The odd number: Inside No 9

Inside No 9 is unusual because it bucks the Netflix idea of cliffhangers and narrative arcs. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton talk about meeting and defying expectations

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Such is the parade of memorable grotesques that twisted TV geniuses Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have unleashed on the nation’s living rooms that interviewing the pair feels disconcerting.

‘Everyone would expect a Covid episode and we’ve never done what has been expected.’

From serial-killing proprietors of the “local shop for local people” in their name-making 1999 sketch show The League of Gentlemen to insane clowns in their underrated 2009 series Psychoville, they’re on the high wire between horror and humour. And since 2014, their latest show, black comedy anthology Inside No 9, has become renowned for its narrative sleight of hands and twists – there’s always a sting in the tale you don’t see coming. So much so that when Pemberton – who’s complaining of having dodgy wi-fi connection at the pair’s office in North London – freezes on Zoom, you half expect him to reappear behind you with a meat cleaver raised, ready to flense your facial skin off with brio.

A modern update of the likes of Tales of the Unexpected, each dizzyingly inventive story stars and is written by Shearsmith and Pemberton, and takes place in a location carrying the number 9.

Over five series they’ve covered a smorgasbord of genres. One week we can be immersed in a 16th century witch-hunting trial, the next we’re with a Cannon and Ball-style light entertainment duo recalling their 1980s heyday. They can be complex, with past episodes having been told in reverse chronology, iambic pentamer and via CCTV footage.

For an instalment called The Riddle of The Sphinx, where the plot revolved around answers to a crossword, they even created a real puzzle – printed in the Guardian on the day of transmission. It’s little wonder they’ve attracted a high calibre of guest stars, including Sheridan Smith, Derek Jacobi and the late Helen McCrory.

Series six – which features Line Of Duty’s Adrian Dunbar, acting royalty Lindsay Duncan and Peep Show’s Paterson Joseph all dropping by to play in their macabre sandbox – continues this eclecticism with the first episode, a screwball comedy mash-up of commedia dell’arte and a heist movie.

“It’s a very irreverent and silly episode with knockabout humour and we haven’t done that in a while,” says Yorkshire-born Shearsmith, 51. It’s also very meta. At one point a character breaks the fourth wall a la Fleabag to comment on the plot. “It’s season 6. You have to allow for a certain amount of creative exhaustion,” adding: “Are you ready for the twist? It’s a good one!”

Over 30 episodes into the series, does it become harder to wrong-foot an audience now braced for the inevitable “Oh my God” scales-falling moment? “Absolutely,” concedes Shearsmith. “The audience now watches every episode thinking: ‘Does this compare to the one I thought was brilliant?’ But I love the fact there’s no consensus – somebody’s most cherished episode is another person’s worst one. The pleasure that we get out of writing it is that we can change it up every week, but that’s also the curse as you’ve got to think of new ideas all the time that live up to the high bar that’s been set.”

Their quality control is impressively unwavering. “We set ourselves challenges and we challenge the audience,” adds Lancastrian Pemberton, 53. “What we strive for is that moment at the end where the viewer goes: ‘Wow! I have to watch that again now.’ That becomes harder with each series.”

They were just three days into filming series six in March last year when a twist occurred that even they couldn’t have predicted – Covid. With filming paused, they wrote a bunch of episodes ostensibly for season seven and when production resumed, pulled some of those scripts forward because they featured smaller casts or were easier to shoot in pandemic-safe conditions.

“Put it this way – our first ever episode of Inside No 9 featured 12 people in a wardrobe. We couldn’t do that,” laughs Pemberton dryly. Even though Covid may be as terror-inducing as their fevered imaginations, they swiftly dismissed the idea of addressing the pandemic in the show.

“We had a chat about it, but we hoped that by the time we were filming that Covid would be a distant memory and we didn’t think people would want to be reminded of it,” says Shearsmith. “Also, everyone would expect an Inside No 9 Covid episode and we’ve never done what has been expected. That’s the twist! Programmes like Staged got off the mark quickly using Zoom technology so we didn’t want to come in after that looking like Johnny Come Latelys.”

Inside No 9 started as a reaction to Psychoville, their binge watch-friendly (before the term existed) black comedy that starred Dawn French as a ghoulish midwife who treats her practice doll as a real child and a pre-Oscar fame Daniel Kaluuya as the assistant of an evil clown. Pre-empting the show’s cancellation due to dwindling ratings (“We guessed the writing was on the wall for Psychoville – scrawled in big letters using human excrement,” they once said), they pitched Inside No 9 – inspired by a Psychoville episode that paid tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 one-room thriller Rope.

“Everything on Netflix feels like that episodic, hooking-you-in, can’t-wait-for-the-next-one way. We wanted to return to one-off Play For Todays where you’ve not got a huge arc that you’re having to contain in your head,” says Shearsmith. Seven years on, and television’s tectonic plates have shifted again, to the point where we’re inundated with anthology shows – which he feels is a reaction to Netflix bloat. “I’ve missed a lot of good shows because people tell me: ‘It gets really good in season five.’ It’s like: how many hours of my life have I got left to wade through to get to the brilliant
season five?”

Both are accomplished actors. Shearsmith even netted a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for his stage role in A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic last year. That gets overlooked because of the quicksilver nature of their writing. They first met as drama students at Bretton Hall College in Leeds in their late teens, with Pemberton standing out by stealing scenes in productions.

“I remember seeing him in Macbeth and despite the fact he was playing [supporting character] Banquo, he somehow made the show about him,” marvels Shearsmith. “He’s the funniest person I’ve met in my life and an inspiration to me – even though I was only a year younger than him. It wasn’t like The Dresser!” Shearsmith crossed Pemberton’s radar when the new intake of first years pinned their photographs to a board. He thought he resembled Little Lord Fauntleroy.

“When you have solo success, it can be lonely and you get the classic tears of a clown tragic funnyman scenario, but we’ve never had that because we’d always had each other,” he says.

Together with fellow university friends Mark Gattis and Jeremy Dyson, they took their sketch show to the Edinburgh Fringe as The League of Gentlemen and won the Perrier Award. A celebration of four creative minds that enjoyed similar childhoods in the north, it unspooled like a gory Alan Bennett fever dream. Over the course of a Radio 4 show, three BBC2 series and a movie (2005’s The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse) and live tours, it became a cultural phenomenon, with its catchphrases repeated in workplaces and playgrounds across the UK.

But Shearsmith didn’t realise the extent of the love for characters such as pen-obsessed JobCentre worker Pauline Campbell-Jones until they revived it for special episodes and a tour to commemorate its twentieth anniversary in 2017.

“We felt like superstars. The love for the show and those characters was palpable and very moving. It felt like we’d created something that people
really treasured.”

Not all people. Last year, at the height of the George Floyd protests, Netflix removed The League of Gentlemen from its platform (although the creators claim its licence was due to run out imminently) due to Papa Lazarou – a sinister circus master who appears in black face-esque make-up and calls everyone Dave. However, unlike the characters in Little Britain and The Mighty Boosh, which were also removed owing to racial insensitivity, Shearsmith, who plays Papa Lazarou, has always insisted the character was never intended as black – rather a nightmarish clown.

“The BBC have decided to put a caption on an awful lot of comedies now so that if people feel they don’t want to watch them because they might be offended by certain things, they can choose not to watch them, which I think is the sensible approach,” says Pemberton. “But we look forward. We listen to the arguments and try to take on board all those things for what we write now, but we’re not bitter about what happened with The League of Gentlemen at all.”

When the revival happened, although all characters were present and politically incorrect, similar claims of out-of-time insensitivity were levelled against Barbara Dixon, the trans driver of Babs Cabs. There are moments in Psychoville that you can imagine might have blown up into a Twitterstorm had it been such a present force in our lives then. Are they mindful of the heightened potential for offence and the hair-trigger reaction on social media when they’re writing? “You’ve got to be mindful of what you do,” admits Shearsmith. “But we’ve always had a strong sense of the power we have as people who make television and pipe it into people’s homes. We’re careful to wield it in a responsible way and never do it to shock. We always say to ourselves: ‘What would you say if you were held up in court?’ Even about the plot twists and plot holes, we’ve got to have a water-tight argument before we’ll allow it into the script.”

But for now, in their bare-walled, deliberately “monastic”, distraction-free office, which belies the myriad awards they’ve won, Shearsmith and Pemberton have to finalise season seven’s scripts ready for filming in August – providing nothing unexpected intervenes. For once, fans will be hoping there isn’t a twist.

Inside No.9 is on BBC iplayer

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