Inside Number Nine
After the League of Gentlemen went on an indefinite hiatus, I have followed the careers of all four members with great interest. It would be fair to say that, individually and collectively, they have had a massive impact and are a massive influence throughout TV and popular culture. Mark Gatiss has become the go to guy for Horror Documentaries, not to mention his impressive work on Sherlock, and his hit and miss work on Doctor Who. Jeremy Dyson, the non acting member, has created such TV classics as Funland, script edited This is Jinsy, wrote three highly acclaimed and inventive short story anthologies and the astonishing novel What Happens Now, which I strongly recommend.
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have continued to write together, carrying the League’s legacy on through the highly acclaimed and intelligently written Psychoville. Now their love of anthology series like Tales of the Unexpected and Hammer House of Horror is brought to the fore with Inside Number Nine. British Comedy has of course already spoofed Tales of the Unexpected with Steve Coogan's Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible. Inside Number Nine, however, is no spoof, and the contents of each stand alone episode are far darker than Coogan's lighter hearted romps. This puts it head and shoulders above Dr Terrible in terms of approach and narrative. The premise is very simple, none of the episodes or the characters is linked in any way, and the only connection between all 6 of the tales is the fact that they take place in a property numbered 9.
The first episode, Sardines, (broadcast 5th Feb 2014) features an astonishing cast, a veritable who's who of British comedy with Katharine Parkinson as Rebecca, whose engagement party is the premise of the episode. Ben Willbond is her fiancé Jeremy, and Timothy West is her Father, in whose house the party is being held, and in whose unlocked room, during a game of sardines old ghosts come back to haunt the participants. Shearsmith stars as the over the top boyfriend of Pemberton's Carl, Rebecca’s older brother, and for those of you who only know Steve Pemberton from Benidorm, his performance as an emotionally repressed, uptight buttoned up individual is a tour de force. As an actor he is so versatile, possibly the most versatile out of all the former League of Gents.
With a love triangle between Rebecca, Jeremy and his ex girlfriend Rachel, portrayed wonderfully by Olivia Lovibond, the episode involves the whole party playing sardines. This leads the whole cast to be in a big Victorian wardrobe by the end of the episode. The claustrophobia in this story is ratcheted up, guest by guest, as little conversation and snapshots of their lives and relationships are tantalisingly drip fed in. With characters like Tim Key's boring Ian, and Marc Wootton as Stinky John, and Anne Reid, Anna Chancellor, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Luke Pasqualino rounding out the cast, not a line is wasted. Characters appear introduced slowly through the medium of the game, and the writing is so strong that you know these people after moments on screen.
The denouement comes with a shocking twist that implies that an incident in the room they were in, referred to and hinted at throughout the episode, involved Andrew (Timothy West) and young boys at a scout jamboree, was sexual and that one boy was sent away or paid off. The young boy turns out to be boring Ian, who locks everyone in the wardrobe, and starts to spray lighter fluid around the room. The use of ideas and snapshots that could have filled a whole series and the direction by David Kerr, with the scenes set entirely in the one room, is fantastic. The tension is raised imperceptibly notch by notch, and when you think you’re being led down one route, the story turns, unexpectedly and with some finesse. As writing goes this is superb.
There is a fine line between tragedy and comedy, and Sardines is one of those rare treats that manages to walk that line, put a foot in both camps, and yet it never feels forced. The emotion is genuine and the performances are flawless.
The second episode A Quiet Night In (12th Feb 2014) is as different from Sardines as is possible to get, with it being a homage to silent comedy. There is minimal dialogue, instead relying on the expressiveness of Pemberton and Shearsmith as two inept burglars trying to steal a valuable picture from the expensive house of a couple played by Oona Chaplin (granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin) and Denis Lawson.
With the soundtrack (Rachmaninov's piano concerto No.2) played out almost entirely on the stereo system of the owner Gerald (Denis Lawson), who is in the process of rowing with his younger partner Sabrina (Chaplin). She vamps it up deliciously as the argument continues with silence, and there is a fantastic bit of sofa wars where she tries to watch Eastenders. There are some sublime comedy moments in here, a fantastic laugh out loud scene where Pemberton opens the door to shoo out a Yorkshire Terrier that’s threatening to reveal his location, only for a gigantic Irish Wolfhound to walk in.
Pemberton gets the best visual comedy moments in this, from the scene where the housekeeper spots him and sprays cleaner in his eyes, to the moment where he accidentally rubs raw chilli into them, his inept burglar is timed to perfection. Shearsmith as the professional is also wonderful with his timing, and the scene where he ends up hidden in the bedroom wrestling with a blow up sex doll was great too. There are some more surprises, the reveal of Sabrina’s gender, the culmination of the row involving Gerald killing Sabrina, and the two burglars dropping the suitcase on Gerald leading to the artwork they are stealing ending up in the swimming pool - all played straight. Even though the burglars are inept nothing seems forced or unnatural, as the narrative flows through the gestures, the nuances, the visual acting.
The final surprise of Kayvan Novak turning up as a deaf guy selling cleaning products, who then shoots both the burglars and calls someone to say he’s got the artwork, without realising what’s on the wall is a replica placed there by Pemberton and Shearsmith is a brilliant ending. The lack of dialogue doesn’t slow the plot down, the homage to silent comedy is, again pitch perfect, and as both actors and writers Pemberton and Shearsmith know their material inside out, and what quality stuff it is.
Tom & Gerri, (19th Feb 2014) is an intimate piece featuring only four actors, which sees Shearsmith's frustrated primary school teacher Tom, taking pity on Pemberton's tramp Migg. He inadvertently lets the tramp into his life, which has a huge impact on his relationship with his partner Gerri (Gemma Arterton) - an aspiring actress. The influence of Migg on Tom is seen as an unwelcome one, as first Migg infiltrates his flat and persuades him to quit his job and sign on and become a writer full time. However as the narrative moves on, and we see Migg hiding Toms’ phone, deleting his messages and intercepting his post, what initially seemed like a good deed looks like a bad idea. The subtle shift in the characters occurs midway through as Tom starts to spend all day drinking, growing a beard and looking more like Migg, whilst Migg, using Toms money and flat starts to smarten himself up. With several attempted interventions from Tom's friend Stevie, played to perfection by Conleth Hill, it’s only when Tom has his electricity cut off that Gerri returns. She explains he’s had a breakdown, and that Migg only exists in his mind.
All the way through as the story comes to its gripping conclusion, the denouement is impossible to predict. When we see Tom's flat nice and clean, and him and Gerri about to have coffee it looks like a happy ending has appeared. That of course isn’t the Pemberton & Shearsmith way, this isn’t Hollywood, instead we’re left to good old Stevie to tell Tom he’s recovering from his breakdown after Gerri died in a car crash, and we’re left with the image of Migg's body lying at the bottom of a bath, with blood everywhere. The way they wrong footed us throughout the episode, making it seem like the audience are in on the act that Migg doesn’t exist is a superb piece of story telling, and the little twist at the end is all the better for not being expected.
The writing in all these diverse episodes showcases two creative talents at the top of their game. The excellent calibre of guest stars, the production showing a fine attention to detail, and a level of perfectionism that is way ahead of anyone else writing dark comedy at the moment. Inside Number 9 is superb addition to Shearsmith and Pemberton's already impressive CV, and the good news is that not only do we have three more episodes to look forward to, but that BBC 2 have commissioned a second season entering production in Autumn.