This article was originally published on the Cultbox website. This is slightly edited, and includes links to reviews of all the episodes of Inside No 9 aired so far.
As the dark nights draw in, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s anthology series Inside No. 9 returns for a third series.
Pemberton has hinted that it’s quite a dark set of stories this time around, teasing that there are ‘two or three episodes where we’ve pushed the horror element.’
Regular viewers will be steeling themselves: the previous two seasons were already pretty damn dark in places. But it’s not just dark horror in the corridors of Inside No. 9, with the show examining themes of loss, romance and loneliness.
It’s no secret that I unashamedly adore Inside No. 9, and so picking a Top 5 favourite instalments turned out to be a somewhat impossible task.
Here then, more for numerical symmetry than any other reason, is our selection of the best nine episodes so far (but you should watch the other three anyway, obviously).
9. ‘Tom & Gerri’
A tightly scripted half hour that manages to play with audience expectations of the final reveal before throwing them away in favour of an even more sombre denouement.
Distilled down to a 30-minute episode from an early stage play of around two hours, ‘Tom & Gerri’ has the smack of early Pinter to it, dealing in the claustrophobia of city life, blended in with the insanity of banality.
8. ‘Last Gasp’
What could be more fleeting, more ephemeral, than a single breath? That’s the sly premise in this episode, in which a minor celebrity blows a balloon up for a sick child, before promptly dying, making the ‘last gasp’ of the title eminently valuable.
This is an episode which is apparently not popular with critics, despite smart turns from the likes of Tamsin Greig. All this tells us, however, is that in all other episodes, Inside No. 9 has been spoiling us with plots of Chinese puzzle-box complexity.
7. ‘The Understudy’
An inside joke pulls itself inside out so much to reveal every ugly innard. Yes, this is about actors and jealousy – All About Eve with British accents – but what’s elegant here is that while the characters are suffering through a run of Macbeth, the episode itself is a retelling of the Shakespeare play: you could stick this on for new GCSE students, who would within 30 minutes understand more about Shakespeare than they would sitting through the Kenneth Tynan version.
It’s crucially the first episode of the series not set in a private residence, thereby setting up the idea that a number ‘9’ can literally be anywhere.
6. ‘The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge’
Far from being a satire of Hammer Horror-style witch movies, this episode takes its comedy very seriously. As well as being mired in material like Witchfinder General, The Blood On Satan’s Claw and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, much of the dialogue – including ridiculous accusations and paranoia-drenched evidence – is ripped from the pages of genuine witch trials.
While there’s enough room for base humour and a sublime ‘Goody Two Shoes’ gag, everyone plays the script dead straight, and the entire piece is given weight by the presence of David Warner.
5. ‘Cold Comfort’
One of the most tantalising things about Inside No. 9 is Pemberton and Shearsmith’s refusal to do anything by halves. The nature of an anthology series means that the writers can explore a different way of telling a story each week.
Continually experimenting and pushing the form, ‘Cold Comfort’ reduces the action to the footage of just four fixed CCTV cameras, meaning that we’re highly restricted in what we are allowed to see, and equally, what we’re forced to watch. Once again, the creators subvert audience expectations of how things are going to turn out, after having planted rich clues throughout the previous half hour.
4. ‘The Harrowing’
A genuinely upsetting episode, blending broad Dark Shadows-style characteristics with nasty ‘70s grimness before the sucker punch ending. It’s a blunt instalment that’s as cruel as the Tales of the Unexpected episode ‘The Flypaper’, which only adds to the classic gothic horror of the piece.
It’s a particularly bleak tale (especially the ending) and seems tailor made to invoke the kind of uneasy fear that viewers of a certain age would have in response to, say, a shadow sitting on a white armchair. It’s an absolute certainty that there will be filmmakers in twenty years’ time that will refer to this episode as their inspiration.
3. ‘A Quiet Night In’
Perhaps the first ‘calling card’ episode of the series, ‘A Quiet Night In’ is an episode almost entirely told in silence, with nods to classic films such as Playtime and Silent Movie.
It’s engaging to imagine what casual viewers would have made of this, making as it does demands on the audience’s intelligence and attention span (and, as is often rare in comedy these days, assuming that the audience actually has both intelligence and an attention span). Plus, an elegant nod to a time when The League of Gentlemen were in the same West End play – Art – together.
2. ‘Séance Time’
All of Inside No. 9’s episodes are exercises in misdirection, guiding the audience by the hand down some dark alleyways before turning all the lights on to reveal something entirely unexpected. And so it is with ‘Séance Time’, an episode that fully deals with audience expectation, pretty much giving you the twist that you cynically predicted in the first five minutes, but from an entirely unexpected direction.
That, and a gorgeous reference to Danny Glick from iconic TV movie Salem’s Lot. If kids still do that thing of discussing last night’s telly in the playgrounds, this will have been the only topic of conversation the morning after.
1. ‘The 12 Days of Christine’
A remarkably nuanced performance from Sheridan Smith makes this episode your gateway drug for anyone who hasn’t yet been introduced to the series. It trades uneasy horror for a romantic and affecting finale, finding beauty in banality, and nobility in normalcy.
What’s worth noting also is that the narrative is never capsized by the form. While almost every episode of Inside No. 9 has a ‘conceit’ – a unique way of telling the story – the writers have not been seduced by a clever way to tell the story: every bell and whistle (and in this case, car door alarm chime) absolutely serve the narrative. A sweeping romance in a little flat.