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‘The show happened by accident’: cult comedy Inside No 9 shuts its doors
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‘The show happened by accident’: cult comedy Inside No 9 shuts its doors

A creepy Tim Key stuffed inside a wardrobe, a miserable Diane Morgan on a pedalo, a sozzled Tamzin Outhwaite in a karaoke booth and a corrupt David Morrissey in a football referee’s dressing room. Along with trains, call centres, alpine chalets, caravans and even an escape room, these are just some of the memorable scenes and settings from the nine series of Inside No 9. With slightly less pleasing numerical symmetry, the show now finally draws to a close this week after, not nine, but 10 years.

Over that period, the show’s writers and creators, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, have conjured up 55 standalone episodes spanning dark comedy, gothic horror and Pinteresque drama, all signed off with what has become a customary plot twist. Loaded with guest stars that have included everyone from Jason Isaacs to Peter Kay and Jenna Coleman to Sophie Okonedo, the show has proved always unpredictable but consistently compelling. The result of this run, according to the show’s producer Adam Tandy, is “unprecedented”: it is now BBC Two’s longest-running current comedy.

While the Bafta-winning show still feels like a distinctly unique offering, going hard against the grain of trends and tropes, its influence is still evident. The Duplass brothers’ 2017 US anthology series Room 104 – set in room 104 of a roadside motel with each episode spanning thriller, comedy and horror – feels heavily indebted to it, while numerous other horror-tinged anthology shows have popped up in its wake, such as The Terror, The Haunting and Dimension 404.

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith in the series one episode A Quiet Night In.View image in fullscreen

The boundary-pushing series came to life almost on a whim. “The show happened by accident,” recalls Shearsmith. “We went for a meeting at the BBC about what we thought would be the third series of [his and Pemberton’s dark comedy] Psychoville and then they said: ‘So what’s next?’ It was like: ‘Oh, they don’t want Psychoville.’”

The pair had been discussing the idea of anthology programmes and decided to pitch that on the spot. “We always liked the idea of doing something like the Play of the Week,” says Pemberton, of the ITV show that broadcast weekly plays in the 1950s and 60s. “It felt very retro but in being so retro it felt fresh, because that style of programming had fallen out of favour.” Shearsmith adds: “We thought: ‘Let’s get back to that sort of telly – a kind of Tales of the Unexpected show where we get a different story every week.’”

It was a format they had been warned off doing for years by executives, being told it was hard to build a loyal audience by changing things up for every episode and possessing no continuity. “We’d always been told, even through our sketch show writing years in The League of Gentlemen, that you need to have something [in the show] that comes back,” says Shearsmith. “Something that is not resetting each time. So it felt like a hard sell but we just slipped into it because the BBC trusted us by then.”

“We weren’t sure whether we should be in all the episodes,” remembers Pemberton. “We were nervous of it looking like a vanity project. So in series one we dipped out of one episode each but the feedback from fans was that they missed us, so we decided: why are we doing ourselves out of a job? We’ve been in every episode, except one, since.” Of the 50-plus episodes they have both appeared in, they have played everything from calamitous art thieves to grisly serial killers, a comedy double act, coppers, doctors and drag acts. “No one else would cast us in all these great parts, so we have to write them ourselves,” says Shearsmith.

Jane Horrocks, Steve Pemberton and Nikki Amuka-Bird in the series two episode Cold Comfort.View image in fullscreen

Aside from stretching their own acting muscles in various roles for the show, they have also managed to pull from a huge pool of talent over the years. “The characters [they write] are so well defined it seems they can seduce any actor,” says Guillem Morales, who has directed 15 episodes of the show. “Those scripts are a gift for character actors,” says the Olivier award-nominated actor Jane Horrocks, who appeared in the episode Cold Comfort in 2015. “For me, it’s the most interesting sort of television when you’re coming up with different stories each week; and in this age of television where everything seemingly is about murder, it’s so nice to see stories that have a bit more imagination to them.”

When Simon Callow, the celebrated thespian, was approached he knew nothing of the show. “I’m not a huge television watcher,” he says. “I’d never seen it but it was a wonderful script, this spooky Christmas episode set in a church. And the moment I said to anybody: ‘I’ve been asked to be in something called Inside No 9, the response was always: ‘It’s the best thing on television.’” Maxine Peake was such a huge fan that she had been patiently awaiting an invitation for years when she guested in series five. “I was a bit like: why haven’t I been asked yet?” she laughs.

There is universal praise from everyone I speak to about working with Pemberton and Shearsmith. “Proper people in an industry where there are a lot of tosspots,” laughs Charlie Cooper, the This Country star, who appeared in recent episode Boo to a Goose. “They are masters of that 30-minute TV format,” says Tandy. “I don’t give them notes because they don’t need them.” Morales says that what they have managed to create with the show is incredibly special. “No one tells them what to do. There’s no executives making decisions. That’s very rare – and in the landscape of TV, it is an extraordinary oasis.”

Charlie Cooper in series nine episode Boo to a Goose.View image in fullscreen

And much of this is done economically. “What strikes you when you get cast is they hardly have any budget,” says Daniel Mays, who plays a hapless kidnapper in the 2022 episode Kid/Nap. “They have to do a huge amount with very little.” Morales echoes this. “I never felt I had the money to do whatever I wanted,” he says. “But we always had freedom. Real, true, creative freedom. And that is priceless.” Episodes that do a lot with a little include Tom & Gerri, set exclusively in one grimy flat based on Shearsmith and Pemberton’s own days on the dole living together, as well as The Stakeout, which features the pair in a single police car for the entire episode.

Pemberton thinks such limitations have forced greater creativity. “Our lack of resources meant our invention had to be sharper,” he says. “When the streaming platforms came in, you saw incredible budgets everywhere but I’m very happy we didn’t suddenly come into lots of money and therefore reduce our creativity. Also, doing more experimental episodes like [the live Halloween special] Dead Line and [fake gameshow] 3 By 3, you could only do with scheduled broadcast television.”

Dead Line was a landmark moment. Not only did Shearsmith and Pemberton pull off a live episode – one set in the supposedly haunted Granada studios – but they also managed to convince the public that they had botched it. As the broadcast cut to a holding screen and a voiceover declared technical difficulties, Pemberton, Shearsmith and the rest of the episode’s cast were besieged by paranormal spirits. It was a rare example in which audiences switching off (the episode lost a fifth of its viewers during its staged fault) was viewed as a success. “We did our false transmission breakdown and all hell broke loose,” recalls Shearsmith, who was live-tweeting during the broadcast to keep up the pretence it had been a disaster. “We were thrilled people thought it had gone wrong.”

The episode’s director, Barbara Wiltshire, remembers huge pressure and a weight of responsibility to pull it off. “My overriding feeling was: don’t fuck it up,” she recalls. “And don’t let people think this is the one terrible episode – because they had all been so brilliant up to then.” She hadn’t even told her loved ones about the premise. “At the end of the live transmission, I turned over my phone and my partner had texted me saying: ‘I’m so sorry, call me when it all dies down,’ thinking it had all gone horribly wrong. I felt incredibly guilty and cruel about putting them through the pain of watching it unfold.”

Playing with, and undoing, conventional forms of television has been a central part of Inside No 9. One episode [Mulberry Close] in the new series is told entirely from the perspective of a doorbell camera, while Horrocks’s episode, in which she plays a volunteer at a Samaritans-like helpline, was shot and presented entirely through CCTV cameras. “It really added to the creepiness,” she says. “Like a real CCTV camera, you’re not aware you’re on it, so you weren’t performing to a camera. That’s what I loved about it; it was just capturing little moments that didn’t require massive acting because it was just people doing their job in an office.”

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There have been some adventurous ideas that have not got off the ground over the years, though. A musical proved too tricky, while one instalment set on a ghost train – “like an anthology within our anthology” according to Shearsmith – was deemed too extravagant and more like a feature film. Tandy’s desire to have an episode set in space never quite materialised either, nor did repeated attempts to feature Ian McKellen, whose diary just couldn’t quite align with the show’s schedule, despite his interest.

For Boo to a Goose, filming on location on a train proved to be “the biggest thing we’ve ever attempted”, according to Tandy. “All the scenes with us getting on and off the train and on the platform were done around a real train that was running to a timetable,” says Mark Bonnar, who starred in the episode. “It ran every 10 minutes and they could only hold it for a couple of minutes, so we had to be fully prepared to get on the train, do a bit of acting, get off, and then the train would pull away.”

Sheridan Smith, Joel Little and Tom Riley in series two episode The 12 Days of Christine.View image in fullscreen

As the series concludes, talk of favourite memories and episodes is inevitably thrown around (spoilers ahead). “There are so many magical moments,” says Tandy. “Like shooting the final scene of The 12 Days of Christine.” That episode, which concludes with Sheridan Smith’s character realising she’s been experiencing her life flashing before her eyes as she lies dying in a car crash, is a universally beloved one. “When we edited that scene and watched it back it was just like, wow,” recalls Morales. “I cried. We all cried.” Even the actors themselves struggled to get through it, such was its emotional punch. “It all got a little bit too much,” recalls Tom Riley, who stars opposite Smith in the episode. “We were all supposed to be the ones calmly helping send Sheridan off to the other side, but we had to hold it together.”

However, one person’s masterpiece is another person’s turkey when it comes to this show. “Fans hate some episodes and love others and that’s brilliant,” says Pemberton. “Because it means we’ve done our job and they aren’t just these homogenised lumps we’re putting out every week where you can’t remember the differences.

“We do some extreme things,” he adds. “Like the commedia dell’arte episode [Wuthering Heist] or the Shakespearean iambic pentameter episode [Zanzibar]. Some love it, some hate it, and we’re delighted by that.”

While each episode is different in terms of premise and genre from the others, the unifying thread is the last-minute twist – one that is usually a very dark reveal. Take 2018’s To Have and to Hold, an episode that, on the surface, is exploring a tired and stagnated marriage in a suburban terrace but that reveals a captive hostage being held in the family basement, where in turn one of the family becomes imprisoned. Or at the end of The Riddle of the Sphinx, where a man is forced to consume the body of his long-lost daughter. “That was quite hardcore,” laughs Tandy. “But you find a way of managing it so that it doesn’t become too extreme.” That same episode, centred on the setter of a cryptic crossword, also had some typical Inside No 9 fun with the format: the very same crossword featured in the episode appeared in that day’s edition of The Guardian.

The series four ‘iambic pentameter’ episode Zanzibar.View image in fullscreen

The plot twists were never intended to be such a focal point, according to Shearsmith. “We never set out to do a series that was going to become as known for the twists as Inside No 9 now is,” he says. “That slightly annoys me because sometimes people think that’s all it’s about. But come and sit in a room with us and see how much it’s about the journey of getting there and the storytelling. I think people sometimes don’t realise that.”

The contents of the upcoming final episode remain secret, but as the show comes to an end, is there sadness in the camp? “It’s been mixed emotions,” says Shearsmith. “It’s been quite momentous but it’s not like we’re being taken out back and shot.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the play-like structure of the TV show, a theatre run is now booked for early 2025 for a special instalment titled Stage/Fright. And this summer Shearsmith and Pemberton are heading to Shanghai to catch the world’s first immersive theatre production of Inside No 9, which is hugely popular in China. (The first eight series have been viewed more than 100m times, according to BBC Studios, which is producing the Chinese stage show.) The immersive production is based on three episodes of the TV show, delivered by local actors and directors in part on a 360-degree stage encircling the audience, who sit on rotating stools.

“We don’t know what the future holds but we’re ready to move on,” says Pemberton. “We’ve been so lucky. Not many people have these opportunities. Inside No 9 has been a whole lifetime’s showreel of what we can do. There’s a sense of great pride in what we’ve achieved.”

The final episode of Inside No 9 airs on 12 June. Inside No 9 Stage/Fright is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 18 January to 5 April 2025.

Source: theguardian.com