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 that is in keeping with a defined narrative logic that relates to what has occurred beforehand.  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 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, it has now given us 18 stories of impeccable quality – each a beautifully crafted jewel, revealing different facets and elements within it every time one of them is revisited. A work of art is something people want to look at and examine from every possible angle and ‘Inside No. 9’ has that similar rewatchability 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 the ‘raising the bar’ ideal to heights of extraordinary anticipation, 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 sureness of touch and a masterly confidence that is quite remarkable.

Series three travelled between the matchless technical integrity and narrative experiment 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 satisfying viewer expectation. This would be the creative death knell for two creators whose work is a labour of love and who 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

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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.

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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.

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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 and the appalling extent of his 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 revenge that references the cornerstones of Greek tragedy and the ancient revenge play – murder, madness and cannibalism (primarily Seneca’s ‘Thyestes’)

His revenge 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 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 enable 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