This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Anthology strand Inside No. 9 is an ingenious antidote to bloated TV storytelling and convuluted multi-series arcs. Created by The League Of Gentlemen and Psychoville‘s Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, who write and appear in each episode, it tells original half-hour tales that surprise, delight and unsettle.
Thankfully, BBC Two appears to know what a gem it has in the show and is treating it with the care it deserves. Five new episodes following the 2016 Christmas special start airing tonight, and filming is about to get underway on a fourth series.
We spoke to creators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith about the necessity of keeping Inside No. 9‘s secrets, the joys of the half-hour format, the responses they’ve had from their audience, the comedy-drama label and more…
How do you go about promoting a series like Inside No. 9 and trying to entice more and more people to watch it while keeping its secrets?
Reece Shearsmith: It is hard because we really never want to talk about what happens.
Steve Pemberton: You wouldn’t even say the settings, would you?
RS: I would just say ‘there are six programmes, find them!’
Part of it, if you read a synopsis of what happens—not just our programme, any programme—you watch it play out and think ‘oh yes, I knew this was going to happen’, and it happens. With ours it really helps if you can bear it to watch them completely blind because then every twist and turn—they’re not always twisty-turny, but if we’ve done that—it’s great to not know.
We always have this bugbear about films where on the poster it says ‘the best twist ever!’ you think, well, ‘ruined’ because you’re sat waiting for it. With our thing now they’re sort of known for being never quite what you expect, so I think we have to bring that to bear when we write them. You’re thinking, well, people are on to us about where it’s going, we’ve got to try and be even more inventive with keeping its surprises. The worst thing is to feel that they’ve failed if you guess the twist…
SP: Or if there isn’t one.
RS: Or if there isn’t one! Then suddenly the twenty-nine and a half minutes counts for nothing and it’s just about the last thirty seconds. The journey is everything, it’s not just the end. It’s a tricky thing. We do try and have our cake and eat it.
Online, there is a hunger for knowing everything about an episode before it airs, people pore over images and trailers…
RS: I get people on Twitter Tweeting me when some of the press pictures came out, ‘I’ve seen the picture for this week’s episode, I think I’ve worked out the twist’ [laughs] What are you talking about? How can you possibly, just from a photograph? So there are some people who sort of want to spoil it for themselves. It must only reduce the experience when you do watch it because you’ve already assimilated a lot of what you’re going to see. Even trailers give little bits away. I put a question mark over some of the shots in the series three trailer and then I thought, actually, if someone’s going to pause it and look for things, that’s their own fault [laughs]. I can’t be responsible for that.
When the first series arrived it seemed to be a reaction against certain things – to your past work with its series arcs and cliff-hangers, to the fashion for accelerated, fast-paced TV, to the trend for binge-watching—I re-watched them all in the run-up to this and tried to do more than one at a time and you just can’t. You need to watch one, go away and think in a little room, then come back…
After eighteen episodes now, is it still a reaction, or has it changed into something different?
SP: I think all those things still apply. People say ‘do you want to change the format?’ Well, there is no format really. The one thing we’re very strict on is limited location, limited cast. In that way, they’re always going to feel classic, they’re going to feel Play For Today-ish, and that’s something we absolutely celebrate.
If they’re anything like me, I think more and more people will find themselves just being weary of seven series arcs. When you start watching a new thing, like Westworld for example, it’s brilliant, it’s totally brilliant but you watch a couple and you think ‘I’m just not going to see this through. I know I’m not because I don’t have that time to give to it’.
As a time-investment, shows like that ask a lot.
SP: They ask so much and increasingly when you have so much brilliant drama, especially coming out of the States, and so many things clogging up your inbox, it’s like a nice decluttering thing to say ‘I’m going to watch one, half-hour episode that has a beginning, middle and end’ and, like you say, you have to think about it afterwards, that’s all we’re asking of people.
I think nothing has changed on that point of view, all that’s changing is that we have to keep finding new ways of refreshing the audience’s expectations. If we have episodes that don’t have a big twist or cliff-hanger, we hope that people will give those their time in the same way as to the ones that do.
It’s a series that demands viewers pay close attention, which, you could call increasingly rare in the age of Tweetalongs and interactive content. That must make it pretty infuriating to see people Tweet about your work while it’s airing, I imagine?
RS: There was something, I don’t know if it was for the first series or the second, where we were shown a graph for the Tweeting during it and it got to ten o’clock [when the episodes start] and basically stopped. People watched it and nothing, then it started again afterwards. I thought that was brilliant, that people are just watching it and not Tweeting along during it. Maybe that was early days and it’s different now.
The idea that they’re not fully engaged watching it because they’re going [mimes typing] ‘this is crap’, you want to say ‘actually!’ [laughs] ‘If you look up you might not be writing that because you might be watching it!’ that’s hard. Programmes encourage you to Tweet don’t they? Putting a hashtag up during the thing. They try and get things being talked about. I suppose it’s good to be talked about.
SP: It’s testament to the fact that people have respected that about this series, the point about that Twitter graph was that they were saying ‘this is unique. All of the programmes that we have show that it goes up while the programme’s on and down afterwards’ whereas we have the opposite.
RS: It was lovely to see that.
SP: Very refreshing to see.
Talking about continually surprising people, you mention that series four is lighter in tone, is that how Inside No 9 keeps things surprising, by not going dark?
RS: An episode that doesn’t have a twist would be in its own way surprising I guess now. Just tonally, I think we had a conscious effort to think that this third series is quite dark so maybe let’s just try to err on it being a bit lighter. Not all of them are, but maybe for our sensibility it feels quite light-ish. There isn’t as much sort of deranged psychosis in there.
At the last screening your producer Adam said that you both proved “dangerously competent” as directors, yet you’re not directing any of this series?
RS: Or the next one, no.
Did you simply scratch that itch in series two?
RS: I did. I think Steve would still like to pursue it more.
SP: I was really on the fence about it.
RS: I felt like nothing got our full attention. We were in it and directing it, we did it, fine, and they’re good those episodes [Cold Comfort and Nana’s Party] but I felt like I’d rather have someone else doing the meetings at lunchtime about the next block and all that. It was a lot of work, wasn’t it, to juggle?
SP: Yeah. It was.
RS: So out of laziness and not having a burning desire to be a director I was happy to be in it and let someone else do it.
SP: It comes down to a choice really. I know plenty of people do that. Plenty of people act in things they’re in all the time and direct them, but for us, we found that something was going to suffer at some point. We have a brilliant director, so why not use him to bring new things? We’re putting our input in anyway, why not have somebody who’s a visionary to bring in their ideas and Guillem [Morales], for example in The Riddle Of The Sphinx, he said ‘I see it raining’ and we went ‘oh, okay!’ and it adds such an atmosphere.
RS: The lightning, the rain, all of it that it was set at night with the storm, he said. We hadn’t written it was a stormy night.
SP: No, just a night. Just something as simple as that that wouldn’t have been there if he hadn’t directed it…
RS: …suddenly giving you that Gothic quality.
SP: …so why not have these other brilliant minds come into it as well?
RS: I think maybe we are sort of across it because we’ve written it and we’re in them. It’s easy for us to feel like that itch is scratched by the fact we’ve written it and we sort of know how we’re going to do them and often the director will say ‘is this what you mean?’ and we’ll say ‘yes, exactly’.
SP: So they’re puppets, is what you’re saying!
RS: [nodding, deadpan] They’re our puppets. [Both laugh] It’s great when people know better than you. You don’t just want to presume you know everything. It’s good to give someone else their vision, what you hope is it’s all going to make it better.
Being able to bring in variety from outside people and it not feel odd, must be part of this project’s attraction for you both? Unlike League Of Gentlemen or Psychoville, where the writing and performances were quite rarefied and extreme and not really conducive to outside influence, this seems much more flexible?
RS: Yeah, it’s lovely. It’s always a surprise for me to be in a thing and play the same character all the way through! Not going out halfway and getting a different wig on, and that’s nice the luxury of having that consistency of one performance.
SP: Per week!
The geographical limitations you set yourself must throw up scripting problems. Have there been any specific thorny scripting problems caused by the single location limit?
RS: There was one in the witch trial one we did [The Trial Of Elizabeth Gadge], but it was more monetary about the amount of people. Originally, our idea was that the trial would happen all the way through it and we’d have a gaggle of people there, i.e. the jury, for all of it and then we had to work out a way of getting rid of them because we could only have them for two days or a day or something, so that was something monetary. As far as the actual sets themselves…
SP: We certainly have writing problems that we can’t solve, but it’s usually about storyline. I think we’ve become proficient enough now to sense we’ve been in this one situation for too long now and either you need to change it up by going somewhere else or you need to change it up by bringing another element in. In the fourth series there’s an episode that’s really just the two of us in it for the whole length, in one room, so it’s how are we going to sustain that?
But it’s those kind of challenges that make you better, and they’re not to be scared of or run away from, or think we can’t do that because it’s challenging. Every time we’ve set a challenge like that—people arguing over a bill, how the hell are you going to keep that going for half an hour without becoming boring? How can you just do a thing about a crossword, it’s so un-dynamic—and every time it feels like there’s a challenge there I think is when we do the best work.
RS: If you don’t go away from a location or situation, you are robbed of the usual ways of moving the story on because anytime a programme goes away, it’s like time has passed and you’ve come back and you don’t need to say everything because ‘oh right, he knows that now’ so it’s a way of getting over exposition without having to do it. It’s trickier when you’ve got to stay in the room because how does it unfold in an actual way while moving on the story. Things like that are tricky to get over. Like you say, it’s part of it. It’s like writing plays, they’re little plays really.
If you two ever hit a difficult moment in the the writing room, do you have a Cheering Up Tape [a la Psychoville‘s David and Maureen]?
RS: No, we don’t have that, do we?
SP: No, we just slog through don’t we. Maybe we should do a bit of Superman?
This thing about Inside No. 9 being both a comedy and a drama – do you care what people call it? You Steve, once said that a particular storyline would be praised for being sensitive if it were a drama but because it was a comedy was labelled as ‘sick’.
And Reece, you once joked that you were glad it had been nominated for an award in a comedy category because you were ‘certain it was one’… Does either label bother you?
RS: It only bothers me when it falls between all the stools and therefore gets ignored a little bit. I think it can be, in its dramatic moments, as good as any drama. Twelve Days Of Christine was, better maybe, and pulls at your heart more than you might have seen in any drama, but it’s sort of written off a little bit because people aren’t geared up for it because it’s coming out on BBC comedy so is seen as a somehow slighter thing. I don’t know, people have different expectations? So that’s why, when something is gory in comedy, it’s really horrifying for people because they’re sat thinking they’re going to get… Open All Hours whereas if they’d been geared up for a nine o’clock drama—you could see the most horrendous things in Waking The Dead and all those things that are on earlier and are actually more horrific, but because they’re in the world of drama your mindset is changed in your head and you’re prepared.
But that, weirdly works in our favour as well, because that’s what makes some of the things we do in this ‘comedy’ all the more shocking because we dare to go in places you might not expect in a comedy.
SP: It only becomes bothersome when you have to put things up against each other like ‘what’s the best comedy of the year?’ We have to technically be in that but you can’t compare it to a lot of other comedies.
RS: Of course, that’s why we’ll fall down at every hurdle.
SP: But it isn’t falling down, because the work itself is what you do it for. It’s something we’re very proud of.
RS: Yeah, of course. It was [screenwriter and Peep Show co-creator] Sam Bain who said it, he said ‘it’s great what you do, but it’s awards Kryptonite’ [laughs]
So what’s more important, awards or a massive audience?
RS: [Almost simultaneously] Awards. [Everyone laughs]
SP: Can’t put an audience on your shelf!
Unlike a lot of shows where you’ll have the first-night jitters waiting for the responses, reviews and so on, but then a bit of calm when it’s settled down and people like it, with this, you must have that opening night experience every week?
RS: Every week. Yeah, you do with this, because it’s a new story each time so you’re unravelling and unveiling a new world, so it is like it starts six times over and you hope people like them. That’s the game everyone plays with these, isn’t it, they put them in order of best to worst. It’s sort of a silly thing because someone’s best is someone’s worst. It’s taste then, and people’s orders will always be different.
SP: I don’t do Twitter or anything but I do look when we’ve got the episodes out and I find it really moving that people are so… you’ve found your audience who love it and they love it so much and they pick up on everything and that just really touches you. Whereas something going out and maybe having millions of people watching it and people just say ‘yeah, it’s funny’ and that’s the end of it, it doesn’t go as deep. It means a lot to us.
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, thank you very much!
Inside No. 9 series three starts tonight at 10pm on BBC Two.