This review contains spoilers.
2.4 Cold Comfort
“This one is something you don’t usually see. We did long takes, sometimes up to five or six minutes long, which don’t cut, so each take had to be perfect […] It’ll either be really tense or really boring…”
– Steve Pemberton on Cold Comfort
A whole episode filmed CCTV-style with script-writing, acting and directing duties being wrangled by show creators Pemberton and Shearsmith simultaneously? This was never going to be boring. In this week’s tension-filled playlet Cold Comfort we were dropped into booth number 9 of call centre Comfort Support Line with new volunteer Andy (Pemberton) as he’s trained up to provide a sympathetic ear over the phone. Co-workers walking past the fixed security camera at his desk include fellow volunteers Liz (Jane Horrocks) and Joanne (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and their not-always-supportive CCL supervisor George (Shearsmith). As Andy is trained by George in the art of active listening, avoiding PPI messages, and determining genuine callers from wankers (…literally), recurring contact from a suicidal young woman calling herself Chloe galvanises the plot. Who is she, why does she keep calling, and why is she targeting Andy?
This episode sees the second series of No. 9 genre-shift again, switching to mystery from last week’s comedy, and had another set of fantastic guest stars performing with Pemberton and Shearsmith. Though comedy did creep its way back in as well, with some great deadpan from Amuka-Bird’s know-it-all, laughs from Horrocks’s office gossip, and a memorable appearance from a cup of piss (as appearances from cups of piss tend to be, in general). Character touches were placed unobtrusively into scenes to give a sense of who each person is quickly, subtly fleshing out each personality. Andy mentions the recent death of his sister, before quietly pins up a photograph in his work booth, and Liz’s sarcastic commentary during George’s introductory patter flags up his length of service there, how rote the work has become for him, as well as the little respect he has from his colleagues. And Joanne’s callousness, mixed with her kindnesses to Andy, are important too. These touches provide some nicely chewy clues for the mystery of who ‘Chloe’ could be, and why she’s calling.
The quick conversations from callers we listen to with Andy are also engrossing and entertaining, varying from the mundane, to the silly, to the upsetting. But getting to be nosy as an audience and voyeuristically listening in (if you can voyeuristically listen) to other people’s problems goes from guilty pleasure to tense with the first phone call from Chloe, changing the tone of the episode. The vagueness of the details Chloe gives during the first call – “I hate my life, I hate my mum, I hate my step-dad. I especially hate my step-dad” – efficiently implies the darkness in Chloe’s life to the viewer, and Andy. The tightly-written script conveys a lot with a little, showcasing more skilful writing from Pemberton and Shearsmith within its half-hour running time.
Some creepily disturbing moments are also mined from the phone calls – the first repetition of “I hate my life, I hate my mum…” from Chloe during her second call providing a shiver, as does her young and vulnerable voice changing over to George’s sigh-filled play-acting in the final scene. The inherent creepiness of CCTV is used to the hilt during Andy and Joanne’s discovery that their boss has been calling as Chloe, the viewer becoming a powerless observer to events coldly playing out in real time on camera. The split screen ratchets up that tension, simultaneously showing security recordings from George’s computer, footage of Andy and Joanne fast-forwarding through them in his office, and George himself making his way towards them in the hallway outside. The tension breaks when George storms out before reaching them, making the eventual nasty ending to the episode a satisfying shock before the credits roll.
The CCTV format, that could have worked well as a pleasing novelty on its own, also makes this ‘whodunit’/’who’s doing it’ a refreshingly inventive take on the genre. The gimmick is a good one; the constraints it places on how the plot plays out paying off in its very specific focus, showing the viewer just enough at some moments, showing us space the characters can’t see at others. As with series one’s completely silent episode A Quiet Night In, the gimmickry works to set the scene and enrich the episode. Here, the stage/set is in the split screen, the space for the actors/characters to perform the play/film. Cold Comfort’s slick merging of stage and screen formats is fitting for writers/performers Pemberton and Shearsmith’s first outing as directors. What must have been a nightmare of a puzzle to put together during filming, results in some impressive television. Definitely very tense, definitely not boring.
Read Phoebe-Jane’s review of the previous episode, The Trial Of Elizabeth Gadge, here.
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