This review contains spoilers.
5.1 The Referee’s A W***er
Numbers-wise, series four was a step-up for Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s endlessly inventive anthology Inside No. 9. Helped by deserved word of mouth and a pre-series push as a BBC iPlayer box-set, for the first time UK viewer numbers crept over the two million mark.
This series five opener – a cleverly plotted football-themed comedy with a happy ending – is the perfect way to lead yet more devotees to the Inside No. 9 fold. Entertaining, accessible (if, unlike me, you know a single thing about football), satisfyingly tied off and featuring familiar TV faces David Morrissey and Ralf Little, it’s a welcome mat of an episode. Come on in, it says. Character, plot, pace, structure, more plot, laughs, surprises … Watch us make this stuff look easy.
They do make it look easy. The Referee’s A W***er (‘winner’ if you were wondering, according to the not-entirely-straight-faced answer at the series launch) shoots out of the gate and barrels along until its final sly reveal. Oh, Martin Rutherford did it for love alright, but not for love of a person.
David Morrissey (Britannia, The Walking Dead) is terrific casting as Rutherford, a lifelong stickler who, on his last day in the job, treats himself to a spectacular indulgence. Morrissey brings an air of authority and discipline to any role, hence him repeatedly popping up as generals, police officers and leaders. It’s the height and the voice; he starts talking and everybody else shuts up. That makes it both funny when he’s gamely warming up with a series of exaggerated hip swivels, and totally convincing when he takes charge come the chaos.
Chaos, in this instance, orchestrated by him. That Bill Shankly epigraph should have been our tip-off that this came down to more than sex or money. Martin may have loved United captain Calvin Cooke (Dipo Ola), but he loved his team more. They’re the reason he sacrificed his professional reputation, alienated his lover, betrayed his long-held values, and still ended up with a smile on his face.
It was a cunning scheme. First, Martin put on a fake accent on the phone to disguise himself as a representative of a Far East betting syndicate and offer his assistant refs (Steve Pemberton’s Oggy and Ralf Little’s Phil) a £15k bung in exchange for giving a throw-in at a particular minute of the match. Knowing one would refuse and the other would accept, he let it happen, played them off against each other and then made all three linesmen (including Reece Shearsmith’s underdog Brendan) collaborators in his solution to even the score – a plan that led to chaos and an on-pitch brawl that left United and Rovers docked of points, clearing the way for City’s promotion. As mascot Mitch said – tellingly – well, you’d do anything for your team, wouldn’t you?
It’s a tired refrain at this point in Inside No. 9’s history but all that in under 30 minutes? The BBC has aired six-part thrillers with fewer layers. Add the conjuring of half a dozen characters you feel you could follow home and the mid-point revelation of Martin and Calvin’s sexual relationship (steering us away from his real motivation and leaning into the story’s football-specific context) and it becomes less like watching a TV episode and more like watching a close-up magic trick. A bit of patter, a few laughs, you start to relax and then bam! The dummy in that shop window is wearing your watch. How on earth did they do it?
A knack for writing dialogue with overlapping comedy rhythms is part of the answer. An ensemble cast that can rattle it off without anybody stepping over anyone else. And a director in Psychoville’s Matt Lipsey who’s tuned into the way Shearsmith and Pemberton work. (No joke too small, no concept too high, no line left behind).
That structure also did a lot of work: three acts of increasingly spiralling chaos, adding up to a satisfying punchline. For that, there’s also the format itself to thank. Always new. Never baggy. Somehow constantly moving despite being rooted in one place. You wouldn’t even get that at the San Siro.
Read Louisa’s review of series four, episode six Tempting Fate, here.