Inside No. 9: 5.01 ‘The Referee’s A W***er’
The last time the genius of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton graced our screens was back in 2018 with their Halloween special. Genuinely spooky and believable enough to have caused a swarm of confusion on Twitter, series five was clearly going to have a lot to live up to. With little fanfare (BBC, what are you playing at?) episode one aired on Monday night, a short 30 minute endeavour taking place in a football changing room, to relatively little fanfare.
There’s a distinct formula that is burnt into the very soul of Inside No.9. For those unfamiliar, each episode takes place inside a specific location (in the past this has included a hotel, house, train carriage, gallery and my personal favourite - a karaoke booth) and each episode has a twist – a moment where the proverbial rug is pulled out from underneath you. Some episodes land better than others (A Quiet Night In being amongst the top tier, with Nana’s Party being amongst the more forgettable episodes). However, being an anthology series, it’s no problem if one doesn’t float your boat. And besides, whether they land or not - every single episode is a masterclass in how to craft a twist that gets under your skin.
So, does The Referee’s a W***er stand up to Shearsmith and Pemberton’s impressive back catalogue? The short answer is a resounding yes, but the longer answer is that it works because it is an entirely different vehicle to what we’ve seen before. Yes, like previous episodes, The Referee’s a W***er lines up the narrative skittles and then proceeds to knock each one of them down; but it does so in a way that feels utterly unique and refreshing - extraordinary for a show that is on its fifth season.
To fully explain the plot would be to give away the excellent ending, so to keep it short: Shearsmith and Pemberton are both football officials, supporting their head referee on what is his last match before retirement. There's a significant amount at stake in this particular game - if United win they will be promoted to the Premier League. On the flip side, their opponents (the Rovers) need to win to avoid relegation and possible financial destitution. It's an important game to say the least. Of course we never see any ball action – the entire episode takes place pre-match, at half-time and after the match, post-disaster.
From the off, the humour is solid – four men in a changing room discussing the upcoming game and their responsibilities as if it were life or death. So far, so normal in football. As the tension mounts before the game, we are let in on a couple of more dicier secrets; a potential match fix, a suspicious romantic entanglement, not to mention the friction between two the officials.
Shearsmith and Pemberton completely nail the writing and dialogue; it’s technical enough to appear completely knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the beautiful game but also manage to provide enough exposition to those of us who don’t know our kick-offs from our off-sides. It’s a delicate balance which they perform with expert attention to detail. All this as well as creating one of the funniest episodes of Inside No.9 yet (the watch synchronising is particularly brilliant). The cast is fantastic (Shearsmith and Pemberton doing their thing as usual) but David Morrisey is thoroughly engaging as by-the-book referee Martin, and Ralf Little is excellent as image-conscious Phil - the odd one out in the team.
I, for one, cannot wait until next Monday.