[REVIEW] Inside No 9: Tempting Fate




‘Last episode next week and that’s that.’ So read Reece Shearmsith’s tweet this time last week, prompting a slightly panicked flurry of responses, wanting clarification on whether or not Shearsmith was indeed indicating that there was there was no more Inside No 9 after series four. They didn’t get the answer they were waiting for.

Back in the day, Amicus portmanteau films (like The Vault Of Horror) were a curious mix of classic gothic horror mixed in with contemporary views of London. It’s this comfortably chilling blend of genres that make up Tempting Fate: this is MR James on a housing estate as Keith (Steve Pemberton), Nick (Reece Shearsmith) and newbie Maz (Werchue Opia) turn up to clean a dank flat some time after the previous tenant died. Apparently, he’d fallen on a glass table and bled out, and to make things worse he was a hoarder: there are plenty of tottering piles of junk for the fumigating trio to have to sort through.

One of the biggest strengths of this episode is that there’s no clear indication in the first few minutes about how things are pitched this time round: Comedy? Gore? In the absence of many clues (and indeed, much light) all we’re left is an increasing sense of ill ease as the grim inevitable fate awaiting one of the characters asserts itself. ‘You can’t be squeamish in this job,’ Nick warns darkly.

One of the biggest laughs in this story is reserved purely for what’s potentially the smallest part of the audience: that subset who have been paying attention to the background of every episode of Inside No 9. For the more causal viewers, it’s merely the next plot reveal. But this is the very definition of splitting hares: everyone will get the same kick – that is, as long as they don’t get too greedy.

Or to put it another way: this season of Inside No 9 has been perhaps more gleeful about paying homage to twisty short story inspirations – the nasty flavour of To Have And To Hold being a particular highlight – and none so apparent in this instalment, moments of which will act like a dog whistle for that other subset of viewers who want to be the first to work out the ‘twist’. But that group are robbing themselves of a delicious joke partway through the episode – what seems like either a character lying or a continuity error is revealed to be something far more fundamentally upsetting, and works far better if one allows themselves to be hoodwinked.

When an old VHS tape (‘It’s from the eighties’) is discovered alongside an apparently mystical aretefact, the group argue about their ability to cheat fate and perhaps wish for unlimited wishes. Perhaps if the VHS had been a copy of Wishmaster or Bedazzled, they would be better informed, but as it turns out by the end, the real truth is a little plainer. It’s a nobly grim and clever ending to the series, managing to be – like those Amicus films of yore – both traditional and contemporary in the same breath.

And in the last day or so, it’s been revealed that a fifth series is indeed on the way for 2019. Maybe fan’s wishes do come true.

Just lets’ not be greedy, eh?


[REVIEW] Inside No 9: And The Winner Is ..




Earlier this month, Idris Elba essentially nixed the idea of ever playing James Bond – or at the very least, voiced a nettled annoyance that his name seems to come up mainly in relation to his ethnicity rather than his talent and charisma. And while it’s by no means the main thrust of this week’s episode of Inside No 9 (titled And The Winner Is …) such blinkered viewings of actors (and directors) who are not middle-aged and white form the backbone of one of the cutest gags in this episode as a disparate bunch of industry professionals attempt to make a selection on who should win a Best Actress award.

Noel Clarke, playing Gordon, gives essentially a version of himself – a passionately focused film director who has connections with Doctor Who, who is talented and successful enough to suggest, without paranoia, that the main reason he’s been invited into this room may not because of his talent and success, despite the protestations of his fellow jury members. He’s really too busy to be here, operating two phones at once, but in truth most of the characters have a moment when they’re distracted by their mobiles. Even when these panel members are deciding the future of an actor’s career, they are expelling a lot of energy in concentrating on their own careers.

To Gordon’s side, Clive Carrol (Reece Shearsmith) appears as a cautionary tale to any talented wannabe who has gained some level of success, as early promise has given way to mediocrity and a lack of originality. Clive has a fear of being judged, or taking risks that means he’s in danger of being entirely ignored. It’s often said that in order to give a convincing performance, actors must take risks. And as it turns out, there’s one industry professional that’s willing to take a ridiculous risk in order to get what they want.

Paula (Zoe Wannamaker) is an apparently famous actress – ‘You all know me’ – who was up for an Oscar at some point (it’s suggested that she didn’t end the evening declaring ‘You like me, you really like me’), and is on air-kissing terms with Rupert (Kenneth Cranham) a stage actor who can’t abide the current trend for mumbled dialogue: dismissing one potential, he comments that he doesn’t even understand how she got on the list. Speaking of people who shouldn’t be there, Phoebe Sparrow plays Jackie, who tells everybody that she actually works in a dentist’s – but as Giles (Steve Pemberton) points out, she won a competition to be the voice of the public. Almost as an afterthought, Giles reminds the panel that he will remain impartial throughout. Fenella Woolgar plays June, a journalist who sidelines in reviews that are waspishly well written, but don’t really add anything to the world.

Due to a quirk of programming (it would be too much to hope that they’d planned it this way), this episode – in which a panel arbitrarily decides who wins (and loses) an acting award comes not long after Inside No 9 itself has won Comedy Of The Year at the British Comedy Awards, after years of various panels and industry awards failing to see what’s been in front of their faces all along. There are some elegant sleights of hand to distract you from whatever the main plot is, including one joke involving Noel Clarke and Reece Shearsmith’s characters that is essentially set up for a full fifteen minutes.

Speaking of sleights of hand and distractions: yes, there will be those who claim that they’ve spotted the final reveal within the first two minutes – and to be perfectly honest, they’re probably not even lying, but the twist is hardly the point: this is the most unashamedly frothy Inside No 9 has been. Empty Orchestra was joyous and life affirming, and Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room was a love letter to entertainment. And The Winner Is … is simply a good joke, simply told. Yes, there are darker episodes. Yes, there are ones that are more obviously fiendishly clever. But this may well be the one you keep returning to, re-watching for the sheer hell of it. ‘Can’t wait to see what you do next,’ says Woolgar’s reviewer at one point.

Same goes for this reviewer.

Sunday 28th January 2018


Right, where was I? Over Christmas, I think I had flu. I say ‘I think’ because I’m wary of claiming to have any kind of illness I didn’t actually have (‘Oh shut up, you didn’t have flu, you just forgot to boil the kettle for your coffee’), but this was pretty much the first time I’ve been knocked out by feeling unwell. Working as I do in various school environments, I’m obviously prone to the so-called ‘teacher’s flu’, in which one works their way all through term, and then collapses into a heap on the first day of the holidays, only to recover in time for the first day back. In truth, I’ve normally been pretty good at ignoring such sniffles, convincing myself that I’m okay really until roughly the point that I actually am.

No such luck this time. I was basically reduced to four hour days over Christmas, and no voice. For someone who normally keeps pretty active, this was genuinely weird – particularly as I’d intended to do a full rewrite on my upcoming fringe show Year Without Summer in that time. I’m now roughly a month behind – which, since rehearsals don’t start for another month or so, I’m not as concerned as I might otherwise be, but it’s still somewhat annoying. Year Without Summer, if you happen to have merely stumbled across this blog online, don’t know me, and haven’t had to put up with me relentlessly banging on about it, is about the meeting between Lord Byron and Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin), and the former’s challenge to write ghost stories. Mary’s effort resulted in Frankenstein, which was published two hundred years ago, this year.

In truth, this story has been told a few times before, most (in)famously in Ken Russell’s marvellously bonkers film Gothic. There is, however, someone who I’d argue gets somewhat forgotten by history (because, after all, it’s Mary that writes Frankenstein, and it’s Byron that issued the challenge). Claire Clairmont was Mary’s half-sister, and it’s arguably down to her that Byron and Mary were in the same room at the same time. Claire does appear in a few of the films about that dark summer on Lake Geneva, but for the most part she’s sidelined in favour of the other, more famous guests. That’s understandable , but I wanted to give her more of a voice.

There has been an earlier version of Year Without Summer, produced at the Brighton Festival Fringe in 2016 (the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley beginning to write Frankenstein), but this new version of the play is more streamlined: the parts of Polidori and Percy Shelley are (regretfully) cut to give us more space to concentrate on Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont. There will be auditions coming up at the end of February, so check in on the website, and sign up to the mailing list for more details.

We’re actually doing two shows in the Brighton Fringe this year, and the second one looks to be silly, sharp and fun – One Woman Alien has Heather Rose Andrews (Cacophony) playing all the parts and providing all the special effects for a one hour parody version of Alien. We had a preview version at Halloween last year, which got a great response from our audience. We’re really looking forward to the finished version in May.

Right. Back to the rewrites ..


Inside No 9 Review – To Have And To Hold



You presumably know the drill by now. These reviews are billed as filled with spoilers, but in reality, we try to avoid giving away too much in the way of major plot points. That said, however, as always: those who are good at reading between the lines should look away now until after they see how the episode develops.

Nicola (Harriet Walker) and Adrian (Steve Pemberton) have what might be called a good marriage. At least, that’s how it might be framed to anyone visiting their home. They’ve clearly weathered a bad patch – or nine – in their relationship, and when we meet them, it’s obvious that the screaming matches have long since finished, and what is left is exhaustion, sadness, genuine affection – and something else. This episode takes place over what seems to be just under a year, and begins with the couple preparing to renew their wedding vows. Nicola has written a heartfelt declaration of love to her husband, whereas Adrian’s cut and paste job doesn’t even include his own name. Perhaps, as a wedding photographer, he has become used to taking himself out of the picture.

It’s clear that work is important to both of them: Adrian has built a darkroom in the basement, meaning that he hasn’t allowed himself a day off in almost a decade, whereas Harriet has her own, bitter reasons for not going back to the office. There’s a lot left unspoken, things that we, the audience, are required to fill in – much like Adrian’s incomplete jigsaw puzzles – and hint at the couple’s barely contained frustration. ‘I love you,’ Harriet tells Adrian in what turns out in retrospect to be one of the series’ blackest jokes, ‘but you won’t let me in.’ Truth is, Pemberton and Shearsmith have done their job rather too well: the audience is so well trained to suss out how an episode might turn out, it’s occasionally necessary (as in this episode) to throw out a hint towards a surprise ending that never actually transpires.

Inside No 9 has been described by some unimaginative scribblers (like this one) as a modern Tales Of The Unexpected, but in truth individual episodes have been far more sharply original than that. In fact, To Have And To Hold is arguably the first episode that you could suggest a lineage of: there are two particularly nasty short stories, one filmed for television as early as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, that share a couple of narrative links with this one (to say which ones would give away a significant plot point that occurs at the halfway mark – and then another one that happens about four minutes later. But then this has always been one of Inside No 9’s major strengths: not as interested in the twist as much as what happens after the twist.

‘I’ve brought you down to my level,’ Adrian remarks wryly in a scene when husband and wife have managed to set aside the quiet frustration that’s been bubbling under their entire relationship. It’s not that both can’t see the others unhappiness, but each have their own reasons for almost wilful myopia (it’s no accident that both of them need to share the same pair of glasses to see what’s right in front of their face). Money troubles begin to rear up, but Adrian won’t countenance the possibility of change. ‘I won’t make you leave this house,’ he promises his wife. Harriet would clearly be happy with a smaller house, as long as she could keep the man she married.

This has been a remarkable series of Inside No 9, and this episode is no exception. It’s the least showy so far: not a great deal in the way of bells and whistles, but underpinned with an aching sadness, the weight of responsibility, and the bruises of additional horrors that may only occur to you long after watching. Quietly brutal.


Review: Inside No 9 – Once Removed




And so when the episode ends, you’re left marvelling at all the little clues that have been littered throughout the half hour. Indeed, in a marvellous twist and turn of events, some of the clues may not be entirely clear on first viewing, and will require at least two more goes before everything falls into place. It’s a fair bet that before long, somebody enterprising on youtube will have released their own edit, to place events in a more logical sequence. But we’ve probably already said too much.

Alright, let’s back up a bit: it may feel like we’ve come into this review at the end – which indeed we have, because that’s how this episode works. It’s not the first time an episode of Inside No 9 has begun at the end – that would be season two’s Nana’s Party, but this smacks more of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal, travelling down the narrative as it does backwards through time.

(but after that)

Which is not to say that the opening five minutes are incoherent – rather, it’s that we’re thrown in at the deep end and required to register a lot of information. This is clearly the aftermath of some terrible events. There are plenty of things and clues – like a rolled up carpet and an ornamental hare – that will reward repeated viewings. The second section of Once Removed concentrates on exactly what has happened and how (the why will wait a little longer)

(but after that)

Let’s be clear here: its not like each section directly corresponds with the period of time it discusses (the titles say ’10 minutes earlier’, whereas the sequences themselves are closer to five, allowing a bit of wriggle room as the writers move their chess pieces into place). And it’s not even until the third section that Steve Pemberton’s character (looking curiously like he’s cosplaying as Michael McIntyre) arrives. He’s a nervous estate agent banking on a quick sale, and is startled when the rug is pulled out from under his feet. There’s a great joke involving bubble wrap, which also underscores how densely an Inside No 9 script is written. On the face of it, Once Removed is a fun piece of macabre froth, albeit smarter than the average piece of television. However, it’s even smarter than that: there’s not a single line of dialogue – including the ones that might seem like throwaway frippery – that isn’t serving double duty. We say this a lot about Inside No 9, and it’s true as ever: screenwriting students would do well to study these scripts.

(but after that)

In the last two sections of the piece is where everything comes together – or falls apart, depending on how (and when) you look at it – because by this time the (oven) gloves are off. David Calder is wonderful as Percy, playing senility consummately well, but not overshadowing the fact that a lot of the role is there for laughs. There’s a joke that we saw a version of in the most recent series of The League Of Gentlemen (perhaps suggestive of how close to one another those two scripts were produced). Emilia Fox (who, for various reasons, we don’t see nearly enough of) manages inadvertently to pack menace into the seemingly innocuous line ‘I’d hate for you to miss that package’, but holding it all together is the portrait of a woman barely holding it together – Monica Dolan is excellent as May, and also responsible for a gorgeous closing sight gag that essentially turns the whole premise of this episode upside down. But to say more would be to say too much.

And that’s how we started. Shall we start again?


[REVIEW] Inside No 9: Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room




Last week, Inside No 9 delivered a joyous, life-affirming piece of sentiment, so it’s somewhat startling to see that for episode two of the fourth series, the dark shadows are still being held at bay. Not that the two characters don’t have their demons: It’s just that these demons are not from hell, and are more about what can destroy a decades long friendship. Shearsmith and Pemberton play Cheese And Crackers (not their real names), a barely remembered – and likely not particularly talented – comedy du0 from the eighties, reunited for one last gig.

Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room is – for the most part – a true two hander between Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s actually the first two hander Inside No 9 has given us. And it’s a fine balancing act, looking at why two men may desperately need each other to further their comedic career while at the same time being fatally toxic for one another. It’s telling that the duo’s best sketch involves ten bottles of beer, hinting at a savagely ironic backstory.

It’s a bittersweet story, with both the bitter and the sweet jostling for supremacy. It also slyly hints at both Pemberton and Shearsmith’s own comedic heritage: at any time in the UK from the fifties to the seventies, it’s easy for comedy fans to point to an undisputed classic. This is also largely true of the nineties (which gave us The League Of Gentlemen, amongst others). As for the eighties, however … well, it’s a bit more of a challenge. And it’s in this decade – the ‘arse end of variety’ as Shearsmith’s character Thomas cynically snaps – that Cheese and Crackers hail from. There’s obviously a bit of Cannon and Ball or Little and Large there (or indeed any comedy group for whom an ampersand makes up a third of the name), and this duo didn’t have the material or even charm of even Mike and Bernie Clifton.

Thomas has left the comedy game long ago – although it’s clearly still in his DNA: it doesn’t take long for him to be drawn into an argument about nuance, and which comics are ‘allowed’ to do certain material. It’s apparent that he understands comedy better than Len (Pemberton) who, as well as being more emotionally invested in the gig, is passionate in his belief that ‘a laugh’s a laugh, no matter how you get it.’ Buried not that deep in the script is what might be argued as the Inside No 9 manifesto: there’s nothing necessarily wrong with comedy that’s lazy or obvious – indeed, it can be as comforting as a mug of builder’s tea laced with whisky – but times have moved on, and Shearsmith and Pemberton are more demanding of themselves than any critic. Although they do allow themselves a sublime gag at the expense of a fondly remembered character from Pyschoville.

Mid argument, Len angrily demands of his former comedy partner. ‘Why have you come?’ Thomas’ answer is simple, and heartfelt: ‘How could I not?’. Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, despite the light touch, could very well have served as the final episode of the series: it’s a love letter to variety, to comedy, and indeed to these comedy actors (the fictional or real-life ones; take your pick) from each other. There’s a sequence that’s partially iconic Morecambe And Wise with a dash of what sounds like the title of a Bob Monkhouse autobiography. If the boys aren’t careful, it’s the clip that will be wheeled out at every reunion from hereon in.


Review – Inside No 9, ‘Zanzibar’




This is now the fourth series of Inside No 9, which means by the time we’re done, there will be more episodes of this than the markedly more famous League Of Gentlemen¸ which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. There hasn’t yet been a film of Inside No 9  though, although it is presumably only a matter of time before Pemberton and Shearsmith decide to deliver an Amicus studios type portmanteau movie.


In the meantime, we have this, the first episode of the latest series and as may now be expected, the audience is not being eased in gently with a comparatively ‘easy’ episode: this story is told entirely in iambic pentameter, leading to some neat conversational cul-de-sacs as well as cute jokes (the ‘stress’ on one character having at least a double meaning). The series therefore starts on the right foot both figuratively and grammatically (even a song that’s thrown away near the end of the episode is a neat allusion to the style).


The Hotel Zanzibar – appropriately enough – has just nine floors, and we’re introduced all the main characters by a suitably Puckish Fred (Yaygann Ayeh), a bellboy who’s discreet and fond of plain talking (‘It’s the only language I understand,’ he says). It’s not long before events reach farcical proportions, and while not all misunderstandings can be blamed on the bellboy, it’s up to him and his girlfriend Colette – played by Raised By Wolves and Upstart Crow favourite Helen Monks – to keep all the (soiled) plates spinning.



Way back in series one, when reviewing The Understudy, (also directed by David Kerr), we suggested that those teaching Macbeth could do worse than stick that episode on for half an hour. We make a similar claim here for a broader understanding of Shakespeare: there’s a snatch of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, blended with Twelfth Night and The Comedy Of Errors – or, as the old joke goes – it recalls that Shakespeare play where there’s a series of misunderstandings about a pair of twins. There’s some exquisite wordplay – and, as with all the best Shakespearean jokes, most of them work as straight dialogue even when you don’t spot the gag – and indeed, not all of the rhyming couplets precisely rhyme.


By the mid-way point, there are several plots whizzing by so quickly, it requires gripping on tightly to the hostess trolley to keep up with them all: Rory Kinnear plays the two young brothers who never quite see one another, and end up annoying the other characters through no fault of their own. Marcia Warren proves to be a good sport, and there’s a great turn from Kevin Eldon playing a hypnotist (but not an evil hypnotist ..). Pay close enough attention, however, and you’ll be able to spot the ‘hidden hare’ that’s been the favourite of regular Inside No 9  viewers.


In many ways, this is typical Inside No 9 fare – as if there was really any such thing: look at it closely, and the plot is elegantly simple. But the journey is beautifully convoluted and finely balanced. The reveal is clear for anyone who’s familiar with Shakespeare (and indeed, anyone who’s paying attention to Bill Patterson’s rhyming couplets about blue blood), but as always with Shearsmith and Pemberton, there are a couple more surprises to delight those who think they’ve got it all worked out before the end.


At one point, a character places a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his door, which might appear to be counterproductive to the aims of those behind Inside No 9. And while this first episode does not disturb, it’s smart, funny and fast moving, and does more work in thirty minutes than many comedies do in six episodes.


Welcome back.