This review contains spoilers.
5.3 Love’s Great Adventure
‘It’s not all about the twists’ said Reece Shearsmith at the series five launch, in mock (or perhaps not-mock) exasperation at Inside No. 9’s storytelling being reduced to a string of gotcha moments. Fair point, though Neil Armstrong may as well say that it’s not all about the moon. When your achievement in a field outstrips everybody else’s, that’s your crown to wear.
Inside No. 9’s gift for rug-pulling has made us fall flat on our face more times than we can count. It’s led us up innumerable garden paths and steered us wrong on more occasions than right. When it comes to shock endings, it’s peerless. It’s bold. It’s cunning. And, oh look. It really isn’t all about the twists.
Love’s Great Adventure, a semi-improvised story directed by Guillem Morales, was a slice of social realism. There were no gimmicks and no outré surprises. The number nine wasn’t a mortuary cabinet or a bank vault or a spaceship, but an ordinary Advent calendar window in an ordinary family kitchen. The episode was that most traditional of things: a love story at Christmas.
Not romantic love – though between Debbie Rush’s Jules and Steve Pemberton’s Trev that was clearly in evidence – but parental love. If The Referee’s A W***er was about the lengths somebody might go for their football team, this one was about the lengths you’d go for family.
Spread out, the plot – Patrick’s addiction, the menacing loan shark, Jules’ hit and run – might have been stretched over six months of a soap storyline. Here, it was done and dusted in 29 minutes that were compelling from start to end. That was in part down to how alert Inside No. 9 has trained its audience to be for shocks and surprises; we’re always waiting for the point at which an episode peels off its mask to reveal its true face. The surprise of Love’s Great Adventure was that there was no mask-pull. It was a complete, emotional family drama told in just half an hour. Inside No. 9’s Play For Today ancestry – an anthology featuring screenwriters Dennis Potter, Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale, shades of whom are all over this inventive series – has never felt closer.
If the setting was ordinary, then the elliptical structure was unusual and effective. As young Connor (Olly Hudson-Croker) opened the doors of his Advent calendar, a series of vignettes quickly built up a picture of the Morbury family. In minutes, we knew they were loving, funny, struggling financially and suffering from some kind of loss.
Each new scene either set up or answered a question that carried us from beginning to end: Was Connor Trevor and Jules’ son? No, their grandson. Where was his dad? Estranged, with an addiction. Why did Trevor steal the family’s Christmas kitty? He didn’t, he was covering for his strung-out son (played by Bobby Schofield). What caused Jules’ car accident? She was the hit and run driver who’d taken her son’s loan shark out of the picture.
It was subtly done and nothing was wasted. The maths homework opener returned as Trev tried to solve the problem of household finances. The story of Mia (Gaby French) and the prom dress illustrated the kind of mother Jules was – one who’d go the extra mile to make her kids happy and keep them safe. (‘Got to look after family haven’t you?’, ‘Yeah, yeah you do.’)
Debbie Rush’s performance was moving for its containment; behind the smile she kept on for Connor’s sake were flashes of the pain she felt over Patrick. The way she lit up at the smallest, most banal morsel of news – that he was eating chips at The Stag – spoke more than any tear-filled, garment-rending monologue. Her quiet acceptance of the fact too, that this wasn’t really a happy ending but that Patrick would soon be moving on again felt painfully real.
Underneath the fond warmth and naturalistic chatter of family life was a sombre story. After last week’s parade of grotesques, it went to show that darkness is just as much part of the everyday as it is the heightened and exaggerated, and that underpinning it all, is love.
All in all, it went to show that there really are no limits to the scope of this series. It can go from rat-a-tat comic whodunit to baby-boiling ghosts to an affectingly real portrait of familial love, and always remain itself.
Now, be honest, hands up who thought it was going to be aliens?