It might be a house or a flat, a hotel room or a train car. No matter where it is, something’s not quite right in Number 9. The twist might be gruesome, or it might be poignant, but either way, nothing will be quite as it first appeared.
A horror anthology series created and written by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, Inside No. 9 offers a veritable smorgasbord of stories, all tied together by a single gimmick – they take place in or around structures labelled with the number 9.
Despite this apparent restriction, there’s nothing in the way of Pemberton and Shearsmith’s creativity, and they use this freedom to full effect. There are gory slasher episodes, in which the body count swiftly climbs over the course of thirty minutes. There are experimental takes on the nature of storytelling, such as a near dialogue-free episode about a pair of bungling art thieves, or a Shakespearean farce told entirely in iambic pentameter. There are dark examinations of the worst parts of human nature, with allusions to child molestation, rape and imprisonment. And there are my personal favourites, the sad, poignant tales of life, death and loss.
With such a selection on offer, if you’re a fan of horror at all, you’re bound to find something to your liking. But, by the same token, this is not a series that can please all of the people all of the time. The massive shifts in tone and content mean that there are bound to be a few episodes that don’t land well with any viewer. And it also means that you can’t be sure what’s coming – the next episode is just as likely to be a parody or farce as it is to tackle something uncomfortably dark and depraved. Essentially, first time round, you have to be ready for anything.
Unsurprisingly, Pemberton and Shearsmith appear in pretty much every episode, playing a variety of different roles with ease. They are joined by an impressive array of guest stars across the four series – start naming your favourite British actors, and you’ll soon find one who has appeared in Inside No. 9 at some point.
No review of Inside No. 9 would be complete without touching on last year’s Halloween special, a live episode entitled ‘Dead Line’. The episode starts like any other, but soon seems to run into trouble when an apparent technical glitch causes the sound to cut out. Apologising profusely, the BBC resorts to showing A Quiet Night In – the episode without dialogue – but even this rerun starts going wrong. We then cut to Shearsmith and Pemberton in their dressing room, reacting in real time to live tweets about the episode. In due course, it seems as if the TV studio itself is haunted, following up on a rumour planted in the press prior to airing.
I’m sure that the live episode felt like a proper event at the time of airing – indeed, some people believed the technical glitch was real and switched off partway through. Unfortunately, I only watched it some months after it aired, and without the right timing and context, it all seemed a little odd. I found myself more interested in the fake ‘Dead Line’ episode within an episode, than in the spectacle of the framing story.
My top three episodes
- The 12 Days of Christine: We follow Christine through the key moments of her life, but something is not quite right. Who is the mysterious man who keeps showing up? Why do events sometimes seem implausible or jumbled? Through the lens of the most important moments in a person’s life, this episode takes a poignant look at family and relationships.
- Diddle Diddle Dumpling: Stay-at-home dad David finds a size 9 man’s shoe whilst out running, and soon becomes obsessed with reuniting it with its owner. As the seasons pass, David’s fixation on the shoe only grows, interfering with his relationship with his wife.
Keeley Hawes guest stars as David’s wife in this episode, which examines how something seemingly superficial and trivial can act as a trigger for uncovering deeper problems.
- Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room: Back in the eighties, Len and Tommy enjoyed a modest amount of fame as the comedy duo Cheese and Crackers. Years later, and Tommy is now a successful businessman who finds their old material outdated and embarrassing. And when he meets up with Len to perform one last act, all the past tensions of their relationship make for a fractious reunion.
Pemberton and Shearsmith are excellent in whatever roles they choose, but they particularly shine here. Pemberton has a blast as the outdated old comedian who doesn’t get why his material is completely inappropriate for a modern audience, whilst Shearsmith starts out with a tense exasperation that gradually unfurls to reveal deeper emotions.
My least favourite episodes
- Zanzibar: Inspired by the likes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors, this episode features mistaken identity galore as guests mix up their hotel rooms on the ninth floor of Hotel Zanzibar. The entire episode is written in iambic pentameter, which feels more tiresome than clever, and although some of the jokes land, overall the experience is underwhelming.
- The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge: A Monty Python-esque episode set in the 17th century. Elizabeth Gadge is on trial for witchcraft, but probably just because her daughter and son-in-law want her out of their house. The whole point of the episode is to be absurd, but by the same token, it was just a little too much for me.