Celluloid Screams: Sheffield Horror Film Festival
(Saturday, 21st October 2017)
*Contains spoiler about ‘The Devil of Christmas’*
Q&A transcript: With Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Inside No. 9 producer Adam Tandy
I was lucky enough to attend this unique event at Sheffield’s annual Celluloid Screams festival. Unique in that this was the first time ‘Inside No.9’ had been given the honour of a curated anthology screening. The three episodes – handpicked by the creators themselves – were all from the three series already broadcast, making it distinct from the BFI’s two episode previews for each new series.
At least this was what the audience thought they were going to get. Instead, after watching S1’s ‘The Harrowing’ and S2’s ‘Séance Time’ on the big screen, Steve and Reece made a surprise announcement – we were going to have an exclusive preview of ‘Tempting Fate’, one of the new stories from series four. The episode, as we’ve all come to expect from the exceptional standards established by ‘Inside No.9’, was outstanding and given a very enthusiastic reception. The gathered fans had received an unexpected gift – the debut public screening of a series four ‘Inside No. 9’ story – and knew they’d just watched another sublime offering from Shearsmith and Pemberton.
Afterwards Steve and Reece were joined on stage by Inside No. 9’s producer Adam Tandy to take questions from the audience. It was a very insightful Q&A which went into fascinating detail about the behind-the-scenes production of the series and the creative processes involved in writing and filming the episodes, as well as wider discussions revolving around – among other topics – advice for aspiring actors and writers, difficulties with sourcing shooting locations and filming inside people’s houses and their inspirations from childhood and beyond.
Armed with a newly brought digital voice recorder I recorded the Q&A with the aim of transcribing it when I got back to my hotel room. I assumed a Q&A lasting about 25 minutes would only take me about an hour to transcribe. I was seriously wide of the mark – naively underestimating the ‘pulling teeth’ tedious, exacting nature of the thing and the amount of time that it would take. Transcribing several people speaking – with all the attendant natural pauses, variations in pitch and tone, unclear words and background noises – is a challenge when you don’t have helpful but expensive transcription software, with its smart speech to text conversions. It’s actually a painstakingly slow process when you’ve only got the old-fashioned method at your disposal. It meant replaying the recording over and over again in order to aurally decipher words or phrases I couldn’t hear properly or double checking I’d correctly written down what was said.
At about 1.30am I caught my reflection in my hotel room’s table mirror, sat hunched over several sheets of paper with a pen in my hand, a pair of tiny earphone pieces pushed into my ears. It was a ‘Harry Caul from ‘The Conversation’ sat in a room at the Overlook Hotel going slowly mad’ moment, to mix and mash two seminal American film references. That one hour transcribing task ended up taking more than four hours. Maybe I’m just ploddingly slow.
I hope I’ve accurately captured Celluloid Scream’s excellent Inside No. 9 Q&A – what was said and who said it. I’ve obsessed and worried over possible misheard words or undecipherable sentences, convinced every phrase spoken counted and that if I missed something then nuances of meaning or revealing details would be lost. Steve, Reece and Adam spoke thoughtfully, analytically, entertainingly and with humour about Inside No.9 in particular and the creative process and production challenges in general. Hopefully fans that missed the Q&A – and those who did attend and want to revisit it – will see this reflected in the words they spoke as written down in this transcribed Q&A.
Below is the complete transcription of the evening’s questions and Steve, Reece and Adam’s answers, reproduced as faithfully as possible. I’ve summarised any member of the audience’s question if there was any extraneous aspects to it – the kernel of what was being asked is what’s important.
Inside No. 9 Special Anthology Screening Q&A at Celluloid Screams (21st October 2017)
Host Q: Post The League of Gentlemen, post Psychoville, you decided to embark on an anthology show. When did that idea first come to you and could you perhaps talk about the lineage of that type of show?
Steve: It came really out of doing ‘Psychoville’ and we did an episode that was very self-contained in one room and we really liked writing in that format because sometimes when you put limitations down it makes you much more inventive. We weren’t sure whether to continue with ‘Psychoville’ or try something new. We had a meeting, didn’t we, in the BBC and on the way there we thought we’d better have an option B in case they don’t want any more ‘Psychoville’ and our option B was to do a series of these plays, these self-contained plays and it grew out of that. But the idea was always to have great variety in the episodes and its really interesting watching three back to back like that cos they’re obviously chosen cos it’s a horror festival, but we never wanted to make just scary short stories. We wanted funny ones, psychological ones, dramatic ones, farcical ones and its been (a) fantastic writing exercise for us.
Host Q: To what extent does the number 9 of the particular episode – is that the starting point as some are obviously very key to the story, where some are perhaps less so?
Reece: The 9 really is not an important thing. We do the story and think what can the 9 be attached to it. It’s not really that way round. We can always stick a 9 on anything we write. So that’s what we do with that.
Adam: In fact we change it sometimes, don’t we? There is one in the new series that we actually changed. We got to the first day and said ‘hang on’ we’ll do something different. It didn’t make a jot of difference did it.
Host Q: One of the ones that is really strong in terms of horror is ‘The Devil of Christmas’. Perhaps comment on the production of that, obviously is quite specific in terms of the style and the production of that as well.
Reece: Well we…I think in the wake of doing the anthology formats we thought it would be great to do one that’s sort of literally in the lineage of where we’d got it from. So we thought let’s do one that’s set sort of around the ‘Armchair Thriller’ or ‘Beasts’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ or ‘Play for Today’. We thought it be great to do one sort of from that era, not do a pastiche but do something that was authentically…look like it was from that time. So that was the starting point and I think actually we were going to do an idea with Krampus, that’s right isn’t it Steve. We sort of wrote it straight and it was so hokey and sort of cod and a bit arch that we thought actually just to do it straight doesn’t fit but to do it via as if it was from 1979, 1980, suddenly that freed it, allowed it to have all the bad exposition and bad acting and it seemed to be in keeping with telling (that) kind of story. It was sort of quite predictable in a way but classic sort (of) twist in the tale type thing and to house it in that exercise was good. Then we had the idea of having it sort of outside itself with the director’s commentary thing which helped once again sort of to take the curse off it being quite an obvious trope filled episode. We were thinking we could do that. I thought they’d be able to film it and then there be an app thing you could get that could put all the scratches on it and make it look old fashioned but of course that doesn’t really exist so then it was up to Adam to think well lets actually try to do it and he sourced cameras from that time didn’t you? I’ll let Adam continue.
Adam: Yes. That wasn’t the very first thing I thought. The first thing I thought was ‘Oh Christ, how are we going to do this’ and they put a line in the first page of the script. It says ‘There are smears all over the screen as we see the camera track past some candles’. I thought there’s no way of doing that even with modern post-production without spending millions of dollars, without going back to the way they used to do it. So I phoned up some people and found out that that equipment did exist, only used as props, but given enough time they could probably take them apart and rebuild them, so they did. And then I asked BBC Two whether they would be interested in taking an episode of ‘Inside No.9’ that was actually Standard Definition and 4×3 not 16×9. Once they’d got over the initial shock they then said okay, give it a go…Are you sure there isn’t an app that can do that for you? So that’s how we did it. We got some people out of retirement, some equipment out of retirement, rebuilt the equipment, rebuilt the people and we decided to make it like an old-fashioned TV drama, which meant lots of outside rehearsal and marks on the floor and two days, we made it in two days in a studio in Elstree, which I think is the same studio, or next to the studio where they’d made Nigel Neale, ‘Beasts’, which was probably one of our inspirations.
Reece: We gave ‘Beasts’ to Jessica Raine to look at the acting, the arch…in those days, the acting was…all surface, there was no…playing the subtext, it was all very arch and she really got it perfectly. So she was really in keeping with that world and of course, there was the chance to do the really horrible ending when it was revealed to be a snuff movie. Sorry if I’ve spoilt it if you haven’t seen it.
Adam: How did you find the rehearsal process, that rehearsal process?
Steve: Yeah it was a very different rehearsal process because normally we’d do a week read through and we would spend an afternoon talking to the actors, reading through the scenes. On this we got together with the director Graeme Harper and we had four days or was it five days with the set marked out and cos it was a multi-camera production as Adam said, filmed in two days, we needed to know exactly where we were going to be and Graeme needed to know where we were exactly going to be for the camera positions and that was so we could get all the mistakes in as well, where we were sort of blocking each other but not ridiculously so. And Rula Lenska of course was well used to all this and I think maybe to begin with thought we were taking the piss (audience laughter) But we all got on really well with it and I think its one of the best episodes that we’ve done and it certainly got a strong reaction.
Host Q: So we’ll open it to audience questions…
Audience Q: What sort of advice would you give to aspiring actors and actresses who really want to write and star in their own work?
Steve: Well I think one of the best pieces of advice is to be creative and write for yourself as well. That was what we started off doing. If you’re an actor you study acting, you come out, you have to wait for other people to give you a job. And if you can be self-reliant, if you can write things and nowadays you don’t just have to write things for the stage which was what we did when we started. You can write things and make them pretty cheaply and get them out there. You can film, get the edited, get them online. So my advice, if you’ve got any inclination at all to write as well as act then definitely pursue that and the more you do it the better you’ll get. So yeah, that would be my advice.
Reece: I don’t have any (audience laughter) I don’t like encouraging anybody else (audience laughter) Edinburgh Festival was the thing that got us noticed by anybody cos that last week of the Festival, where TV people come and descend and scout around looking for things they think might be of interest. And that was where we got the attention. I think it was slightly before. Sarah Smith. We were at the Canal Café and she spotted us and then we went to Edinburgh and from there got the Radio Four thing. I think you just can’t stop, be of the mind. Don’t stop if you really want to do it, if you’re inclined to pursue it. I don’t remember having a plan between us all that we’d do a live show that would get us a television series. (We) just sort of couldn’t do it, could not do it. So we just pursued it and it was a long…it was 1994 we were doing it in pubs a long time before we filmed the TV version of it at the end of 1998. So it was a lot of years of just friends coming and supporting us, of us doing the same thing, sometimes with exactly the same audience. I used to say to Jeremy ‘Why are we doing it? Everyone out there has already seen it. They’re just coming out of kindness.’ We just sort of didn’t stop.
Adam: Its Steve point isn’t it. Just keep working, even if it’s unpaid, get out there, get your work seen by people and that’s the way to do it. I mean I started out as an actor and I made the mistake of just sitting alone at home waiting for the telephone to ring. And now I’m a producer. That shows you doesn’t it.
Steve: And the other thing you can do if you’re very fortunate, find good producers and executive producers who really get your work because that is worth its weight in gold. For us to work with Adam and Jon Plowman, which we’ve done for many years now and has been absolutely fantastic. So you have to be a bit lucky. Perseverance is the key. Good luck.
Audience Q: Just want to ask you about locations. How are your experiences with finding locations at different points in your career and also have you had any strange experiences like people hanging around?
Adam: It has changed. I used to be a locations manager in my long journey up to being a producer, for about a year. I found it a hateful job, going around knocking on doors, literally cold calling people. I was doing something for BBC Children’s and I knocked on the door and this lady – a bit like Tubbs actually – said ‘Yes’. ‘I’m from the BBC and would you like us to come and film in your house’. ‘No. Not at all’ and shut the door. And I’d given her my card. No, I told her who I was ‘Adam Tandy’ and had shown her my ID card. And she then phoned up my department, BBC Children’s, and said ‘Do you have anybody called Adam Tandy working for you?’ and they denied it. So as a result of that I was reported to the police and I’m on the police records computer as a sometime con artist that claimed to be a locations manager for the BBC (audience laughter) Things have actually changed a bit since then. There’s less cold calling cos there’s less time to make things, so we use the same building. We’ve used Langleybury three times.
Adam: Four times. And we can’t use it anymore because ‘Harlots’, the BBC Two show, is now in there. So the same buildings get used again and again and again. And a lot of the really well-known ones and some of the ones you wouldn’t recognise, just ordinary houses, are on the books of agencies, specialist agencies. And part of the deal is you sign up with an agency, someone is allowed to come and film on payment of a fee. The fees have gone up but you can always get into places now. That’s how location managing’s done. You ring up an agency and say you’re looking for this type of thing. That’s sort of how it works now.
Steve: The first thing we ever made was called ‘Highgate House of Horror’ and we made it with our own video cameras in our flat and I think that’s the place to start really. Finding, using what you’ve got around you, that you don’t have to pay extra for. Yes, start with what you know.
Reece: We’ve had funny experiences cos often a funny thing happens when you’re filming in someone’s house (that) you get. You might be filming upstairs and they say there’s a green room downstairs if you want to go and sit in there – it’s just a living room – while we get the lighting set up. And you go and the people that own the house are just pottering about and you end up just sitting on their sofa while they’re having their breakfast. That – the funny situation. We nearly did a No.9 on it, we thought it was a bit too…cos its such a particular thing when you’re just sat with a family that own the house, trying to make small talk with them when you’ve got nothing in common. We were doing one League of Gentlemen and it was the lady’s birthday that morning – well all day in fact (audience laughter) and she was in her nightgown with a glass of champagne sat opposite me and Steve and we were like ‘Alright’. ‘It’s my birthday’. ‘Happy Birthday’. ‘Yessss’ (audience laughter) A sickly feeling.
Adam: It is actually better to go to an agency these days. ‘Tempting Fate’ is shot on a set which we built and the reason I give to people…we need to build it , its really tight and you can’t get in and out of the room, you have to make it a bit bigger for the cameras. And that’s part of the reason. The other reason is I’m slightly phobic. The last time I tried to film…with a load of stuff in it, I arrived on the first day of filming to discover a piece of paper sellotaped to the door that says ‘Dear BBC. We don’t want any filming. Please go away. We’ve gone on holiday.’ So be warned.
Audience Q: I just want to say how great the ‘Tempting Fate’ was. It really was amazing. My question is, one of the good things about ‘Inside No.9’ is these guest casts. Have you ever wondered about doing an episode that’s just you two starring in it?
Reece: Wow. Well you sort of pre-empted. We’ve done one in the next series. Yeah, we thought that ourselves and I think we wanted to do one, just (a) two-hander between me and Steve, so there is one in the next series. So yes to answer your question, we’ve done it.
Steve: We play a jaded old double act that can’t stand each other (audience laughter)
Audience Q: Carrying on the horror theme from the festival. What stories or films did you have when you were growing up that inspired your work, like through the ages?
Reece: Right from being too young to see them I used to watch the horror double bills, that don’t happen anymore of course, and wait for the colour Hammer one at 1.05 in the morning. The Universal one first and you’d see ‘Dracula’ and then ‘Hands of the Ripper’ or something at five past one in the morning. Right very early on we had a strange like-mindedness about horror films, very particular. I’ve said this many times, but we all had a collective memory of Bonfire Night in 1976 when none of us went out to look at the fireworks, we all stayed in to watch ‘Carry on Screaming’. Slightly horrific horror theme and we all did it and have that memory. That right from an early age has been an influence. And then more so, real-life documentaries, that often comes into the work a lot as well. We try not to completely parody things. If we do a horror thing, we try to make it sort of a bit scary as well as being funny. It’s a hard thing to do both – scary and funny. You’re constantly tousling with the tone you are setting, breaking the tension with a laugh as a relief and then building it up again.
Steve: For me it was the ones that you started watching and you didn’t even know they were horror films. ‘The Wicker Man’ or ‘Don’t Look Now’ are the two favourites I remember so clearly watching cos I was so scared by the endings of those films, but they don’t begin like traditional horror films, if you like. We just have a very broad range of influences and we bring it all to bear as you can see. I mean ‘The Wicker Man’. There’d be no Tubbs & Edward in the local shop without ‘The Wicker Man’.
Audience Q: It always comes across that you have a great time filming and performing, even the sad ones. I’ve always just wanted to know what has been your favourite or the most fun or enjoyable to actually perform and film?
Reece: Of the No. 9’s?
Audience Q: Yeah the No.9’s or anything really.
Reece: Well of the No.9’s I really enjoyed doing the witchcraft trial. I enjoy that world cos I’m fascinated by it anyway and to play a sort of Matthew Hopkins type character was great fun. David Warner was great in that. It was very cold I remember in that barn. It was freezing cold. That was good fun. I enjoyed that one.
Steve: I enjoyed doing ‘A Quiet Night In’ cos there were no lines to learn (audience laughter) apart from the fact that we filmed it in July so for the night shoots we had to wait until half past ten for it to get dark, so we had five or six through- the-night didn’t we?
Adam: We ended up having to do six and we shouldn’t have needed it as it was in one location but because it was summer it wasn’t night long enough and we were filming in a glass house.
Steve: But having said all that it was really fun. And there’s one in the new series called ‘Zanzibar’ which is set in a hotel corridor and we had quite a big cast. There was about ten or eleven of us and that’s always tremendous fun doing those big cast ones as well. But yeah they’re all great. We love all of them.
Adam: Yeah ‘Zanzibar’ watch out for that. We’re probably going to start series four with that one. That’s probably the most fun I’ve had on a set for a long time, for a week. The pace was incredible and the performances are amazing. So watch out for that.
Host: On that note, I think we’re out of time (audience aw, groan and mock boo)