This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This review contains spoilers.
3.2 The Bill
“People arguing over a bill – how the hell are you going to keep that going for half an hour without becoming boring?” asked Inside No. 9’s Steve Pemberton here. He and writing partner Reece Shearsmith know full well how; by performing their show’s best trick and twisting the quotidian into lurid, unusual shapes.
The intrigue as to who’s conning who in The Bill motors us through the half-hour—this is Inside No. 9 so we know something’s up—but there’s plenty to admire on the way to our destination. Before it becomes a blood-bath and then an episode of Hustle, The Bill works as an entertaining look at passive aggression and competitiveness.
The dialogue fizzes along, the jokes come thick and fast and the pain of recognition simmers throughout. Even if you’ve never been seated near a boorish group like this one (and you probably have) then you’ve certainly experienced the social awkwardness of a communal cheque or the complicated power economics that accompany the simple act of getting a round in. Nowhere does an individual’s sense of justice and pride burn more fiercely than when there’s a bill to split at the local Harvester.
We meet the bickering group in question in a pleasantly bland restaurant called Number N!ne – its sign spelled with a cheery little crime against punctuation. Well-rehearsed anecdotes and blokey jokes are in full flow courtesy of Steve Pemberton’s garrulous Malcolm and Philip Glenister’s wealthy cockney Craig, the sole newcomer in a group of old friends.
Reece Shearsmith and Jason Watkins play Archie and Kevin, who provide the scaffolding to Malcolm’s expansive storytelling. The quartet is post badminton and post prandium, the conversation is flowing when, catastrophically, the bill arrives. Cue twenty minutes of sniping, resentment, lies and hostile displays of generosity that culminate in a tragic accident.
At least that’s how it’s been engineered to look. In the episode’s second or perhaps third twist (it’s hard to keep count with this show), the whole thing’s comedically revealed as a con designed to extract a pile of cash from Craig, the gang’s latest mark.
Craig later becomes the gang’s latest recruit in a final scene that feels like a neat and satisfying resolution as long as you don’t inspect it too closely. Whether a character with Craig’s resources could feasibly be menaced by this lot into signing up for the next grift is by the by. The story’s a good one, the shocks have the intended impact and the whole half-hour works a treat.
That’s down to a few things: good writing with excellent structure, fluid direction by Guillem Morales that creates the illusion of movement when there is none, and strong performances.
Jason Watkins and Ellie White are stand-outs, both playing characters who go through the most dramatic change once the charade is up. Watkins in particular is terrific as Kevin ‘the professor’, a nickname that first seems faintly derisory but becomes apt when he’s shown to be the brains of the operation. Watkins’ switch from copper-counting runt of the litter to in-control top dog is smoothly done and wholly convincing. A slight adjustment to his glasses and his “We’ve got a bit of a problem haven’t we?” carries a real sense of threat.
In her Fawlty Towers confusion over cleansing palates and cleaning plates, the first incarnation of White’s character provides broad laughs. Indeed, laughs don’t get much broader than her waitress answering “Lick your what?” to a request for liqueur. When ‘Anya’ reverts to her real accent and gets it in the neck about going too far with the Manuel-isms, the writers are even able to have their cake and eat it. It’s smart stuff.
The timing, as ever in these tight half-hours, is especially impressive. Pemberton and Shearsmith know how to keep things moving and where to place hints to pique our curiosity. Early on, the temperature visibly drops around the table after Malcolm warns Archie about “glass houses”, sending us trundling happily off on the first false trail. Slap-bang at minute fifteen comes the game-changer of Archie’s brain tumour red herring, five minutes after that the knife comes out, and five minutes after that the scam is revealed. It’s cleverly controlled with excellent dynamic range, the dialogue escalating from silence to screaming and back, once again creating a sense of motion despite the static setting.
Inside No. 9 continues to achieve much more with much less—fewer locations, fewer characters, shorter time, no doubt a smaller budget—than so many other shows. It’s a downright bargain that deserves to be cherished as the ingenious gem it is.