Inside No. 9 is already firmly established as a jewel in the BBC crown, with creators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton lauded as perhaps the most inventive pairing in British television: only this month it picked up Best Scripted Comedy at the BAFTAs. On this side of the pond, however, the episodic anthology is still very much an unknown quantity. You can only watch it in full on BritBox, with the latest sixth season dropping today (its first two seasons are also available on Hulu).
The show’s recent awards success has hopefully sparked a little more interest. Yet any newcomers expecting a laugh-a-minute affair may well be bamboozled by how often it changes tone, style and structure. You’re just as likely to sit down to a piece of Mike Leigh-esque social realism (“Love’s Great Adventure”) or pagan horror (“The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge”) as a suburban farce (“Nana’s Party”) or industry satire (“And the Winner Is…”).
Of course, Pemberton and Shearsmith have built their reputation on unsettling audiences. The sketch show that put them on the map, The League of Gentlemen, assembled a motley crew of grotesque characters (all played by the duo and co-creator Mark Gatiss) including incestuous serial killer shopkeepers, toad-obsessed urine-drinkers and blackfaced freak show proprietors. Starring recent Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya, their second effort, Psychoville, leaned even further into the macabre with a deliciously offbeat riff on I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Inside No. 9 occasionally echoes the pair’s past work. After all, its entire concept was inspired by the latter’s fourth episode, an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope where the action unfolded in a single room. “Death Not Be Proud” even brings back Psychoville‘s gormless murderer David and his Tina Turner-impersonating mother from beyond the grave. But for the most part, each narrative – always somehow linked to the titular number – develops in an entirely new world, and, impressively, one that’s fully realized within the space of just 30 minutes.
It’s this brevity that’s helped dispel the comparisons which inevitably emerged before its 2014 premiere. Inside No. 9 undoubtedly shares a nihilistic streak with Black Mirror: there are very few happy endings to be found across its 37 episodes and counting. However, with a much smaller budget, shorter running time and deliberately confined settings, it’s operating on an entirely different level. The show feels more like an intimate collection of intimate short plays than the cinematic feature-lengths of the Netflix favorite. And in the case of online-only interactive special “The Inventors,” it even beat “Bandersnatch” to the punch by several years.
Ironically, dystopian sci-fi is one of the few genres that Inside No. 9 hasn’t yet embraced. In the first series alone, there was a Macbeth-inspired tale of backstage rivalry (“The Understudy”), haunted house throwback (“The Harrowing”) and a remarkable dialog-free slapstick comedy about two cat burglars’ disastrous attempt to rob a modernist house (“A Quiet Night In”).
The latter is typical of how Shearsmith and Pemberton play around with the anthology format like no other. “Zanzibar” may have been set in a hotel a la Room 104 – arguably America’s closest equivalent – but we don’t remember the HBO hit ever having its cast perform entirely in iambic pentameter. The sixth season opener “Wuthering Heist” also resurrects a historic art form, Commedia dell’arte, for a super-meta Reservoir Dogs pastiche that requires several viewings to keep up. And there are chapters filmed in the style of CCTV (“Cold Comfort”), a DVD commentary (“The Devil of Christmas”) and Alan Bennett-style monologues (“Thinking Out Loud”).
Most audaciously of all is Halloween special “Dead Line” (pictured above). Based on a man’s quest to return a mobile phone found in a graveyard, the live broadcast reportedly had many viewers switching over due to technical problems just nine minutes in. Of course, such gremlins were all part of a masterplan to convince audiences that the studio location was haunted for real. Watching the drama, or sometimes the lack thereof, reach its bloody denouement in real time (Shearsmith even questioned the hitches on Twitter to freak everyone out even more) revived the thrilling shared experience that only linear TV can offer.
For such a varied approach, there are surprisingly very few misses. Only “Empty Orchestra,” an inconsequential story about a workplace outing to a karaoke booth, falls truly flat. And even in those installments which don’t reach the pair’s high standards, there’s always something to admire in Pemberton and Shearsmith’s chameleonic performances.
Interestingly, the episode which appears to have been universally accepted as the greatest, “The 12 Days of Christine,” barely features its usual star players at all. Instead, two-time Laurence Olivier Award winner Sheridan Smith takes center stage as a young woman haunted by a mysterious entity amidst flashbacks of various life milestones. The relatively straight drama proved that its creators could effectively pull on the heartstrings, a feat they also achieve on “Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room” (old-school double act reunite after 30 years – or do they?).
Smith isn’t the only notable homegrown talent to have briefly entered Shearsmith and Pemberton’s ever-compelling world, either. From Jack Whitehall to Julia Davis, its cast list reads like a who’s who of British comedy, while Derek Jacobi, Maxine Peake and the late Helen McCrory are just a few of the great thespians who’ve added an extra touch of class over the years.
It’s a testament to the pair’s writing that six seasons on, the show is still attracting actors of such caliber (see Fleabag‘s Sian Clifford, Birdman‘s Lindsay Duncan and Line of Duty‘s Adrian Dunbar), while “Lip Service” proves its power to make your jaw hit the floor also remains. The word ‘genius’ may get bandied about a little too easily but Shearsmith and Pemberton really are ones of the brilliantly twisted kind.
Jon O’Brien (@jonobrien81) is a freelance entertainment and sports writer from the North West of England. His work has appeared in the likes of Vulture, Esquire, Billboard, Paste, i-D and The Guardian.