Wednesday, 5 April 2017


Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith's anthology series hit a peak with its fourth series.

Keeley Hawes and Reece Shearsmith strike a sombre pose
in 'Diddle Diddle Dumpling'. (Image copyright: BBC)

Programmes of the quality of Inside No. 9 don’t come along very often, particularly as part of that increasingly rare breed on TV now, the anthology series. It’s written by two alumni of The League of Gentlemen – Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton – who, in a self-contained story behind the door/inside the train car/restaurant of the title, can flip effortlessly between the genres of comedy, horror, suspense and thriller, often all at the same time. 

A modern-day Tales of the Unexpected but with much more of the unexpected than the 1970s/80s series, it’s not surprising that Inside No. 9’s three series have attracted quality casts that have included such polished acting calibre as Timothy West, Denis Lawson, Helen McCrory, Alison Steadman, Paul Kaye and Jane Horrocks, to name a few, complementing Pemberton and Shearsmith in a variety of guises.

It goes with the nature of beast that some stories work better than others, but, with half an hour rather than an hour (usually) to play with, Inside No. 9 attempts twice the amount of stories as Channel 4/Netflix’s Black Mirror so wins out on ambition and originality (after a while the same kind of story ideas did start cropping up in Black Mirror). Cases in point are Inside No. 9’s first episode ‘Sardines’, which takes place almost entirely inside a wardrobe, and the spectacularly funny and inventive second story ‘A Quiet Night In’, in which two burglars attempt to thieve from a flat while it’s occupied – not a word of dialogue is spoken until the last scene. After these heights, and as well-crafted as they were, the remaining stories in the first series didn’t impress as so original.

In Series 2 the quality was more evenly distributed. Among the consistent delights on offer was the hilarious suburban black farce of ‘Nana’s Party’ and the ‘The 12 Days of Christine’, in which Sheridan Smith’s title character, never more deserving of a decent, happy life, relives significant points in her existence in the same flat. You might guess the ending, but it’s still heart-breaking when the reality of what’s happened to her crashes in.   

The stand outs for me in Series 3 have been and ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ and ‘Empty Orchestra’. In the latter, office politics are played out through the songs chosen in a karaoke bar, with Tamzin Outhwaite is on particularly brilliant and bitchy form as the office vamp Connie, belting out the Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me, Baby’, revelling in the knowledge that Fran (Sarah Hadland), the sweet girlfriend of Greg (a weasly Shearsmith), doesn’t know they’ve having an affair. If there’s a theme here it’s seeing through the pretence of people pretending they’re having a good time to get to the truth, a point shown up in some astute lip reading by the deaf Janet (Emily Howlett: the actress herself is profoundly deaf.) The whole thing is awash with backstabbing and false smiles, so it’s nice to see Janet reap a genuine reward.

‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ is Inside No.9’s most affecting story, although that doesn’t become apparent until the closing minutes. For most of the running time, it looks like Reece Shearsmith’s David’s obsession with finding the missing counterpart to a man’s leather shoe he discovers in the street – via neighbourhood posters, website, twitter and a bumptious DJ on local radio – is the result of a breakdown. His wife Louise (Keeley Hawes) humours him as much as she can, and much of the story’s impact comes from David’s obsession with something so absurdly trivial. Louise’s increasingly desperate attempts to break David’s fixation nudge the story more and more into black comedy, comedy which becomes darkly tragic when the real reason for David’s obsession with the shoe is revealed. Unlike most of the No.9s, ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ has no gimmickry in the set up and it relies entirely on the nuanced performances of Shearsmith and Hawes. It’s a riveting watch.

I haven’t even mentioned ‘The Devil of Christmas’. For archive TV enthusiasts, it’s screamingly funny because it shows just how well Shearsmith and Pemberton know their TV production history. It’s an additional pleasure on offer from this talented pair of fantasy craftsmen.

Unlock the door and enjoy.

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