I have to confess that I have something of an up-and-down relationship with the work of comedy writer/performers Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, who were one half of The League of Gentlemen along with Mark Gatiss and writer Jeremy Dyson.
I didn’t take to the League at all when it first aired, and while I eventually did come around to it I was never as caught up in its cast of recurring characters and their famous catchphrases as everyone else seemed to be. However, I did completely adore Shearsmith and Pemberton’s follow-up project Psychoville perhaps largely because it used classic Gothic and Noir film references as its basis (an episode that riffed off Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and which also reunited the pair with guest star Gatiss was a particular highlight.) That show wasn’t such a big hit with audiences or critics, however, and it ended in 2011 after two series and one Christmas special. Since then, it’s been more than two years since the duo last collaborated in writing for television: Shearsmith has been developing his stage and screen acting career including a brief turn as Patrick Troughton in Gatiss’ An Adventure in Space and Time while Pemberton has become a familiar face to viewers with long-running roles in Whitechapel and Benidorm.
Finally they’re reunited as writers and main stars of Inside Number 9, an anthology series of self-contained half-hour stories that you could inaccurately summarise as a comedic Tales of the Unexpected, each week’s events loosely linked by the fact that the setting in each case has the same house number (nine, obviously. In the first instalment, “Sardines”, this is an old rambling house in the suburbs; in the second entitled “A Quiet Night In”, the number nine is an ultra-modern millionaire’s house.
The usual trouble with anthology shows is that you never quite know what you’re going to get, and that merely plays into my “up-and-down” feelings toward Shearsmith and Pemberton’s canon of work as a whole. The first story – which features a very odd game of hide-and-seek that leaves everyone crammed in together in a large wardrobe in an upstairs bedroom – is undoubtedly cleverly constructed and features a very starry cast (Katherine Parkinson, Tim Key, Timothy West, Anne Reid, Anna Chancellor, Luke Pasqualino and Julian Rhind-Tutt as well as Shearsmith and Pemberton themselves); however it is based on the humour of social awkwardness and embarrassment which I personally always struggle with, finding it simply just… well, awkward and embarrassing for the most part.
The second story couldn’t have been more different. This time there are only two main guest stars (Denis Lawson and Oona Chaplin) and barely a single line of dialogue between them. Shearsmith and Pemberton play two burglars attempting to steal a piece of modern art with increasingly desperate and comedic developments, while the entirely oblivious owners bicker and row as what is clearly an unhappy marriage takes an ever-darker turn. It’s constructed as a silent movie, with only the final seconds featuring any audible dialogue at all – similar in a way to the recent Oscar-winning film The Artist.
It was – and I don’t say this lightly – a sublimely brilliant half an hour of writing and performance. When I wasn’t laughing out loud at the exploits on screen, I was marvelling at the wonderful way it was all constructed and sustained, which was a work of pure genius. From the opening scenes featuring Lawson’s character sipping a drink inside the house while outside the burglars are caught out by motion-sensitive intruder lights like stills from flash photography, through to the thieves’ battle of wits with the couple’s tiny trophy dog and Pemberton’s efforts to cure the blinding effects of mace in the face by ramming two huge chillies into his eyes, this was a dizzying tour de force display of comedy writing and performance of the highest order. Not that the story abdicated any of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s trademark darkness in the process: for anyone not used to their style, the ending would surely have taken the breath away. Any breath that the viewer had left after 29 minutes of unremitting laughter, that is. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton themselves would surely have been proud of such a caper.
Of course, the thing about anthology shows is that we have no idea what will follow next week. Like “Sardines,” the next one might not really be to my taste; but then again if there’s any prospect of something as remotely outrageously wonderful as “A Quiet Night In” coming along again in the next four weeks, I’m simply not prepared to take the risk of missing it.
Looking ahead: episode 3 is “Tom & Gerri” and features a well-meaning teacher whose relationship with girlfriend Gerri is put at risk by new acquaintance Migg; “Last Gasp” is the story of the valuable legacy of a recently deceased singing legend; in “The Understudy”, events backstage at a theatre start to resemble the production of “Macbeth” on stage; and “The Harrowing” returns Shearsmith and Pemberton to their Gothic roots with the tale of a teenage babysitter spending a chilling night at an old dark house.
Inside Number 9 currently airs on BBC2 on Wednesdays at 10pm and is available on BBC iPlayer. The series is released on DVD on March 17 2014. A second series has already been commissioned.