This review contains spoilers.
2.1 La Couchette
Tinkling strings, plucking jabs of cello and thrumming violins play over a light shining into a dark room as a door opens into the shadow. Dust motes float in a nearly-forgotten corner, rediscovered by viewers daring to take a look inside. Like reopening the curtains of an old theatre that once brought vibrant characters to life for a few hours at a time to audiences wanting to be taken in and led somewhere unexpected, these distinctive and creeping opening credits lead us into another series of BBC2’s Inside No. 9.
Following Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s first run of disturbing tales, absorbing plots and carefully sprung surprises, series two opened with a belter, La Couchette. Starting with a deceptively simple set up, the episode quickly established where we’d be for the next half-hour, with an exterior shot of a train at night andd a brief walk through its interior to the door of Couchette number 9.
Inside, curtains were swiftly shut on the outside world, trapping us within a cramped compartment of six stacked bunk beds along with an uptight-looking fellow in pyjamas (Shearsmith), settling down to sleep. He’s interrupted by the arrival of brusque German traveller Jorg (Pemberton), cosy Northern couple Kath and Les (Julie Hesmondhalgh and Mark Benton), brash Australian backpacker Shona (Jessica Gunning), and twatty Trustafarian Hugo (Jack Whitehall) to round out the cast of players. And it soon turns out there’s one more traveller in the Couchette, who’s already managed to sink down into a very deep sleep indeed…
Playing on audience assumptions and using well-worn genre tropes to create twisting turns of plot is something Pemberton and Shearsmith are particularly skilled at, and La Couchette deftly uses audience knowledge to misdirect. Savvy viewers tuning in already know, this being a No. 9, that something unexpected is likely to happen, and are looking out for clues as to what that will be from the outset. The ‘strangers on a train’ plot here, lovingly lifted from films including Murder On The Orient Express (lampshaded early on), Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and, yep, Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train have prepared us for a potential murder mystery, a comedy of bad-manners, and suspense. We can guess that characters are likely to clash, there may be murder during the course of the journey, and plenty of red herrings to watch out for. How those expectations are then toyed with and subverted is just part of what makes this episode such an enjoyable ride.
Fantastic turns from the group of star names that feature also fix audience expectation – Shearsmith, Pemberton, Benton, Hesmondhalgh, Gunning and Whitehall all play archetypes we feel we know, as they regularly show up in so much of British comedy, past and present. There’s the rude German traveller comedy stereotype, the British snob, the well-meaning working-class couple, a geezer-bird Aussie clutching a can of Carlsberg, and a middle-class posh prat. Expectations born from how these particular caricatures are usually used in comedy – “We’ve started World War 3!” is said during an argument between the German and British factions of the six – help to maintain the secret of the final act, and the slow subversion of their clichés unfolds and propels the plot.
German Jorg enters the action with crude physical comedy – he farts, he spits, he even shits into a shoebox – and is labelled “ignorant” by Shearsmith’s Dr Maxwell, and a “pig” by Les. Les grumbles about “frog’s legs” while the train travels towards Bourg St. Maurice, marking himself as a xenophobic Brit type. Kath shows herself to be a long-suffering easy-going wife and mother, while Shona’s upfront crudity clashes with Hugo’s hopeless private-school-educated oik caricature. It’s upon the discovery of the dead body in bunk 9B that each type is then broken down. We see the truth and humanity of these people, partially distracting from where the plot is going, and informing deductions of what might have happened to the dead man – why he’s been placed there by the programme’s writers, what they’re leading us to.
As posh Hugo reveals he’s actually broke and desperate for somewhere to sleep; crude Shona tries to give the dead man a fitting eulogy; and loving couple Kath and Les start to disagree, Jorg is revealed to be showing symptoms of sickness rather than clichéd stock character traits and is helped by Dr Maxwell with some medication and settled into bed. Dr Maxwell’s characterisation, in contrast to the others, isn’t subverted. He starts as easily irritated, snobbish, arrogant and effete and becomes more so as the episode travels towards its end.
From the beginning, Dr Maxwell controls the action. He’s the audience’s first point of contact, our protagonist. He closes the curtains on the view outside of the train in the first minute of the episode, stabilising the setting of the play. Unlike on a theatre stage, where the curtains open the action out to the audience, Dr Maxwell traps us into the set with him. He also acts as the only point of communication for Jorg, effectively isolating him from the other characters who don’t speak his language, just as we’re isolated from the German-speaking Jorg by the episode’s lack of subtitles. The doctor is a controlling force from the outset, and we’re given hints about who he really is in a different way to the other characters. His profession, and ready stash of medications, is suspicious, and Shearsmith’s considered portrayal brings associations of upper-class gentleman serial killers from history, or cut-glass accented British actors brought in to play cold killers in Hollywood cinema.
Again, we feel we know who this character is and what he’s going to do, so the reveal in the Doctor’s closing moments solo speech – that the man in bunk 9B is his rival for an important interview, and that’s he’s killed him – is a satisfying payoff for those who’ve figured it out, a pat on the back for a viewer paying attention. But then taking the control away from Dr Maxwell – and, in turn, the audience – with the true reveal that Jorg is in fact rival Dr Meyer, and the murderer has killed the wrong man, makes La Couchette a really clever opening to the series, and a solid start to another run of surprises from Inside No. 9.
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