Inside No. 9 series 2: Pemberton & Shearsmith’s twisted genius

Here's a spoiler-free look at what to expect from the second series of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith's glorious Inside No. 9...

Inside No. 9 returns to BBC Two on Thursday the 26th of March for six more ingenious genre slices of horror, suspense and psychology. Those who were rattled and gripped by the first round of half-hour plays from Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith know to expect to be skilfully sucker-punched with sharp, tricksy writing and well-drawn characters.

Viewers engrossed by the psychological character focus of series one’s Tom & Gerri, the jump scares of series finale The Harrowing, and the unexpected emotional sting of opener Sardines have lots to look forward to from the second series’ first brace of episodes. La Couchette and The 12 Days Of Christine tell the respective stories of a fraught overnight train journey and a woman plagued by a mysterious visitor, featuring guest roles from Mark Benton, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Jack Whitehall and Sheridan Smith, alongside a variety of turns from Shearsmith and Pemberton. Along with the intricate plots and character work, there are more jokes. And some sadness. Prepare to be surprised.

At the series two press launch, creators-writers-character undertakers (take that last word any way you’d like to interpret it) Pemberton and Shearsmith, Producer Adam Tandy, Executive Producer Jon Plowman, and Director Guillem Morales discussed what went into each episode and the specific challenges involved in bringing the plays to an audience now used to DVD boxsets and quick YouTube clips.

“What’s amazing is [No. 9 is] so unpredictable, so unexpected, and the audience never feels safe,” says director Guillem Morales of the show’s unique sensibility, to which he brings suspenseful horror movie stylings from his work on Julia’s Eyes and The Uninvited Guest. Negotiating the constraints of the claustrophobic La Couchette’s tightly written plot, playing out in a tiny train compartment filled with seven bodies – uh, we mean, actors – brought some unique challenges to the director, as well as the cast. Completely intentional, according to the writers. “It’s a great way to sharpen your writing,” says Pemberton of the self-constriction, with Shearsmith agreeing “there’s something enthralling about ‘this is the scene; this is the house; this is the room; this is the booth that we’re going to be with for half an hour’”.

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“We wanted to go back to that anthology thing, so Play For Today, Tales Of The Unexpected, stuff like Beasts by Nigel Kneale – a reaction against the ‘box set culture’, and even against Psychoville, which was a very complex narrative over two series, 12 episodes. It inspired us to go in lots of different directions over a series, which is one of the hallmarks of Inside No. 9,” says Pemberton, with Shearsmith also offering The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents as inspiration for No. 9’s format of standalone plays.

That format makes the show very different not only to Psychoville, but also to the ongoing plots and characters that made up the League Of Gentlemen’s three series, Christmas special, and feature film Apocalypse. Swiftly killing off LoG fan-favourites Tubbs and Edward in a train crash right at the start of its third series, which also departed from the laugh track, perhaps hinted at a desire to push themselves, as well as the audience, past familiar and comfortable spaces and into other stranger, unknown territories.

“I think the joy of No. 9 is the opportunity of thinking ‘what’s the story this week?’; the thrill of not actually knowing where it’s going. It’s a great format for me and Steve, playing different characters, but staying with one character for a while as well,” shares Shearsmith, adding with some relief “…and not playing the women”. So, there’s no more Reece in high-heels and lipstick coming up, but you get the fruits of further areas of expertise just as impressive from the two instead – “we want to put the focus on the writing,” says Pemberton, “It’s not about us showcasing our own talent as actors, because I’m sure that soon becomes wearing for an audience, however many characters you think you can play”.

As well as pushing themselves during the process of putting together each carefully-structured piece in writing, Pemberton and Shearsmith also took their first turns in the director’s chair for the upcoming series, with the full support of Producer Adam and Executive Producer Jon.

“I loved directing the actors, being an actor,” says Shearsmith, “I felt maybe we spoke differently to them than Hitchcock would with his actors, I felt that we were slightly sympatico with how we visualised things. We found that you have to be careful with actors, because they–” “What do you mean ‘they’ – you are one!” interjects Pemberton. “Well not in this capacity, am I?! I’m talking about me as a director! But it was funny, because we were literally in it and no one would call ‘cut’. So we’re in the scene, like ‘…cut’”. Jon quickly adds, “I would like to point out that both of you wanted to direct! It’s not like we forced you!”. “Yeah, well, I’ve done it now!” jokes Shearsmith. Steve says of the role, “apparently at one point I was answering my own questions. Sitting there with the script supervisor – ‘Should I do this? Yes, yes: I should’. But it was a fantastic experience, and I’d love to do more of it”. Adam confirms that could very well be in the cards – “they did turn out to be dangerously competent at directing, so if that was a job application…”.

Discussion of how the upcoming episodes were created revealed wrestles with seasonal weather and lighting, and with freezing temperatures in the Chilterns (“We didn’t spend a lot of money adding breath coming out of our mouths like they did on Titanic, put it that way,” laughs Pemberton), but that wrangling actors in during the casting stage turned out to be a cinch. “People know, one: that they’re going to be written a good part, and two: that they’re only going to be in it for a week. And they’re fans of Reece and Steve,” shares Plowman of snagging Sheridan Smith and Jack Whitehall for the series, one of whom missed The National Television Awards trying to get to the O2 from filming in Twickenham, and the other, who threw up during the filming of juddering train scenes for his episode. Both incidents were worth it, from the perfectly-formed plays that are the result.

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So, what else is coming up in the new series? Following La Couchette and The 12 Days of Christine, there’s The Trial Of Elizabeth Gadge to look forward to – “Like The Crucible, but with a few extra gags in,” according to Pemberton – which features David Warner as a justice of the peace who believes there may be a witch in his village; volunteer call centre-set Cold Comfort; domestically-located Nana’s Party, and Séance Time, where the number 9 is a Victorian villa (there may be a séance involved in there, somewhere).

What’s so special about No. 9 is how it showcases its makers’ deep love of film, whether widely-lauded classics or obscure genre flicks you’d have found at the gloomy back end of your local video rental store as a teenager, looking for something a little grimy and horrid.

Catching nods to films you’ve loved – The League Of Gentlemen’s hints of Masque Of The Red Death and Nosferatu, and influences from The Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General are all coming up in series two of No. 9 – as well as the little touches of genre knowingness in Pemberton and Shearsmith’s work is an extra bit of fun for viewers also passionate about horror history, so we wanted to know how the writers’ shared bank of cinematic influences flow into their work.

“A lot of the stuff that we really love is so ingrained in us – we don’t censor ourselves,” says Pemberton. “I think we’ve grown more confident as writers, from those early days of feeling like an actor who just luckily happens to write, doing sketches. Now it feels like we can sit down and take on longer narratives. And the brilliant thing, I have to say, is that we have the support of the BBC, we’re completely protected, and are allowed to make the programme we want to make. We don’t feel we have to compromise. And that’s a brilliant and rare thing to have these days.”

We’ve been threatened with a visit from the Witchfinder General if we reveal any of the secrets from the next six No. 9’s before the series returns to BBC2 next week. But we can confirm more well-written tales with some surprising sweetness mixed in with the horror, emotional wallops alongside the jokes.

What makes the series such a rare and brilliant thing to have back on TV schedules is its commitment to quality storytelling beyond clever twists and turns of plot. In Twilight Zone terms, it’s more the bittersweet character study Time Enough At Last than the surface-level smartness and trickery of To Serve Man.

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“For us as writers, it’s one of the great joys to be able to tell a story in half an hour, make you care about the characters, make you interested in the story, and then start again the next week,” says Pemberton, “we’ll try to keep surprising.” Expect some more unexpected tales from Inside No. 9. and catch the start of series two at 10.00pm, 26 March on BBC2.

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