In a modern world where media, news stories, tweets and animated gifs of cats whistle past our eyes with increasing speed, Inside No. 9 emerges as a bold and refreshingly different bit of British telly.
Written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton – two members of The League Of Gentleman and the warped imaginations behind the wonderful Psychoville – it harks back to an earlier age of carefully-wrought, austere TV drama, where great acting and screenwriting take centre stage.
Although set in a rambling country mansion, Inside No. 9‘s opening episode takes place entirely in one room. In the midst of a terribly posh engagement party, bride-to-be Rebecca (The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson) is playing a game of Sardines. (In case you don’t know what Sardines is: it’s a bit like Hide and Seek, except the person who finds the one hiding has to secrete themselves in the same place as well. The process is repeated until there’s only one person left looking for everyone else, who’s the loser.)
Having hunted around for a hiding place in one of the mansion’s many bedrooms, Rebecca has opted for a spacious-looking, walnut-veneered wardrobe, but on clambering inside, discovers her fiancee’s incredibly tiresome work colleague Ian (Tim Key) lurking in there as well. As a long and painfully slow conversation threatens to unspool, the awkwardness is thankfully interrupted by the arrival of Carl (Steve Pemberton), Rebecca’s camp and somewhat uptight brother.
The rest of the story continues the same effortless rhythm, as more and more characters arrive and squeeze themselves inside the wardrobe: Carl’s boyfriend (Reece Shearsmith), who wears Jeremy Clarkson jeans and loves a good innuendo, is one. Rebecca and Carl’s childhood nanny Geraldine (Anne Reid), who looks like Mary Berry dressed for a christening, is another. There are many more besides, and as the characters steadily pile into the wardrobe, the tension – and comedy – continues to climb.
Having set themselves the challenge of staging an effective comedy drama in one increasingly cramped location, Shearsmith and Pemberton proceed to wring every last drop of potential from it. Siblings bicker and pick over old psychological wounds, lovers make passive aggressive comments at one another, and workmates lower the tone with politically-incorrect outbursts.
The writing’s top-notch, but director David Kerr also deserves a mention for taking the script and managing to realise it on the small screen: working out the logistics of filming half-a-dozen or so actors in a three foot-by-six foot space is one thing; making it look in any way artistic is quite another. But with his single-camera set-up, Kerr manages to give the episode the tense look of an early Hitchcock film, all low angles and illuminating shafts of light.
There’s a pleasing 1940s aesthetic to Inside No. 9, too, which harks back to a golden age of plays on British television, which often used limited locations to a similarly dramatic effect. There’s also more than a hint of the macabre, which recalls classic 70s and 80s TV series Tales Of The Unexpected.
With the ensemble cast also including such talent as Timothy West, Anna Chancellor, this first episode has a real air of classiness and craft to it. And with hints of darkness around the edges, it also emerges as a really effective black comedy towards the end – but then again, we’d expect nothing less from the writers of Psychoville.
Future episodes promise to offer a similar format of limited locations and creeping suspense. On the strength of this first episode, we’re looking forward to seeing what murky and unexpected places Inside No. 9 takes us to over the next few weeks.
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