Inside No. 9 Just Pulled Off Another Trick (and Served Up Series 8’s Best Episode)
TV tricksters Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton prove they still have surprises up their sleeves. Spoilers.
Warning: contains spoilers for series 8 episode 4
In 2017, Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi told a credulous tabloid that he hoped his next project after the TARDIS would be a Steven Moffat-written revival of 1970s sitcom On the Buses. “I have got a Blakey in me,” Capaldi assured The Sun, referring to Stephen Lewis’ dyspeptic bus inspector character. Moffat ran with the joke, agreeing whole-heartedly that after Sherlock, bringing back On the Buses would be his natural next move.
Five years later, when Inside No. 9 creators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton wanted to pull their audience’s leg, On the Buses once again served as a punch line. Among the first look images of series eight was one of the creators and cheeky 1970s sex comedy star Robin Askwith in full On the Buses costume. Finally! Shearsmith and Pemberton had taken up the much-repeated fan suggestion that they set one of their stories on board a No. 9 bus, and parody revival “Hold on Tight!” would be it.
Except, no it wouldn’t be. There still isn’t an Inside No. 9 episode set on board a No. 9 bus; they were having us on. Just like they’d had us on with 2018 Halloween special ‘Dead Line’, which was touted before broadcast as a rare live episode that appeared to suffer technical difficulties on the night, before morphing into an extremely well-planned and well-executed haunted TV studio horror.
‘Dead Line’ was directed by Barbara Wiltshire, who – not at all coincidentally – returned for this: Shearsmith and Pemberton’s next trick. Instead of the promised On the Buses spoof, Inside No. 9’s penultimate series eight episode was a pitch-perfect recreation of a TV quiz show. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen it yet because there are spoilers ahead.
“3×3” (which adds up to…) stars Lee Mack as himself, playing the role of a BBC quiz show host. Given that Mack is a TV quiz show host, and director Barbara Wiltshire is the director of The Weakest Link, 8 Out of 10 Cats, Would I Lie To You? and countless others, it’s unsurprising that this fictional TV quiz felt entirely credible. The set (virtual, read all about it here on Televisual), the format, the knowingly naff tone, the questions, the contestants, the host banter… everything rang true.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the tragic and never-to-be-aired incident at the end of this particular studio record, you could imagine 3×3 running for years as part of the schedule. Unfortunately, the murder of a contestant while the cameras rolled would likely be the end of this format.
The fake quiz show was a Trojan horse inside which hid a supernatural short story as good and nasty as anything Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut or John Wyndham might have conjured up. Every element of the quiz episode was convincing apart from one – the uneasy psychodrama that gradually leaked out from Team Two – the Oakwood family.
Stephen, Margaret and Catherine Oakwood (played by James Tucker, Gemma Page and the excellent Saskia Wakefield) were slightly out of step with the friendly back-and-forth between Mack and their fellow contestants. They were more intense, less frivolous, styled more stiffly, and with much less obvious warmth between them, despite being a family team. Lee Mack’s dialogue – delivered with absolute naturalism – made jokes around them, but their difference was notable.
And for very good reason, because behind that team of three was a horrid little tale: a daughter raised like a lab animal by her monomaniacal scientist mother, experimented on and turned into a freak of nature with psychic and telekinetic powers, finally takes her revenge. The extremely gory capper to Catherine’s rebellion against her tyrant mother was one of Inside No. 9’s greatest punchlines. And what more brilliant use of the TV quiz show isolation pod than splattering it with an exploded head?!
It was cleverly done, with hints in the dialogue telling the real story. Margaret told Catherine, “well, you know what I think” when asked about unfreezing Stephen, saying “we just need to put our minds together” on the cricket question, and telling her “just say what comes into your head,” on the music poser. We saw Catherine block the other team’s Eddie Murphy answer, and pick correct answers out of their brains. By the time the reference to Catherine’s fellow telekinetic child Matilda Wormwood came in, the picture was emerging.
While Catherine’s powers were slowly being revealed, so was a sad portrait of her family life dominated by her mother. (“We’re not really allowed music at home,” plus Margaret’s sinister comment about the Arctic Monkeys sounding like a research project she was once involved in, sketched in the details.)
The significant prize money too, gave this supernatural story plausibility that some of series eight’s have been lacking. A mind like Margaret’s would want to test her subject in a live scenario, and that £40k basement prison renovation money had to come from somewhere. It also made real sense for Shearsmith and Pemberton not to appear on screen for the first time in this anthology, because either of their faces would have instantly removed the naturalism for fans and given the game away.
Overall, it was another triumph, a genuine surprise, and series eight’s best episode yet. And give or take a few pints of blood and brains, might we even count Catherine’s revenge as a happy ending? Did she still win that £1500 for her one-way ticket to New Zealand? Hope so.
Inside No. 9 series 8 continues on Thursday the 25th of May at 10pm on BBC Two in the UK.