Inside No.9- Series Review

September 16, 2014 4:36 pm

A Tales of the Unexpected for the modern age where comedy and the macabre are interlaced, Inside No.9 invites the viewer to embark on six standalone stories, each unfolding behind different doors marked with a number 9. Wherever these doors lead, whether it be a flat, country house or theatre dressing room, they are guaranteed to open to a striking succession of different experiences.

The series is the latest addition to a consistently gripping repertoire of quality entertainment from writer/performers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. The pair rose to prominence in the late 1990’s with the cult hit The League of Gentlemen and in 2009 further secured their reputations as connoisseurs of grisly comedy with the fantastic murder mystery series Psychoville. They are renowned for their collection of grotesque comedic characters, thought provoking social observations and uncanny knack of simultaneously appalling and enthralling an audience.

inside no.9With Inside No.9, there is a noticeable break from tradition; cross dressing and grotesque characters removed to make way for a series that is nothing short of remarkable. Frightening, intense and indisputable funny, the series puts the viewer in claustrophobically close proximity to the clandestine horrors concealed behind closed doors. It has a resolutely native feel to it, the astute social commentary lingering on relatable, predominantly British issues, although whether or not this is deliberate is unclear. Each half an hour episode is a work of art, a condensed feast of visuals and masterful storytelling propelled by truly captivating performances from the writers themselves and an impressive ensemble of distinguished actors (Tim Key, Conleth Hill and Gemma Arteton to name just a few). Shearsmith and Pemberton appear in most, if not all episodes, demonstrating their versatility as actors and writers as well subtly interlinking each narrative

We kick start the series with Sardines, an episode set in a rural mansion where sinister secrets and allegations of child abuse are revealed during a decidedly miserable game of sardines. We are presented with a disturbingly British situation, homing in on the consequences of the keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude we as a nation often employ when confronted with anything undesirable. Set almost entirely within the stifling confines of a wardrobe, the overwhelming intensity and tension is palpable and as an episode with a fairly short running time, this is an achievement within itself. And baring all the Shearsmith/ Pemberton horror film inspired hallmarks, it has a very Hitchcock-ian feel to it; all low camera angles, small shafts of light and heavy breathing. With a cast of renowned talent, including Katherine Parkinson, Tim Key and Anne Reid, Sardines is stylish and dynamic with a delightfully sinister undercurrent.

We then enter the aptly named second episode, A Quiet Night In, which won critical acclaim and was recently repeated on BBC2 in commemoration of the station’s 50th broadcasting year. It was divinely executed, and arguably one of the lighter hearted episodes of the series. Denis Lawson and Oona Chaplin play a silently feuding couple whilst their modernist mansion is under siege by two seemingly inexperienced, black-clad burglars. It is almost entirely absent of dialogue and the Laurel and Hardy-esque feel to the episode serves as a subtle nod to the traditional slapstick style, albeit sadistically. Subtlety and over exaggeration are perfectly balanced and Shearsmith and Pemberton once again demonstrate their flair for lulling the viewer into a false sense of security before taking an entirely different, disturbing direction and ending on a razor sharp twist ending.

As we venture into episode three, Shearsmith and Pemberton’s particular brand of ghoulish comedy begins to intertwine with the psychological. Touching, chilling and utterly riveting, Tom and Gerri is a rare gem that may not be particularly funny, but will remain with viewers for a long time afterwards. It is an episode immensely rich in visual detail and with superb performances from Shearsmith, Pemberton and Gemma Arteton, it became an instant fan favourite. We meet Tom, a school teacher and aspiring Bukowski-esque novelist, whose slightly pessimistic outlook on life and disdain for responsibility serves as a direct contrast to the fervour of his girlfriend Gerri. After reluctantly allowing the local tramp, Migg, into his flat, Tom’s life begins to take a downward spiral that eventually culminates with a twist ending that left viewers reeling.

Embarking on episode four proved to be somewhat surprising as we encounter a story that seems curiously gentle by Shearsmith and Pemberton’s standards. Shot wholly within the domestic comforts and concrete boundaries of a suburban home, the Last Gasp demonstrates the complete suspension of human morals when confronted by the prospect of wealth. Starring Tamsin Greig, Adam Deacon and Sophie Thompson, the story revolves around the death of a celebrity who spontaneously departs whilst blowing up a balloon for a terminally ill child. This prompts an episode long debate over the balloon’s worth as it contains the dying breath of someone notable. Whilst certainly endearing and at times visually sublime, the episode was arguably the weakest of the series, providing a somewhat disappointing ending after the steady sequence of twists and shocks associated with the previous three. There is no dispute regarding performance quality, however the narrative was vaguely anticlimactic, which is not something usually associated with Shearsmith and Pemberton.

However, there is a remarkable return to form as we progress to the thespian realms of the penultimate episode. Set in the dimly lit recesses of a theatre dressing room, the Understudy is a beautifully executed albeit complex episode where life imitates art and the price of success and adoration is examined. With appearances by Julia Davis, Rosie Cavaliero and Lyndsey Marshal, Pemberton plays Tony, a self-assured, apparently brilliant actor starring in a West End production of Macbeth, whilst Shearsmith assumes the role of his understudy Jim. There is a deliciously bitter feel to it, masterfully contrasted by hilarious one liners and foreshadowing employed through the use of mirrors and hallucinations. The subtle parallels between Macbeth and the lives of the cast are seeded in the episode almost immediately, documenting a gradual rise to power and the consequences that follow.

As the series draws to a grisly close, we embark on an episode that plunges us to the very darkest realms of comedy. Serving as tribute to the traditional Hammer House of Horror style with its gothic eccentricities and permanent sense of impending doom, the Harrowing is not so much creepy as genuinely and gut-wrenchingly frightening. It is an episode steeped in horror, moulded by the permanent sense of unease and the fear of the unknown. We home in on the bizarre goings on of a night spent babysitting Andras, the disabled sibling of Tabitha (Helen McCrory) and Hector (Shearsmith). They are an odd pair who do not go out and harbour a fondness for paintings depicting the Harrowing of Hell. Though initially humorous, the tension has nowhere to go but up as the vagaries and subtle hints regarding Andras’s disability are elevated to apparently supernatural phenomena. It is fiendishly funny and deliciously unsettling and by employing the use of a bell, a stuffed cat and an apparently haunted stair lift, Shearsmith and Pemberton display a talent for inverting the most mundane of objects in an effective bid to evoke a truly menacing atmosphere.

With yet another near perfect series under their belt and a  second series commissioned, it is plain to see that Shearsmith and Pemberton are a creative match made in heaven. Their collaborative projects are without equal and the pair’s friendship and mutual creative vision have allowed them to produce a series that is nothing short of a triumph. With a history involving dozens upon dozens of entirely unrelated characters, their astonishing versatility is something to be admired and respected. Pemberton has a flair for bringing an air of humanity to each character he plays and Shearsmith’s seemingly innate ability to swing between amicable and psychopathic characters is unparalleled. Inside No.9 is a superb take on the arguably outdated anthology style, the comedy and horror elements perfectly balanced which is something Pemberton and Shearsmith do incredibly well. It is clear that the pair are two of the finest writers and performers currently working on television today and will continue to astound both viewers and critics for years to come.

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