemblage of disparate elements which together create a new whole.” (Maurice Wickham: ‘Private View’)

More than any other ‘Inside No. 9’ of series three, ‘Private View’ features Pemberton & Shearsmith wearing an apparel of horror and thriller influences on their collaborative sleeve. The lovingly crafted abstraction of stylistic devices and narrative elements create a homage that has a visual and structural indebtedness to celebrated key genre works: Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’, the 1973 British horror movie ‘Theatre of Blood’ and the European horror of Italian Giallo films.

The well-established mystery trope from Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ (a group of apparently unconnected strangers trapped in a location they can’t escape from are picked off one by one by an unknown assailant) segues into a climactic denouement with a similar conceit to the 1973 British horror film ‘Theatre of Blood’ (an incensed protagonist commits a series of avenging murders using ‘just desserts’ methods on a set of victims whom the killer regards to be fully deserving of their fate).

Alongside the skilfully crafted mash-up of referential plots, ‘Private View’ is distinguished by the iconographic style and thematic motifs of its perfectly realised Giallo ornamentation, clearly signified in the story. Director Guillem Morales and director of photography, Stephan Pehrsson, give ‘Private View’ a very distinctive look of strikingly vivid colours and some highly stylized camera work that is pure 20th century Italian Giallo cinematic technique.

These intrinsic components help give this ‘Inside No. 9’ a very playful tone. Pemberton & Shearsmith blend these very recognisable (to fans of the mystery horror genre) constituent parts together to produce a script that has an exuberant energy and underlying sense of fun. So much of it is a game – “Judging by the first few pieces, perhaps it’s some form of endurance test. See you at the other end” (Maurice) – where the rules are well-known and understood by the audience, with the writers both adhering to and subverting these precepts.

The “disparate elements” used by the writing duo to construct ‘Private View’ are mixed with comedic embellishments of ribaldry, double entendres and malapropisms, the elevated cultural excursions of the contemporary art world, citing hyperrealism sculptures and the conceptual installations of illusionary space and auditory perception, and even allowing for the mischievous inclusion of ‘Carry On’ lines. It is such a vast canvas of references – a collage assemblage that Pemberton & Shearsmith play with in masterful ways for the most entertaining ends. Viewers are, after all, instructed to ‘Make Yourself Comfortable’ from the start with the title of the first art piece we see in the ‘Private View’ art gallery setting.

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Seven strangers have been invited to a private viewing of the valedictory exhibition of late artist Elliot Quinn in an East London basement art gallery. The group are as eclectic as the pieces on display: Carrie, a vacuous reality TV celebrity desperate to remain in the bubble of minuscule fame; Maurice Wickham, a supercilious, pompous art lecturer; Kenneth Williams, a pony-tailed health & safety officer for the local council with a self-professed lack of humour, but cursed with the same appellation as the famous comic performer; Jean, a chatty, solecistic Irish dinner lady; Patricia, an imperious, high-handed, demanding visually impaired authoress of soft porn novels and Bea, a hired waitress for the evening, surly, sarcastic and contemptuous of everyone and everything. The other guest, Neil Francis, a nurse hired to act as Patricia’s guide, arrived first and was seen being dispatched by a mysterious, black-gloved figure, from the eye-catching point-of-view of the killer.

The very first scene featuring Neil’s murder is a stylistic statement of intent by Pemberton & Shearsmith and director Morales to envelope the story with a Giallo sensibility. It’s a perceptive choice given the context of ‘Private View’. Its pronounced visual style echoes and links it to the art installation environs surrounding the story.

The emblematic fetishistic close-up shot of the black glove worn by a mystery killer is an iconic Giallo trope. As is a voyeuristic first person perspective of the murderer and a grisly death sequence. All are present and correct at the start of ‘Private View’. Morales (and Pehrsson’s photography) keep the Giallo stylism to the fore with the use of vivid colours throughout the ‘Nine’ art gallery. The spectrum of bold primary colours flood and fill each frame: Deep reds dominate (suggestive of blood having been spilt) in all the rooms with art on display – the room where Neil is found (his body now part of the exhibit), in the main gallery space where the 3D model head of Elliot Quinn is centre stage; yellow permeates the storage room as Maurice, Kenneth and Jean seek a means of escape, with a warm green colour placed in the background – an outside street that is just out of reach; a dank, cold green saturates the basement toilets where Patricia hides to avoid becoming the mystery killer’s next victim. ‘Private View’s use of colour – almost surreal at times – is an important part of the heightened sense of experience that is the Giallo aesthetic – an exaggerated, intense, distorted expression of reality, visually and thematically.  The stylized camerawork of Giallo is at play at certain moments too, with strange camera angles producing disorienting images:  An unusually low angle shot shows Carrie reflected in the mirror floor as she gazes at the spiked chair exhibit with a seated dead Neil on it. The bizarre angle then creates the jump scare of Maurice’s reflection suddenly looming behind Carrie in the floor too. The stylish visuals of the Giallo-influenced camera also generate unconventional, unorthodox shots that initiate disquieting framing: The high and low angle views of the toilet cubicle with a trapped Patricia hiding inside, desperate to evade the stalking killer, are unsettlingly voyeuristic.

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There is a satisfying coherence between the heightened visual style of Giallo and the story’s conceptual art backdrop. They both collude and coalesce around the idea of spatial perception and the disorientating, disruptive and mesmerising experience of space (it is no coincidence that at one point Maurice talks about artist Richard Wilson’s art installation at the Saatchi Gallery – ‘Oil’) The Giallo amplification emphasizes the artificial space which hems in the diverse group of invitees, a space which it is increasingly made clear they are trapped in as their numbers diminish. It is a domain that tightens and closes in on them (echoing the way the killer is doing the same). Although markedly intense colours dominate each frame,  low lit, dark edges occasionally encroach and lurk on the recesses of the screen, giving the art gallery site a stealthily creeping, threatening quality. Carefully positioning the cast of characters within these hue filled frames also brings forth a sense of the essence of art – the principles of colour and composition.

The ‘And Then There Were None’ plotline has become universally familiar (and parodied) to the point that it is imbued with layers of expectation understood and appreciated by all audiences of mystery thrillers. This is something acknowledged by Pemberton & Shearsmith, its tropes and clichés signposted in the lines they give to some of the characters, in which they postulate on the situation they’re in and which accentuate their self-awareness of it: “Why have we all been handpicked do you think? We none of us know each other. It appears we have very little in common.” (Maurice); “This is all a bit Agatha Christie, isn’t it?” (Patricia); “And then of course they all split up, which is something you would never do in that situation. And before you know it there’s another one gone.” (Patricia)

Characters are paired off or are left on their own to disappear for several scenes (Maurice is noticeably left alone at the spiked chair installation/murder site at this own suggestion). The writers parlay all the devices at their disposal to put everyone under suspicion as the possible culprit. The audience, already primed to the classic conventions of the plot (and its numerous versions and imitations over the years) are alert to the fact that every nuance and intimation could be either a clue or a red herring. Mindful of this, Pemberton & Shearsmith deftly layer ambiguity and (possible) significance across every scene: When Jean suggests she and Patricia pair up, Kenneth is seen watching them intently as they walk off together; Carrie’s fleeting look of both contrived innocence and possible guilt as she insists “I haven’t done anything” after Maurice tells her the police will want to interview her (after the discovery of Neil Francis’ body impaled on the spiked chair)

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Viewers’ comfortable assumption of the mystery protocol – that the killer’s identity is kept secret and only revealed at the very end – is overturned by Pemberton & Shearsmith’s audacious subverting of this convention with more than eight minutes to go: The point-of- view shot of the black gloved killer moving along each toilet cubicle after following Patricia there as she attempted to find somewhere to hide, the tension being held as the gloved hand knocks on the one locked cubicle door before the camera pulls back and the murderer’s identity is revealed in the toilet wall mirror to be Jean, the (seemingly) mildly eccentric dinner lady.

Jean’s declamation scene is quite remarkable, containing an almost Shakespearian monologue of vitriol as she justifies her reasons for vengeance, explaining the motive behind her murder spree with proselytising zeal. At its core is a performance of extraordinary hypnotic power by Fiona Shaw, who brilliantly conveys the character’s puritanical, unhinged state of mind.

A bloodied Jean caresses and kisses the large 3D model of Elliot Quinn’s head with a perturbing, devoted intensity, leaving traces of blood on it, as she reveals to Maurice (the only survivor of her bloodletting) that she is Quinn’s mother and that when her son found out he was dying he decided to donate all of his body’s organs. He conceived the idea for his last pieces of art from this ‘gift of life’ – the receivers of his donated organs were to be the ‘living art’ of his farewell exhibition – their lives a celebration of his life.  As his mother saw it,  the donees, her victims  – Neil, Bea, Carrie, Patricia and Kenneth – were all unworthy recipients of her son’s organs and therefore deserving targets of her splenetic rage (“You squandered him…He was wasted on all of you.”) because, as she makes clear with unforgiving rancour, their moral and personal failings (greed, self-pity, copious drinker, pornography creator, smoker) polluted and desecrated the purity of her son’s parting artistic conception of living art and sullied what was to be his final artistic statement to the world.

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Circumventing her son’s vision – with perverse Grand Guignol design – the re-harvested organs from her victims are now part of a new artwork that she’s created, with each organ in a glass jar set on a plinth connected by red ribbons, like arteries in a body. It is her deranged depiction of her son’s body, a way of making him alive again, of reanimating him (just as the filmed clip of Quinn projected onto a 3D model of his head had done)

With devilish boldness, Pemberton & Shearsmith inventively reimagine ‘Theatre of Blood’ and Edward Lionheart’s wrathful revenge with organ transplants, body parts and as a mourning mother’s grief turned mad.

The disclosure that organ transplants were the link between the members of the group, and that Jean killed in order to reclaim the organs from their bodies, give the death sequences an edgier context in retrospect: Kidney donee Neil is killed when he’s shoved onto the twin spiked chair exhibit,  the spikes perfectly positioned to skewer the kidneys; Jean murders Kenneth (the one killing that is committed onscreen from the audience’s perspective) by suffocating him with a plastic bag – a ‘just desserts’ method of murder as she saw it, given his organ transplant was a right lung and he smoked – “You shouldn’t be smoking Kenneth, for a start.” (Jean)

An obsessive eye for detail is an inherent feature of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s writing. Their scripts are constructed with layer after layer of nuance, producing a rich seam to be mined for meaning. Every inference, hint, seeding – all are clues waiting to be recognised and retrieved.

As unmasking the identity of the killer is one of the main elements of the mystery, Pemberton & Shearsmith give Jean a markedly guileless naivety – an unsophisticated and artless figure amid all the art, cheerfully dropping malapropisms all over the place: “She is impartially sighted”, “We’re like fish in a basket”, “Two new cornettos”. Her faux naïf deceit is designed to lull the other characters into thinking she is a harmless, daffy middle-aged woman, when she is anything but. For the writers, Jean works as an adroit double bluff – the character least likely to be the killer and therefore, on the other hand, the most obvious candidate too. It’s a case of Pemberton & Shearsmith playfully finessing the oft repeated device of the mystery genre – the person you’d least suspect actually turns out to be the guilty party.

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Skilfully working at another narrative level, Pemberton & Shearsmith also subtly suggest and convey Jean’s scheming, true feelings and latent intentions taking place under the noses of the rest of the group: As the camera pans along the characters watching the reanimated Quinn speaking from beyond the grave via a projection on a model of his head, they all seem relatively or distinctly unimpressed except Jean, who looks enthralled and almost in awe as the clip is played; a momentary look of shock registers on Jean’s face as she watches Kenneth start to smoke what she presumes is a cigarette (“It was an e-cigarette” – Maurice); the “It really burns” pre-echo observation about champagne by Jean seeds her later method of killing one of the victims, by spiking the champagne with poison; Jean’s attempted diversionary tactics to try and distract Maurice and Kenneth from focusing on a means of escape when they’re in the storage room, as she prattles on about her hunger pangs and ponderously deliberates a choice of paint colour; her outwardly innocent exchange with Kenneth about how children can be a cause for concern – “Oh that is a worry. I could barely keep mine in one piece”. All take on the dreadful realisation of dark revelation later on, when the reason for her avowed revenge is disclosed.

The last piece of Jean’s plan (and final organ to re-harvest) is to have Maurice’s heart as the centrepiece of the art display she cultivated – that of her victims’ (or as she sees it, her son’s) body organs in glass jars on plinths with circulatory red ribbons. Pemberton & Shearsmith undercut any assumed audience expectation here by having Maurice managing to escape his seemingly sealed fate. The close shot of one of his hands wriggled half free of one of the ribbons tying his wrists to a chair in the moments before the screen goes black alludes to the escape happening.

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The final scene shows Maurice has supplanted Jean’s scheme and harvested her heart for his own needs – to fill the remaining empty glass jar and plinth. He has claimed the (body) artwork as his own and is now being acclaimed by the art world as an exciting new talent. It is a reversal of fortunes and one that keeps faith with the narrative logic underpinning the scope of the revenge plot.  As Maurice pointed out to Jean, he had looked after himself following his transplant and had not abused his body (or her son’s heart) unlike the others. It would disrupt the symmetry underpinning Jean’s avenging scheme – that her victims were deserving of their fate because of their ‘failings’ – if she had been ‘allowed’ to succeed with her plan to kill Maurice as well.

There are also several subtle intimations woven into the script connecting body art (literal and figurative) with Maurice: “Body art is still art after all” (when he passes comment on Bea’s tattoos). He also touches on the work of Ron Mueck, a hyperrealist sculptor, famous for his extremely realistic sculptures of human bodies. Maurice doesn’t appear to have a scrap of discomfort in asserting the body organs artwork as his own or any difficulty in disregarding the bloodletting behind its creation. It indicates a certain level of ruthlessness in him, perhaps signalled when he made the observation “Someone’s been stabbed in the back. Nothing new in the art world of course.”

‘Private View’ adeptly rearranges familiar pieces from notable thriller and horror works into a narrative that operates on two levels – as homage and as a sly interrupter of expectation. Making full use of the story’s archetypal characters, wordplay and Rabelaisian humour,  it has a tone more playful than perhaps any ‘Inside No. 9’ before it has had.

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Distinguished by the Giallo influenced visuals and a macabre revenge plot involving organ transplants, Pemberton & Shearsmith’s aim is dark tinged fun and entertainment, which they supply in abundance with genuinely nasty moments nestling alongside ‘Carry On’ inspired double entendres. The pair’s formidable knowledge of the horror genre in all its forms enables them to subtly parody whilst at the same time subvert in surprising and unexpected ways. They give ‘Private View’ the tempo and energy of a game – both amusing and exciting – and clearly a game being played by two experts.

Given we live in times where ignorance is defiantly embraced and stupidity is worn like a proud badge of honour, a programme as intelligent, daring and singular as ‘Inside No. 9’ is like a shining beacon, when so much else is monotonous mediocrity or dismal dumbness. A series which does not insult its audience, but presumes it to be alert to subtlety and shading and welcoming of ingenuity and inventiveness, is indeed rare.

Reaching the end of its third series, ‘Inside No.9’ has now given us 18 stories of impeccable quality – each one a beautifully crafted jewel, which reveals different facets and elements within it every time one of them is revisited and watched again. A work of art is something people always want to come back to, look at again and re-examine from every possible angle. ‘Inside No. 9’s rewatchability has that same level of potency running right through it. It is a work of artistic brilliance that you just know will be watched and appreciated for generations to come.

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have taken their ‘raising the bar’ principle to extraordinary heights of anticipation for viewers and admirers of their work, which have always more than been met. They eclipse their contemporaries and those coming up behind them at every turn because they ring the changes in tone and the eclectic range of stories in ‘Inside No. 9’ with a sureness of touch and masterly confidence that is quite remarkable.

Series three travelled between the matchless technical integrity and narrative experimentation of ‘The Devil of Christmas’, ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’s brainpower dynamics, intertextual layers and shocking double crosses to the visually beautiful, psychologically complex treatise on madness and bereavement in ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ – and this describes only half the series.

There really doesn’t seem to be a story that Pemberton & Shearsmith can’t attempt and not do exceptionally well and from different, original angles. They are forever pushing forward with invention and innovation – never resting on their laurels – in order to constantly surprise their audiences and escape the trap of merely meeting and satisfying viewer expectation. That would be the creative death knell for two creators whose work is a labour of love and who clearly care so much about what they make. British television is blessed to have them and would be infinitely poorer if they should ever – dreadful to contemplate – call time on their superlative partnership. Please cherish them BBC. Please cherish them everyone.

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Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Guillem Morales

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Maurice Wickham…Reece Shearsmith

Kenneth Williams…Steve Pemberton

Jean…Fiona Shaw

Patricia…Felicity Kendal

Carrie…Morgana Robinson

Bea…Montserrat Lombard

Elliot Quinn…Johnny Flynn

Reporter…Muriel Gray

Neil Francis…Peter Kay

Inside No. 9 Review: Series Three: ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’

*contains spoilers*

“This is very cruel what you’re doing you know.” (David: ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’)

We are taken by surprise at the very start of ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ by the oft-kilter premise that its ‘9’ is, for the first time, not a setting or location but rather an object – a man’s black size 9 shoe. Quiet brilliantly however – in a story that is driven by a sequential series of masterful scenes which are both strikingly singular and correspondingly cohesive  at the same time –  it becomes, with creeping incremental intent, about a location after all – the inside of a man’s head. For David, a stay-at-home husband and father, the single shoe is an aberration which becomes imbued with a potent symbolism that coalesces in and overwhelms his mind.

Every ‘Inside No. 9’, by dint of its quality and superb inventiveness, remains with you, as great storytelling always does. ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ is remarkable even by the standards of ‘Inside No. 9’s exceptional canon. It casts an impression which is indelible and profound, with all of its elements working together in an incredibly powerful way. Pemberton & Shearsmith’s sensitive, complex and nuanced script is an impactful meditation on loss, pain and grief, the thematics of which explore fissures in marital and familial relationships, how feelings can get muted and the ways in which the mind can become consumed by the extremities of distress and trauma.

Allied to this, director Guillem Morales and director of photography John Sorapure’s superb contributions add important visual insights to the narrative, giving this ‘Inside No.9’ a particularly pronounced cinematic sensibility. There are also astonishing emotional layers brought forth by the sensitive, committed performances of Reece Shearmith and Keeley Hawes as husband & wife, David and Louise, which help to anchor the story with extraordinary depth and poignancy.

The single shoe which David ‘finds’ lying on the suburban street outside his home whilst out jogging becomes, over the course of the tale, an object of reverence for him. It starts as a mild curiosity but within a few scenes the shoe has become an item that needs to be cared for: “It’s so odd. What’s the story behind it?”; “I just didn’t want anyone stealing it”; “It just felt wrong leaving it outside” (David)

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The first conversation between the couple subtly alludes to the substitution process the shoe undergoes with David: Louise needs some empty jam jars so she can fill them with raffle prizes for the school Spring Fair. In other words, the jars are going to be used differently to the way they were originally meant for. Similarly, David finds a different use for the shoe than was originally intended for it. He substitutes new meaning onto it, a displacement that the mind uses to transfer ideas, wishes and emotions in order to allay underlying thoughts, fears and anxieties which are unspoken and too difficult to confront directly.

The ideas, wishes and emotions inside David’s head are intimated from the start through an astute visual narrative, which works alongside and as an undercurrent to the verbal exchanges and conversations between David, Louise and the story’s other characters – Sally, their daughter, Chris, a friend and Ted, the man who comes to claim the found shoe.

Almost from the opening shot, twos occupy space within the frame, permeating the screen with images of pairs in symmetrical balance. There are two lines of trees in blossom in the foreground as David goes for his morning run; the family home of David and Louise is number 22, with a ‘2’ on each side of the double opening front door.

The visual theme of pairs and symmetry is taken even further once inside the house with the stunning mise-en-scene achieved by director Morales and director of photography Sorapure who skilfully signify David’s state of mind (that his thoughts are dominated by the idea of pairs) the sense of separation and distance in the couples’ relationship and a feeling of family loss. Their use of space and composition, set and props, colour, shade and lighting impart an attention to detail to complement Pemberton & Shearsmith’s own. The primacy of pairs is everywhere in the interiors of the house. They frame the characters who are often placed in the centre of the shot in order to draw attention to the imposing presence of twos: David standing in front of the kitchen’s two large window panes, a pair of jam jars on the table in front of him and two yellow upturned glasses on the counter behind him; David does the housework close to a sideboard which has a pair of lamps and two matching hare ornaments placed carefully on either side of it in perfect symmetry and a chair on each side of the room to create balance; David prepares two cocktail drinks with an olive in each identical glass, having ‘forgotten’ he’d already made the exact same pair of drinks.

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Making the house interiors such a strong visual element helps secure the notion that the idea of pairs has taken over David’s mind, that he has an unarticulated but deep need for them and the balance they provide. This gives his obsession over the single shoe an important context and embeds its implication into the narrative.

Morales’ camera’s detached observation of the space in the house accentuates how large the rooms are, almost engulfing the people framed at their centre. All that unoccupied space – to the extent that characters seem to disappear into it – is suggestive of emptiness and even loss. It is almost as if all the sets of pairs located throughout the house are there to compensate for something that is missing.

The spatial remoteness also evokes the space between David and Louise. They are never placed physically close to each other, they’re always spaced apart. It is a metaphor for the gap in understanding between them and their inability to express their feelings to one another.

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Breaches in symmetry and the breaking of pairings are present all around the house and one startingly occurs at a crucial point in the story: The dining table has only three chairs – the symmetrical  pattern of its two pairs of chairs is broken as one chair is missing; the high angle shots of the hallway highlight the mismatched staircase carpet and hall rug – the stair carpet has a square checker pattern, the hall rug has none – symmetry is ruptured; the unsettling image of Ted cut in half as he stands partially hidden by a fire hearth as he leaves the house – after claiming he is the shoe’s rightful owner – is a vision of half a person. It is David’s point of view shot representing his fractured state of mind (his mind’s eye quite literally) in which he sees half a person because his disturbed thought processes are dominated by the concept of pairs (“two halves”)

Drawing forth these breakages in symmetrical pairings arouses a mood of slowly creeping dread as the story moves towards its dreadful revelation, which in all its tragic and poignant detail explains the reason for David’s psychotic behaviour.

Pemberton & Shearsmith’s ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ script is outstanding in the way it mines seams of telling detail to expose cracks in David and Louise’s relationship and damage to a family caused by the lasting pain of loss and the residues of tragedy. Conversely as a tender counterpoint, their writing also conveys wells of emotion in showing Louise’s love and compassion for her husband trapped in mental turmoil, as well as her exasperation, desperation and fear as she tries everything in her power to halt and prevent his inexorable descent into obsession and psychosis.

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The couple are unable to address the grief they share between them. They mute their feelings, too scared to express them in case it awakens the agony of their loss: When Louise challenges David over his absurd ‘Lost Shoe’ poster campaign she reaches a point where she can go no further in trying to reason with him and is about to say something else but stops herself and then there is a momentary silence between the pair (She could be concerned that directly confronting David about what lies behind his troubling behaviour might worsen his condition. A reference later on – “You know he’s not been well” (Louise) – suggests her husband’s mental fragility is not new) In the same way, the seemingly innocent exchange between Louise and daughter Sally about where hymns are sung – “Like a funeral?” is followed by a telling silence from Louise before she answers. What is left unsaid says so much about their familial loss. The gaps and silences between words hold so much tension, emotion and meaning about the buried pain which they do not talk about.

It is striking that we mainly see Louise interacting with and caring for Sally, even though David is the stay-at-home parent. On one of the few occasions he is seen taking an interest in his daughter he is very sharp with her, telling her off for using the shoe as a pretend car for her doll. The delicately drawn inference is that Sally is a painful reminder of the past for David and a present which he can’t come to terms with. This implication becomes starkly clear in the scene where young Sally recites the titular nursery rhyme to her father. The line “one shoe off, one shoe on” seems to make almost playful reference to the shoe that David had been obsessed with, but another line “Diddle Diddle Dumpling, my son John” is like a punch to the stomach for him, a look of loss and pain flood across his face as he reacts to hearing the word ‘son’. Sally is the catalyst for David’s memory of unspoken trauma to reassert itself.

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From the opening scene it is apparent how careful Louise is around David, always mindful of what she says and more importantly of what she doesn’t. She is often shown trying to shift his attention away from the shoe, focus his mind on activities or encourage an interest in work opportunities. Only occasionally does her tenderness turn into irritation when she tries to challenge her husband’s perplexing obsession and disconnection from reality. Chris and Ted follow her sympathetic approach in their noticeably gentle interactions with David, treating his bizarre, disturbing behaviour with consideration, sensitivity and humanity. The sympathy shown towards David in ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ helps to hone and give coherence to the heart-rending human tragedy which is at the core of the story.

Pemberton and Shearsmith delineate David’s perturbing behaviour and damaged psyche with moments of eye-catching absurdity, insight and subtlety. Their unparalleled skill at locating deeper meaning in lines and passing moments – whose inferences are only properly understood when the end of the story is reached – bring emotive layers and depth to the portrayal of David’s mental upheaval and inner pain.

Across the timeline of the seasons in which the story takes place, David is often seen standing in isolation at a window, looking outside – a framing device which conveys loneliness. He seems distracted, lost and in a tumult of pain, as if seized by a feeling of desolation. It is also evident when he is seen vacuuming, staring blankly ahead, a numb expression on his face. From the first time we see David, as he spots the discarded shoe on the street, he has a haunted quality, a hint of sadness in the eyes. All of these manifestations illustrate the pathological state of his mind.

The writers use two key incidents to show the growing decline in David’s mental state – the dining room scene where he demands Chris times him for two minutes to show he can go that long without mentioning the shoe and the interrogation scene in which he questions Ted at length to determine if he’s the shoe’s rightful owner. Both have an absurdist comic edge in which ridiculously surreal situations are depicted with upmost seriousness. At the same time, the multi-layered brilliance of the writing undercuts the dark humour with disquieting elements which contain troubling portents: As David is being timed during the challenge not to speak about the shoe for two minutes he tells his wife “This is very cruel what you’re doing you know”. It is a line which brings you up with a start as it expresses the pain he is carrying inside him. He could just as well be speaking to himself, admonishing his own mind for the cruelty of the mental disorder he is suffering from. Immediately after his failure to complete the challenge David appears agitated and gripped by a mania, speaking rapidly to Chris as ideas about the shoe pour out of him. Reaching far beyond the comedic absurdity of the initial situation it is a scene which becomes extremely unsettling to watch because we can see David is moving ever closer to a complete mental breakdown.

The interrogation scene between David and Ted goes even further in its perfectly pitched comic absurdity than the dining room timing challenge. As David realises he will have to give up the shoe to Ted he is overcome with emotion which seems to come from somewhere deep inside him. Not only does he refer to the shoe as him “Here he is. I’ve looked after him” but he also grasps it close to his face, his lips touching it, almost kissing it. When he pleads “Could you just give me a minute please. I’m finding this really hard” the distress is real and the sadness it provokes in David deeply upsetting and disturbing. The revelation at the very end that David and Louise are bereaved parents and that their young son Joseph died (Sally’s twin brother) makes David’s emotional ‘goodbye’ to the shoe here utterly heartbreaking in retrospect.

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Louise forces David to confront his pain and grief in the very last scene after he’s discovered her subterfuge with her old college friend Ted, done in order to put an end to David’s obsession with the shoe. The couple finally express their feelings and directly address the loss of their son (this intensely emotional scene is acted with extraordinary feeling and nuance by Reece Shearsmith and Keeley Hawes) Whilst Louise sought to not let grief destroy her by focusing all her attention on Sally, David’s only way of managing and controlling his loss was by restoring the natural order of things (there is nothing more ‘unnatural’ than the loss of a child for a parent) in his own mind through pairs – the putting together of halves. His reasoning told him twins were “two halves” and that “They should be together”, hence his inordinate need for pairs (and fixation with reuniting them) physically and psychologically.

Pemberton & Shearsmith leave enough troubling ambiguity in the closing moments to allow for the dreadful possibility (entirely in the audience’s mind) that David’s psychosis, obsession with pairs and need for ‘halves’ to be ‘together’ may have lead him to kill Sally: The equivocation of “They should be together” could equally mean ‘together’ alive in David’s mind, rather than the grim ‘together’ in death. Even the idea that he has killed Ted is only alluded to – Louise sees fresh blood on David’s hand – without it ever being confirmed (“Can’t remember” is all David says) The ambivalence of the final scene – the insinuated act of violence and even the horribly suggestive suspicion of filicide that hangs in the air –   feels completely in keeping with the disquieting atmosphere and creeping dread that chillingly pervades the whole piece.

The CCTV footage played over the end credits shows David placing his own shoe on the street, before he sets off on his run, in order to later ‘find’ it. The shoe never instigated his pathological obsession or unbalanced state of mind, but helped him find a way to project it, to express it emblematically. As he says to Louise “It’s not about the shoe is it. It was never about the shoe”. The writers’ flourish with the CCTV clip demonstrates that David  already harboured deeply ingrained issues and mental upheaval long before he ‘found’ the shoe.

The assured virtuosity of ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ shows yet again that the work of Pemberton & Shearsmith has a level of inventiveness, bleaky comic vision and emotional depth other writers can only dream of and aren’t even attempting.  No-one else is coming close to the dramatic scale, multiplicity of telling detail and seeding complexity which they infuse into their writing.

‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ has an extraordinary brittle, mournful quality woven through it which subtly conveys a tangible sense of loss, grief and regret from the start. Distinguished by an absorbing, mesmerisingly heartfelt performance by Reece Shearsmith as a man so tragically damaged by bereavement that he can only find solace and meaning in pitiful obsession, its pervasive melancholic atmosphere and emotional eloquence are things rarely achieved across a six part drama series yet alone within just 30 minutes. That ‘Inside No.9’ has not so far even had a single BAFTA Television Awards nomination – yet alone win – for work of this masterful quality and creative originality is a travesty. It clearly shows how tunnel visioned and moribund the genre categories of television awards are when no place can be found in the BAFTA pantheon for a programme as magnificent and imperishable as this.

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Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Guillem Morales

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

David…Reece Shearsmith

Louise…Keeley Hawes

Sally…Rosa Strudwick

Chris…Steve Pemberton

Ted…Mathew Baynton

Radio presenter…Danny Baker

Inside No.9 Review: Series Three: ‘Empty Orchestra’

*contains spoilers*

“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.

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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, they almost stand as self-contained mini dramas by themselves (there is a sense of time almost standing still as you watch them – in conception and execution, they’re perfect) 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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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)

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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.

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Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Guillem Morales

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Greg…Reece Shearsmith

Roger…Steve Pemberton

Connie…Tamzin Outhwaite

Fran…Sarah Hadland

Janet…Emily Howlett

Duane…Javone Prince

Chantel…Rebekah Hinds

Inside No. 9 Review: Series Three: ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’

*contains spoilers*

“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.

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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.

Inside No.9 series 3

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.

Inside No.9 series 3

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.

Inside No.9 series 3

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.

Inside No.9 series 3

Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Guillem Morales

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Professor Nigel Squires…Steve Pemberton

Dr Jacob Tyler…Reece Shearsmith

Nina/Charlotte…Alexandra Roach

Inside No. 9 Review: Series Three: ‘The Bill’

*contains spoilers*

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 concentrated 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.10996130-high

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 insight, 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.

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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.

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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.10996195-high

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.10996286-high

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.

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Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Director…Guillem Morales

Producer…Adam Tandy

Executive Producer…Jon Plowman

Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

Cast

Archie…Reece Shearsmith

Malcolm…Steve Pemberton

Anya…Ellie White

Kevin…Jason Watkins

Craig…Philip Glenister

Tim…Callum Coates