As wonderfully twisted as ever…
The return of one of television’s most visionary shows is always an event to cherish. Series six brings us pills ‘n’ thrills and bellyaches ranging from deranged fandom to Old Scratch himself. Drink it in…
Either an inauspicious start for season 6 of Inside No. 9, or just an episode that I’m not intelligent enough to fully understand (let’s be honest with ourselves, it’s probably the latter…).
A group of criminals led by Pantalone (Paterson Joseph) attempt to pull off a heist but are hoisted at every turn by their own stupidity. Columbina (Gemma Whelan) holds the audiences hand whilst simultaneously trying to make a series of sandwiches for Arlo (Kevin Bishop).
Ok. Based on my limited research, every character here is meant to represent a different stock character from Commedia dell’arte – an early form of Italian professional theatre from the 16th century. Now that’s all well and good, and it’s devilishly clever, but there is an argument to be made that any episode of what is ostensibly a 30 minute comedy show that requires extensive research just to be understood has failed in its remit of being light entertainment. That’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining of course, but I would suggest that it perhaps isn’t as entertaining as it thinks it is. Having said that, Whelan has a great time nodding and winking to camera, and the high end concept is tempered by some wonderful Airplane style punning throughout the episode.
This episode felt to me like something that should be applauded for its craft but perhaps derided for not sticking the landing. Certainly not a bad episode, but not one of their best either.
Now this is more like it. Dark. Twisted. Funny. All of the above.
When jaded television writer Spencer Maguire (Steve Pemberton) is accosted by a deranged fan (Reece Shearsmith), he must choose between his reputation and his integrity.
Sure, the ending felt a little Inside No 9-by-numbers, but the journey more than makes up for the predictable destination. Pemberton and Shearsmith have always been underrated as actors, and they both have a ball here, with Pemberton particularly wonderful playing against type as an arrogant pseudo intellectual haunted by his own lack of talent. Throw in a pair of high end performances from Nick Mohammed and Lindsay Duncan and you are surely onto a winner. A very solid episode overall.
The problem with always falling back on a twist ending is that the audience comes to expect it eventually. This poses a problem for Messrs Shearsmith and Pemberton, and it is a problem that they only occasionally solve. Lip Service is one of the episodes in which the conclusion is not only satisfying, but vital to the success of the entry as a whole.
When Felix (Pemberton) suspects his wife of cheating on him, he enlists the help of Iris – a professional lip reader (Sian Clifford) – to find out once and for all. Eventually both Felix and Iris get more than they bargained for, despite (or perhaps because of) frequent interjections from eccentric hotel manager Eric (Shearsmith).
Lip Service is a stellar Inside No 9 episode. Perhaps the finest of this series. Felix is a beautifully drawn character, played with skill and compassion by a never better Steve Pemberton, and Sian Clifford utterly excels as Iris. As ever, Shearsmith provides much of the comic relief, but the episode as a whole is mostly a reflection on love, self-worth and obsession. One of their best works.
Hurry Up and Wait
The continued success of Inside No 9 has ensured that they are able to attract higher profile guest stars and Hurry Up and Wait contains perhaps the most enjoyable cameo yet. Adrian Dunbar is a genuine household name after his grandstanding turn on the ubiquitous Line of Duty. Episode 4 of Inside No 9’s sixth season sees Dunbar playing on his reputation to marvellous effect as a self centered, pompous version of himself.
Playing alongside him is Shearsmith as James (a struggling actor with a small part in Dunbar’s latest police procedural), Pauline McLynn as Oona (a character who could have walked straight out of Royston Vasey) and Donna Preston as Bev – a sometime reluctant assistant to the stars.
Most of Hurry Up and Wait takes place inside a grubby caravan as James grows ever more desperate whilst art begins to imitate life in a story that involves a missing child, a mysterious family and Adrian Dunbar stealing all of James’ lines. The result is an episode that is funny, refreshingly unique within the Inside No 9 canon and dark – but in an off kilter way. Another strong entry.
How Do You Plead?
For all its dark tendencies, it’s rare for Inside No 9 to go full horror. How Do You Plead? is pretty close and manages to be both unnerving and hilarious.
Webster (Derek Jacobi) is an ailing lawyer who still finds himself holding court from his deathbed. Urban (Shearsmith) is his palliative carer who has dark secrets of his own.
The great success of this episode hinges on the fact that the twist is telegraphed enough that the viewer has an idea of what is coming, if not a complete grasp on the full picture. This creates a scenario in which tension and excitement mix only to race toward a slightly sticky conclusion that just about works despite being a little convoluted. How Do You Plead?is probably the most derivative episode of season six, but that is probably a consequence of genre trappings and a penchant towards homage rather than any lack of originality. A thoroughly enjoyable episode continuing a strong run.
Last Night of the Proms
Inside No 9’s high concept episodes are often the ones that I enjoy the least. Wuthering Heist from this very season being one example and Zanzibar being another. It often feels like the concept can sometimes get in the way of any human emotion. A clockwork heart ticking inside a mechanical chest. Last Night of the Proms is an attempt to merge a high concept (the return of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ) with something more personal (family dynamics) with a generous dollop of social commentary thrown in. The result is something that falls between two (or three) stools somewhat whilst still being thoroughly entertaining.
Happily married couple Mick (Pemberton) and Dawn (Sarah Parish) take immense joy in the screening of the last night of the proms and use this opportunity as form of patriotic, jingoistic celebration. Meanwhile, Dawn’s troubled sister Penny (Debra Gillett) and her sneering husband Brian (Reece Shearsmith) are determined to spoil the party.
It must be noted right off the bat how perfectly Pemberton and Shearsmith have written characters for themselves here. There is more than a hint of League of Gentleman’s Ross in Shearsmith’s character and Pemberton does a similarly great job as the overly enthusiastic ying to Shearsmith’s dour yang. And yet… in many respects, there is perhaps too much going on here. Penny’s sexual repression, Brian’s latent homosexuality, a subplot featuring family heritage and an inherited home, a dying patriarch and even Jesus Christ himself all compete for our attention. The result is a chaotic if frequently hilarious episode that is best enjoyed by not thinking too much about it if possible.
A fitting end to a triumphant return for Inside No 9.