Over the last few weeks, I decided take a leap into the surreal. Well I say I decided; it wasn’t my original goal, but after branching out from yet another episode of Buffy into iPlayer and beyond, that was the end result. I stumbled across a show called Inside Number 9 and chose an episode entitled “The Spinhx” (Series 3, Episode 2), the only reason being because it was about solving a cryptic crossword and I’ve always found people who can do that seem to be some sort of exotic, higher-human. Less than half an hour later, I had been bombarded with Sophoclean allegories, political messages and adultery, all whilst the story twisted and turned in ways that I almost could not fathom. I wanted to know what I had just watched and perhaps, more importantly, who had created such a fantastical nightmare of a programme.

I was not particularly surprised to find out that the creators of Inside Number 9 were part of the writing team that created the black-comedy nightmare that was The League of Gentlemen. At the time that show was released, I was six years old and therefore a little too young to enjoy watching it unfold on television with its themes of cannibalism, kidnap, cross-dressing, and murder. However, the reception The League of Gentlemen received from the British TV audiences always gives me the smallest feeling of jingoistic pride: rave reviews and two further series followed, as well as a spin-off film and live appearances on charity galas. The world of Royston Vasey and its inhabitants (captives?) pushed the boundaries of what is considered funny, then pushed that boundary even further to force the audience to question whether the reason they were laughing was acceptable. Add on top of this exquisite character work, comic timing and a keen ear for a catchphrase (the show was the origin of the seemingly innocent ‘Hello Dave’), and perhaps it’s less surprising that it was such a hit.

Two of the performers from the show, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, went on to collaborate on Psychoville, “a spine-tingling, jaw-dropping, thrilling comedy serial”,[1] whilst the third, a certain Mark Gatiss, became busy with some small projects including Doctor Who and Sherlock. Again opting for the macabre, Psychoville follows a cast of characters (including a demonic-looking children’s entertainer and a young man obsessed with serial killers) connected by simple act of blackmail: a note that says, “I know what you did.” Full disclosure: I actually haven’t seen Psychoville, due to a fear of clowns (and, on this occasion only, Dawn French) but the stellar reviews speak for themselves.[2]

Still not satisfied with the onslaught of unease they unleashed upon the nation, Pemberton and Shearsmith went on to create Inside Number 9, which takes the form of six half-hour episodes of short stories connected only by the number nine featuring in some way (often just as a house number). Considering the pair’s previous projects, it is unsurprising that there haven’t been many shows similar to Inside Number 9 in TV history. Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone explored the paranormal and often created a bastardised “Theatre of Cruelty” on TV, but perhaps the best comparison with regards to the style is Roald Dahl and his adult fairy stories.[3] The duo have acknowledged this influence and in fact cast Timothy West, who starred one of the original episodes of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected in the early 1980s, in the first episode of Inside Number 9.

Each episode of Inside Number 9 takes place in a different location, allowing each episode the freedom to explore each setting to its full potential, without the fear of the different angles becoming stale in the next twenty-eight minute installment. On top of this, Pemberton and Shearsmith star in every episode, giving the series a different type of cohesion, as well as highlighting the skill of the hair and makeup department.

The different settings, such as a suburban street or hotel, are filled with everyday banalities, such as ordering drinks or tidying up after children. However, these quotidian beginnings eventually give way to what makes the show so unique: its frequent and often utterly unhinged plot twists. These machinations are a signature of Inside Number 9, but it is futile to try and predict the next one, simply due to the intelligence and imagination of the writing. There have been moments watching the show when, although usually unflappable, I cannot resist shouting, “YOU DID NOT JUST DO THAT!” like a deranged professional wrestling commentator. A slight warning: make sure you do not suggest watching the show with someone who doesn’t know you too well. I made this error, and the person in question’s judgment of me appeared to quickly change from “fine” to “unique, but not in a good way.”

This focus on the frequent strangeness of the show does no justice to its humour, which is consistently present throughout every episode. Some of it is base, sometimes it is relies on set pieces, but it is most often understated and playful, a feat only possible due to the sheer quality of the writing. At its heart, Inside Number 9 has an eye for detail for speech patterns and quirks of every day chit-chat that can only be rivalled by Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. The restaurant conversation between three Yorkshiremen and a token Southerner in the episode entitled “The Bill”  (Series 3, Episode 1) with regards to who will end up paying for their meal is toe-curlingly brilliant. Both the pace and the delivery of the lines are excellent (Shearsmith and Pemberton are, as if writing was not enough, also both fantastic actors) but the awkwardness and forced politeness of the discussion are a dance that any adult who has been out to dinner in a group will have certainly experienced before. With performers such as Sheridan Smith, Tim Key and Adam Deacon starring in episodes throughout three series, it is clear that actors and agents alike are recognising the uniqueness and intelligence of the show. Pemberton has even revealed that actors from different episodes even go so far as trying to compete with one another to be the duo’s “favourite cast”.[4]

What separates the series perhaps even further from its sci-fi thriller predecessors, is the detail given to each location. The B-movie style of “The Devil of Christmas” (Series 3, Christmas Special) includes conveniently atmospheric lightning strikes and mistimed “special effects” (such as telephones continuing to ring after having been picked up), which create a wonderful homage to the bargain bucket movies that the episode was clearly inspired by. This detail extends to the performances in the settings: the perfect portrayal of the internal politics between workers at a call-centre in “Cold Comfort” (Series 2, Episode 4) left a friend of mine (and a former call centre employee) agog, whilst I can vouch for both the quiet seriousness and intense two-facedness of the actors in “The Understudy” (Series 1, Episode 5).

Inside Number 9 is a Frankenstein’s monster of a show: we’ve seen kitchen-sink dramas before and we’ve certainly seen horror, but we rarely see is the two blended together. What is even rarer is this pastiche of genres combined with such impeccable acting and script development. Perhaps the final secret of its success is that Inside Number 9 has been able to capitalise on exactly what we find most unnerving in life: the fact that the mundane and the terrifying are often two sides of the same coin.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00vw45s

[2] “Psychoville: in a different league”, The Guardian.

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2011/jun/07/psychoville-series-review

[3] Lamb to the Slaughter is a masterclass in short story writing to boot and can be found here: http://www.depa.univ-paris8.fr/IMG/pdf/lamb_to_the_slaughter_by_roald_dahl-2.pdf

[4] “Inside No 9 ‘jealousy’ over top cast”, The Irish News 13th February 2017.

http://www.irishnews.com/magazine/2017/02/13/news/inside-no-9-jealousy-over-top-cast-929906/