Inside No. 9 series 4 episode 2 review: Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room

Inside No. 9 continues on excellent form with this bittersweet play about a lost showbusiness friendship. Spoilers ahead…

This review contains spoilers.

4.2 Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room

In 2006, comedy double act Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball gave an interview to The Independent reminiscing about their stage and TV career. In their 1980s heyday, the pair had a serious falling-out, something “every double act goes through,” said Ball, “it’s like a marriage”. The piece concluded with Ball’s bittersweet line, “We’ve become really like brothers now. It’s sad to say, but I’ll bury him or he’ll bury me.”

It probably wasn’t—Inside No. 9 stories sprout from all kinds of seeds—but that line may as well have been the inspiration for this moving episode. Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room is a sad tale of two long-estranged comedy partners who fell out at their height of their fame and left reconciliation too late. Now, one is back to bury the other.

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That’s the real story, concealed until the twenty-fifth minute of this emotional half-hour directed by Graeme Harper (The Devil Of Christmas). The cover story is that Len Shelby and Tommy Drake have reunited to rehearse a revival of their old variety act, “one last gig in front of an invited audience.” That one last gig, we learn, is Len’s funeral and their whole resentment-filled interaction has played out only in Tommy’s imagination.

If the nifty writing was the star of previous episode Zanzibar, this one’s a showcase for performance. Not just from Steve Pemberton as shambolic clown Len, who gives us all manner of vintage comedy ‘bits’, but also from Reece Shearsmith as the straight man. Underneath Tommy’s hostility, Shearsmith reveals the pain of having sacrificed his own happiness to save the life of a friend pissing it all away with drink. Both are consummate performances, layered and affecting. Len’s conciliatory enthusiasm gradually gives way to obnoxious egotism the more he drinks, while Tommy’s hostility shatters all at once in a moving speech that reveals his love for the old act and for his old pal.

When we first meet the pair, Len is washed-up and Tommy (“people call me Thomas now”), has moved on. Having left showbusiness, he’s now a successful digital marketer trying to put his variety days behind him. He employs someone to remove YouTube clips of the old act (“I can’t afford to go into a meeting with HSBC and someone’s found me as Tina Turner with tights on my head and ping-pong balls for eyes” – one for Psychoville fans there). It’s all an embarrassment to him, he tells Len, without a hint of fondness or nostalgia. He’s so hostile that until the twist provides the perfect answer (“How could I not?”), it’s hard to see what made him agree to the reunion.

The post-fame years have been less kind to Len. His alcoholism dried up the TV offers (not getting Blankety Blank was just the beginning) and he hasn’t done any voiceover work since canny Tudor Crisps. Len ended his life homeless and out of touch – alternative comedy, political correctness and technology all passed him by (“I still have VHS of all the telly stuff but I can’t play ‘em”). He drank his way out of the limelight. Well, as Les McQueen of Crème Brûlée will tell you, it’s a shit business.

The co-creators of characters like The League Of Gentlemen’s Les McQueen and Legz Akimbo’s Ollie Plimsolls, Inside No. 9’s writers have form when it comes to locating the pathos in characters whom success has passed by. Whatever send-up is also happening, they’ve always been alert to the melancholy of unachieved ambition and the sadness to be found in entertainers out of step with the current mode.

Len’s cluelessness doesn’t just give the episode pathos, but also an opportunity for some have-your-cake-and-eat-it joy. We see outmoded “heritage comedy” sketches simultaneously performed and derided. Len’s admiration of Kenny Everett, Freddie Starr, “Doddy… all the great clowns,” and pride at having been “top of the bill with Mick Miller, Bobby Knutt and the Grumbleweeds” are gentle gags at his expense, but it’s not all derision. Len’s stuff may have gone out with the dinosaurs, but the episode’s mockery of it seems to come with a certain fondness for traditional clowning. Len’s mime act with the coat on the hat-stand might be ancient, but that doesn’t stop it being a lovely bit of work.

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As is this terrific episode. It’s empathetic and moving, and entertaining throughout. The mystery over just what occurred in Bernie Clifton’s dressing room gently pulls us through the first half, while the emotion takes over in the second. Topping it all off with that glorious Morecambe and Wise-style song and dance number (“Misery might let you win a Bafta…” touché) was an additional treat. The previous episode had a large cast and dialogue going a mile a minute, but this two-hander felt no less full.

If Bobby Ball was right about comedy partnerships being like marriages, then Shelby and Drake’s may have been a bittersweet tragedy, but Shearsmith and Pemberton’s is made in heaven.

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Zanzibar, here.