Inside No 9: The Devil of Christmas (BBC Two)

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insideno9Inside No 9 is a drama-comedy anthology series in which there is no connection between one episode and the next save for the appearance in the cast of The League of Gentlemen alumni Steve Pemberton and Reece Sheersmith, who also created the series and write each episode. Inevitably that means that some episodes work better than others according to personal taste – the near-silent burglary escape “A Quiet Night In” is nothing less than a work of comedy genius, for example, but “Sardines’ felt like a good ten minute idea that didn’t know where to go for the final 20 minutes of running time. As a result I’ve tended to be a bit hit or miss about watching the show over its two seasons of six episodes apiece, but I did make a point of catching the special festive edition “The Devil of Christmas” last week.

The story operates on multiple levels, as it recreates what appears to be a lost episode of a 1970s Christmas TV ghost story. The set, costumes, script and acting are all authentically recreated – the production even uses the massive studio cameras of the period to give the end result the right old school video tape feel and 4:3 aspect ratio, even down to the way that a light source such as a candle leaves a ‘burn trail’ across the screen for several seconds after panning across. The whole thing is presented as DVD release complete with an audio commentary in which the fictional director laments the lack of time and funds, continuity errors, and where the actors miss their marks or have to leave to record a voiceover for Findus. It’s a delightfully nostalgic experience for those of us who remember watching the real life counterpart shows of the time, such as Tales of the Unexpected and Thriller.

The story being depicted is just as familiar and classic as any of those: wealthy businessman Julian Devonshire (Pemberton) and his pregnant wife Kathy (Jessica Raines), mother Celia (Rula Lenska) and young son Toby (George Bedford) arrive at a holiday cabin in Austria for Christmas, but they’re unsettled when they hear the local legend of Krampus (Santa’s evil counterpart) from local guide Klaus (Sheersmith). Increasingly bizarre events leave the family in a state of panic, but what’s really going on? And as we hear more of the audio commentary (provided by no less a light than Sir Derek Jacobi), is what we’re watching on screen really what we think it is?

I had high hopes for this Christmas special, and they were totally met. It succeeds on every one of the levels it tries for, a delight for those who like horror and for those who get all the delightful in-jokes about 70s television. I happy watched it again the next day. In fact it might very well be one of the very best things on the Christmas schedules this year, and it has made me want to go out and track down all those episodes of the first two runs of Inside No 9 that I so carelessly missed at the time. Highly recommended.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

The first two series of Inside No 9 are available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Christmas special will be included on the boxset for Series 3 available later in 2017.

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