Review: Inside No. 9

Linked only by their claustrophobic settings – a railway sleeper carriage, a bedroom wardrobe in a game of sardines, a trendy tapas restaurant after closing – the episodes of Inside No. 9 are an intense study in macabre comedy. Written, starring, and occasionally directed by the immense creative talents of League of Gentlemen stars Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, this anthology series tells stories of unparalleled depth and character development within only thirty minutes of television. The ‘number 9’ that links each episode, contrasted with the minimal limitations of the show’s basic premise, contribute to the suffocating intensity that unites the episodes of this set of darkly comic tales.

The wide opportunity that the premise of the show presents allows Shearsmith and Pemberton to play a vast array of characters, along with several big-name guest stars who have featured in the show’s three series. As the only constraint is the ‘Number 9’ setting, the creators have experimented with techniques that are rarely seen on television. ‘A Quiet Night In,’ the second episode of the show’s first series, is almost entirely without dialogue, and ‘Cold Comfort’, in the second series, is filmed using only one fixed CCTV camera in a call-centre phone booth. The show’s guest stars across the three series have been as diverse as Sheridan Smith, who starred in the exceptional ‘12 Days of Christine,’ Alison Steadman, Derek Jacobi, and Felicity Kendal. The broad spread of acting talent across Inside No. 9 means that every episode seems to form an individual tile in the overall mosaic of the series.

Inside No. 9 can be dramatic, comedic and genuinely terrifying: episodes quickly lurch from physical comedy and toilet gags to intense moments of drama or terror.

Despite the show’s big-name stars and sometimes experimental technical work, the episodes don’t lose any of their drama, intensity or punch. In the televisual equivalent of strapping the viewer to the seat of a brakeless car accelerating down a mountain pass, Inside No. 9 withholds the twist in the tale until the very end. In a 2015 interview, Steve Pemberton said that the scripts for the show are written before the ending is decided; and although the endings of some episodes could be criticised as deus ex machina, more often than not the climax looms up gradually towards the viewer as the overall picture takes concrete shape.

Inside No. 9 can be dramatic, comedic and genuinely terrifying: episodes quickly lurch from physical comedy and toilet gags to intense moments of drama or terror. The last episodes of each series, ‘The Harrowing’ and ‘Séance Time,’ are unashamedly Gothic, whereas the most recent episode, ‘Private View,’ was a Christie-esque murder mystery with a (literally) gut-wrenching twist. However, what sets Inside No. 9 apart from other shows is its blend of comedy and thriller; how episodes fluctuate from sex-doll slapstick to dramatic twist, without losing any of the impact of the horror or the relief of the comedy. The undercurrent of darkness that runs throughout the series means every emotion is intensified: moments of comedy punctuate, but don’t puncture, the bubble that Inside No. 9 drags you into.

And there’s good news for existing fans, as well as newcomers to the show. Inside No. 9 has nearly finished filming its fourth series in Pinewood Studios (guests will include Zoë Wanamaker, Noel Clarke, and Silent Witness’s Emilia Fox, among many others) and the first two series have just been added to Netflix. So inch back the door to number 9, be it an underground art gallery, a call-centre booth, or a country pile, and be prepared for shocks and twists galore. In the words of Shearsmith and Pemberton, “We do hope you will be there to join us, kicking and screaming to be let out.”