“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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Radio presenter…Danny Baker