Inside Number 9 - Series 1

Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, 2014

Inside Number 9 is an anthology series of peculiar and unusual stories from Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, the co-writers of League of Gentlemen and Psychoville. I missed it the first time around and have been catching up on Netflix. I should not have waited so long…

Shearsmith and Pemberton are the most interesting writers currently working in British TV. After their great work on League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, this anthology series gives them flexibility to try new stories, free of the constraints of a series-arc.

Each episode of Inside Number 9 is self-contained, often dark and macabre, and almost always with a twist at the end. There’s a recognisable signature of the black comedy that made League so memorable. Most are set in a property with reference to a number nine, such as a house number, a hotel room number or similar. And each is a masterful example of the art of setup and payoff, often hinting at one resolution but surprising with something totally unexpected.

At less than 30 minutes per episode, it’s remarkable that these stories have more impact than any of the episodic series currently dominating our screens. Shearsmith and Pemberton have always had a knack for creating memorable characters in strange situations, and this series is no exception. And while some episodes are better than others, each one is a masterclass in how to invert a classic trope without playing to the crowd.

1: Sardines

The series opener, and a classic example of a bottle episode. The plot follows several people playing sardines at an engagement party. Rebecca, the bride-to-be discovers a dull man named Ian in a wardrobe; he’s a friend of Jeremy, Rebecca’s fiancé. More people find them hiding in the wardrobe, and we soon learn dark secrets of all concerned. It’s uncomfortable and claustrophobic, with nearly all the action being filmed inside the wardrobe. The episode ends with a clever twist that with hindsight I realised was telegraphed early on, but only at the end did I appreciate how smartly it had been hidden. A super cast including Katherine Parkinson, Tim Key, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Anna Chancellor fully embody the Britishness at the heart of this episode. It sets the tone for all other episodes to come, and remains one of my favourite episodes of this first series.

Inside Number Nine 01 01 Sardines
Katherine Parkinson and Steve Pemberton playing sardines in a gloomy old closet.

2: A Quiet Night In

An homage to silent movies and crime capers, this story stars Denis Lawson, a valuable painting and almost no dialogue. Pemberton and Shearsmith play burglars attempting to steal the painting from right under Lawson’s nose. Lawson is completely unaware of them as he has other concerns: trying to listen to his music undisturbed but instead falling out with his young lover played by Oona Chaplin (one of the great Charlie Chaplin’s grand children, no less.) The hapless burglars seem to get what they came for — despite needing to ‘dispose’ of the maid — but an unexpected visitor towards the end of the episode gets the last laugh. An extremely clever episode, full of great timing and sight gags, and the mother of all punchlines. A real treat.

Inside Number Nine 01 02 Quite Night In
Denis Lawson is having his quiet night in ruined by a couple of burglars

3: Tom & Gerri

This episode is a bit of a departure from the first two, being significantly darker and lacking humour. Tom (Shearsmith) and Gerri (Gemma Arterton) share a flat together as they struggle through life. He is a teacher and aspiring writer, and she is a struggling actress. Their life is turned upside down when Tom invites a homeless man, Migg, (Pemberton) into their home. Tom becomes more and more distant from Gerri as he forms a friendship with Migg, who encourages him to pursue his writing at the expense of everything else — including his job and his relationship with Gerri. But all is not as it seems, and we’re treated to a rather gloomy episode that, while very smart, tries to shine a light on mental illness in a way that’s not very positive. I enjoyed this episode despite its tone, and appreciated the message it was trying to convey, but it wasn’t a stand out story despite good performances from the small cast.

Inside Number Nine 01 03 Tom And Gerri
Tom seems to have lost the plot in this upsetting tale of mental illness

4: Last Gasp

One of the sillier episodes, Last Gasp looks at what happens when famous pop star “Frankie J Parsons” (David Bedella) dies while visiting a sick child, and his last breath is captured inside the balloon he’d blown up for her. Tamsin Grieg plays an agent with Wishmaker UK, the company who make these fans wishes come true. Arguments arise between her, the dead pop star’s bodyguard (Adam Deacon) and the sick girl’s father (Pemberton) to determine who should own the now valuable balloon containing Frankie’s last breath. With Frankie’s body remaining on the floor throughout the episode, this is a morbid and damning look at celebrity culture and the depths of human greed. However I think it’s the weakest episode of the series, lacking both an appearance from Shearsmith and the kind of signature we’ve come to expect from earlier episodes.

Inside Number Nine 01 04 Last Gasp
Adam Deacon, Tamsin Grieg and Steve Pemberton wonder about the value of a dying breath

5: The Understudy

The Understudy takes place in the dressing room of a theatre, and the episode follows the five-act structure of a typical play. Tony (Pemberton) has the lead role in a play, and Jim (Shearsmith) is his understudy, coveting the opportunity to usurp Tony’s role. Jim’s girlfriend Laura (Lyndsey Marshal) thinks he’s good enough to be the lead, and helps him practice his lines, but events transpire that put her out of the picture and allow other minor characters to take centre stage.

This episode is more nuanced than earlier episodes and seems to loosely follow the plot of Macbeth, although my Shakespeare knowledge is limited so many references were lost on me. The machinations of supporting character Kirstie (Rosie Cavaliero) to elevate Jim to lead actor culminate in a smart reveal that had me wryly grinning at the cheek of it. This was a great episode, full of unpleasant people doing nasty things to each other for power. It’s perhaps the best episode of the series in terms of smart writing, but lacking enough humour for my tastes.

Inside Number Nine 01 05 The Understudy
Pemberton and Shearsmith playing power games while treading the boards

6: The Harrowing

This is your classic gothic haunted house ghost story, and despite some uneven performances, it provided a few good, if obvious, chills. A young school girl Katy (Aimme Ffion-Edwards) is invited to house-sit for strange siblings who look like clichés from a Hammer Horror film. Hector (Shearsmith) and Tabitha (Helen McRory) must attend “an event”, and so Katy must mind the house while they are gone. The brother and sister inform Katy about their bed-bound brother Andras, hidden away upstairs. They say he will ring a bell if he needs assistance, but that it’s extremely unlikely and he should be no bother. Of course, as soon as the anachronistic siblings leave the house, the bell rings and Katy and her newly arrived friend Shell (Poppy Rush) climb the stairs to investigate…

This is a fun little creepy episode and in some ways is the most “traditional” of all the scares in this series. It finishes on a disturbing and weird final scene, and although I personally didn’t find it scary, it nevertheless left me feeling slightly icky. I’m not sure this was the right episode to end the series on, but it did a pretty good job at what it set out to do.

Inside Number Nine 01 06 The Harrowing
Having two actresses in their twenties playing school-girls is the funniest aspect of this gloomy ghost story

Final thoughts

I loved this series and enjoyed all the episodes. Some were more effective than others, but overall it was a strong return to form for Shearsmith and Pemberton. I love how they take well-used tropes and clichés and try and do new things with them. With great casting of well-known actors in lead roles, they have created a memorable series that is doing some of the most interesting story telling on British TV. I thoroughly recommend it, and hope that series 2 is as good, or even better.

Comedy, Horror, Mystery, Thriller